Commentary: Police are our safety net for the mentally ill in crisis

Here's the hard truth: What happened at the University of Chicago, where a campus police officer shot an allegedly threatening student, is exactly how our mental health system is designed to operate.

For years the mental health community has argued that police should not be the safety net for mental health crises. Years. And the response from decision-makers and elected officials has not been to increase mental health funding. Or to build a comprehensive mental health crisis system to handle such situations. Or to pour funding into college campuses where 25 percent of people first experience the onset of mental health conditions.

No, the response has been to pay for better police training.

Until we put money and effort and thought into building a better mental health system, police officers will remain the safety net.

Don't misunderstand me: Mental health awareness and de-escalation training for police officers are vitally important and a critical part of any robust mental health system. Sadly, those experiencing mental health or substance use disorders come into contact with the police because their behavior sometimes appears criminal. In most cases, police officers compassionately and competently connect these folks to the treatment they need.

This happens scores of times a year in Chicago. No one is hurt, and the individuals and their families are grateful that officers have the knowledge and training to connect these individuals with the proper care.

The U. of C. Police Department makes it a priority to provide its officers with crisis intervention training. The reality is that the U. of C. officer in this case responded to a difficult situation, followed his training and did the job he was asked to do.

Nobody wants to see a college student who may have mental illness get shot. It is one of the worst possible outcomes. That's why we need to do more than train police officers; we need to build a mental health safety net that goes far beyond law enforcement.

Hours after the shooting, U. of C. students protested, arguing campus police should not have been involved, that this was a medical health emergency.

The students' hearts are in the right place. In a better world, mental health should be as commonly discussed as the flu season. Mental health illness should be addressed with the same forthright courage we now afford cancer. In a better world, we would not talk about mental health only after crises. Until then, the harsh reality is that the system worked as designed.

Because that's the system we've paid for.