“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country.”
This is a simple sentiment voiced by law enforcement and emergency officials for years. But, when Dallas Police Chief David Brown uttered those words earlier this month, they took on new importance and, hopefully, reached a new and receptive audience.
“Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems,” Brown said just days after five Dallas law enforcement officers were killed by a gunman.
The consequences are dire: Police arrest, over and over, the same individuals they know should be receiving mental health treatment or enrolled in treatment for substance use, but there are no spaces available. The result is overcrowded jails filled with people suffering from mental illness or addiction, or both. Inmates don’t get the services and treatment they need for long-term stability, and the jail system costs taxpayers an ever-increasing sum each year.
The Penobscot County Jail in Bangor has a capacity of 157 inmates. Last year’s average daily population was 176. On Wednesday, it held 202 inmates. Seventy percent of the jail’s inmates are on medication for mental health issues.
“Keeping people within cinderblock walls is not the way to deal with these issues,” said Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton.
Many of those in custody at the county jail need basic help managing their medications. When they take them as prescribed, they can function. When they can’t afford their medications, or they simply stop taking them, they follow one of two paths: They commit a crime, which leads them to jail, or they end up in the emergency room. Since the emergency room is no stand-in for long-term treatment, and long-term treatment for mental illness or substance use is hard to come by, discharge from the emergency room can often lead someone down that first path.
Our overreliance on emergency personnel can take on more mundane forms that are problematic in the same way.
The Bangor Fire Department, which requested the fee plan, routinely receives calls requesting “lift assists,” and firefighters or emergency medical technicians must help a person who has limited mobility but is in no immediate danger back to his or her feet or move from one place to another within the home.
“They’re calling us to basically be their in-home health care service when our primary mission is emergency services,” Bangor Fire Chief Tom Higgins said in March.
The problem of asking law enforcement and emergency personnel to do too much is compounded by a shortage of people interested in doing this work.
Morton, who has been in law enforcement for more than 25 years, recalls a time when 100 people applied for each vacancy. Now, openings in his department attract a dozen or fewer applicants. This problem will be exacerbated as the baby boom generation ages and retires.
Brown, the police chief in Dallas, had a direct answer to this problem and to those criticizing police work: “We’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in.”
Because much of their work happens outside of public view, community members are only vaguely aware of the growing, diverse demands placed on law enforcement and emergency personnel. Too often, it takes a tragedy to get people’s attention.
It’s crucial that citizens, as taxpayers and voters, become more aware of these stresses and think of them the next time they cast a ballot for a candidate or a local budget. Lawmakers have, for years, passed laws lengthening jail sentences and fines for numerous crimes. They’re traditionally more hesitant to boost the funding needed to deal with the consequences — jails and treatment services, for example — or to pay for the early-in-life interventions that can prevent or lessen many of these problems in the first place.
Brown’s appeal to protesters to apply for Dallas Police Department jobs resulted in a tripling of the number of applications. Policymakers need to step up in a similar fashion — and take the steps needed to restore a frayed safety net.