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Wake-up call

Mental health: it takes a precinct


The best ideas often stand the test of time, but frequently contain the seeds of their own destruction. The doomsday gene insinuates itself and attaches to the DNA of the original thought, taking it over, possessing and repurposing it. Bringing these ideas to fruition can be more delicate than brain surgery, but the risks are worth taking, if in the right hands.

New City Council legislation introduced by Erik Bottcher and Yusef Salaam, both Manhattan Democrats, would post a social worker in every New York City police precinct. Sounds good in theory, but does it resonate in reality?

There must be a clear delineation of authority and independent action. What will be the parameters of their role? Will it be rigid or allow some flexibility? For it to be feasible and not self-defeating, there can be no struggle over turf.

For this initiative to be not only worthy in theory but worthwhile in practice, and to have a chance of success, it will be necessary first to earn the trust of police officers who tend to have a different perspective from social workers. 

It is a cultural frame of reference that there's no point denying. It must be addressed.

Police are no less sensitive and insightful than social workers, and most of them will be receptive.  Some of them, however, will need to be persuaded that social workers are not inquisitors strutting around with brooms up their butts and clipboards in hand, seconding-guessing the police, lecturing them about urban inequities, and acting as moles and overseers. 

Social workers are not needed to keep cops honest or inculcate philosophy. Hopefully the new placements were conceived and will turn out as something more than a stealthy step towards reform of the criminal justice system, like the misapplication of "restorative justice" in schools and elsewhere.

Police and social workers must see themselves and function as a team with congruent goals. They must work symbiotically while respecting boundaries. Both are “do-gooders.”

Social workers must have certain decision-making freedoms that are not within the purview and command of law enforcement, but they must not presume to countermand police supremacy. They must not have veto power over police action in acute situations.

That, of course, does not mean that police should not be held accountable. There is abuse and malpractice in both policing and social work. Both regulated professions are prone to interference from those who seek to politicize them.  Sometimes that interference is wholesome; sometimes it's crippling.

The Council members' rationale is sensible. There is no shadow of a "defund the police" mentality. No "chip on the shoulder" rhetoric or pretentious urban ideology. The bill is defended like a Ph.D. thesis.   

These social warriors are soldiers of peace. Their main focus is to arrest recidivism, not people, especially for shoplifting and other petty crimes. 

For that to be more than wishful thinking, there needs to be "concrete attempts to address the underlying conditions" that spur behavior that diverts and largely wastes police resources and dehumanizes the violators themselves.  According to the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, almost 69 percent of people in jail in that state have a documented mental illness.

No evidence it's less in New York City. Portions of the police blotter should be blotted out.   Clinical truth clamors for it.

Mental illness is by itself not a crime. Since its victims cannot be taken into custody on those grounds, can they be coerced into seeking intervention? "With the social work side, the person in need must be open to receiving mental support, and in an impaired mindset, you're less likely to say yes to things you may in fact need, and things that essentially will be good for you.... Will people have expedited mental health services?" says Shavon Camper, a clinical social worker, stating there is a “question of whether an effective partnership between the mental health system and the justice system could exist.” 

To see the big picture, we cannot be blind to the small details.  

In all its dimensions, the bill recognizes the complexities and confluence of law and human psychology.  Logistics, not only good intentions, are instrumental to winning the battle against chaos and statutorily legal but morally illegal practices. 

“The mechanics of how it would work would differ from precinct to precinct,” said Bottcher.

“The wheels of justice grind slowly,” it is said. But the wheels of government, particularly when on the road to redress its aggrieved citizens, are always in need of realignment.

Assigning social workers to police precincts was introduced in 2017 by Council Members Adrienne Adams and Mark Levine. Lucky seven years later, Bottcher and Salaam have submitted a bill, and the indemnification for victims of administrative wrongdoing is past due.  

Salaam, as one of the exonerated arrestees in the notorious "Central Park Jogger" case in 1989, is uniquely qualified to reflect on potentially life and soul-destroying errors in judgment by law enforcement and the judicial system, whether by malicious indifference or failure of due diligence.

A combat veteran of the prison pipeline wars, Salaam notes that “issues like poverty, substance abuse, mental health crises and domestic violence” require “a delicate touch, nuanced understanding and resources beyond what traditional law enforcement can provide ... and prisons have shouldered the burden of addressing social and emotional needs beyond their scope of expertise.”

"Expertise" is a loaded word, though, which may imply that social workers might be in a better position and should be entrusted to make decisions customarily reserved to law enforcement.  That is a narrow and perhaps invalid view. 

Traditional credentials are not the sole qualification, and "expertise" is hard to quantify. Consider the police Emergency Services Units which have talked suicidal people out of jumping off bridges minutes before they would have leapt. 

These cops didn't need a diploma in de-escalation. However, heroism is anecdotal. So is lethal panic.

A few months ago, a teenager named Win Rozario called the police and told them he was having a mental health crisis. The narrative ends with his being shot five times and killed. Such was the fruit of his self-awareness. Such the consolation for crying out.

On another occasion, police held their fire when confronted by a youngster high on meth in his living scene. Just by chance and a split-second hesitation of reflex. They later admitted that had the agitated and confused subject taken one more step, he would have been shot.

So that anecdote ended well.  But we must strive to make life and death less of a crapshoot.

In 2008, George Patterson, a professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work, observed “Law enforcement functions support the practice of police social work,” and “80 percent or more of a patrol officer's time is spent performing service-related functions,” though training time allotted for the service-related functions makes up approximately 20 percent of the training curriculum. 

The Bottcher-Salaam bill would “provide those being arrested with treatment, resources, and follow-up plans.” Isn't that similar to what de Blasio's ill-fated and fishy ThriveNYC promised?

If the new bill becomes law, it would require the social workers to report to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, instead of the NYPD. That makes sense for obvious reasons. But what will be the relationship between those two agencies?  

There must be no jurisdictional disputes and social workers cannot nullify police action. A jurisdictional war, whether on a micro or macro level, would negate efficacy.

Hiring 231 licensed social workers would cost around $20 million dollars. Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel surmises it would cut down on police misconduct cases, which set taxpayers back $115 million last year. A bargain with a tie-in sale.

How well it works out will depend less on the powers vested in holders of job titles, than their innate qualities of character, judgment and motivation.

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