Years ago — well before policing was being “reimagined” — I was ranting to my then-car partner about all the stupid mental health calls we had to go to. “Why do we have to go to every 911 call from a crazy person? Every call from a suicidal subject?” I told him police should be out of the mental health business altogether. We should have “mental health EMTs” I told him, and they should deal with this crap instead.
He told me to please shut up because we had work to do.
Dealing with mental illness as a cop is frustrating. I recall one occasion when I, as a rookie 23-year-old cop, was called to a scene where a transgender woman was threatening to jump off a building. Fortunately, she came down on her own just as we arrived and nothing tragic happened. I tried to idly make conversation with her while we waited for the ambulance and realized I had absolutely no fucking idea what I was doing. I had no idea what this person was going through, and no idea what to say to her. “It’ll all be okay?” Seems cliche.
So even a lot of cops hate doing this work, and I was one of them. But last year, as the “defund police” movement was gaining traction, I had a conversation with a few officers from my old department. The prevailing belief at the time was that the city was going to cut the police budget and officers were going to be laid off, possibly including the officers I was talking to. I asked my former colleagues what they thought about a new proposal to stop sending police to non-emergency calls for service which involved low-level mental health crises. “One less thing you’ll have to do when you’re all critically understaffed,” I joked.
To my surprise, they were steadfastly against the idea. “This is what we do, this is the job,” one of them told me. “We’re good at this, we know what to do, and if we don’t help these people, nobody else will.” I pointed out that canceling mental health calls was about to be a necessity from a resource perspective. If cops were really laid off, there was no way he and the remaining officers would be able to handle the volume of calls for service. “Probably,” he said, “but we’ll do the best we can. We’ll help one person, and then go on to the next one.”
Maybe it’s because policing is such a cynical profession, but something about the earnestness of that broke me a little bit. This cop was looking at one of two futures; one where he was unemployed and another in which he faced a Sisyphean task every day. But he knew he could help people who needed it, and he refused to quit.
I’ve come to realize that he was right, and I was wrong. Police exist to solve problems and serve the public, and that necessarily entails helping people who have mental health problems. Contrary to the prevailing narrative, the data shows that police are quite good at helping the mentally ill without using physical force. And there’s no evidence that social workers alone can handle these situations as well as cops do.
Mental health calls are as old as the job
There is a pernicious myth out there, popular both among police and their progressive critics, that cops only recently began dealing with mentally ill people. At some time in the past, the story goes, all the services which would have helped the mentally ill were defunded and the whole thing fell on the police. But at best, this is a half-truth. Even before the de-institutionalization movement gained steam in the 1960s, police were routinely asked to help the mentally ill.
Consider this account from the New York Times, published 115 years ago on December 3rd, 1906. The story is about a woman named Mary Nevison, found wandering the hall of a hotel without shoes by a bellboy. Nevison told the bellboy to get her some stationary and proceeded to write out a bunch of gibberish.
Nevison then locked herself in a hotel room and refused to exit for twenty-four hours. In response, “a policeman appeared from the Tenderloin Station” and tried to assist the hotel’s staff in convincing Nevison to open the door and go to the hospital.
Or consider this report about a Boston suicide hotline, published in the Times on February 8th, 1959. I’ve cut out most of the article to save space, but take a look at the paragraph on the right. How did the suicide hotline get help for a suicidal caller in 1959? They called the police, who showed up and took him to the hospital.
Fast-forward to 1970, and my favorite academic work about policing: Egon Bittner’s “The Functions of the Police in Modern Society.” Bittner observed, quite correctly in my view, that policing is not really about law enforcement at all:
Many puzzling aspects of police work fall into place when one ceases to look at it as principally concerned with law enforcement and crime control… It makes much more sense to say that the police are nothing else than a mechanism for the distribution of situationally justified force in society.
Bittner didn’t mean “situationally justified force” in the sense of cops pummelling people. He meant that cops use coercion to solve problems people ask them to solve, whether or not that problem is a criminal one. And people called the cops about all manner of non-criminal social problems:
In a tenement, patrolmen were met by a public health nurse who took them through an abysmally deteriorated apartment inhabited by four young children in the care of an elderly woman. The babysitter resisted the nurse’s earlier attempts to remove the children. The patrolmen packed the children in the squad car and took them to Juvenile Hall, over the continuing protests of the elderly woman.
In a downtown residential hotel, patrolmen found two ambulance attendants trying to persuade a man, who according to all accounts was desperately ill, to go to the hospital. After some talk, they helped the attendants in carrying the protesting patient to the ambulance and sent them off.
So cops responding to suicide, social problems, and mental illness is nothing new. It’s been part of police work for over a century. I could tell you stories about policing in the 2010s that are functionally identical to any of these decades-old anecdotes.
Police already de-escalate dangerous situations
The prevailing opinion among lawyers, academics, the media, and even police chiefs at the moment is that police should not be asked to address mental health issues because there is simply too much risk that the cops will use violence. When a mental health incident does end in violence, especially deadly violence, many in the police reform crowd often insist that cops should have “deescalated” the situation.
Sometimes, when discussing a use of force incident involving a mentally ill or drug-addicted person, I have asked a police critic: “What were the cops supposed to do?” And they always say: “De-escalate.” It’s like people think that cops all have a Magic Deescalation Button they could push but refuse because they are bloodthirsty maniacs who enjoy violence. The real problem is that while de-escalation is a great idea, it’s hard to execute in reality. What, specifically, do you do and say? When do you turn to force? To get a sense of the challenge, I suggest this video:
I think this situation and the fact that Seattle’s civilian oversight body attempted to discipline this officer for “failing to de-escalate” illustrates the challenge of de-escalation in the real world. When a man is walking down the street waving an ice ax, what is the safest way to stop him? They tried talking to him. They gave him distance and time to comply. An officer tackled him and nobody got hurt.
I can see the argument from the oversight board’s side — if the guy had swung the ax at the cop as he ran up, this could end in a police shooting. On the other hand, how long do you let the guy wanted for robbery walk around downtown near bystanders waving an ice ax before you use some level of force to stop him? What if he takes a hostage and then someone gets shot? That’s exactly what happened in this case. So every choice means taking a calculated risk, and in the moment, it’s hard to know which is best with any degree of certainty.
Perhaps psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers really do have the secret sauce for resolving these situations, but I doubt it. I’ve completed Crisis Intervention Team Training for cops taught by mental health experts. That training focused almost entirely on types of mental illness and social service programs but was pretty light on exactly what you say to schizophrenia-meth-guy so he’ll put the knife down. I assume that if the social workers really did know the magic words anybody can use to bring a dangerous confrontation to an end, they’d be sharing.
So how do you get good at talking to and safely detaining delusional people in an uncontrolled, dangerous environment? You practice, because this kind of thing is an art form. And that’s why cops are so good at this — they do it all the time, while social workers and other mental health professionals almost always work in hospitals, group homes, or other controlled environments. When a suicidal person is holding a gun to their own head or a schizophrenic is trying to stab imaginary demons with a knife, the expert you want isn’t a psychiatrist — it’s a hostage negotiator.
If you look at the FBI’s data about hostage negotiation cases above, you’ll see some remarkable stuff: Roughly 96% of hostage negotiator callouts are actually for “emotionally driven situations with no substantive demands” rather than traditional hostage situations like a bank robbery. Of these situations, 72% involved a weapon; 37% involved a handgun. A majority were resolved with negotiation, and the hostages were almost never injured.
My point here is that treating people with a mental illness and safely detaining those same people in uncontrolled environments are two related but different skill sets. If you sat on my couch and asked me to help you recover from depression, I would not do a very good job. But if you asked me to use a combination of verbal persuasion, teamwork, and less-lethal weapons to safely detain a mentally ill guy brandishing an ice pick on a public sidewalk? I’m gonna be better than any social worker, because I have been trained on using time, distance, and cover to safely resolve that situation.
This is why for police, successful de-escalation of mental health situations is the rule — not the exception. Despite the frequently repeated claim that police often use force against the mentally ill, most police departments are remarkably good at resolving mental health crises without using force. For example:
- D.C.’s Metropolitan Police receive 90 mental health calls every day, for an annual total of over 32,000 calls. In 2020, DC police used physical force against mentally ill people a grand total of 243 times — meaning 99.9% of calls involving mental illness were resolved without physical force.
- In 2019, the San Francisco Police Department received over 50,000 calls about mentally ill people and requests to check on people in distress. SFPD used force on mentally ill individuals just 51 times, meaning 99.9% of these incidents were resolved without any use of force.
- Over the last four years, the Seattle Police Department has responded to over 36,000 calls involving individuals in a mental health crisis. Over 98% of these incidents were handled without any use of force.
Can social workers do better than a 99.9% success rate? Can they do it while also protecting the public and without placing themselves in danger? Maybe. But 99.9% is pretty damn good. Personally, I think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
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