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Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway offers next steps to address mental health crises
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Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway offers next steps to address mental health crises

Satya Rhodes-Conway

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway

Following the release of public video footage showing Madison police using force on a black teenager experiencing a mental health crisis in early June, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway convened a meeting with African American leaders to discuss how to move forward.

The meeting was familiar to many who attended the meeting.

“We heard a lot from the folks in the room that we have had this meeting before,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We have had this meeting many times, and we’re sort of sick of having this meeting if it doesn’t lead to anything.”

The video showed officers restraining and punching the 17-year-old multiple times. The teenager was under a Chapter 51 commitment, which allows for someone in a mental health crisis to be committed to a hospital, and was “exhibiting threatening behavior,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Officers went to his home to take him into custody.

Rhodes-Conway said the community was rightfully angry after viewing the “disturbing” incident.

“The officer’s actions may or may not have violated the law; and may or may not have violated MPD policy; however, police actions in this incident are not and will never be acceptable as best practice in the city of Madison,” Rhodes-Conway wrote in a blog post. “Our city can and will do a better job responding to mental health crises.”

On Tuesday, Rhodes-Conway announced in the post a set of solutions inspired by the discussion at the June 17 meeting. The recommendations attempt to solve multi-jurisdictional issues and would face budget implications and City Council approval if pursued. 

They seek to implement long- and short-term change, inform a holistic and multifaceted training for emergency response, focus on trauma-informed care and institutional racism, facilitate mutually-respectful community engagement and increase transparency.

The recommendations include:

  • Involving black mental health practitioners in Madison Police Department training. A preliminary internal meeting has already been held to advance this effort.
  • Exploring the reduction of MPD involvement in response to mental health crises through different models, including the “mental health ambulance” model. Preliminary meetings have been had with the Madison Fire Department to explore the feasibility of its involvement.
  • Partnering with local education institutions to grow the pool of black practitioners for future community employment.
  • Appointing Jacquelyn Boggess, executive director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, to the Police and Fire Commission. The PFC provides direct oversight to Madison's police and fire departments and has the authority to hire, discipline and fire.

Rhodes-Conway said another internal suggestion includes creating a cross-departmental project team that would map out a communications and action plan for what to do when another community emergency occurs.

The solutions are not quick fixes. For example, shifting the responsibility of responding to mental health calls would require changes in standard operating procedures, potential budget changes for both the police and fire departments, and a change in how the dispatch center responds to calls.

“Those are still big, huge question marks,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Rhodes-Conway also said she is committed to making intentional appointments that reflect the diversity of the community to the Police and Fire Commission. She said she intends to use the recommendations of an ad hoc committee studying the police department as a “springboard” to implement accountability systems.

Despite the likely challenges ahead, Rhodes-Conway does not want to wait to take action.

“There’s a commitment to moving some of these things forward and not just have it be a conversation that’s just talk,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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