Police are being asked to be counselors

The video has gone viral. If you haven’t seen it, you aren’t on social media, or else you prefer to ignore the bad news. Three of my students made mention of it in their journals, and I’ve only seen four journals so far. Apparently the video has attracted international attention and raises again in a stark and distressing way the question of police reform.

The situation in the video is “family trouble” in Rochester, New York. A troubled 9 year old has had a conflict with her mother and is potentially suicidal. Other family issues of abuse lie in the background, but police are faced initially with a troubled child. When the mother enters the picture, the girl becomes more agitated and belligerent. She ends up on the ground in the snow, handcuffed, struggling and screaming, “I want my dad.” As the officers try. to get her in the police car, she resists. After several minutes without success, she is pepper sprayed. At this point there are nine officers present for this 9-year-old girl and several police cars.

One officer has been suspended, two are on leave, and demonstrations are happening again, placing new attention on a Rochester police force that was only recently recovering from the death of Daniel Prude. Daniel was having a psychotic episode, was sitting naked in the street when police arrived. Police hooded him and held his head down on the ground for two minutes. He had to be resuscitated. He died a week later. Seven officers were suspended.

One of the three students in my class who mentioned this in his journal has been a policeman and left that work. A second is majoring in criminal justice and is raising questions of reform in her “Issues” class and in mine. The third is going into special education and wondering why police are expected to be the front line workers in such a situation. That question rings true for me as well.

One 2015 study concluded that people with an untreated mental health issue were 16 times more likely to be killed in a police encounter than other civilians. That same year a Washington Post study found that one fourth of those shot by police were having a mental disorder of some kind. Police were not responding to a crime but to a mentally unstable person behaving erratically.

Two of my periodicals had major articles this last issue on CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon. Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets is “an emergency response program that sends experienced unarmed crisis counselors and EMTs in response to mental health, substance abuse and homelessness related crises.” With a program like CAHOOTS, when someone calls 911 and states the nature of the problem, the appropriate respondents are notified. CAHOOTS was launched in 1989 and has enough experience that it is being used as a model for other communities across the country. The Los Angeles City Council decided last year to develop a similar program to respond in situations of crisis not involving weapons or violence.

We don’t ask a mental health professional to police the streets. Why do we ask our police to be mental health professionals? Why do we put them in the position of accommodating the one committing “suicide by cop?” I’m old enough to remember in bygone days when clergy would ride with the police. Sometimes a collar was more helpful than a gun.

I’m personally supportive of a police presence in the schools, mainly in terms of community relations; but not if tight finances means we can’t have school counselors or extracurricular activities in art and music. We need both approaches to health and wellness.

Years ago a police officer asked to see me. He was worried about his response to a recent incident. He answered a call to a threat of violence. A man was threatening another, and himself, at gun point. The officer took the time to talk to the gunman and gradually convinced him to lay down his gun and surrender. He accomplished this by telling the man he would help get him off easier … something he knew he could not do. He felt he had committed a sin in telling this lie.

I assured him his “intent” to save life was an important element in an ethical analysis of his action, and likely outweighed any “sin” there might have been in the lie. He has been a lasting example, reminding me of the challenges of police work. We need to support our police with additional human resources appropriate to the needs they encounter. In this instance, a mental health professional could help one “get off easier.” At least they could testify about an underlying condition.