A recent segment of NBC’s “Chicago Med” began with the story of a crowd watching a clearly disturbed young man in the midst of a psychiatric incident so severe that he was unable to recognize his own mother or his surroundings. The doctor (a former police officer) who arrived on the scene, a family friend, was able to talk the man down and convince the two responding officers to lower the weapons they had drawn upon arrival.
Similar incidents, in the real world, often end tragically and spark calls to “Defund the Police.” Yet, we cannot rely on slogans to produce a convenient societal cure-all for problems in the criminal justice system.
The “Defund the Police” slogan is an unfortunate choice of words. What we as a society need to do is figure out a way to rearrange police budgets so that non-violent activity is addressed by appropriately trained professionals, not by armed law enforcement officers. People experiencing mental issues, addiction problems, neighborhood disputes, and other non-life-threatening behaviors need problem-solvers, not officers with guns.
Armed police officers are trained professionals who protect the public, solve crimes, defuse hostage situations and a myriad of other things that require their expertise. Sitting in a criminal court and listening to officer testimony will bring pride and a sense of security to any who take the time to do this. Officers receive weeks and months of training to do their jobs, but their jobs should not include tasks that are better suited for professionals in other disciplines.
Many communities, including our own, have found ways to deal with such problems:
- The Tucson Police Department has developed three teams: the Mental Health Support Team, the Substance Abuse Response Team, and the Homeless Outreach Team. Rather than responding to 911 calls, teams of officers, aided by community professionals, go out into the field in an effort to prevent people with these problems from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. The teams provide prevention, outreach, and follow-up.
- In an op-ed column last December in The New York Times, Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus proposed having mental health professionals available in 911 call centers to be able to triage calls not involving weapons or violence prior to uniformed officers being called to the scene.
- Eugene, Oregon uses its Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) model to dispatch a medical professional and a mental health crisis worker. Their experience shows a reduced need for law enforcement response as well as cost savings. Only if weapons are reported are police deemed necessary on the scene.
- The STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program in Denver, Colorado uses a mental health worker and a paramedic who travel around the city in a white van to handle low-level incidents such as trespassing and mental health episodes. Between June of last year and February of this year, 748 responses by the team resulted in no police being required and no arrests.
Are there other aspects of the criminal justice system that should be addressed? Of course.
- The Governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, signed a law in February of this year eliminating cash bail, effective in 2023, saying, “This legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state, and our nation and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness, and true justice.”
- In April of this year, former New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, signed legislation ending long-term solitary confinement in prisons and jails. Research has shown solitary confinement increases the risks of self-harm and suicide, severity of mental illness and higher death rates upon release.
- Capital punishment has been abolished by 23 states; the remaining 27 should do the same. So should the federal government. In a New York Times editorial from March of this year, editors said: “The death penalty is cruel, ineffective, and morally repugnant. America needs to join most of the rest of the world and eliminate it.”
Having spent more than thirty-three years in and around the criminal justice system, on both sides of the bench, I can certainly applaud the creative improvements. At the same time, I deplore the mentality that brought us “Three Strikes and You’re Out;” “Build more jails;” “Lock ’em up and throw away the key.” We need more of the former and much less of the latter.
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l’maan tichyeh” – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live.
Audrey Brooks is an Emeritus Judicial Member, State Bar of Wisconsin, lifelong volunteer, and current Tucson Hebrew Academy Board Trustee.