Would dispatching social workers instead of cops save lives?

A woman holds a protest sign
Protesters in Richmond took to the street July 28, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia, to demand that the case of Marcus-Davis Peters be reopened. Marcus-David was a 24-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by a Richmond police officer on May 14, 2018, while experiencing a mental health crisis.
Eze Amos/Getty Images

The details of each story are different, but the endings are all the same. Since 2015, police have killed more than 1,400 people who were in the midst of mental health crises. That’s almost a quarter of all people killed by police in America.

The seeming intractability of the problem has led some cities — such as San Francisco and Denver — to experiment with a different approach to 911 calls that involve people in a mental health crisis.

Instead of dispatching police, they are sending in teams of social workers. So far, it appears to be working. But more research is needed. 

Thursday, MPR News host Kerri Miller spoke with a researcher who studies mental illness in the criminal justice system, and a former police officer who believes better training for police is part of the solution.


  • Seth Stoughton is a former police officer and professor of law at the University of South Carolina.

  • Amy Watson is a professor in the social work department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above.

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