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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
A persistent problem in policing is the members of many communities who frequently find themselves in need of emergency services. These people become familiar to call takers and emergency room staff. Among these “frequent flyers” exists an even smaller population who need emergency help in encounters that at times may warrant force. As law enforcement professionals, we should work collaboratively to reduce cost, risk, and ongoing harm with these vulnerable people. How often have we heard the media report on the fact that this was the 10th call for service to the house? How often have we heard the mother of the subject cry out that “every other time we called 911, they just took him to the hospital”?
The path to a better solution is already in our grasp. Early Intervention (EI) alerts are designed to act as early warning, support, and accountability tools to intervene and lower risks for officers. EI alerts have been institutionalized for years, but we should be expanding this approach to address risk within the community.
Following the EI concept, an agency can identify individuals who have been arrested with force more than three times in a year and initiate a coordinated intervention before the next force encounter. Using the principles of community policing, agencies can identify other partners that should be playing a role in developing a risk reduction strategy for these high-risk subjects. By forming teams with the right partners to address these individuals, we can focus on reducing the need for police services and especially the need for police force. For many of these individuals, we have proven we cannot arrest our way out of the problem.
A path forward can look a lot like the beginning of the well-established Stephen Covey path (in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People):1
This concept can be summarized in one hypothetical case study loosely adapted from experience.
Mr. Smith comes to the police leader’s attention because he has been the subject of a police use of force several times this year. A review of use of force data shows that in each case, Mr. Smith called the police threatening suicide. Responding officers read available computer aided dispatch systems alerts and saw that the subject had resisted violently in the past and has been known to have weapons. Mr. Smith attacks the police or violently resists efforts to get him into custody each time. Each time, he receives minor injuries and receives emergency mental health evaluations. Each time, he is stabilized and he returns home with medicine and encouragement to engage in therapy. There is no monitoring of his compliance in taking the medicine or seeking the therapy. He is not facing prosecution because he was seen to be in crisis. It should be clear that without some proactive work before the next call for service, there is a high likelihood that we will be doing the same thing, to the same person, and getting the same result (at best).
The police leader should seek out a partnership with the prosecutor and with the mental health provider. The team should agree that the shared goals are to reduce the likelihood of a bad outcome in future encounters and to eventually reduce the need for police services (especially police force). If Mr. Smith has barriers to accessing or cooperating with available supportive services, that is something that mental health or social services should take the lead on—not the police. If Mr. Smith simply does not want to access services or take his medicine, the prosecutor steps in. If Mr. Smith is prosecuted for the variety of assaults and other charges that will likely apply, he can be kept safer in custody than he is now in this cycle of violence. A judge can be engaged as a partner to support compliance orders and monitoring schemes where they did not previously exist. None of those tools will apply until we invite prosecutors into the problem-solving effort. Inviting an officer to work as a liaison to Mr. Smith and his family will increase the likelihood we can see changes in Mr. Smith earlier that indicate increasing risk. Officer liaisons can develop functional bonds of familiarity and trust that will be useful in the event of another emergency call for service.
Mr. Smith should be invited to join the team, as this work is much more functional when it is collaborative. If he cooperates with the team, he can sign a confidentiality waiver requesting that his personal information be shared among the team members to the extent that it is shared for the purpose of supporting his health. Mr. Smith needs to be supported so he does not harm himself, the officers, or others involved in the situation. Supportive services, liaisons, and compliance monitoring can all be layered as resources dictate. The team should meet regularly to report on progress. The ultimate report metrics will be lengthening the time between the emergency calls for service and reducing or eliminating the need to use force.
If Mr. Smith refuses to cooperate, the team needs to be ready to deliver a different service. The cycle of temporary interventions has proven ineffective, and that may require an application for institutionalization. If that is impractical, incarceration mixed with supportive services may be effective
but will likely require partnership with corrections and probation officials. What cannot be tolerated is that the relevant partners continue to not cooperate, not share information, and simply apply their standard operating procedure expecting the same results.
I know this simple intervention can work because I have seen it work. I have seen this method work with subjects who assault the police because of substance abuse, mental health crisis, developmental delay, and family trauma. In every case, the method has increased the well-being of the subject and of the officers involved and has reduced police use of force. It all begins with a police leader commitment to using existing data to identify community members most likely to present us with violence in the future.
Chief of Police
Wrightsville Beach (NC) Police Department
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