As policymakers nationwide scramble to deal with policing issues — everything from excessive force; to disrespect for authority; to the role of police in troubled neighborhoods — the recurring question is, are we asking police officers to do too much?
Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, and author of “The End of Policing” told NPR, “The problem is that they’ve (police have) been given a limited set of tools and placed into circumstances where those tools often can be counterproductive.”
Vitale is not alone. “What police have been forced to do in this country is perform triage,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown told the Washington Post.
In Dallas, according to the Post, police work includes corralling potentially dangerous dogs, among other duties that extend well beyond routine crime. “We have got a loose dog problem — let’s have the cops chase loose dogs,” Brown said. “Schools fail? Give it to the cops.”
Vitale said “the answer is to quit using police to solve every social problem under the sun. Instead we need to invest in new systems of discipline that treat people with dignity and respect and try to identify what’s driving problematic behavior and actually address those root causes.”
The opioid epidemic has exacerbated the role of the police is addressing the community’s social problems, whether criminal or not. Dallas Police Detective Chelsea Whitaker told Reuters, “We can be glorified social workers.”
She described her contact with two teenagers who constantly got into fights at school. One of them had not been eating. Whitaker took her to grocery store to buy food.
“I had to take another girl to get sanitary napkins because nobody ever taught her that,” Whitaker told Reuters. “She is angry and fighting all the time; of course, you would be angry.”
“A lot of the officers are resistant to what we call social work. They want to go out and fight crime, put people in jail,” Capt. Ron Meyers of the in Chillicothe, Ohio Police Department told the Washington Post. “We need to make sure the officers understand this is what is going to stop the (opioid) epidemic.”
Officers are finding children who were barricaded in rooms while their parents got high, and they are responding to the same homes for the same problems. Feelings of exasperation course through some departments in which officers are interacting with the same drug users over and over again, sometimes saving their lives repeatedly with naloxone, a drug that reverses an opiate overdose, reported the Post.
Couple addiction with mental illness and the tension between the police and a bad actor can escalate rapidly — often with disastrous results. Police departments are looking for new and innovative ways to cope with this growing menace.
Amy Watson, an associate professor of social work at The University of Illinois at Chicago, described Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) for Social Work Today. The CIT Model is an innovative police-based first responder program designed to help law enforcement recognize and appropriately respond to a mental health crisis.
As money for mental health institutions evolved into community based treatment, prisons have become de facto mental health facilities. Police officers have become the caretaker in the community charged with protecting the public from the double malaise of addiction and mental illness.
Being a cop isn’t easy. Sending him or her into the street to deal with issues beyond the scope of law enforcement is outrageous. Sure, training is available, but shouldn’t police officers focus on public safety and law enforcement while other trained professionals deal with illnesses like addiction and schizophrenia?
The police are not the answer to every social ill, nor should that be society’s expectation.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.