To answer that, ask yourself three questions:  1) are police the best ones to respond to people with mental illness; 2) are police the best ones to respond to the homeless; and 3) are police the best ones to respond to children’s behavior in schools? Let’s look at each one.  Back in the 1970s, a decision was made that warehousing the mentally ill in large state “colonies” as they were called then was inhumane, and we could do better releasing them into small, community-based group homes and having them attend day centers.  I ran one of those day centers in northern Wisconsin and a number of group homes in Green Bay.  But the money to fund this policy shift lapsed or never materialized and the mentally ill were released to the street to become a police problem.

David Perry, CNN, wrote in “How police can avoid shooting the mentally ill”, (August 26, 2014) that we need to recognize that mentally ill people have a disability just as much as the person in the wheelchair or the one with a white cane. We need responders who understand how to de-escalate tense situations not inflame them as police do now.  Since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 we have learned that disabilities have to be accommodated.  Yet we still ignore that for people with mental disabilities.

In a study done by University of Wisconsin professor Emma Frankham (Mental illness affects police fatal shootings, Contexts, Vol. 17, Issue 2, pp. 70-72, 2018 American Sociological Association,  she found that 25% of those shot by police exhibited signs of mental illness.  Other studies have shown that persons with mental illness represent up to 50% of incarcerated individuals.

Her study showed that though people with mental illness were less likely to be armed with a projectile weapon and less likely to attack police, they were more likely to be shot.  Why?  The main reason given for shooting the person is they refused to obey the order of the police – well yes, in the middle of a psychiatric incident a person is not likely to obey the orders of a stranger shouting at them but the voice in the head. Rather than protect and serve, police are trained to command and control which often results in fatal incidents.  Police are quick to use Tasers on anyone who doesn’t comply but for the mentally ill, they shoot.  So really, it’s a macho problem.  The police as “warriors” expect to be obeyed instantly – a phenomena we have noticed in arrests of people of color and of protesters or even bystanders who don’t kowtow fast enough. Yet in Boston on July 4,th police were able to arrest 11 well-armed militia members without shooting any of them. Pretty astounding given that Phoenix police shot Michelle Cusseaux, a tiny woman armed with a hammer behind a closed door.  But she was Black so much more scary.

One suggestion is a move toward police becoming “guardians” rather than “warriors.” Police need to be trained in de-escalation not war.  Another suggestion is to train 911 operators to recognize and refer mental health calls to more appropriate services – if they exist.

In 2016, the Graham County jail commander said that up to 40% of the people in jail are on medication and treatment for mental illness most not convicted and waiting for trial.  Pima county sheriff said in his jail it was 50%. Officers act as social workers, inmates are given coloring books or tied to a restraint chair.  Getting an inmate transferred to appropriate care is a nightmare of paperwork.

Do you really think police are best equipped to respond to the homeless?  To throw their meager belonging into the trash and cart them off to jail?  I watched them do it at Cesar Chavez park during Occupy. They threw clothes, computers, phones, and identification in the trash.  In front of me they threw the food I just brought upside down on the street.  For this kind of behavior, the public pays dearly for police, jail, and courts not to mention the trauma to the homeless person.

In a webinar (Coordinated Homeless Outreach:  Where does law enforcement fit in? July 1, 2020, Lexipol Team) coordination and collaboration are the most effective responses not terrorizing and destruction.  That includes Community care response unit, Psychiatric emergency response team, Centralized assessment team, and Coordination with outside resources.

In one community where this was tried (Policing the Homeless:  One Community’s Strategy, Steve Marcin, Nov. 4, 2014, Legal Digest Perspective Focus) they established a homeless outreach team.  Police calls dropped 13% in the first quarter with a 47% success rate in connecting individuals with appropriate services.  One couple, who previously had worked as a real estate appraiser and in a shipping company, was living in a park.  Both had lost jobs and homes in the 2008 financial industry heist and ended up on drugs which they were no longer using. They had family to help in Tennessee but had no money to get there.  Responders connected them with resources and no one was shot or went to jail.

Eugene, Oregon started a program in 1989 called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) pairing a medic and a crisis worker.  “A November 2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine estimated that 20% to 50% of fatal encounters with law enforcement involved an individual with a mental illness. The CAHOOTS model demonstrates that these fatal encounters are not inevitable. Last year, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police backup was requested only 150 times.

The cost savings are considerable. The CAHOOTS program budget is about $2.1 million annually, while the combined annual budgets for the Eugene and Springfield police departments are $90 million. In 2017, the CAHOOTS teams answered 17% of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume. The program saves the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually.

At a May city council budget hearing in Phoenix, funding was requested for that approach.  The city funded the police instead.

How about police response to unruly teenagers (or toddlers) in school?  (School Resource Officers:  Safety Priority or Part of the Problem?  Tierney Sneed, January 30, 2015). Emily Morgan, a senior policy analyst at The Council of State Governments Justice Center admitted that having officers in schools is not working out as expected. Rather than protecting against outside threats, they are becoming more involved in basic discipline that previously was handled by teachers.  For example, one special ed student in Texas was jailed in 2012 and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after an incident that started with the teacher telling the student to stop talking.  Had that been an arrestable offense when I was in school, I would have spent my school years in jail instead of the principal’s office.

But in that Texas school, in 2006-7, only 20% of the student arrests involved violence by students. Rather, students are being arrested and given harsh penalties for minor classroom offenses.  If a student is suspended or expelled, they are three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system within the next year. Minorities, LGBT and special needs kids are the most likely to be suspended and expelled.  In cities, middle-school suspension rates are double those in the suburbs with suspension of a third of all Black males. Kids in the suburbs don’t get arrested for swearing at a teacher or throwing a book or refusing to put down their cell phone or talking back – they go to the counselor – if there is one.

Arizona is the worse in the nation for providing school counselors.  The recommended ratio is 1:500-700 students.  Arizona is 1:1,320.  Yet a third of our students have one or more adverse childhood experiences and ten thousand have tried to commit suicide (2017).  A quarter do not graduate; twenty percent are bullied.  In 2019, we were the worst in the nation.

Instead, we put money into police.  Studies on the impact of school resource officers are all over the place – some find a decrease in weapons and drugs, some find an increase in weapons and drugs, and some find just an increase in arrests of the most marginalized. (Where’s the threat?  School Resource Officers’ Views Differ Based on District Racial Makeup, Christina A. Samuels, June 12, 2020). In suburban and wealthy districts, the officers saw their role as protecting students from outside threats and behavior such as sexting.   In urban and poorer districts, officers saw their role as controlling the students who are the problem.

Law enforcement should not be policing the mentally ill, the homeless, or children in school. Take the money that is given to them for those wrongful/wasteful/harmful purposes and put it to more productive use in solutions to the issues and assistance to people. If you agree with the concept but you don’t like the slogan, white people especially should not be in the business of policing the language used by Blacks in a civil rights struggle.  If we know how to end racism, then we should have done it long ago.


4 thoughts on “DEFUND POLICE – Yes or No? ”

  1. Right or wrong “defund the police” cost Dems at least 2 senate seats and a number of house seats in 2020 election. it is a killer for Dems and a giant “softball” for republicans. Never use that phrase again

  2. Of course they are NOT, is the obvious answer to the three questions. Another question of equal importance that isn’t being asked is “Are the police the best ones to monitor peaceful demonstrations?” Along with,that question, ask: responding to small distubances, should the police use “tactical” riot and military equipment? Should police follow IDF draconian training in crowd control? Should police be prosecuted for systematic use of provocatuers, such as those caught in peaceful George Floyd demonstrations, to spark violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators? Should police be prosecuted for attacking peaceful demonstrators? All of these are legitimate questions cconcerning the role that law enforcement has played in the violation and suppression of the people’s first amendment rights. Answer me that, DAMMIT!

  3. The intent of defunding the police as you describe it is great but whoever came up with that slogan needs to be horsewhipped. Talk about leaving a massive hole for the right to take advantage of! Unfortunately this is not a concept that easily fits on a bumper sticker. Reallocate the police? Get police in touch with their communities? Hopefully better minds than mine can do a better job of addressing this marketing problem.

  4. Excellent article. Police are supposed to be guardians of our communities. As a psychotherapist for over 35 years, I can say police are not trained for these situations. They are clueless. We have been trained not only to asses, diagnose and treat, but also to de-escalate situations. It has been so alarming to see the results of Janet Napolitano militarizing our police. Tanks, Tasers, body armor – and other weapons of war on our streets don’t create community safety or trust. To see children in schools in handcuffs and arrested is a national disgrace and is child abuse. I am also a child therapist and know these kids are traumatized by this treatment by police. They should be held accountable. State protective services should be called when police step over the line like this. The term “defunding” has become the right wing weapon, and should be “reform the police.” Up until now, community members haven’t had any idea who to contact in a mental health emergency and school personnel should be contacting their school psychologists to help handle behavioral and emotional problems of students, not cops.

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