Find a better way.
Amidst the very public call to “defund the police” and the absolutely expected backlash that slogan has generated, a kernel of real opportunity may be lost.
The treatment of people in real crisis has been brought into focus by a series of deaths, deaths that are receiving plenty of attention as people start to keep count. You can’t help but feel the incidents are increasing. Police are on the defensive, and they don’t like it — and, the fact is, police officers are trained to react offensively, to retain the upper hand in dangerous situations.
Obviously, things have to change and, right now, plenty of people recognize that.
A good example of what could and should change? Something that’s happening in Denver, Colo.
Mental health calls are challenging, often outside the ambit of police training, and use time that could be used more effectively elsewhere.
There, the Support Team Assistance Response program doesn’t send a police car to 911 calls involving mental health concerns — it sends an unmarked, low-profile van with a paramedic and a mental health worker instead.
Think about this, from a Denver Post story about the pilot project in early September: “Since its launch June 1, the STAR van has responded to more than 350 calls, replacing police in matters that don’t threaten public safety and are often connected to unmet mental or physical needs. The goal is to connect people who pose no danger with services and resources while freeing up police to respond to other calls. The team, which is not armed, has not called police for backup…”
Focus on that: not once has the team dealt with a situation that got so out of control that police involvement was needed.
Since 2016, Denver has also been using a co-responder program that pairs a police officer with a mental health worker — that program handled over 2,200 calls in 2019.
Now, that’s only a handful of the calls the Denver force responds to every year — but every mental health crisis they don’t have to respond to is time they could better spend elsewhere, on top of having a better outcome for everyone involved.
And programs like STAR?
“It’s the future of law enforcement, taking a public health view on public safety,” Denver police Chief Paul Pazen told the Post. “We want to meet people where they are and address those needs and address those needs outside of the criminal justice system.”
Mental health calls are challenging, often outside the ambit of police training, and use time that could be used more effectively elsewhere. Situations that aren’t dangerous can become dangerous, especially when the response includes uniformed, armed officers who quickly outnumber the person they’re responding to.
Talk to a police officer, if you know one; mental health calls are far from their favourite things to deal with. And many of the cases — and deaths involving police — that are now being focused on in Canada start with calls involving mental health crises.
The justice system handles mental health issues poorly — that should hardly even have to be said.
You need to have the right tools for the job, and fund them properly. The right tools for mental health emergencies are not police loaded people into squad cars and taking them to the cells of the local lockup.
This is a great opportunity to move to something different — and a better solution for everyone involved.
“Defund the police” may be a clearer, catchier slogan than “let’s move some police responsibilities — and funding — to people better trained and more able to deal with mental health emergencies.”
But this is a great time to make exactly that kind of move.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.