By Marvin Ross
I ended my blog on police race and mental illness by asking why we abdicate the crisis care in mental illness to cops in the first place. Those who are ill deserve more than to be treated by people with guns. It has already proven to be a disaster. Since that came out, there ithas been talk of defunding the police which, frankly, I do not understand.
We need the police to prevent and investigate crime in our communities. That should be their primary function and, I gather, no one who advocates defunding disagrees with that concept. I think, and I may be wrong, that the other issues like responding to mental health calls, police in schools, and similar duties should not be supported. I guess that would also extend to domestic disputes where a marriage counsellor would show up. These calls, however, are among the most dangerous for the police.
A Toronto Star columnist, Vinay Menon, wondered if defunding meant this should happen when his house was broken into at 3 in the morning. He said he took:
real comfort in knowing a squad car with armed cops is only a 911 call away. What’s the alternative? Go downstairs in my jammies and kindly ask the home invaders to get on the blower with a community psychologist to figure out why they have just removed steak knives from a kitchen drawer and are frantically rifling through my wife’s purse for car keys, which they are about to use to steal our Jetta before terrorizing my cats? True story!
Defunding maybe are laudable goals but are they feasible. Mental health services in North America have been so defunded and are so inadequate that the health system is often AWOL. I learned the sad reality many years ago when the schizophrenic brother of a friend would regularly escape and show up at my apartment. The second time it happened, I called the hospital and told them to come get him. I was so naive, that I fully anticipated hospital staff would come. Two cops showed up but he had already left. No worry, they said, we know him and will drive around the area.
Jospeph Meyer, whose excellent blog I referred to, did a small survey on facebook asking Would you feel comfortable calling for the police during a psychiatric crisis? So far, 60 people have said no and only 18 have said yes. People commented that they had both good and bad experiences while one said the police killed the subject and another said an arrest was made. I have also heard outside of this survey that the police are sometimes handcuffed and can do very little because of restrictive mental health acts in that community.
In many communities, there are specially funded units for trained officers to go out with social workers or psychiatric nurses. Often the hours are limited, the demand too high for them to respond and it is the regular patrol car that arrives. I’ve dealt with some of the specialized officers and been on panels with them so I know they are dedicated and trained but they are too few. With the regular patrol car, you’re taking your chances.
The solution is not defunding the police but improving their training while, at the same time, fighting for improved mental health acts, more hospital beds, longer hospital stays and more realistic privacy legislation. We still need the police for psychiatric emergencies but we cannot accept the excuse of “there are a few bad apples so what ya gonna do, eh?”
Some of the problems are well illustrated in this news report: If the embedding does not work and for some problem it does not show, here is the link
One of the interviewees in that clip refers to being made to feel like a criminal when the police become involved and that is a perfect example of a bad encounter with untrained police. In one of my earlier Huffington Post pieces, I talked about a man with schizophrenia who went to his local ER for help. After a long wait where nothing happened, he wanted to leave but was not allowed to. The hospital called to police (five of them), a physical conflict ensued and the poor guy was arrested and charged with numerous criminal offences including assault of a police officer. That is often a charge laid when someone’s head gets in the way of a police fist.
I knew the man and wrote about his adventures with the criminal justice system where he was found not guilty and the judge had very harsh words for the police and the hospital staff. Despite his acquittal and the denunciation of the complainants by the judge, the perpetrators received no penalties from their employers, the justice system or the healthcare regulators asI described. I did encourage him to sue which he did. He called me a few years later to say that his legal action was done and he was very pleased with the result.
I can’t remember who said it but no airline has ever used the excuse that sorry the pilot who flew into the mountain instead of landing at the airport was just a bad apple pilot. Training and vigilance is needed to improve their response so they do not shoot and kill a young Indigenous woman when doing a health check as happened recently in Edmunston, New Brunswick.
And maybe we need a People of Colour Police Department