Police Officers Are Human: Let’s Realize and Honor This Once and for All
Tragic or violent incidents dominate the news coverage — but look what's going on when no one is watching
A popular twitter hashtag in law enforcement circles is #humanize the badge.
Posts under the social media tag aggregate police stories from around the country such as community engagement “Coffee with the Cop” events. There is the “Officer Down Memorial Page,” a website that tracks police fatalities around the country. Last year, 150 officers were killed in the line of duty.
Police officers “never know what lies ahead for them when reporting for duty — good, bad or dangerous,” writes Jack Levin in “Our Police.” The illustrated children’s book is a reminder of the essential role law enforcement plays in keeping society from disintegrating. The clear language and colorful artwork provide much-needed reinforcement about the importance of law enforcement in America.
Such narratives, in hard copy or digital form, provide context missing from traditional news reporting.
Dominating television news coverage are tragic police encounters or subsequent riots caught on camera, not what’s taking place among thousands of police departments across the country when nobody’s recording. A lieutenant with the Pleasant Prairie (Wisconsin) Police Department describes changing perceptions of law enforcement plummeting from “widespread public support to virtually no public support.”
Writing in PoliceOne.com, Paul Marik captures the sentiment of his colleagues who are heavily scrutinized in what many now call a “war on police.”
But there is another side of policing most of us don’t see, modernized to confront America’s most entrenched problems.
Unfortunately, Levin, who died at 93, can’t produce a sequel. He would have a lot of content to work with: Police departments are shifting tactics while humanizing the badge. Often the first intervention with a drug-addicted or mentally ill individual is from the police.
Expensive, time-consuming trips to jail or the emergency room often do not produce the best results. The status quo is changing. Encounters are turning into connections all over the country.
Courtney Nunnally isn’t an officer, but she rides in the back of police vehicles in Richmond, Virginia. A former heroin addict, she is now a peer recovery specialist working for the organization Recovery Unplugged. After officers assess the scene, she takes charge of the interaction and collects information about the individual.
The ultimate goal is to find non-arrest means of handling minor offenses and where appropriate, refer the person for treatment.
Police are early adopters of so-called telehealth applications. Officers in Springfield, Missouri, use tablet computers in addiction-related incidents to connect people with clinicians at a behavioral health clinic. Chief Paul Williams found the jail had become the default mental health facility, where 85 percent of incarcerated individuals were diagnosed with mental illness or substance use disorder.
When telehealth was used in the field, officers found individuals could avoid jail cells, and more often than not, emergency rooms.
Sheriff’s deputies in Harris County, Texas, have used telehealth to better manage chronic scenarios, such as repeated 911 callers who have dementia. In calls like these responses are managed utilizing trained psychiatrists via a video chat.
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told mysanantonio.com the technology-based approach helps deputies better pinpoint the needs of each individual.
Police Chief Rick McCubbin of Shepherdsville, Kentucky, is planning to roll out a mobile unit providing crisis care and addiction recovery services. This approach can be used to reach inmates upon their release to avoid recidivism. He describes the effort as “a game changer” in a community hit hard by opioid abuse.
Sheriff’s deputies in Harris County, Texas, have used telehealth to better manage chronic scenarios, such as repeated 911 callers who have dementia.
Drug-related deaths of a mother and three sons over two decades caused Newtown, Ohio, Police Chief Tom Synan to re-evaluate traditional approaches to law enforcement particularly as they related to the opioid epidemic. He told The Cincinnati Enquirer the family’s troubles started in the early 90’s when calls ranged from domestic disputes to suicide threats.
The last surviving member of the family died in 2014. Dispatch described a man lying in the roadway, unconscious, blue in the face and foaming at the mouth. “We have not and cannot punish addiction out of someone,” Synan recently posted on Twitter, describing substance use disorder as a chronic mental and health condition.
If there is a silver lining to the modern social ills plaguing our society, maybe it is this: We can see police officers as human.
Equally important is understanding that officers are on the front lines of innovation and change to restore and transform lives.
Jim Pettit works with Give America Hope, a Maryland-based organization that analyzes public sector innovation related to the opioid epidemic. Follow the group on Twitter: @GAHnonprofit.