A civil rights investigation into the treatment of people with mental illnesses by the state of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City police was announced Thursday by the U.S. Justice Department.
“We will determine whether the state discriminates against mentally ill adults in Oklahoma County,” where Oklahoma City is located, in violation of federal law “by relying on institutional settings to serve adults when they could be served in the community,” assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said.
Clarke, with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the investigation in Oklahoma comes amid similar investigations that include Minneapolis; Phoenix; Louisville, Kentucky; and the states of Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina.
The investigations are part of efforts by the Civil Rights Division to more aggressively enforce a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling aimed at ensuring people with disabilities are not needlessly isolated while receiving government help.
The agency launched the initiative under the Obama administration and the Justice Department, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, has vowed to prioritize civil rights cases to ensure there is equal access and justice under the law.
In addition to the sweeping investigations of police practices in several major cities, the department is examining jail conditions in several states and has been looking at conditions at mental health facilities.
Oklahoma “will fully cooperate with the Department of Justice’s investigation,” according to a statement from Kate Vesper, spokesperson for Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley, in a statement, said the department learned Thursday morning of the investigation into the department’s response to calls involving people with mental illness or behavioral issues.
“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,” Gourley said.
A spokesperson for the city of Oklahoma City said a statement would be issued later Thursday.
A senior Justice Department official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, said the investigation was prompted by complaints from a mental health advocacy organization but did not identify the organization.
Two of the largest mental health advocacy organizations in the state, the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Oklahoma and the Alliance of Mental Health Providers of Oklahoma, did not immediately return phone calls for comment.
The official said that the investigation does not target the troubled Oklahoma County jail or fatal police shootings in the city, but both could be involved if violations of the rights of people with mental illnesses are found.
“We will be looking at police encounters with people with mental health issues, if fatal police shootings are among those encounters, they will be investigated,” as will treatment of jail inmates with mental illnesses, the official said.
“The investigation will examine whether Oklahoma fails to provide community-based mental health services” that include treatment, housing and employment, Clarke said.
Investigators also will look into the city’s response to 911 calls regarding adults with mental disabilities and whether police comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Clarke.