Washington, D.C. — Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), a Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led floor debate in opposition to H.R. 8542, Mental Health Justice Act of 2022, which would make our communities less safe. As he said today, this bill will “endanger the mental health professional, the suspect, the person experiencing a mental health crisis, and the person who called 911.”
Excerpts and highlights from his prepared remarks:
“IN LIEU OF LAW ENFORCEMENT”
“Mr. Speaker, I rise today in opposition to H.R. 8452, the Justice in Mental Health Act.
“‘In lieu of law enforcement officers in emergencies. Let me say it again because that is the exact language used repeatedly in this bill: ‘In lieu of law enforcement officers in emergencies.’
“Mr. Speaker, this bill is dangerous. This legislation gives federal grants to states, tribes, and localities to hire mental health providers to respond to certain emergencies involving: an individual with an intellectual disability or developmental disability, an individual experiencing a mental health crisis, or an individual under the influence.
“There is nothing wrong with mental health professionals assisting law enforcement in appropriate circumstances.
“Communities around the country are adopting these models with law enforcement, mental health providers, and prosecutors. I would be open to supporting legislation limited to training mental health providers to assist law enforcement in appropriate situations.
“But that is not what this bill does.”
“A sentence in the bill begins by stating that ‘mental health providers may coordinate with law enforcement.’ Sounds acceptable. But it continues to read, ‘which may include operating independently’ from law enforcement.
“Let’s be clear, the purpose of this legislation is to provide financial incentives to deploy mental health providers to inherently dangerous situations: ‘in lieu of law enforcement,’ and ‘operating independently’ of law enforcement.
“That is a policy that will endanger the mental health professional, the suspect, the person experiencing a mental health crisis, and the person who called 911.
“A crime scene or a home experiencing a domestic dispute is not the setting to provide mental health care.
“In the first half of 2022, the leading circumstance of law enforcement officers killed with firearms was in response to domestic violence calls.
“Nobody can confidently tell us they know in advance which domestic violence call should get a mental health response instead of a law enforcement response. Mental health professionals are not trained for the inevitable physical confrontations that occur in these situations.
“The priority in emergency situations is to secure the scene and all individuals involved, which is a law enforcement function.
“Once the scene is secure, I will be the first person calling for mental health services, whether it is addiction related, trauma, or mental illness.
“There is a time and a place for mental health care, but it is not rolling up to a scene without the training and tools to defend yourself and at-risk civilians.
“A first responder typically does not have the time and information to know when it is appropriate to provide mental health services.
“Who do you expect to make the call to send a mental health provider instead of law enforcement? The 911 dispatcher? An elected official inserted into the emergency dispatch process?
“Every additional second and layer of bureaucracy will cost lives.
“The risks are even greater in rural parts of the country like North Dakota where backup is often measured in hours, not minutes. Ask a mental health provider if they want to be deployed, without law enforcement, at 1 AM on Highway 85 between Dickinson and Watford City, North Dakota.”
LOCAL DECISION MAKING
“As if the public safety concerns aren’t enough, the bill provides additional financial incentives for actions that may not be in the best interest of the individual, community, or comply with the established laws of the jurisdiction.
“The bill provides additional awards for referrals to community-based, voluntary support services without consideration of the specific needs and circumstances.
“Community based care could be the appropriate setting, but there are circumstances where inpatient care or incarceration are more appropriate.
“The bill also provides incentives for decarceration rates of certain groups of individuals. Again, decarceration may make sense at times. I’ve advocated for it in lots of circumstances. But it is case-specific.
“I have seen it before. Police arrest on a domestic violence charge. Release. And respond to a murder two hours later. These decisions should be made at the local level, based on specific circumstances with state and local input.”
MAKING DANGEROUS SITUATIONS WORSE
“This bill attempts to treat the subject of the 911 call with fairness and dignity, and that is something we should strive toward.
“The flip side is that this bill does not account for the person who made the 911 call.
“These policies will not work in the real world. It will only make dangerous situations worse. The unintended consequences of this bill are extensive and emergency situations will become more dangerous than they already are.
“This is why we need committee process to work through these challenging issues.
“Criminal justice reform is hard. There are lots and lots of unintended consequences. I’ve legitimately worked on it my entire adult life.
“But my Democratic colleagues skipped that process because their focus is on frontline elections in the House, not frontline communities battling rising crime rates.
“We should never offer a federal grant that makes communities less safe based on a progressive ideology that will not work in the real world.”
“The only time you know a traffic stop is routine is when it’s over.
“The only time you know it’s only a mental health service call is after the scene is secure.
“Far too often and more complicated, are addiction related issues, mental health related issues, but none of those preclude the fact that a weapon is there or domestic violence has occurred.
“And when you continue to coordinate this stuff for cash-strapped departments across the country with decarceration, you will have real consequences.”