Sunday Commentary: The Urgency of Optimizing Police Responses

By David M. Greenwald

Davis, CA – As a society we have asked our police force to do way more than their primary mission—arresting people suspected of committing crimes, and protecting the public from the people committing those wrongdoings.  While a lot of that is by necessity, we need to recognize that police are not especially well trained as social workers and mental health officials.

One of the pushes for reimagining policing is to move these type of responses away from the need for an armed police response, where police are not especially well trained, and where there is a potential for loss of life or injuries to the police and public.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a call where there is a mental health crisis?  Unfortunately, I have been on the receiving end of all too many in the last 18 months.  The good news is that each incident ended with the loved one being safe.  The police and fire and other emergency responders were kind and compassionate.

But even in a situation that ended all right, I noted that neither sets of emergency responders were particularly proficient at deescalating the situation.  They lacked the ability to do much other than take the individual into custody and put them on a 5150 hold.  In no case were they able to talk the person down or provide any sort of crisis counseling.

I was always mindful when the police were coming that often officer-involved shootings start with a family’s call for help—not because a crime is underway but because the loved one is experiencing a crisis and needs help.  And the police end up shooting the person.

Even when these end up being determined to be lawful killings by the police, the analysis clearly shows a more skillful response might have resulted in a different outcome.

The case of Miles Hall in Walnut Creek comes to mind.  He was shot and killed by Walnut Creek police in June 2019.

“This was such a shocking blueprint for a person who is a well-known member of this community, shot down under the circumstances that we have alleged in the complaint—that it was an unnecessary use-of-force death. It was a failure to deescalate and they really treated him more as a criminal rather than a mentally impaired person,” Civil Rights Attorney John Burris explained in a press conference last year.

The police knew he was suffering from mental illness.

“Miles should have never died,” his mother explained.  “He was in a mental health crisis and a mental health crisis should not be a death sentence.”

The family explained that the police came in hot, immediately firing six bean bag rounds, and when that didn’t stop him, they fired two shots.

The complaint was that the police came in “hot” rather than attempting to de-escalate.

There seems to be an attitude that these types of situations have only happened elsewhere.  But there were at least three recent police shootings locally that might have been preventable with a different sort of response.

Consider the incident in December 2019 where police responded to a family disturbance on Avocet Avenue in Davis—it was a well known site.  The son, having a mental health crisis, stabbed his mother, who would die.  The police came in, he charged at them, and they opened fired.  A police officer was injured and the son died.

While the police shooting was clearly from a legal standpoint justified, would a mental health team have resulted in a different outcome?

Last fall, 88-year-old Robert Coleman, a former West Sacramento police volunteer, was shot and killed after a confrontation with police in that city—he clearly suffered from mental illness and had suicidal thoughts.

Then West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon issued a statement: “After reviewing the footage, I felt even more deeply the profound tragedy of Mr. Coleman’s battle with mental illness, as well as the trauma endured both by his family and by police officers on the scene.”

Then there was the incident just recently where, in broad daylight on February 25, a man in the Walmart parking lot reportedly stabbed himself in the neck with a knife.  The caller thought he had killed himself, but evidently not.

Video shows an officer arriving at the intersection, the suspect charges him, and the officer fires several rounds hitting the man who died at the scene.  The man was armed with both a pellet gun and knife.

Stewart Katz, an attorney who specializes in police misconduct called the incident “suicide by cop.”

Katz told the local media “the man had already injured himself, making it very difficult for any other intervention such as a crisis person or mental health professional.”

No one questions whether the latter three incidents were “lawful” shootings.  The question is, really, can we avoid the outcomes in these kinds of cases?  And as Katz notes, in the latter case, it may have not been possible.

At the same time, shootings are extremely rare occurrences.  More often you have people in crisis and most often the situation is resolved without injury to the subject or the police.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these situations are handled optimally.

In the Temporary Joint Subcommittee (TJSC) recommendations, they recommend that the Davis Police “work with county partners to build an integrated ‘Crisis Now’-type model for behavioral health emergencies.”

This seems to be an area where the police and the TJSC agree.  In his report to the council, Chief Darren Pytel notes that the city has been partnering with the Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) on a “co-responder model” which would allow an “imbedded crisis-clinician (to) be able to directly respond to calls for service, when appropriate, or respond with an officer when needed.”

In fact, HHSA has already proposed that they create a “Crisis Now” model.

This would include: a round-the-clock Crisis Call Hub, a community-based mobile crisis team, a crisis stabilization facility, and more.

Writes Pytel: “The Department has already expressed a very strong desire to immediately work towards full adoption of the Crisis Now model. These are all promising models for reducing the police calls for service for those experiencing mental health crisis.”

Pytel notes: “As Crisis Now comes on line, it’s estimated that the crisis line model will be able to appropriately handle 90%+ of the non-emergency mental health calls over the phone—diverting a vast majority of these types of 911 calls to mental health services without a needed law enforcement response or any response from any City of Davis employees.”

This is one area where the TJSC and the department are in line.  There are better models out there.  It is just a matter of funding them and implementing them.  This is hardly a solution in search of a problem.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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10 Comments

  1. Edgar Wai

    It is just a matter of funding them and implementing them. 

    In modern money theory, there is no actual problem with funding.  The question is sheerly whether the people agree that such work is worthwhile. As long as it is worthwhile, a sovereign government can “fund” it according to its worth.

    It is not home economics. There ia no budget to balance.  A sovereignty is supposed to pay people doing worthwhile work (and take away from those doing the opposite). The difference in amount between the take away and the payments do not need to balance.  It just reflects the status of growth in value of it’s citizenry.  It is not a zero sum game.

    This is a fundamental misunderstanding that hamstrings the entire society.  The citizenry could have done a lot more by itself, voluntarily for each other of they understand what money is their democratic society.

      1. Edgar Wai

        What a local community could do is to simply keep local tabs on people who are willing to work without getting paid. Then the community apply for federal grants using the record of work completed instead of a work proposal. The grant back pays the people on tabs.

        When people in a community are willing to work on tabs (and optionally, the community itself and trade tabs instead of just waiting for grants), essentially the community has its local currency.

        You could use these Davis tabs to pay for local tax. You could also accept transfers (a person pays the worker with USD and takes the debt itself, that charity then becomes a valid claimant if the grant comes.) For any finer transaction such as using the tabs to shop would need some kind of electronic banking apps for traceability to avoid counterfeits.

  2. PhillipColeman

    Suppose we were to create a position for a trained and experienced mental health professional to be immediately responsive to a mental health intervention like the Davis Police is compelled to do right now by default.

    Grab your pencils. Let us roughly calculate the cost of replacing the police with a mental health expert to respond to mental health crises on a 24/7 calendar.

    To staff ONE position for 24 hours/7 days a week requires that you hire a minimum of FIVE persons. These five persons will need to have in-service training and updates in the performance of this vital service. They will be released from duty to attend periodic regional and national conferences on shared issues. They will want to have paid sick leave, and vacations, pay for off-duty court and administrative hearing sessions arising from the performance of their duties. The FIVE persons immediately jump to SEVEN full-time paid professional mental health experts.

    This position will require a vehicle, identifying credentials, identifying uniforms of some kind some that persons requesting this emergency service will recognize on arrival. Add that to the total cost.

    These SEVEN persons are entitled to compensation commensurate to the skills required of a Mental Health Professional. They will command premium pay for working weekends, holidays, and evening and early morning shifts. Calculate the competitive salary rate needed to attract such persons.

    MentalHealth Professionals are already in high demand and in limited supply in the public and private sectors. It is a very difficult and sometimes dangerous job that is vastly unappreciated and unrecognized by the overall society.

    Where do we recruit these SEVEN persons for the Davis Police Department, an organization that is demonized daily in the Vanguard for every police-related death in the United States?

    Finally, and perhaps most important of all, even if we should we be able to have that ONE person in Davis that can respond to ONE mental health incident at any ONE time.  What is the percentage of time that this person will be driving around in circles doing nothing?

    1. Eric Gelber

      Other cities seem to have made this work. E.g.,

      CAHOOTS is funded in most municipalities through public-private partnerships between governmental and health-care agencies. In Eugene, a city with a population of approximately 168,000, the CAHOOTS budget is around $2.1 million annually. But, according to White Bird Clinic, the program saved the city about $8.5 million annually from 2014 to 2017 in public safety spending through diverted calls.

      https://lompocrecord.com/news/local/rethinking-public-safety-lompoc-residents-make-case-for-alternate-crisis-response/article_157eb0a6-6230-5149-b736-989a285ea8e3.html

       

       

    2. Edgar Wai

      Isn’t this a problem of your job design?

      For emergency (unplanned) services, the job design can be normally that the person who is admitted to be on-call is hired for a routine/low priority task. The job design is such that if there is an emergency, they could drop whatever low priority task they are doing and attend the emergency first.

      Their base pay is for the low priority task, they get a bonus per responding to emergency task, they get reimbursed for training and conferences.

      If there aren’t that many person who could do such task, then identification is simpler because the city could just post their photos on the official website as a very short list of certified mental crisis responders.

  3. Ron Oertel

    One mistake that I think David makes (in regard to his interest in the Eugene, Oregon Cahoots program) is his constant framing of racism in regard to policing.  Eugene’s black population is less than 2%, according to the article below.

    In contrast, I’m gathering that the Cahoots program often deals with calls in regard to homeless individuals. I’m surprised that it’s actually been around for more than 30 years – much longer than the BLM movement.

    Eugene is significantly larger than Davis, though.

    One would probably need to analyze the types of calls that Davis police are actually responding to, before making any possible change.  And from that, analyze cost/benefit of any change.

    But, don’t try to frame this as a racial issue in Davis, as that doesn’t fly (and distracts from any analysis of this program).

    This Oregon town of 170,000 replaced some cops with medics and mental health workers. It’s worked for over 30 years – CNN

    1. Ron Oertel

      I also probably wouldn’t refer to incidents like this, as something that police wouldn’t respond to (even with a Cahoots-type program):

      The son, having a mental health crisis, stabbed his mother, who would die.  The police came in, he charged at them, and they opened fired. 

      Or, this:

      Then there was the incident just recently where, in broad daylight on February 25, a man in the Walmart parking lot reportedly stabbed himself in the neck with a knife.

      People sometimes take actions which bring about their own death.  And no, that’s not the “fault” of the police or even necessarily the “responsibility” of society at large.

      These types of incidents are always going to require a police response.

      1. David Greenwald

        The proposal is for the “Crisis Now” model (not CAHOOTS): “In the Temporary Joint Subcommittee (TJSC) recommendations, they recommend that the Davis Police “work with county partners to build an integrated ‘Crisis Now’-type model for behavioral health emergencies.””

        It’s a “co-responder model” which would allow an “imbedded crisis-clinician (to) be able to directly respond to calls for service, when appropriate, or respond with an officer when needed.”

        1. Ron Oertel

          “respond with an officer when needed”.

          So for the two examples you’ve provided, there would be more, not less cost.  (For the first example you’ve provided, it appears to be something where Cahoots shouldn’t even be at the scene at all, due to the danger to themselves.)

          (Not that cost-savings is always the “goal”.)

          Not sure how far away the Cahoots-type partners would be, whether they would show up simultaneously, how much further danger there would be in waiting for them to arrive, etc.

          But I would think that the biggest hurdle is that Davis is not a very large town, and adding complexity might/might not be the best choice.

          But first, I would analyze the types of calls that Davis police are actually responding to (and the outcome).  The examples you’ve provided are not good evidence of something that could have been handled differently.

          I’d start out by defining what the primary goal(s) is/are, because it’s not entirely clear. And separate it out from the “BLM” type concerns, as it does not appear to be related. (As a side note, the article I posted notes that the area around Eugene has a very high proportion of homeless people.)

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