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Column: Cautionary tales about ‘defunding’ the police

For the Valley News
Published: 7/1/2020 10:10:19 PM
Modified: 7/1/2020 10:10:10 PM

I could not have been more horrified in watching the brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who appeared to me happy and defiant to be doing what he did. The officer now faces charge of second-degree murder. I don’t think that’s enough. In states where I’ve worked, the fact that the alleged perpetrator had even seconds to consider whether to continue his behavior was enough to show intent to murder — the core of a first-degree murder charge.

And this is one of so, so, so many such incidents over so, so many years. I fully understand the need for major changes in our public safety systems. I’m encouraged by the events in Camden, N.J., where a corrupt police department was disbanded and a new, more community-focused and community-aware force was created, with a notable decrease in crime in a formerly crime-ridden city.

That said, I have been one of those mental health providers who are now touted as the potential first responders to many family and mental health crises that the police now cover. I agree that the establishment of crisis intervention units staffed by mental health professionals is a productive path in public safety. In a great many in-home interventions, I and members of my team defused situations, provided referrals when that might work and facilitated hospitalizations where that was necessary.

I was what was known as a “mental health officer” in the state of New York in the mid-1970s, back when such a thing existed. We usually went in first, often with police backup. In maybe 90%-95% of cases, police officer intervention was not needed. But those 5% to 10% could have turned deadly without well-trained officers.

For a time I was lucky enough to help provide such training. Research since the 1970s has shown that officer deaths are reduced by up to 50% when police are trained in mental health crisis intervention, and that when special police units so trained exist, communities differentiate between squad cars labeled “crisis intervention service” and other units. Community members are much more likely to call for and interact favorably with such units.

I’m all for mental health crisis units with well-trained police backup. But I have also been witness to other social crises that were going to drastically change systems “for the better.”

From the 1960s through the 1990s, the country closed or dramatically reduced state hospital systems for people with mental illness. The promise was that these funds would be transferred to community programs that were closer to the people who needed them, more cost effective and much fairer.

There were some communities where that fund transfer actually did happen and the new services actually were provided. But there were many where politicians simply took the opportunity to cut money from state budgets, which led to drastic increases in homelessness, the housing of former state hospital patients in “welfare motels,” or simply leaving them to deal with their psychoses themselves. I think we may all have met such people on the street, obviously disturbed and distraught, receiving no help.

I have good reason to worry that the effort to “defund the police” may not lead to the funding of better and fairer and more color-blind services, but to dramatic cost-cutting and “let them fend for themselves” political decisions. As the COVID-19 crisis has shown, not all politicians care to provide services that cost money or are in some way inconvenient for them. There’s an old blues line: “and don’t take everybody to be your friend.” History does repeat.

Philip J. Kinsler, of Lyme, served as a mental health officer in New York state. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the State University of New York at Buffalo, is board certified in forensic psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology, and is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Geisel School of Medicine.

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