Chapter 6: Proscribed Scope

The President’s Task Force (2015) suggests, “Law enforcement agencies should also promote public trust by initiating positive non-enforcement activities to engage communities that typically have high rates of investigative and enforcement involvement with government agencies” (p. 2). We suggest extreme caution in interpreting this advice. While the new community policing paradigm suggests that police are community problem-solvers, the police role must not be expanded such that police resources are diluted to the point where efficacy is lost.

We advise extreme caution in planning police efforts. Past theoretical perspectives (most notably Broken Windows) have been used to justify police programs that diluted resources and made whole departments less efficacious. This fact underscores the need for a theoretical position, such as the one advocated herein. Unity of purpose and efficacy can be lost when a theoretical perspective does not guide planning and action within police departments.

A tragic example of good intentions leading to unintended negative consequences can be seen in some School Resource Officer (SRO) programs. The idea of SROs was good; we believe that putting police officers in public schools to work for community building, education, safety, and crime prevention is meritorious.  Problems arose when the SRO concept was not coupled with community policing. Without a culture of partnership and hobbled by the severely limited tools of traditional policing, SROs resorted to making arrests to solve school discipline problems. Youths were ushered into the formal juvenile justice system in increasing numbers (American Civil Liberties Union, 2008).

Rather than performing the community policing function that advocates of the SRO idea intended, traditional police officers resorted to traditional tactics so that problems grew rather than diminished. School discipline is an education problem unless it reaches the level of dangerous criminal activity. Individuals who bring firearms into schools call for police involvement in their enforcement capacity; a student’s refusal to stand up when ordered to do so and other minor incivilities are not law enforcement issues. In other words, these minor infractions are beyond the scope of police practice and thus should be proscribed from police intervention.

Change the Law

Often, problems with policing result in very emotional debates, and these strong emotions frequently remove reason and logic from the discourse.  As previously discussed, a major goal of policing is to reduce crime (preferably by proactive prevention, we argue).  In the United States, we estimate the prevalence of crimes because they become known to the police.  An often overlooked method of reducing crime is to reduce the number of human behaviors that are classified as criminal and thus placed under the purview of the police.  The process of having the legislatures streamline the criminal code is often referred to as decriminalization.

Decriminalization doesn’t suggest that society condones the behavior; it just means we don’t want to involve police and other criminal justice system components.  We often hear the term decriminalization used in the marijuana debate, but it can be applied to any criminal law.  Very few individuals would suggest decriminalizing violent felonies, but violations (e.g., parking tickets) and many so-called victimless misdemeanors are worth looking at.

There is no consensus about the meaning of “decriminalization.”  Approaches to decriminalization among scholars and criminal justice actors (for example, legislatures, courts, prosecutors, and law enforcement) largely focus on how conduct is sanctioned or punished.   Yet even when no sanction or punishment results, police interactions can have many significant consequences for civilians.  Many Americans hate their police.  Part of the reason for this is that they feel harassed and overregulated.   Many victimless crimes are very culturally specific in the amount of public support the statutes receive.  An easy way to improve public perceptions of the police is to delete the unpopular laws altogether.  A related idea that deserves some consideration is allowing other agencies to deal with those statutes that a plurality of the community wants to maintain but that a strong minority sees as oppressive.

One solution would be to get police out of the ordinance enforcement business.  There is no good reason that police officers should go around issuing tickets and summonses to people who fail to leash their dogs or who refuse to mow their lawns.  Police officers, we argue, should be highly trained and highly paid professionals.  It is a waste of resources to have them perform these tasks.  One needs no specialized training or weapons to write parking tickets.  A separate branch of city government could easily be established—completely separated from the police department—to deal with these sorts of issues.

A related idea is to get police out of the revenue generation business.  Police often enforce unpopular ordinances because they are mandated to do so by city officials.  Parking fines and the like can be a major source of revenue, which in turn can be funneled back into the police department.   The subtext of this system for police officers is, “if you want to get paid, you need to drum up the revenues to fund your salary.”  Sadly, the people that minor violations such as broken taillights and driving on an expired license are most likely to be committed by the poorest citizens who neglect vehicle maintenance and fail to pay taxes for financial reasons.  Another avenue that we should explore is the implementation of what is called “day fines.”  These are so-called because they are based on the average daily income of the guilty party. The logic is that a fine of a set amount simply isn’t fair.  If a person is a highly compensated professional (say a surgeon) who makes $250,000 per year, they may be more than willing to pay a parking fine of $50 just to stay out of the rain.

The same fine represents a real financial hardship for a person making minimum wage.  Under such a system, someone like Bill Gates may get a $500,000 speeding ticket.  It can be argued, at least under classical economic theory, that such fines are much better than our current system.  The idea of punishment, the theory goes, is to offset the gain of the infraction such that people will decide that violating the law isn’t worth it.  Day fines theoretically would even the playing field and cause equitable economic pain to all.

Much of the commentary on decriminalization focuses on sanctions.  Prison overcrowding is a major criminal justice issue, and America locks up more people than any other Western nation.  This focus on sanctions, however, doesn’t very often consider the role decriminalization would have on policing.   Sanction-focused approaches to decriminalization neglect to incorporate the harms to civilians that formal social controls impose at the police encounter stages of the criminal justice process.  This text argues that decriminalization ought to involve not only modifying the sanctions that are assigned to particular kinds of behavior but also modifying the ways we police that behavior.

An example of this would be to get police out of the drug enforcement business.  One of the most common reasons that police officers stop and search citizens (within the scope of Terry and beyond it) is to try and find contraband.  Most often, that contraband is either a weapon or some drug.  For most of the history of the “War on Drugs,” there has been a subculture that doesn’t see anything wrong with the recreational use of certain drugs.  Today, mainstream culture has caught up with the subculture, and more people support the legalization of marijuana than support its continued criminalization.  Opinions about “hard” drugs vary more widely.  The so-called opioid epidemic has reached crisis levels, and governments at all levels have declared war on the criminal diversion of narcotic painkillers.  Only a very small subculture of drug users (and some fairly radical Libertarians) would advocate for the legalization of cocaine and methamphetamine.

Even so, it may be a good idea to decriminalize these drugs, at least as far as local police departments are concerned.  My first argument for this position is that criminal sanctions do not deter drugs in a meaningful way.  Despite billions of dollars and decades of “war,” we only interdict a small fraction of the cocaine and heroin entering the country.  Increased funding for law enforcement and border walls will not help.  Often, we fail to consider the ancillary costs of continued criminalization.  If we think of the production of cocaine as simply an agricultural product, it should cost roughly the same amount as gourmet coffee or chocolate.

For the farmers that tend the plants, that’s about what it is worth. Only the criminal organizations that bring it across the border realize massive profits.  Not only are the economic laws of supply and demand at play, but drug users must pay the cartels a “risk premium.”  When government policy serves to restrict the supply and creates risk for the supplier, the street value becomes hundreds of times higher than the mere cost of production.  Those sorts of profits have resulted in thousands upon thousands of lost lives being lost as rival cartels wage war, and street-level drug dealers war for territory.

On America’s streets, the “war on drugs” has resulted in a war between police and citizens.  Warfare is always a terrible metaphor when considering domestic law enforcement.  There are very good reasons that the military can’t constitutionally act on American soil.  We give the domestic use of force monopoly over to the police because they have a different mission from the military.  The job of the military is to kill the enemies of the United States.  The job of the police is to protect and serve the people of the United States.  When those missions are conflated, the result is a large subsection of the population that passionately hates the police.  It is fair enough to expect criminals to hate the police, but the mistrust and hatred don’t stop with the criminals.  To understand the police-citizen dynamic on the neighborhood level, we have to stop “othering” criminals and realize that they are people and have a wide network of parents, siblings, and extended families that love them.  Those people also learn to hate the police when they perceive the police as persecuting their loved ones.

If we must fight a war on drugs, let federal agents fight that war.  Nobody is very good at it, judging by the failure to stop the flow of illegal drugs, but the DEA is the best we have.  Let state police fight that war.  Let multijurisdictional agencies and “task forces” fight that war.  Take the local police out of it.  This will simultaneously remove a major impediment to community relations from local neighborhoods.  It will stop the frequent harassment of citizens by officers looking to make their “statistics.”  I suggest, however, that drugs be taken out of the criminal justice system entirely and only pursued by law enforcement when drugs are part of a continuing criminal enterprise.

The logic of decriminalizing drugs (but not criminal organizations) is twofold.  On the “dealer” side of the narcotics equation is that because the policy has elevated street prices to such a high level, the financial rewards of drug dealing will always incentivize newcomers to the business.  At the drug user level, we have to understand that addiction—by definition—is not rational.  Addiction is most often defined as continuing behavior you know to be harmful.  If a person is willing (or not able to stop) to do something that they know is killing them, why are we so naive to think that the fear of criminal sanctions will do the trick?

Our entire criminal justice system is based on classical economic theories of behavior.  There are many variants, but the basic logic of all of these “rational choice” theories of crime is that humans seek out pleasure and avoid pain.  If the likely outcome of a behavior is that we will be detected, arrested, and punished to the extent that the pain (of the punishment) offsets the pleasure of the act, we will not do the act.  The idea of draconian prison sentences for drug crimes is that they will outweigh the “pleasure” gained from using drugs and thus stop the behavior.  We know for an absolute fact that the behavior of addicts doesn’t work that way.  You can argue that using drugs is a choice, but it is most certainly not a rational choice.  Theories of crime suppression that rely on rational actors can’t have an impact on drug-related criminal behavior.  This explains why the war on drugs has failed.

This leads us to the simple premise that drug addiction is a species of mental illness.  If it is a crisis, then it is a crisis of mental health, not chosen behaviors that the criminal justice system can effectively deter.  It is much more logical to treat America’s drug problems as health problems and place the responsibility for mitigation efforts with the CDC and other public health institutions.  If we move from a “war on crime” model to a public health model, we may actually get somewhere.  As I will argue later, how we police the mentally ill must also be dramatically improved if public perceptions of the police are to improve in a meaningful and sustainable way.

When we think of modifying criminal law, we need to think of what criminal laws we have, why we have them, and what impact those laws have on society in terms of direct effects as well as second and third-order effects.  It has long been said that you can’t legislate morality, mostly because moral legislation simply doesn’t work.  Of course, we need to think about what acts are criminal, but we also need to think about how those acts are policed.  When it comes to violent criminals doing evil (i.e., mala in se crimes), we need well-trained and well-armed police to deal with them.  When it comes to mala prohibita offenses (things that are wrong merely because the government says so), we should be much more circumspect about allowing police to deal with them.  If we must enforce ordinances and morals legislation despite large proportions of the population questioning the legitimacy of those laws, then it is much better to have entities other than the local police enforce them.

In the United States, there is a clear division between criminal law and civil law.  Yet, specific human behaviors can overlap both legal domains.  Killing someone is often criminal, but it can also be a civil wrong (e.g., a tort known as wrongful death).  Similarly, the commission of certain crimes can result in a form of punishment that is extracted from the accused in a civil action, generally referred to as civil asset forfeiture.  In civil asset forfeiture, the personal property of persons accused of certain crimes can be taken by the government without them actually being convicted of the crime.  Because it is written into the legal code as a civil matter, the standards of evidence are much lower than they would be in criminal court.  This throws gasoline on the fires of mistrust of the police and keeps the crisis of legitimacy going.  Simply put, we need to get the police out of the civil forfeiture business.

Police vs. Social Problems

One of the biggest criticisms of community policing is that it forces police into the role of a social worker and thus isn’t “real policing.”  I hope that by this point in this text, I have successfully argued that the traditional model of policing, with its singular focus on “catching bad guys,” is defunct and desperately needs to be replaced.  At the risk of offending the law enforcement community, a big part of the job should be social work.  There is good reason to believe that many crime precipitators are social. Thus serious efforts to prevent crime and the fear of crime in communities necessitate addressing these social issues.

This need for police to play an expanded role in the functioning of neighborhood social dynamics is at the core of community policing.  Still, this fact begs the question, what exactly is the scope of the police role?  The answer to that question is complicated, but answer it we must.  That issue is probably the biggest one that social scientists must deal with over the next several decades.  We must also realize that the answer is somewhat dependent on the jurisdiction wherein it is asked.  If we return to Professor Goldstein’s premise that the police’s job is to “deal with the residual problems of society,” we find that the size of that residual depends on many local factors.  Social safety nets depend on myriad factors, but two important ones that account for the bulk of the variance from place to place are the population density of the area and the wealth of the area.  Compact cities with a high population density and higher levels of wealth will tend to have public agencies and private charities that can help deal with a wide array of social problems.  The more rural and poor an area is, the more police will have to deal with problems that don’t concern the capturing of bad guys.

It is often said that a good police officer must be a jack of all trades.  It is very true that police officers must possess a wide array of skills, not least among these is the ability to communicate effectively with diverse groups of people, as well as problem-solving.  Still, it is unrealistic to expect officers to be bona fide social workers, psychologists, drug addiction counselors, and teachers.  They aren’t economists and can’t do much about poverty and lack of access to opportunity.  We must remember that police resources are finite, and we cannot expect them to deal with every social problem.  It may even be too much to ask them to deal with all of the residual problems of our communities.  We need more effort on a national level to improve education across the board (the wealth gap is huge and growing in this respect), to adapt local economies to exponential growth in technology in the workplace, and a host of other social inequalities.

The best answer, it seems, is to come to the table with the community and ask them what they want.  For this to work, police departments must develop a culture of radical transparency and make a concerted effort to keep communities informed about what is going on and what the police are doing about it.  When there is a murderer on the loose or a serial rapist on the prowl, community desires, and police priorities will align in that direction.  It is a mistake to allow the police desire to catch bad guys or city hall’s need to show that they are “tough on crime” to sway the police away from community concerns.  This also dictates that the police must be sensitive to neighborhood-level differences in community concerns.  Different neighborhoods (and communities of interest) will have different priorities, and police activities need to reflect those priorities.  These facts reinforce the mandate of community policing to devolve decision-making authority to line officers.

From this broader perspective of criminal justice reform in general, decriminalization’s goals should be to curtail opportunities and techniques for the state to control civilians in a couple of different ways.  First, we need to avoid facilitating their entry into, or continued contact with, the criminal justice system.  That is not to say we shouldn’t deal with social problems, but the criminal justice system is a poor solution for many of the problems that it has been given.  Drug abuse and, more broadly, mental health are things that the criminal justice system has done a terrible job with.  It’s time to give those things back to the professionals in those fields.  Given the constantly high recidivism rates over vast swaths of American history, prisons don’t really accomplish anything but incapacitate dangerous offenders for a time.  Second, the system should reduce state-imposed privacy intrusions, liberty intrusions, and physical harms that arise from contact with the criminal justice system and its agents.  This second issue is the primary focus of this text and has much to do with a new way forward in policing.

Service Brokers

In many communities, there is a tragic disconnect between agencies and organizations designed to help people in need and the people who need them.  Police officers cannot practically (or ethically) provide mental health services, but they can point those in need in the right direction.  Police departments cannot run boarding facilities and soup kitchens, but they can catalog those that already exist and provide that information to those in need.   One of the best things about working as a police officer is that you aren’t forced to experience the monotony of most jobs.  For a cop on the streets, every shift brings something new.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new and different comes up, and you have to devise a solution.

Given all of the possible permutations, an officer with 30 years on the streets will likely encounter a fresh problem on his last shift before retirement.  Nevertheless, most of these novel problems will have very similar underlying themes.  The particulars of an individual’s mental health problems and how those problems manifest may be unique, but the idea is that disorderly people with mental health problems are a constant in policing.  One of the most tragic elements of the community police officer’s job is seeing a problem and feeling powerless to help.  Officers are the members of our society who are most likely to encounter people at the lowest point in their lives.  We tend to think of officers as dealing with “bad guys,” but often, they encounter the sick, the hungry, and the homeless.  They may make an encounter because of some alleged “disorderly conduct,” but they know that the real problem often is beyond the traditional law enforcement toolbox.

It is truly astonishing how charitable Americans are.  For nearly every person who has a serious problem, there are people and organizations out there that are designed to help.  One of the biggest impediments to people in need receiving this help is the mismatch between services and the people who need those services.  Churches have clothes closets, food banks, and pastoral counseling services.  There are soup kitchens, shelters for abused women and children, homeless shelters, and myriad social services.  Veteran officers may know about some of these and direct those in need to them, but this is usually done on a personal level, and the officer’s information has huge gaps.  In other words, many officers informally serve as service brokers, even under the traditional system.  How much more effective can that idea become were it formalized and systematically organized?

The key point here is to avoid what some policing scholars have called “scope creep.”  My solution to this is to recognize that police resources are limited and not suited to many social problems.  Nevertheless, police find that their daily duties bring them into contact with the neediest among us, and much suffering in our communities can be alleviated if police are willing and empowered to act as service brokers.  In these situations, it is wrong to simply say that people “should do for themselves.”  People in truly bad situations are often traumatized or suffering from disease and mental illness.  They are not in a place from which good decisions can be made, and often they don’t even have the resources to locate services, such as devices capable of accessing the internet.

To systematize such a directory of services, much time and energy are required.  This is a perfect example of how innovative community partnerships can come into play.  Many “alpha male” officers with a bent toward the traditional model of policing scoff at providing such services, scorning them because that is “social work.”  In this respect, those assertions are essentially correct.  Dealing with those who need help is indeed what social workers do, and perhaps the best partner for cataloging charitable organizations and public services within a community is to enlist the social work department (and criminal justice departments that aren’t “cop shops”) from the nearest university with a social work degree program.  Social work students are often required to do a “service learning” project, and cataloging the available services within an area fits that bill nicely.  Moreover, university degree programs are constantly graduating seniors and admitting freshmen.  This means that keeping the directory up to date and expanding it can be an ongoing service-learning project.

Goals and Objectives

Another key to preventing scope creep is to have clearly defined, written goals and objectives for police organizations.  Many departments have mission statements and the like, but these are often nothing more than a list of platitudes that get dusted off now and again when a problem arises or a means to fill space on the agency website.  To truly be beneficial, mission statements, goals, and objectives must be central to agency planning and activities.  They must be thoughtfully written, fully reflected in all policies, and be incorporated into day-to-day operations.  Without a strategy aligned with a mission, community policing efforts wind up as a disorganized mess of programs that have little impact on communities.  Goals, then, define what a community expects from its police department.  In other words, goals define the desired end result of police activity.  The community should establish these, with police input coming into play only when legal and fiscal barriers come into play.  In other words, police should view the goal-setting process and a community affair where police leaders facilitate those goals being realistic, legal, mission-related, and practical (deliverable).  Part of the vetting process that police leaders need to provide is to make sure each and every goal set by the community meets four overarching criteria.  Each goal must be:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Achievable
  4. Just

The fourth and final element listed above is often overlooked, and the will of the majority tends to step on the rights of the minority.  We also see situations where police goals reflect the will of the political elite and not the will of the majority of everyday citizens.  Both scenarios must be prevented.  The will of the majority should prevail in a democratic society, but only when it is consistent with the democratic ideas of liberty and procedural justice.  The idea of specificity in setting police goals has several facets.  First among these is the statement of the problem.   “Reducing crime” may suffice for a mission statement, but as a goal of policing, it is too broad to have any real meaning.  It must also be remembered that police goals need to be specific as to what the desired outcome will be, and a good test of that is whether or not it is measurable.

That does not mean that things that aren’t easily measured should be excluded.  Criminal justice scholars, sociologists, social workers, and psychologists are all experts at measuring abstract concepts, and police departments are advised to form partnerships with these academics to devise quality strategies for measuring what matters.  The number of arrests and the number of tickets written are easy, so police like to use them.  Under the new paradigm of policing advocated in this book, these measure the wrong things and are an important cause of public malice toward the police.  We can, if we want to, do better.  This also suggests (as I argue elsewhere in this book) that police leaders need advanced social science education to be effective.  Measuring what matters requires that police leaders understand what matters, can provide leadership that involves strategies that have a high probability of meeting those goals, and can evaluate the outcomes of the strategies to see if they have worked as intended.

Goals are nothing more than meaningless platitudes if they are not achieved.  We have no idea whether or not we have achieved our goals if we don’t measure them.  Reasonable people wouldn’t invest in a company that can’t produce a balance sheet.  They wouldn’t trust a medical doctor who doesn’t run tests to confirm a procedure or medication is having the desired outcome.  Prudent people wouldn’t use a mechanic who refuses to crank the engine to verify that a repair was successful.  Why, then, are we often willing to accept that police are doing a good job when we haven’t specified the desired outcome and we haven’t verified that the goal was achieved?

It must also be understood that police goals are dynamic.  In other words, the goals of a police department must change to meet the new challenges that an ever-changing community requires.  That means that the mission statement and individual goals must be reviewed, with new goals being added and old ones deleted on a regular basis.  Most often, these changes will consist of a refinement process rather than simple additions or deletions.  This is why evaluation systems designed by outside experts (often at great expense) are not a viable solution for the long term.

Rigorous academic studies of police innovations are extremely valuable, but the utility for individual agencies wears off rather quickly.  When goals change, it reflects the fact that what really matters to the community has changed.  When that happens, the daily duties of officers must change to match the shifting goals, and the evaluation of those officers’ performance must change with it.  This shift in performance measures means that each department must have the expertise to do that well “in-house,” or they must have an ongoing partnership with social science scholars that have the necessary expertise.

In evaluating police performance in achieving the goals set by the community, time is an often neglected yet critically important facet.  Massive social structural problems cannot be changed overnight, and it is foolish to place short-term constraints on long-term solutions.  The ideal timeframe for solving any community problem is immediately, yet that is not practical in most situations.  True public safety emergencies must be given such a sense of urgency, but structural problems aren’t so easily dealt with.

Some issues, at the other end of the spectrum, may be “ongoing.”  Many of these issues will involve internal metrics, such as the necessary ongoing effort to prevent racial profiling.  We can never afford to stop trying to prevent racial profiling, and we need to constantly look for evidence of its presence.  It is also important to express goals in realistic terms using verbs that reflect high probability outcomes, and never ones that are absolute in nature.  We can’t “end” gun crime, but we can certainly “reduce” it.  We can’t “stop” domestic violence, but we can decrease recidivism.

Often, we use the phrase “goals and objectives” imprecisely, and that lack of specificity results in poor execution.  In the literature on management and leadership, goals are the outcomes that we want to achieve.  Objectives, on the other hand, are the action verbs that we use to achieve our goals.  In other words, they are the specific actions that police officers will take to bring about the desired changes in our communities.  Perhaps the best way to think of objectives is to view them as the tools used to meet a goal.  When it comes to creating police objectives to meet community goals, an advanced education once again becomes important.  There is a truly massive number of tested strategies for dealing with common neighborhood problems, and most of that information is provided by the government to the world (your tax dollars are hard at work!) free of charge.  To access and implement those evidence-based strategies, one needs the research skills to choose the optimal strategy, the management skills to implement it, and the methodological skills to evaluate the response.  These are the skills that one learns in a quality university criminal justice program and not something you can learn in a few months of boot camp-style training.

Policing Mental Illness

When it comes to helping our fellow human beings, America is a strange paradox.  We are one of the most charitable nations on earth, and philanthropy accounts for a surprisingly large share of our gross national product.  We are a nation of givers, yet we don’t want to give that money to governments, especially for social programs.  Our national ambivalence toward helping is especially apparent when it comes to mental health.  Well-meaning but disastrous moves toward deinstitutionalization (starting in the 1960s) and a disdain for public health systems have created a vacuum wherein those with mental illness yet are still somewhat functional are left to their own (often insufficient) devices.  Aside from the individual suffering that this deplorable situation has caused, it has precipitated myriad social problems.  We know, for example, that a plurality of homeless people have some sort of mental illness.  We also know that a vast number of prisoners are suffering from mental illness, and that is so despite our foolhardy reluctance to treat addiction as a mental illness.  Since there are no effective mechanisms in place to deal with mental illness, the public behaviors of the mentally ill become “residual problems of society.”

According to federal government statistics, around 5% of Americans suffer from some form of “serious” mental illness.  When we examine jail populations, that number increases to something like 15%.  It has been estimated that around 7% of police-citizen contacts are with mentally ill individuals.  For example, the New York City Police Department averages over 150,000 “emotionally disturbed person” calls per year.  We can infer several things from these statistics.  First, people with diagnosable mental illnesses tend to be alarming too many “normal” citizens, and this prompts calls to police.  Police are much more likely to arrest a mentally ill person than the average person.

Policing (nationally speaking) has recently come to grips with a couple of problems.  The first is that arresting mentally ill people is just plain stupid.  Formal criminal justice sanctions don’t work very well with ordinary, “rational” people and certainly don’t do any good with a mentally ill person.  The second, more insidious problem is that mentally ill people are not likely to comply with authoritarian orders from officers.  When shouted orders fail, the next tool out of the traditional police toolbox is force.  Mentally ill people are often confused and afraid of being arrested, so they struggle and will often put up a fight.  All too frequently, this results in injuries and death.

Police officers often (rightly!) feel that dealing with mental illness is beyond the scope of police work.  If we really want to fix policing in the United States, we must fix the gaping holes in our national healthcare system.  Even if we manage to do this, however, mental illness often manifests in crisis situations, and the police, as first responders, will always be the ones to make the first contact when a concerned citizen makes a 911 call concerning disorderly conduct, crimes, suicide attempts, and other exigent circumstances.

It is foolhardy to think that police officers can replace therapists and psychiatrists, but it is reasonable and prudent for them to be educated in mental health crisis intervention and understand how to talk down a person with mental illness rather than barking orders and using force.  It is also important for police to understand how to be service brokers in these circumstances.  Recall that our criminal justice system is based (much to the chagrin of criminologists) on rational choice theories.  When police encounter a mentally ill citizen, it is most often because they are behaving irrationally.  It is ignorance upon stilts to think that criminal justice sanctions will be of any use with a mentally ill person.  Despite this obvious fact, jails serving America’s urban centers each hold more mentally ill persons every day than any hospital in the United States.   If real improvements are to be made in American criminal justice, we need to get the entire criminal justice system out of the mental health business.

[ Chapter 5: Procedural FairnessChapter 7: Protection ]

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License

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