So just exactly what is it that we expect from our police? Yes, I fully understand that they should not be racist. Seriously, that should just be a given. They should also not be prone to violence in their policing duties. Yes, there may be times when the only answer is a drawn gun. But that should never be the answer to a call for help with a social services or mental health situation. In fact, why the hell are we asking the police to respond to those things in the first place?
A person experiencing a mental health crisis needs a mental health counselor, not a cop with enough fire power on him to end the war in Afghanistan. And trust me, that is what police look like today, like they are going into a war zone and need everything but airstrikes to control their neighborhoods.
If we want the police to concentrate on being police and not substance abuse counselors or mental health counselors or homeless counselors, then we need to start funding those positions even if it takes money away from the travesty that is now neighborhood policing. Neighborhood police should not look like they are walking through a bad neighborhood in Kabul.
But let’s get back to how we ease their burden so they can learn how to be cops and not the horrible hybrid that is what passes for policing today.
If we actually had a functioning mental health system, we would have emergency counselors on call day and night so that a family had someone to help if they notice their mentally ill relative unraveling. If, in fact, intervention was available before it turned into a full blown and possibly dangerous emergency, then maybe that part of the burden could be lifted from the police.
If we truly want our criminal just system to be a criminal justice system, then we have to stop treating jails as mental health facilities. It’s called mental illness for a reason. It’s an illness. You wouldn’t put a diabetic in jail for letting their blood sugar get dangerously high for a reason possibly beyond their ability to control. So why do we toss the mentally ill into a prison population other than the fact that we have once again decided that all things we don’t want to deal with, we will expect the criminal justice system to handle for us. They are our new mental health facilities whether we want to admit it or not. And they suck at it because that’s not what they are and not what their staff train to be.
The Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) is a disgrace and has been for longer than many of us have memories. It was built too small by a state that was willing to pay for a bigger sports arena for its college team but didn’t think we should build a bigger API, despite all the experts warning from the get go that it was too small. And now we find that even the smaller facility is still too big for the meager little budget it receives.
We could repeat this whole scenario in talking about alcoholics or the homeless. Each of these populations have their own unique set of problems. Sometimes these problems overlap. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. But the police should not be asked to make those calls. They are not substance abuse counselors or homeless counselors. They are cops. Cops!
We need to defund the police to the extent that we fund these other critically needed services so that the police can go back to walking a beat, protecting and serving their communities and not wearing enough weaponry to scare even kids used to violent video games.
If we intervened earlier in some problems, whether it be mental illness or substance abuse, there is every chance we can avoid situations that reach the need for police intervention. At a minimum, if we had a counselor go out on these calls with the police maybe, just maybe, they could defuse the situation before it turned really dangerous.
How about we stop asking police to be everything from marriage counselors to combat ready troops. How about we ask them to just be cops. Learn the neighborhood. Walk it. Keep it safe. And how about we fund social workers and counselors to work with those populations that need counselors, not storm troopers. Just seems like that would make everyone’s life a lot easier.