Good morning, everyone. My name is Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice.
Today, I am announcing that the Justice Department is opening an investigation into the State of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma City Police Department. We will determine whether the State of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City discriminate against adults with behavioral health disabilities living in Oklahoma County.
The investigation will be conducted by career attorneys in the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The investigation I am announcing today is based on publicly available information and it will focus on three main issues.
First, whether the State of Oklahoma violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), by relying on institutional settings to serve adults with behavioral health disabilities in Oklahoma County when they could be served in the community. The ADA requires that people with disabilities live free from discrimination – that includes receiving services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. Second, we will determine whether Oklahoma City discriminates under the ADA in how it responds to 911 calls involving individuals with behavioral health disabilities. And third, we will determine whether, once on the scene of a behavioral health crisis, the Oklahoma City Police Department complies with the ADA.
This new investigation will build on one of the Civil Rights Division’s priorities – ensuring that the 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. The Division is currently investigating police departments in 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 law. The Division also recently launched investigations into the states of South Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri regarding unnecessary institutionalization of people with mental illness. Here, we are doing both: we will evaluate whether the State of Oklahoma’s failure to provide community-based services for people with behavioral health disabilities in Oklahoma County results in unnecessary institutionalization and unnecessary police contact. We will also evaluate whether Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma City Police Department responds properly to behavioral health-related incidents.
The Division frequently hears from police officers and community members alike that, too often, police are expected to address a wide range of social issues that should not be handled by the criminal justice system at all. This may expose people with disabilities to unnecessary encounters with law enforcement, and it also diverts police department attention away from important public safety issues. State service systems play an important role in providing services that enable people with serious mental illness to succeed in the community and that help prevent law enforcement encounters in the first place, services such as supported housing, assertive community treatment, peer support, intensive case management, and supported employment. By focusing our investigation on both the behavioral health system and law enforcement, we are taking an inclusive approach to examining the issue.
During our investigation, we will meet with members of the community, State and City employees, and the Oklahoma City Police Department commanders and officers. We will tour State and local facilities, review data and documentation collected by the State, City, and Oklahoma City Police Department, and review policies, procedures, and training materials related to behavioral health. We will also hear from community members about their experiences with the State’s behavioral health system in Oklahoma County and the Oklahoma City Police Department, as their stories are crucial to our investigation.
If we conclude that there are no systemic violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act by the State or City, we will notify them and close our investigation. If, on the other hand, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that such violations are occurring, we will issue a public report describing our findings and then aim to work cooperatively with the State, City, and Oklahoma City Police Department to reach an agreement on the best remedies. If an appropriate remedy cannot be achieved through agreement, the Attorney General is authorized to bring litigation to secure an appropriate remedy.
Earlier today, our team spoke with Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma City Police Department officials about our investigation. We also appreciate that the City has recently committed to other reforms of its police department, which is laudable. We will take these reforms into account during our investigation.
I will repeat the message our team conveyed to the State, City, and police officials earlier: we are committed to following the facts where they lead, and will do so in a timely and just manner.
We look forward to working together with the State, City, and Oklahoma City Police Department towards the share goals of ensuring that people with behavioral health disabilities have the opportunity to live full lives in the community free from discrimination.