When You Don’t Need a Cop

Before the Illinois primary last week, I received a lot of campaign ads in the mail. I usually threw them straight into the recycling bin, but one of them caught my eye.

It said: “If Kina Collins defunds the police, our community will be less safe. Kina Collins has said we should ‘slash’ the Chicago Police Department budget.”

This is screwed up for many reasons. First, Collins was running for Congress, which has no say in determining the Chicago Police Department’s budget. 

Second, the group that paid for this ad calls itself the United Democracy Project. Their website says their mission is to “help elect candidates that . . . will be strong supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress.”

What does that have to do with the Chicago Police? Not a damn thing. But apparently whoever conceived of this ad saw an opportunity to tarnish someone who wouldn’t be an Israeli sycophant in Congress by associating her with the boogeyman words “defund the police.”

Such lazy cheap shots reinforce the dangerous myth that defunding the police means there would be no police tomorrow. In reality, it means that we need to continually reassess whether or not dispatching police officers is the best way to respond to all calls for help. Sometimes, police make things worse. If there are better ways to respond, we should spend money doing those things instead.

When we don’t do this, we create messy and unnecessary situations like the one that led to the lawsuit of Bread for the City v. District of Columbia.

The lawsuit was filed last July in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In the complaint, Bread for the City calls itself a “District not-for-profit organization that provides primary physical and behavioral health care services,  legal services, food, clothing, and social services to under-resourced D.C. residents.”

The complaint reads: “This case challenges the District of Columbia’s reliance on  Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers as the default first responders . . . . When D.C. residents experience physical health emergencies—such as asthmatic or diabetic crises—calling 9-1-1 results in the prompt arrival of paramedics or emergency medical technicians who are specially trained to address the crisis.

“By contrast, when D.C. residents experience mental health emergencies—such as suicidal ideation or post-traumatic stress episodes—calling 9-1-1 will routinely bring to the scene armed MPD officers, who are mainly trained to arrest and detain people suspected of crimes, not to handle mental health emergencies. As a result,  when MPD officers arrive at a mental health crisis, they frequently aggravate the emergency.”

The complaint addresses the consequences of this ill-conceived response. “Many of Bread’s clients have had negative encounters with MPD officers that resulted in unnecessary escalation and trauma. Many of Bread’s clients have told Bread staff members that they do not want MPD officers present when they are having a mental health crisis.

“In the past, when Bread has called 9-1-1 to address mental health crises, MPD officers have shown up, handcuffed people unnecessarily, used unnecessarily aggressive tones, and crowded people in crisis . . . . To protect clients in crisis, and to preserve relationships with all clients, Bread has a practice of refraining from contacting MPD to the greatest extent possible.”

The lawsuit seeks to compel the D.C. government to “implement and operate an emergency response program that provides parity between physical health emergencies and mental health emergencies, and that ensures that mental health professionals are the default first responders for typical mental health emergencies.”

But that won’t happen until we all start seeing emergency response as the complex and multi-faceted thing that it is and allocate resources accordingly.