June 15 was a milestone in the history of policing in New York City. With the disbanding of NYPD anti-crime units, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea formally acknowledged that placing officers in harm's way to seize guns and save lives was no longer viable; that he cannot defend officers if they are in a shooting, even one that is totally unavoidable.

Now, the Commissioner must go further. It is time to end the practice of hurtling patrol cops to calls for emotionally disturbed people.

This year, the calls are absolutely flooding in. Five hundred times a day,  NYPD cops are hustled into these ambiguous, dynamic, unpredictable situations, and the appearance of inadequately equipped cops not infrequently makes individuals more erratic and threatening. The department gives those first responding officers, who are generalists and handle a huge range of demands made on them, only the most minimal training. 

Ramps Up the Tension

More problematically, it is hard for cops armed with multiple weapons that they must retain to think like social workers. The blunt truth is that non-specialized officers will always be looking for and construing danger--the mere presence of cops transforms a non-lethal event into a potentially lethal one. Asking them to pursue a therapeutic intervention simply does not work. And some studies show that a large portion of officer-involved shootings concern individuals acting provocatively or assaultively towards the police--so-called suicide-by-cop.

Almost all recent uses of deadly force by NYPD officers have involved the emotionally disturbed. These are tragic, wrenching endings for everyone: the decedents, families, the police and the city. Separately, the city has paid tens of millions of dollars in settlements arising from these 10-54 calls.

Calls for those in mental crisis have doubled in the past decade, a situation that will continue to deteriorate as individuals who were once institutionally confined in prisons and jails and psychiatric facilities are fast-tracked back into communities. EDP calls have skyrocketed, in particular in poorer places, all the more reason that in this time of heightened sensitivity, officers should be re-directed. 

Defunding will bite sooner than some think, thinning the pool of officers available to respond to all types of calls. Moreover, the police can use any time they gain from this de-tasking to develop community relationships and polish their skills. Not a single member of New York’s Finest will miss responding to these fraught EDP calls.

Make no mistake: the political establishment has failed to address this, and many other issues. In a bygone era, failed political leaders at least had the decency not to blame the police for their dismal records. Now they seek ascendancy to high office by bashing cops. We have epidemic, untended, worsening issues of homelessness and emotionally disturbed people even as the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars with little to show for it.

California Opt-Outs

We need to explore how many calls of mental-health emergencies should simply not be answered at all by the police. Some police departments in California refuse to respond to calls of suicidal people, or to “welfare-check” calls that hint someone may be self-harming. Pressure must be placed on those elected to lead to deliver what they claim will work: rushing social workers and therapists into the breach. 

In situations where there is no other choice, NYPD Emergency Service Unit officers—America’s best—can be sent to calls. However, as a practical matter, response times will be significantly elongated—which in many cases may result in situations resolving themselves. ESU cops have advanced training, expertise, and equipment that will provide the best chance for a non-violent resolution of a crisis.  But enmeshing the police and the mentally ill is, make no mistake about it, a recipe for disasters.

Along these same lines, the city must set a date certain when officers will no longer be required to make custodial arrests in all but the most extreme, unavoidable situations. Lawmakers could hasten this by repealing laws they no longer want enforced. Certainly, lawmakers and so-called progressive prosecutors should speak with clarity on these issues. 

Many of them believe there is nothing worse than incarcerating individuals--no matter how serious the offense. If this is what they really believe, they should be true to their convictions and simply wipe laws off the books. Officers are frequently risking their well-being and that of  those they arrest in situations where there is no appetite for pursuing charges. Technology must also be leveraged more aggressively and urgently.

In many cases, domestic violence and assaults, for example, where the offender is known, he/she should simply be issued a summons to attend court, whereupon, if there is no further threat of violence, officers should depart. 

Now it is time to take the next logical step. People should not be hauled into custody and dragged into court in the Year 2020. There’s a lot to do to make policing safer. Let’s get started.

Editor's note: Mr. O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor, is a Professor of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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