Police officers should not have to handle every crisis in their paths

Police officers should not have to handle every crisis in their paths
© Getty Images

The crises playing out daily in streets across the country are diverse, yet the people responding to them tend to be the same. Whether an incident involves a person committing a crime, suffering a heroin overdose, or undergoing an acute mental health episode, we expect law enforcement officers to take care of it. This is too much to ask of any one group. Yet the law in many states does not allow for anything else, effectively requiring law enforcement officers to shoulder these duties alone.

For far too long, the responses available to law enforcement officers were also exceedingly limited. If a crisis required moving an unresponsive or uncooperative individual away from the scene, officers had no choice but to rely on their powers to arrest and initiate criminal charges, no matter how poorly suited they were to handle the crisis at hand.

Only recently have states started providing additional legal avenues for police officers to address these crises. Civil custody, often associated with providing treatment and other resources to those experiencing substance abuse and mental health crises, has offered a welcome alternative to criminal justice system involvement. But giving police officers better choices is not the same as taking the decision off their plates.

ADVERTISEMENT

The same web of laws granting officers civil custody authority frequently restricts its use to law enforcement. While limiting these custodial powers is laudable, making them the exclusive prerogative of law enforcement is a step too far. Today, nearly every state authorizes civil custody as a crisis response tool for law enforcement officers. But only 32 states extend this authority to other officials when dealing with mental health crises, and only 10 states extend it to them in addressing substance abuse crises. In states without an extension, a law enforcement officer must be on hand when taking a person into custody is appropriate.

This often leads to a bizarre result. While professionals like emergency medical technicians, mental health workers, and other crisis personnel are entrusted with life and death decisions at the scene, and any additional care at a future destination, they cannot connect the dots. Only a law enforcement officer may direct the transportation of the person from the scene to the site where additional care is administered.

Custody, of course, is not always the answer. Yet even there the law undercuts the ability of first responders other than law enforcement to contribute. In 14 states, emergency medical services personnel are required by law to take all patients to a hospital emergency department, so even if better alternatives are available, such as taking the person in crisis to a sobering center or psychiatric crisis facility, he or she may not be able to get there without the help of a police officer.

Forcing crisis response to run through law enforcement can seriously undermine the strength of that response. To begin, there may not be any law enforcement officers available. If they are unable to arrive on scene in a timely manner, or even at all, the options available to those who do may be limited. Given how thinly stretched crisis response is in many places, this represents an unnecessary blow to those capabilities.

Likewise, drawing law enforcement officers to behavioral health crises means less time for them to handle criminal ones, potentially jeopardizing their ability to respond to those. One study estimated that officers spend 21 percent of their time responding to crises involving and transferring people with mental health issues. Factor in substance abuse crises, and the hours left for officers to pursue crime dwindle rapidly.

ADVERTISEMENT

Even if officers can promptly arrive without compromising other duties, they may not be the best people to take charge. The very presence of armed and uniformed officers may exacerbate the crisis, potentially with tragic results. Other first responders also often bring a depth of relevant training and expertise that law enforcement officers simply do not have the time to obtain given their myriad other obligations.

Allowing more first responders to step in and take charge of a crisis would help reorient our crisis response away from the criminal justice system and toward the behavioral health system. This would improve our crisis response capacity across the country and allow police officers to spend more time doing what they are trained to do by enforcing the law.

Lars Trautman is a senior fellow of criminal justice and civil liberties policy at the R Street Institute who served as a former assistant district attorney.