#AdvocacyMatters: A Coalition For Transformation

January 7, 2022 / #AdvocacyMatters

Recently, DRO joined a number of local organizers, activists, and groups in forming the Columbus Safety Collective - a coalition that is working to push the city of Columbus to transform the recently announced pilot program to a permanent anti-racist, trauma-informed, non-policing response system for people experiencing mental health crises. We are striving to put pressure on city officials to do this in the right way and to design and implement this system by centering the perspectives and experiences of people with lived experience, especially people of color. DRO strongly believes to establish a better system we must take guidance from those it affects the most.

Last year, Disability Rights Ohio released Policing and Racial Injustice: A Disability Rights Perspective, a policy report examining the ways police use of force has disproportionately impacted people with disabilities. Our research indicated that people with disabilities are more likely to be victims of police brutality: Despite representing only 20 percent of the population, those with disabilities make up 30 to 50 percent of individuals subject to police use of force. Additionally, the risk of experiencing police violence increases as disability intersects with race.

Building upon our report on police brutality and the intersections of race and disability, earlier this year DRO sent a letter to Columbus City Council recommending that the city create a new system for responding to mental health crises in the community that does not involve law enforcement. DRO advocated for the system to be an anti-racist, trauma-informed system that does not lead to harmful outcomes like police violence, arrest, incarceration, involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, or death.

As DRO pushes to create this new non-police alternative crisis response system in a way that centralizes the experiences of people who have lived through those situations, we have regularly engaged with those who have had interactions with law enforcement while experiencing a mental health crisis. When the Columbus City Council held a public safety committee hearing on the 2022 operating budget on December 2, 2021, DRO PAIMI Council Member, Andrea Williams, who has personally experienced negative interactions with police during a mental health crisis, gave impassioned testimony regarding the criminalization of mental illness stating “when the police show up, they come to enforce the law, we are not breaking the law, we are having a crisis, that encounter changed my life forever.” Mrs. Williams went on to emphasize the important role peer support specialists play in responding to calls of mental health crises adding that, “[w]e need a policy that guarantees the proper people will respond, like certified peer support specialist, who are highly undervalued.” Expanding on this point, she questioned if “[t]he police are trained to protect and serve, don’t we deserve that same oath?” Mrs. Williams then pointedly requested the city to invest more money into non-police alternatives.

DRO has also worked closely with Chana Wiley, who serves as a Board Member of the Ohio Families Unite Against Police Brutality and is the sister of the late Jaron Thomas - a man who tragically passed away in 2017 after calling the Columbus Police Department for help while experiencing a mental health crisis. Ms. Wiley likewise provided testimony at a public safety committee hearing. She stated in simple terms the enormous impact that a non-police alternative response system would have had on hers and her family’s lives by expressing that, “I know he (Jaron) would still be here today, if we had a non-police response system to help him.” Ms. Wiley also emphasized how Columbus would not be the first city to take this step in the right direction, noting that “other cities have a non-police response system, they are getting it right, and the data shows it works and saves lives. Numbers don’t lie.”

DRO is committed to institutional change for racial justice and disability rights within our community. We know that the intersection of race and disability impacts our clients. Our mission, vision and our strategic direction is about equality, freedom from discrimination, and empowering the voices of those who are frequently not valued or listened to. Because #AdvocacyMatters, we believe that using the guidance of those who have been harmed by the current system will allow us to come together and build a better system for the future.

This publication was financially assisted by the Ohio State Bar Foundation. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

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