Can training make police officers like social workers?


There was quick consensus between Mayor Bill de Blasio and his new NYPD commissioner after a police officer fatally shot Deborah Danner.

Danner, a 66-year-old woman who had struggled with mental illness for years, was killed in her own home Tuesday. She had approached Sgt. Hugh Barry, who’d been summoned by a 911 call, with a baseball bat, according to the police account.

Police had responded to Danner’s Bronx apartment before. Her difficulties were known to family and neighbors. When he arrived, the sergeant successfully convinced her to put down a pair of scissors. But then he shot her.

De Blasio and Commissioner James O’Neill responded swiftly, saying the officer appeared to have violated protocol — resorting to his service weapon rather than his stun gun; not waiting for an Emergency Services Unit, schooled in serious negotiations, to take charge. Both said the NYPD handles tens of thousands of these difficult encounters every year — over 120,000 so far this year — and that a retraining initiative started in 2015 was instrumental in preventing this kind of tragedy.

That program, called Crisis Intervention Training, has been given to about 4,400 officers out of 36,000. The sergeant in question was not among them.

The response from City Hall seems to be that more training will solve this problem. But is it enough?

A problem with a long history

We’ve had this discussion before, after the sadly similar case in 1984 when Eleanor Bumpurs was killed by police in her home in the Bronx.

Not long after, a fatal police shooting of a 27-year-old man amid a mental health crisis in Memphis, Tennessee, led that city’s police department to try a new approach. Known as Crisis Intervention Training, officers would get instruction in working toward a peaceful solution, and work with mental health professionals to divert individuals to treatment when possible.

New York was slow to adopt a similar program. Mental health advocates lobbied for decades. The deaths of two mentally ill inmates on Rikers Island prompted a 2014 city task force on NYPD and Department of Correction policies concerning the mentally ill, after which the de Blasio administration started CIT training for the NYPD.

That training is going well, says Carla Rabinowitz, advocacy coordinator for Community Access, who has been a longtime supporter of CIT in NYC.

She sat in on two training sessions last year and this year, and says they’ve gotten better over time — now including segments on active listening and stress management, along with role-playing scenarios that teach officers what impact their actions are having on the mentally ill.

It may sound like small change, but it can be effective in improving the behavior of officers in tense situations. Rabinowitz cited multiple graduates of the program who successfully talked down suicidal individuals.

But the young program has clear growing pains. Only a small proportion of the force has received the training, and at the moment there’s no way to guarantee CIT trained officers will be the ones who respond to crisis situations.

Rabinowitz worries that the department may rely too much on the Emergency Services Unit, who “come in with nets, taking down doors.” They are practiced in difficult negotiations, but also have an aggressive attitude necessary for dangerous situations. That can sometimes be overkill.

Changing what it means to be a police officer

Some cities have tried to go a step further — pairing civilian mental health professionals with police officers to respond to emotionally disturbed individuals.

Mental health advocates like Rabinowitz say this could be a good solution. The police officer helps provide safety for the individual, bystanders and responders. The mental health professional is practiced at coming to a nonviolent outcome.

Along with the CIT training, the de Blasio administration created five such teams, one per borough. They are not used for crisis situations but rather respond to referrals from agencies such as the Department of Homeless Services.

Mary Beth Anderson, director of the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center, says those units are “working well.”

Often they’ll engage an individual who says “leave me alone.” But after a number of engagements, she says, the individual might respond. “Hey officer, hey social worker, how are you doing today?”

Having teams respond to more mental health situations seems like a good idea, but would be expensive. Criminal justice reform activists like to point to the money spent on 1,300 new police officers in 2015 — some of which might have been used for projects like this. If that force expansion was necessary, perhaps money could be found elsewhere.

But for now, we’re asking police to do both police work and social work, a doubly difficult job.

The bright side is that it could help New Yorkers who have lots of interactions with the police feel more comfortable with officers, if they really are seen as engaging in social work and not just law enforcement.

“Police are doing human service work,” says Anderson. “What we need to do is make them understand that 90 percent of their work is human services and 10 percent law enforcement.”

She hedged a little. “Certainly 60-40.”

 

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