Rushed answers don’t solve complex policing problems
Slogans and social media posts oversimplify complicated issues
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I first learned about the “defund the police” movement, like many others, via social media—that place where everyone has a platform to post or repost very complex ideas into 280 characters or a square box. So when I saw people I follow call passionately for defunding the police—whether it’s outright abolishing them or diverting parts of their budgets to social services—what I saw wasn’t well-thought out ideas so much as a call to reimagine a better world.
I have no problems with people getting together to imagine making the world a more just, more equal place for everyone. I believe that’s noble and even necessary—so many societal ills come from a failure to imagine outside of prescribed narratives and narrow-minded understandings of complex issues. But when I saw “defund the police” advocates proposing to divest money from the police and put it toward homelessness and mental health issues, I sighed in frustration: Why would we take money from a flawed system and give it to an even more broken system? Anyone who’s worked long and honestly in the homeless or mental health sector knows that both are also tragically broken systems.
Before COVID-19 and protests spun our news cycle into a crazy, never-ending hamster race, I had been reporting on the broken mental health system in California. I followed Julian Canales, a Los Angeles Police Department officer who now works as the senior lead officer of the Mental Evaluation Unit (MEU), an operation within LAPD that works with people with mental illnesses. I ended up featuring Canales in my recent story on defunding the police.
A little background: MEU uses a co-response model, which means both police officers and mental health clinicians together respond to mental health calls. They occupy the same floor at LAPD’s headquarters. At any given time, up to 16 co-responder teams are dashing across LA in response to 911 calls. The goal is to provide a “humane, cooperative, compassionate, and effective law enforcement response” by connecting those with mental illness to services instead of arresting them—or worse. Last year, the system received 20,758 calls for service, handled 7,871 of them, and put 6,281 individuals on an involuntary hold (called a “5150 hold” in California).
Sounds good, right? Much better than deploying police officers with no training on mental health issues to handle people suffering psychotic breakdowns. Much better than the old-school approach: cuffing a screaming, delusional person. Or, as Canales put it, “just grab them and put them on a gurney.” All it takes is for that man or woman to wield something that looks like a weapon, and any police officer would feel justified to shoot that person on the spot. But that poor person may be helplessly reacting to a biochemical sickness in the brain. If we’re going to talk about the injustice of police shootings: In 2015 and 2016, one out of four police shootings involved someone with a mental illness, some studies show.
So, isn’t something like MEU what some “defund the police” folks are advocating for right now? Many people rightly point out that police officers shouldn’t have to deal with everything society fails to take care of, such as mentally ill homeless people who in the vast majority of cases are not violent, dangerous, or criminal. Even police officers I talked to agreed. One officer in Texas told me, “Most officers would welcome someone who’s an actual professional coming in and taking the calls for all the mental health problems.” He suggested creating a 24-hour response team of social workers to deal with mental health issues. Well, MEU is a 24-hour program, and it includes mental health professionals.
I found Canales to be a pretty compassionate, friendly guy with great bedside manners—and a heart full of frustrations at the reality of his limitations after eight years of working at MEU.
As I described in the “Hands up—‘Defund the police’” article, we spent much of the day watching an old, mentally ill homeless man who seemed to be on the brink of death if left without intervention. As we watched the man draw funky little squares on a piece of paper (he believes those squares have some sort of sacred meanings), Canales remembered another old man who had been homeless and refused services for more than 30 years. Finally, as that man began looking thinner and weaker, an outreach team called an ambulance and the police. When responders tried to encourage him to climb into the ambulance, the man grew agitated. He screamed vulgarities and raised his fists, threatening to fight back. The police backed away—nobody wanted to unintentionally hurt an 80-something-year-old man by wrestling him into an ambulance. Plus, the optics would be terrible.
One week later, the man died during a particularly cold winter night. Canales had to identify his body. He said he felt terrible—but what else could he have done in that situation? The law says you cannot involuntarily commit someone into treatment unless that individual meets the definition of “gravely disabled.” In California that’s someone who is presently unable to provide for basic needs—food, clothing, or shelter—because of some sort of impairment. But in reality, that term is so ambiguous and so stringently used that most people who should qualify don’t—like that 80-something-year-old man who for decades was clearly homeless and mentally ill, yet had clothing and food because the neighborhood showed compassion to him.
And that’s one of Canales’ many frustrations: “We’re looking at something so obvious when we see someone wallowing in their own poop. There is no way somebody willingly chooses to live this way. There really should be a long-term solution for these people. But who should initiate this? The police? Who knows?”
Here’s another problem: Even if Canales forces a mentally ill person into the hospital, his authority ends there. It’s then up to the hospital whether to keep that individual and provide long-term treatment and counseling. Canales has seen enough people bounce in and out of hospitals, jails, and the streets: “You’d think no hospital will let someone who wallows in his own poop go, but they will. They’ll discharge him with poop in his pants.”
Why? Because we literally have nowhere to put people dealing with serious mental illness—which is a huge portion of the chronically homeless population living on the streets. We don’t have enough psychiatric staff, long-term treatment beds, or warm, welcoming facilities that can take care of those who need lifelong mental care.
Even if you obliterate the LAPD and funnel all $1.86 billion of its policing budget (that’s excluding pensions, healthcare costs, and other expenses that the city council can’t cut right now) into homelessness and mental health, that’s not even close to enough. In 2016, LA taxed its citizens $1.2 billion to provide 10,000 permanent housing units for our homeless. More than three years and zero new housing units later, we already know for sure we’ll fall short of that goal.
This is the problem with rushing solutions to a complex, multi-dimensional issue: There is not enough time to imagine specific ideas for a specific population or issue, to imagine all the foreseeable complications and nuances, to imagine beyond the overly simplified narratives surrounding racism and poverty.
When the ambulance finally came to take the homeless man to a medical facility, we were glad he allowed assistance into a gurney. As Canales helped him up and slowly walked him to the ambulance, I caught sight of a gold ring gleaming from his ring finger. Was he married? If so, where’s his wife? Does he have kids? Do they know where he is? I had no idea, but it reminded me that what I encountered—a dirty afro, a nostril-stinging body odor, and trembling hands—was not all there is to this 60-something-year-old man. He had a birth, a childhood, presumably a marriage, a name, a God-imprinted dignity. There are thousands more people like him in LA alone. Do we really know each one of them and their stories, to know what kind of help they need?
My heart broke for this man. As we watched the ambulance drive away, Canales muttered, “I really hope I don’t see him out here again.”
I asked Canales if things will ever change, especially as the homeless count continues to grow, and even the most compassionate folks get fed up. He shrugged: “I think we’re at a tipping point right now. It all depends on how far things get and what citizens expect and what they vote for.”
Four months later, a police officer killed George Floyd in broad daylight. Thousands of citizens piled onto the streets of LA demanding change, demanding justice, demanding a reimagination of our society. The city’s answer? Chopping $150 million from the LAPD budget.
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