On Feb. 16, 2021, a very grim, but familiar scene played out at the downtown waterfront in Seattle. Port of Seattle police saw Derek Hayden holding a knife, and believing him to be suicidal, tried to subdue him by firing foam-tipped projectiles. When that proved unsuccessful, the Port officers called the Seattle Police Department. Officers arrived, drew firearms, and as Hayden approached them, he was filmed saying “Do it, do it, please kill me.”

One in every 10 calls for police response involves a person suffering from a mental illness. One in every four people killed by police suffers from mental-health issues. The danger inherent in police encounters with individuals experiencing a crisis is so obvious that “suicide by cop” was sought by Hayden and so many others before him. This is a public-safety failure.

On average, 911 call centers receive 240 million calls annually. In all but a few jurisdictions around the country, operators have no choice but to deploy police officers to every scene. From wellness checks to neighbor disputes or a mental-health crisis, officers are sent to the scene regardless of whether they are equipped or trained to handle these situations. In a review of 10 law enforcement agencies, including Seattle’s own department, The New York Times found only about 1% of all calls-for-service are in response to serious violent crimes.

With the guidance of community members, I authored the 911 Diversion to Unarmed Personnel Act to help states, tribes and localities establish and maintain 911 diversion programs outside of law enforcement. Instead of sending police to a behavioral-health crisis, health professionals who are trained and equipped to handle these situations would respond. Emergency response to nonviolent calls would focus on the health and social services that are needed, instead of relying on a law enforcement response that can be deadly.

The 911 Diversion to Unarmed Personnel Act invests in jurisdictions to help make this rethinking of emergency response possible, supporting everything from training 911 operators on routing calls to hiring mental-health professionals and partnering with other service providers to ensure individuals are met with the services they need.  

Diverting nonviolent cases to trained social workers and professional service providers can enhance public safety, deliver better outcomes for community members, and reduce strain on the relationship between police officers and the people they are sworn to serve. We have already seen its potential success in Denver, Colorado, and Eugene, Oregon, to reduce the overreliance on law enforcement and improve emergency-response services.

Existing 911 response systems simply do not meet the needs of the communities they serve. For too long, funding and resources have been single-mindedly focused on law enforcement and policing instead of a holistic approach centered on the needs of communities. It is critical we take advantage of this unique time — where public will and legislative ability intersect — to reform our policing and criminal justice system to at last benefit everyone.