One of the best cops I know is fond of reminding me that the extent of his formal post-secondary education consists of two years of studying automotive repair at a junior college. He is intelligent, extremely perceptive, ethical and a great friend. If you ever need a police officer to do policework, you would do well to have him dispatched to your call for help.
If, however, you encounter a mentally ill person with an addiction living on the streets and want that problem solved, he is not your guy. He will bring a sense of duty and decades of experience dealing with people at their worst hour. But, he will also bring a desire to quickly find a solution to the immediate concern so he can move on, because it’s late on a Saturday and the radio calls are stacking up. Oh, and he will have brought all the hardware of his trade: a club, an electrical device that will drop a bull, manacles and a couple of firearms.
As I said though, he is one of the best so don’t worry. Then again, you might get an average cop, or even a dullard, results may vary.
Instead, your call should go to someone with a degree in psychology and perhaps a minor in addiction counseling, whose partner is a homeless advocate with a background in emergency medicine. They should be on the scene within 30 minutes. They will engage, assess, assist and connect this person with all the appropriate services.
This is, of course, an almost absurdly unrealistic expectation in today’s America. But should it be?
As we discuss police reform, or the larger matter of criminal justice reform, are we really striving for anything approaching transformative change, or are we simply picking at the edges? To what end do we call for reforming a police department or a justice system that is spending most of its time and resources confronting matters best suited for other branches of government?
I suggest that underlying the calls to “defund” policing is our true desire to get human service delivery right. It is the need to have a government that puts the best people with the best resources in front of the problems they are best suited to address. This will require nothing less than the redefinition of what we have come to know as “first responders,” and the wholesale overhaul of service delivery in the mental health and social services fields.
“Meet people where they are” is an often-used phrase. Why, then, do we expect members of our society with the highest level of need to make an appointment and travel across town to get service from their government, Monday through Friday, holidays and weekends excluded? Why are the deputies in our county jails attempting to manage what have now been described as the country’s largest mental institutions? Why do police chiefs send their officers into the streets to arrest and cite people for “camping,” thereby triggering the labor and costs of prosecutors and defense attorneys, court clerks, judges, juries and penal institutions? Why are officers in schools called on to address the behavior of a teenager who acts out not from criminality, but in response to conditions at home that would make most of us blanch?
The answer is because the only arm of government that answers the phone and responds to any call, all day, every day is your local police department. And since most cops are well-intentioned problem solvers, they and their leaders will continue to try to fix any problem at any time, regardless of ability — often to their own detriment.
What if some of the funding, perhaps a substantial portion, for policing was shifted to a true field-responsive social service system? Cops should not have a monopoly on driving the streets 24/7. There is ample evidence that most of those in need are not a threat. Researchers tell us the mentally ill in particular are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. So, wouldn’t it be refreshing to send a mental health provider along with a medical expert to talk to that scary person on the corner rather than a cop who doesn’t have the resources or background to make a positive difference?
Consider the impact at the conclusion a domestic violence incident if a crisis counselor walked in the door as soon as the cops walked out. Today that victim is more likely to be handed a resource card with outdated phone numbers and referrals to shelters and service providers that will be open on Monday. A service model where government fields professionals in all sectors of need is a government looking out for the best interest of all its citizens.
These suggestions are wildly expensive, but significant change never comes cheaply. The transformation of human services departments into ones with a delivery model wherein their professionals work the field permanently and at all hours will cost us. But any chief or sheriff who truly wants to catch bad guys and let others help the good guys when they are sick, downtrodden or just wayward, should lead the charge in surrendering significant portions of their departmental budget to accomplish that goal.
So, to all the mental health professionals, social service providers, victim advocates and others who are called to help; I say pick a shift and pack a lunch. Fill the thermos with coffee and get out on the streets of America, helping people where they are.