First Responders To Replace Police

Content warning: mentions of domestic violence / intimate-partner terrorism

A couple years back, as I was walking on a street, I saw a woman who looked distressed. I asked her ‘Are you okay?’ Her answer was ‘no’. I asked ‘How can I help?’ Her answer was ‘Call the police’.

Okay, that’s an oversimplification of the conversation. She said that she was staying at a hotel down the street while she was visiting the city, but they kicked her out (note: this was at approximately 11 pm). She was resigning herself to sleeping on the sidewalk that night. I suspect that she was also going through a mental health crisis.

I asked her a few times if she was sure that she wanted the police to come, to make sure that I understood her request. She said yes every time. I wanted to help, and she said that’s how I could help.

That is the only time in my life that I have called the police.

I stayed with her until the police came, even though she said it was okay if I left, because I wasn’t comfortable with leaving her alone there. That said, I was also tired and wanted to go home. When the police finally arrived, I was relieved to pass the buck to them. I hope they helped her, and that she was fine.

What if there had been an alternative to calling the police? Someone who could come at 11 pm at night to a specific sidewalk?

Based on what I knew of the situation, there was no need for use of force or weapons. What was needed was someone who could sort out the dispute with the hotel, someone who could check if she really did need mental health care, and if there was really no way for her to stay at the hotel that night, to get her somewhere better than a sidewalk for the night (when it was already 11pm). Granted, if there had been an alternative, but the woman had clearly said that she still preferred that the police come, I would have probably deferred to her and called the police anyway; she understood her own circumstances far better than I did.

During the recent protests, there has been much talk about taking work away from police and giving it to either non-law-enforcment government agencies or community organizations. And the United States has already already assigns work to community organizations which other societies assign to the police. I’ll pick an example I’m familiar with: search and rescue work. In Taiwan (at least when I lived there, things might have changed), search and rescue work is generally done by police. In the United States (at least on the West Coast, I’m not sure about the whole country) search and rescue work is typically done by volunteer organizations with the supervision/support of the local sheriff’s office. Granted, the sheriff is also law enforcement, but since most of the work is done by volunteer-based nonprofit organizations, there is that degree of separation which doesn’t exist in Taiwan.

Obviously, assigning most search-and-rescue work to local volunteer-based organizations isn’t perfect. For example, search-and-rescue volunteers can do things that are racist.

While researching this post, I learned that San Francisco does in fact have Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams. But I had never heard of them before, so they fail at publicity. Yeah, I know that in theory I could have called 311 and the 311 operator could have told me about them, but the woman specifically asked for the police, not for me to make a general 311 call. Also, they seem to only be targeted at homeless or formerly homeless people in supportive housing, and it seems some of them are not available at 11 pm. The thought did cross my mind that the woman I saw in the sidewalk might be homeless yet too ashamed to admit it, but I wasn’t sure, and since she claimed that she was not homeless I doubt she would have agreed to let me call any service specifically aimed at homeless or recently-homeless people. And if they came and found out that she was not, in fact, homeless, that she was just a visitor from out of town who didn’t have anywhere to stay in the city that night, what would they have done? And what if my suspicions of a mental health crisis were unfounded and all she needed was a mediator with the hotel?

There are plenty of 24/7 mental health crisis services available … over the phone. As far as I can tell, they can’t send someone to the physical location of the crisis at 11 pm. And if the crisis involves something that isn’t about mental health – such as a dispute with a hotel – what then?

So, one lesson to take from all of this is learn what kind of 24/7 crisis services already exist where you live. Then spread the word. Don’t wait until it’s 11 pm and the potential crisis has arrived.

That said, I think any service that is meant to be a replacement for summoning the police would have to be a generalist service in order to be most useful – someone who can handle mental health crises, complaints about the neighbors being too loud, disputes over money, somebody suddenly not having somewhere to sleep at night, and many more situations which don’t even occur to me. That means they probably can’t be too specialized, but if they don’t have to learn so much about crime investigations, they can be better trained about mental health care and conflict resolution. If there is too much specialization, it’s hard to keep every type of specialist available 24/7 to every block in the city, and they will be less capable of handling situations which don’t neatly fall into a particular specialty.

Intimate partner terrorism / domestic violence is one of the problems which some of the advocates for abolishing the police say is better handled by people other than the police. In some situations, I think this is almost certainly true. However, IIRC, the book No Visible Bruises says that police are more likely to be killed on a domestic violence call than any other type of call, and this article agrees. Given that people who respond to domestic violence are so likely to be shot and killed, would these first responders carry guns to defend themselves? And if they are allowed to carry guns, wouldn’t that give them more coercive power which they could abuse? What would stop them from using as much deadly force as the police? Training? Oversight? If training and oversight for these domestic-violence-first responders prevents them from abusing their power, why wouldn’t the training and oversight also stop police from abusing their power? And if these people who are sent to respond to domestic violence calls aren’t allowed to carry guns, what will they do when an intimate partner terrorist shoots at them? (Though if guns were ALWAYS effective for self-defence, police officers wouldn’t be killed during domestic violence calls; if guns aren’t sufficiently effective for self-defence, maybe it’s better for domestic violence first responders not to carry them). (Obviously, this is in the context of the United States and other countries with widespread firearm ownership; in societies with very strict gun control laws this consideration may not apply).

Though I did bring up concerns, I think it’s a great idea to shift some work away from police to people who are more qualified to handle it (and hopefully would handle it in a less violent/abusive way).

To that effect, if you live in California, you can support AB 2054 – the CRISES Act. You can read more about it here and here. To be clear, it is just a pilot program. It would only provide 16 million dollars of funding for the whole state of California (if you compare that to funding of just about any police department in California, you’ll see that’s a drop in the bucket). But it’s a starting point, and I don’t see how it’s possible to create such a big shift in government without a starting point like this. I have written in support of this bill to my representative in the California Assembly. If you don’t live in California, I suggest that you learn about what political efforts like this are going on where you live.

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