Most people would agree that police officers have a very challenging job in many different ways. It can be dangerous, scary, and tiring. It can sometimes also feel futile to keep arresting the same people repeatedly without getting them the help they need.
Many times, police officers get called to the scene of a crime. They have only the information that they have received over their police radio or their CAD system. For example, they might have a description of the suspect and a brief summary of the crime committed at that moment. It is unlikely that they would have any other information about the suspect unless they have personally interacted with them before. The officer will have to quickly assess the situation regarding their safety and the safety of others in the area. They also have to determine the psychological condition of the suspect. Heat-of-the-moment assessments can be challenging, especially at a moment’s notice.
The police usually have no way of knowing if the person they are dealing with has mental health or substance abuse issues. They do not know if the person is in treatment or on medication. Even if the person speaks to the police, it is safe to say that many people about to be arrested are not entirely forthcoming. The officer can take the person at their word, but this can be misleading at best and incredibly dangerous, and deadly at worst.
How Can We Make It Easier for Police Officers to Help the Community?
What if police officers had more and better information at their fingertips before they arrive at the scene of a mental health call?
Imagine if the officers could access valuable and current information about the suspect simply by looking at their CAD system or even an app on their phone. For example, wouldn’t it be helpful to quickly and easily determine that this individual is receiving treatment at the local mental health clinic or substance abuse center?
The officer could immediately see where they are receiving treatment and who is treating them. Rather than arresting them or winding up in a precarious situation, the officer would be able to reach out to the treatment provider electronically or over the phone. Thereby the officer can coordinate services and share information about the individual. Is the person dangerous? Have they ever been violent before? What mental health issues are they dealing with? What substance abuse issues are they dealing with? Is there someone such as a case manager the officer can call to the scene to help diffuse the situation before approaching this individual?
Having the ability to see this type of information in advance could be life-saving. Not only for police officers and the people they are interacting with, but it also allows the individual to be brought to proper community services.
Most Police Officers Want to Help People
I think we can all agree that the vast majority of police officers join the force because they desire to make positive changes. They want to protect their communities and their loved ones, but they also want to help the people they encounter. The police must be given the tools and resources to implement as much positive change as possible.
Imagine if police officers are called to a crime scene, and the suspect is a veteran who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Suppose the veteran is behaving erratically or in a way that the police officers perceive as threatening. In that case, it could turn into a perilous situation. People who have PTSD often have flashbacks and a significantly increased startle-response based on specific triggers.
Experiencing a flashback while the police are trying to speak with you, calm you down, or arrest you would likely make the situation very complicated. Most people who have PTSD are not violent. Still, their reactions could lead police officers to think that they are dangerous. The police could avoid a bad situation by speaking with a trained professional before they even arrive at the scene. Knowing the triggers of the individual upon arrival can help both the police officer and the individual. Having a conversation with someone familiar or the information at your fingertips about the individual they are about to encounter, the police might learn what kinds of words and behaviours trigger the veteran. The officers would then act accordingly to create a safer resolution for themselves, the veteran, and everyone else in the community.
So again, what if the police had access to better information? They could see that this person is a veteran. They could check their CAD system or call a counsellor or psychiatrist and get some insight into this person’s behaviour. Rather than arrest the person, the police would hopefully be able to calmly explain that they want to take them back to the VA or wherever they receive treatment to get the help they need.
Jails Are Overpopulated
There is no question that jails in the United States are overpopulated. There is a better way to interact with people than simply arresting them, especially if the crime they are being arrested for is minor and non-violent.
Suppose a police officer arrives at the scene of a crime and the suspect is violent or potentially violent. In that case, it probably is not realistic to expect the police officer to try and reason with that person and take them to treatment instead of arresting them.
However, suppose the person they encounter is suffering from mental health issues. In that case, that is a situation where more and better information might be beneficial. Nevertheless, it might be possible to calm things down if the officer has valuable information about the suspect.
It is probably unreasonable to expect the police to try to talk with someone behaving incredibly irrationally, has a weapon, and actively tries to injure people. However, the point is this: having quick and easy access to valuable information in advance can help to diffuse a potentially lethal situation.
Incarceration Is not Cheap
Putting people in jail is expensive. The sentiment that sending people to prison makes the community safer is not valid. Additionally, the costs of incarcerating people have become astronomical.
For example, the annual cost of incarcerating a person in New York City is $69,355. Spending almost $70,000 per year to put someone in jail who is non-violent and has committed a minor offence makes no sense. Wouldn’t it be better to help them receive mental health and/or substance abuse treatment?
Once someone is in jail, especially for more extended periods, they are often changed for the worse when they are finally released. They will likely have to report to a probation or parole officer, which is very time-consuming and challenging for people who do not have a car or money for transportation. Often they would be far better served with counselling and mental health treatment. Instead of wasting large amounts of money to lock up non-violent offenders, the government could spend some of that money on treatment services.
The Hidden Expenses of Incarceration
In addition to the actual cost of incarcerating people, there are also other hidden costs – the emotional ones. Incarcerating someone rips families apart. When someone is arrested, it creates very negative life-changing consequences even if they are innocent. They might lose their job, which means they will probably lose their housing too. They could lose access to or custody of their children. They might be unable to take care of their ageing parents. They could also lose the ability to spend time doing anything else positive for the community they live in.
Sometimes jail is the right place, but for many, it is not. When someone is suffering from mental health issues and/or substance abuse issues, jail is not the right place. They need help. They need treatment and community support. Instead, we are often arresting people for minor, non-violent offences, and in the process, their lives may be ruined.
There has to be personal accountability – people are responsible for their own choices. However, if someone makes a wrong choice due to their addiction or mental illness, that does not mean we give up, lock them up, and call it justice. As a community and a society, we need to help these people by doing better. Everyone is worth saving, and people can and do recover from addiction every single day. They go on to lead healthy, productive lives.
It certainly is not the job of the police to make sure everyone who needs mental health or addiction treatment receives it. Still, police officers are in a unique position as first responders. They can make decisions that will change someone’s life forever, for better or worse. We must provide police officers with as much information as possible to make the right decision and right for society as a whole.
This Information Can Be Easily Accessible
Most people would agree that the more information the police have as they arrive at the scene, the better – for everyone involved. Providing police officers with valuable information before they arrive at the scene could diffuse many potentially explosive situations.
This idea is not just a theoretical one. Some platforms and software make this possible. And easy! For example, Julota is a software program that makes it possible for police officers to access large amounts of important information. It does so by easily linking community resources and the CAD system that police officers use. Julota is agnostic to the department’s CAD system and can interface with the system and community partners. Much of the information the police need would show up on their screen before they arrive at the scene.
In many circumstances, the officer would not even need to make a phone call. If the police officers receive information before they even arrive on the scene and it makes them concerned about their safety, the safety of the possible suspect, or people in the community, they would be able to check their system or make some phone calls to treatment providers and other resources to get some insight on how best to approach this person. The key to this whole concept is that software can supply the police with tremendously helpful information. Thus possibly preventing a bad outcome due to a lack of information about what is going on in a specific situation.
It is not foolproof, and sometimes situations turn violent, and people must be arrested. Sometimes there are no other options. Nevertheless, other better options become very apparent a lot of the time once an officer has all the relevant information.
Suppose we want to live in safer communities and expect our police officers to do better. In that case, we must be willing to provide them with the tools that allow them to do their jobs safely, effectively, and compassionately.