Some political topics and proposals can be so incredibly interesting in that they can often split supposed value-based coalitions and alliances come Election Day. Case in point is the impending Dec. 8 vote here in Baton Rouge for a “mental health tax.” On one hand, some of my fellow local progressives have gotten on-board with the mental health tax – which, admittedly, is set up and presented in such a way that someone with future political ambitions or a fragile but high profile reputation locally can’t really explicitly oppose it (“You’re the guy who opposed funding for mental health!”). But on the other hand, some of my fellow local progressives – my mom, Rev. Anderson, perhaps the voice I hear most prominently and frequently – have seen right through the proposal and the set up of the so-called Bridge Center – which is what the tax will exclusively fund. These progressive sleuths have brought to my attention and realized a couple of key points that should definitely be considered before voters decide where they stand on this new property tax. First, this center – as currently proposed and marketed – will not be for everyone (I don’t have to tell you who it’s not for) and secondly, this center lacks the formal accountability structure to force it to serve the actual needs of the community should the tax pass. These are valid issues to consider and so, I did and I hope you do as well.
A few of points to consider before casting your vote tomorrow: First, the Bridge Center’s board makeup is overwhelmingly represented by law enforcement professionals. Obviously, in the abstract, there’s nothing wrong with law enforcement as a community presence, but as the board of a mental health treatment facility, it just seems… odd. Just imagine if a developer proposed a new children’s amusement park here in Baton Rouge but the board of directors for the park were Sen. Ted Cruz, NRA carnival barker Wayne LaPierre, GOP strategist Karl Rove, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, and fellow Faux News host Tucker Carlson. You and the rest of the community very well might still want that amusement park built, but the things those folks have in common – and lack in common (in the case of the amusement park example, a background in fun & merriment, in the case of the Bridge Center, a mental health background) – speaks volumes about whose interests it serves. I’m just sayin’… And make no mistake, while this is funded by taxpayers, this is NOT a government institution. There won’t be any formal way for taxpayers to inform decision-making for the Bridge Center or provide oversight to staff or the board. If the Center doesn’t address the needs you thought it would (or the data suggests it should), you’re going to get the Spirit Airlines treatment (“Well, that sucks for you. Shouldn’t have been so cheap you bought a ticket with us.”)
Next, the Bridge Center has said that the new responsibility (and tool) for discerning who receives care from the Center and who goes to jail – as per usual – will largely be up to responding police officers. And the Center’s leadership/spokespeople have been refreshingly upfront about the fact that while the training for officers to learn how to diagnose and better engage with individuals with apparent mental illness will be available, it will not be mandated. So it’s entirely possible that an untrained police officer shows up on the scene, simply using his limited knowledge of what they thinks a person with mental illness acts like (so maybe the officer mentally references the protagonists in Flowers for Algernon or Rudy), and hope they make the right call. Or, worse, that an untrained officer’s implicit biases – maybe a white kid in an affluent neighborhood acting up is clearly a mental health issue, but a black kid in North Baton Rouge acting up is obviously aware criminal activity – may have an out-sized role in the intake process.
In addition, the Bridge Center has been very explicit that they will not accept patients who have exhibited any kind of violent behavior. Now, if you’ve never interacted with someone with special needs who’s in an anxious situation, then maybe in your ignorance that policy sounds sensible to you. Of course, you don’t want violent criminals getting sent to the same place as these gentle, but misunderstood “special people.” But parents of children suffering from mental illness and practitioners who work intimately with individuals dealing with mental illness will tell you immediately that such a caveat essentially negates the supposed benefits of such a center and merely pays lip service to “addressing the mental health crisis in Baton Rouge.” While it would be great if every person with mental illness becomes a gentle, accommodating sycophant when confronted by the benevolent officer coming to take them away, the reality is that those situations can scare most people, mental capacity notwithstanding. And when most people are scared, they act like it. Moreover, tell me what cases you can imagine that law enforcement is called on someone suspected of having mental illness but that manifestation wasn’t the result of some kind of “violent” or destructive behavior? You’re gonna call the police because a guy is talking to himself? Because he looks like he might have an issue? Nah, playa, don’t fool yourself. You’re gonna call the police when he or she starts breaking something, screaming at someone, or hurting themselves. And those are precisely the situations the Bridge Center has said they will not entertain/treat. Seems like a pretty glaring blind spot for the silver bullet treatment facility.
Which brings me to my last point (or question, more accurately) – who is this center for? Long story short, it’s a center for people suffering from opioid addiction. That’s it. Based on the board makeup, the public declarations, the political context of the moment, and the parameters for who the Center will and won’t treat, the Bridge Center is going to be a drug treatment facility. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s not for your autistic son who has a violent outburst; he’d be immediately barred from getting treatment because, well, he was violent. It’s not for your daughter who has a breakdown and won’t cooperate with complete strangers with guns who are there to “take her away” (i.e. police officers) because, well, she’s likely to do something considered violent – to herself, property, or others – that would also disbar her from treatment. This is about those cases where a rich kid (or poor kid) is found convulsing in their home, in an alley, or in their car from a drug overdose and we need to treat them without arresting them. A noble endeavor, for sure. Necessary, even. I’ll go so far as to say such a policy shift is long overdue. And if the tax proposal was advertised as such, I’d be all for it. Singing my support from the rafters. But that’s not what it’s advertised as. It’s marketed as addressing “the mental health crisis in Baton Rouge.” But it won’t. It will simply help sift out the addicts who need treatment from the otherwise non-addicted, predominantly poor, predominantly black individuals who routinely get thrown in jail for things that they would benefit more from treatment over. And – should it pass – it will do so with the well-intentioned, but oblivious support of a community that genuinely wants to address the real issue.
I don’t know how to tell you how to vote on this. We need treatment facilities for those suffering from addiction and I am glad law enforcement is placing a higher priority on treating addicts as opposed to incarcerating them. But I don’t like the old political okey-doke and I’m worried that when we finally have the local political capital to truly build a facility for addressing the “mental health crisis” in Baton Rouge, too many voters will feel like they’ve already voted for the necessary tax increases to address it, so the will to support another increase or budget allocation will not be there. I don’t like the idea of voters think they are voting for one thing to address one issue when in fact they are voting for something else. I want us to address the “mental health crisis” in Baton Rouge – and it’s not the existence of people with mental illness, it’s the jarring and almost criminal lack of resources available for those individuals and their caretakers – but I fear that if this tax proposal passes, far too many Baton Rouge voters will wipe their hands clean of the issue and claim the issue was addressed.
I hope this helped someone.