A former colleague of mine received a phone call late one afternoon from a police officer. At the time she was the principal of a school for special needs children, and the officer had just taken a young teen, one of her students, into custody for destructive behavior — property damage, if I remember correctly. The teen was in the back of the patrol car, rocking back and forth and making animalistic noises. When the officer described what was happening, she immediately said, “You need to get him a soft drink right now. Give it to him as soon as you can.”
The policeman said, “Oh, you mean a distractor.”
Phillip (not his real name) was at the beginning of a psychotic episode. My colleague knew that a soft drink could interrupt the progression and allow him to regain control of himself. The fact that the officer understood and accepted her instructions made a potentially serious situation much less so. His use of the term “distractor” let her know that her student was in good hands, that he understood what she was telling him to do and why.
Not everyone would have seen things that clearly. They might have characterized the soft drink as a reward for misbehavior and refused to get one for the child. That officer had either the training or the life experience that gave him the ability to think beyond the usual role of police and shift into mental health crisis intervention on the fly. Philip was fortunate to have encountered a policeman who was both able and willing to do what needed to be done, even if it was unusual. Accusation and punishment could come later; other issues were more important in that moment.
Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a recent interview, said (I’m paraphrasing here) that from his perspective the United States had, during the last quarter century or so, de-emphasized or eliminated most of the tools of international relations while expanding the military, leaving us with very little flexibility in dealing with the various issues that arise in the international forum. I was struck by how closely that parallels our experience on the domestic front. I was in the mental health field at the beginning of deinstitutionalization back in the early ‘80s, and saw many who had been cared for in institutions turned out into the street with the vague plan of serving them with community based intervention. The ongoing lack of community resources meant that the job of serving this population was left to the police, since many of them had little or no survival skills once outside the institutions but still had to be dealt with; they certainly did not walk off the grounds of LMHI and disappear into thin air.
The current calls to “defund the police” (an unfortunate choice of phrasing in my opinion) are at least in part a reaction to the fact that, just as teachers have been tasked with more and more responsibilities that are not educational in nature (feeding children, clothing children, providing before- and after-school care, watching for and reporting indicators of abuse or neglect, protecting their students against armed attackers, and so on), the police, for a variety of reasons, have become the first responders for a wide range of problems. There are certainly situations that need intervention by someone trained to stand in harms way to ensure our safety. There are also situations that need counselors, arbitrators, someone to offer comfort in crisis, referral specialists who know what resources are available in the community, and so on, and asking one person to be trained and skilled in all these is asking a lot. I think “redesign the police force,” while still lacking nuance, is closer to what we need.
I know from my experience in the field of education that there are many teachers out there who are very good at teaching math or English or history and not only unskilled in crisis intervention, but often make things much worse. I would imagine that the police force has similar members in its departments, and would have as much trouble fixing this issue by sort of nibbling around the edges with rewritten mission statements, mandatory training sessions, etc., as the education system does. The brutal slow motion murder of Charles Floyd, the killing of Rayshard Brooks, shot in the back and then literally kicked while he was down, the killing of Breanna Taylor in her own apartment during the execution of a no-knock warrant, and all the other incidents coming to light make the case for significant police reform much more strongly than any superficial intellectual analysis of mine ever could.