The Blazing History of the Beat Cop Mentality: Is it coming Back?

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The heat of the season has taken a toll on many communities in these United States the past few months. In addition to the soaring August temperatures, the fire of nightly unrest keeps our blood boiling through our digitally driven multi-channeled fireplaces, set to re-“Kindle” our smoldering ashes at any given point during the 24 hour news cycle.  We have a wealth of information at our fingertips like hand-warmers, to tweet, tube and stream our blood to a higher boil.  If one steps back to experience the glow of the smoldering logs of the past few weeks, the heart of the fire is decorated with limbs of much heeded insights to the coming of the season.  Among the blazing branches are learning opportunities from Newport, RI, Chicago, IL, Tulsa, OK, and Boiling Springs, NC about how the lack of attention to mental health issues is filling up our state and federal prisons and local jails. Then the Molotov cocktail of Ferguson, Missouri where police were initially at the front of the fire, not with water to extinguish the flame, but more “Fire-Power” to add to the flame. How hot do we have to get before society recognizes that there may be possible flaws with the concept of “fighting fire with fire”.

According to a 2006 Justice Department study, 64% of inmates in local jails, 56% of state prisoners, and 45% of those incarcerated in the federal prison system have some kind of mental health problem.  There are also recent studies that report upwards of 65% of the same incarcerated populations have experienced a brain injury.  Regardless of what diagnosis the offender may have, the most common starting point of anyone’s journey into local law-enforcement begins with what the term implies, the principle duties are to enforce the law.  So the burning question should be, where did our expectations of asking police officers and the criminal justice system to bear the burden of mental health care originate?  If you “Firefox” your way to the web with the words “Father of Modern Policing,” the name Sir Robert Peel should warm up your screen. In 1829, he established London’s Metropolitan Police Service, which was formed out of the public’s concern about deploying the military to address domestic matters.  The “Bobbie” or “Beat Cop” mentality was developed out of Sir Peel’s principles, and their job was to maintain the peace and order along civilian lines, armed with only a wooden baton and a whistle.  Though they were also charged with apprehending criminals for the courts to process according to the law, they were not measured on the number of arrests they made, but rather the lack of crime in the their assigned territories.

The “Beat Cop” model became a staple of the early urban and industrialized United States.  The beat cop became a trusted presence in their neighborhood through engagement with the members of the community, and became a social worker of sorts.  Then slowly after the Civil War through the Prohibition era of the 1920’s, policing in the United States transitioned to a paramilitary approach of law-enforcement. Organized crime became big business to both the criminal and the defenders of justice.  Peace Officers were replaced by Police Forces and training began to shift from social work activities and minimizing crime to rewarding and sensationalizing the arrest and capture of Public Enemy No. 1.  Training shifted from maintaining the peace, to arrest, defend, firearms, “Go/No Go” and SWAT teams.  The cost of protecting the community grew incrementally, followed by an extraordinary demand for more prisons, and smoldering behind the inferno of this new “policing by force mindset” emerged state mental health institutions to care for the behaviorally challenged citizens previously managed through the Peace Officer model. When we became aware of the fiscal demands of maintaining mental health care we closed the state mental health facilities and disavowed mental health, and have subsequently denied brain injury and mental illness as chronic societal issues over the past thirty years.   Why, then, are we surprised when a police officer shoots teenager with schizophrenia, or an officer takes the life of a military veteran with a brain injury or combat trauma?

Could it be that, in the midst of the fire-storm, the concepts from our past appear as logical solutions, but we refuse to take a step back from the flames and admit our original ideals could hold the answers to our simmering mental health dilemma.  Since the early 1980’s from the final ashes of deinstitutionalization of mental health programs, the burden of mental healthcare was forced back to the front lines. Feeling the heat, in 1988 the Memphis Police Department discovered the solutions to managing the mental health catch-22 being forced back at them.  They found that it was more cost effective to collaborate with the community and formed partnerships with mental health professionals and advocates.  Some of their resource dollars normally invested in one shot experiences on a firing range were redirected toward learning to work smarter and returning to the time when their role was managing the peace.  They partnered to develop crisis intervention teams that have over the past 35 years emerged as one of the most creative and cost effective models in addressing the mental health needs of a community.  This past week, in the midst of the nightly inferno of the over armament of America’s police forces, the news showed the city of San Antonio taking the Memphis model to another level.  Instead of creating crisis intervention teams, they required all officers to take a 40 hour course in how to handle mental health issues in the community.  The community then stepped forward and developed the Restoration Center which offers a 48-hour inpatient psychiatric unit; outpatient services for psychiatric and primary care; centers for drug or alcohol detox; a 90-day recovery program for substance abuse; plus housing for people with mental illnesses, and even job training. It serves over 18,000 people annually, and, per city estimates, saves the tax payers $10 million annually.

Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” This has been an often used and misaligned quote that has become a favorite of politicians in the United States over the past 25 to 50 years.  It has resurfaced from many of our Washington DC policy makers on both side of the aisle in recent years most often in reference to discussions about our countries debt burden and social agendas.  Yet the reality is when it comes to addressing mental health in the United States, Billy Joel’s We didn’t start the fire, No we didn’t light it, But we tried to fight it”, appears to be a more accurate description of how we have become mesmerized by the flash of an issue, and, yet, paralyzed in addressing the required solutions to manage the problem.

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