OKLAHOMA COUNTY, Okla. (KFOR) – The United States Department of Justice dropped a bombshell announcement Thursday morning, saying they are opening a civil rights investigation into the state of Oklahoma, the city of Oklahoma City, and the Oklahoma City Police Department.
The USDOJ told news outlets in a press conference the Oklahoma Protection and Advocacy Organization is who prompted the investigation.
The Oklahoma Disability Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma also filed a joint complaint in February, according to the Oklahoma Disability Law Center Legal Director, Brian Wilkerson.
The USDOJ said the complaints brought forward have set forth credible allegations of discrimination towards people with disabilities.
The investigation will examine whether Oklahoma fails to provide community-based mental health services to people in Oklahoma County, leading to unnecessary admissions to psychiatric facilities and police contact.
“Law enforcement responds because generally that call goes to 911. And oftentimes it ends up in institutionalization and psychiatric ward or emergency room and oftentimes, unfortunately, in jail. As we all know, there can also be worse outcomes, sometimes involving injury or death with individuals that come into experiencing the mental health crisis, that come into contact with law enforcement,” stated Wilkerson.
The investigation will also examine Oklahoma City’s systems for responding to people experiencing behavioral health crises, including through the 911 call center and OKCPD.
“The new investigation will build on one of the Civil Rights Division’s top priorities: ensuring that the civil rights of people with behavioral health disabilities are protected, that they can live free from discrimination in their own homes and communities, and that they receive the critical community based mental health services they need to avoid unnecessary hospitalization and criminal justice involvement.”Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division
The USDOJ is also investigating Louisville, Kentucky, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Phoenix, Arizona for potential violations of the ADA regarding people with disabilities in crises, as well as potential violations of the Constitution and other federal laws.
South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri are being investigated for the unnecessary institutional isolation of people with mental illness.
Oklahoma is being investigated for both.
“Oklahoma Disability Law Center has been looking at these conditions and practices for the last several years. We’ve had lots of phone calls and interactions with constituents living with mental illness in the state that have talked to us about the lack of community based mental health resources, telling us the stories about their loved ones,” added Wilkerson. “Our whole concern and the whole initiative that we’re trying to move forward in helping the Department of Justice will be able to look into is providing appropriate and significant mental health services in the community so people don’t end up reaching crisis.”
Clarke said there isn’t a timeline for the investigation, but the USDOJ is expecting it to conclude in a year.
During that time, the USDOJ plans to tour mental health facilities around the state, meet with local and state officials, and talk with community members.
“The Civil Rights Division is committed to ensuring appropriate responses to behavioral health crises and protecting the civil rights of people with mental health disabilities,” said Wilkerson.
A senior USDOJ representative said the Oklahoma County jail will not be a focus during their investigation, but if there are inmates with mental illness inside the detention center, that may implicate those individuals.
Those in Oklahoma who are being investigated said they weren’t made aware until Thursday morning, just before a press release was shared.
“We have not been provided specific information regarding details of the investigation,” wrote OKCPD in a statement.
Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley said, “We intend to cooperate with the USDOJ and look forward to working with them toward the goal of providing the safest and most effective ways of responding to these types of calls. As a police department, we strive to always provide the best service possible to the community we serve.”
Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer, Aaron Brilbeck said not only does the state need more mental health resources and training, but the entire country does.
OCSO does have a mental health coordinator, Gene Bradley, who gets sent out to repeat callers.
Brilbeck told KFOR Bradley will bring those callers food, make sure they’re taking their medication, talk through what’s going on, and will even provide virtual counseling opportunities.
“As a result, we’ve seen the number of 911 calls go down dramatically. Often times they just need some company, someone to pay attention to them. They need somebody to make sure they’re taking their medications. That’s a lot of what Gene’s role is,” said Brilbeck.
Most of OCSO’s deputies are crisis intervention certified, according to Brilbeck.
Brilbeck added OCSO’s deputies are also equipped with an iPad for those who are in immediate need of counseling to get it right there on the spot.
However, “I don’t believe we as a state or as a nation are doing enough to help these people out. In the long run, it’s more cost efficient to take care of these people and get them back on the right track than to just incarcerate them. Unfortunately, the mentality seems to be more so out of sight, out of mind,” said Brilbeck.
Brilbeck told KFOR OCSO get dozens of calls a week from people who have a mental illness or substance abuse.
“It sounds strange, but I’m glad the DOJ is looking into this. I’m glad people are taking this seriously because this is a serious crisis we’re facing,” he said.
Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police President, Mark Nelson said in a statement that Oklahoma City police officers handle mental health-related calls with the “utmost professionalism.”
Our officers implement their training and often bring stressful situations to a peaceful conclusion. Officers frequently go the extra mile to ensure the people in crisis get the resources they need. The men and women who selflessly train, practice and prepare for this area of policing are to be commended. More training and additional resources to ensure we recruit and retain the best officers are always welcome. We are confident any investigation will show the work our officers do every day is in line with state and federal law.Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police President, Mark Nelson
News 4 reached out to Governor Kevin Stitt’s Office in which his Press Secretary, Kate Vesper said the state will fully cooperate with the DOJ’s investigation.