Law enforcement officers are often criticized for their interactions with three groups of people that continue to fill our streets and communities: the homeless, the mentally ill and those who are drug and/or alcohol dependent. There certainly are grounds to argue that many of these people are where they are because of the choices they have made, but we, as law enforcement officers, cannot ignore the fact that these groups draw away resources that traditionally have been used elsewhere. In many communities throughout our state, calls for service involving these groups are common, strain resources and are at higher risk of resulting in conflict.
Demand for police services in these areas continue to grow, despite many law enforcement agencies reallocating officers and resources to address these calls. This is not because law enforcement is failing. It is because all the other levels of government have failed. Law enforcement professionals have long been called to do the jobs other government agencies have left undone, and this problem has been magnified in dealing with the homeless, mentally ill and chemically dependent. Law enforcement officers often go home discouraged because they are unable to stop an unrelenting tide of mental health and homeless calls and don’t have the resources they need to help these citizens end their downward spirals.
Our officers have been given the unattainable task of solving a problem that no other level of government has succeeded in doing. When police interactions with the mentally ill, the homeless or the chemically dependent go bad, politicians grandstand and anti-police groups attack. But it is not the fault of the police. It is the fault of both society and government as a whole, which have not provided the solutions or the tools officers need to solve what has proven to be a difficult and growing problem. Law enforcement officers are only one member of a larger team tasked with solving this problem. Just as it is unfair to blame a team’s goalie when the opposing team scores, it is also unfair to blame law enforcement officers when an encounter goes bad if no other levels of government have assisted in our efforts and elected officials have failed to give us the resources we need.
This legislative cycle, our state elected leaders are faced with a choice on how to reduce negative outcomes in police encounters with the mentally ill, the homeless and those who are chemically dependent. Two plans have been introduced. One blames police officers, attacks their right to self-defense and seeks to punish police officers as murderers when they err in their spilt-second decision-making. The other, SB 230, gives our law enforcement officers the tools they need to succeed: training, policy improvements and, most important, resources to help the mentally ill, the homeless and the chemically dependent get off the streets and into services that can improve their situations. Law enforcement officers often feel like the goalie on the field alone. It’s time for the rest of government and society to get on the field, play their positions and help us solve these critical issues as a team.