Rushed answers don’t solve complex policing problems

"MEU uses a co-response model, which means both police officers and mental health clinicians together respond to mental health calls. They occupy the same floor at LAPD’s headquarters. At any given time, up to 16 co-responder teams are dashing across LA in response to 911 calls." - WORLD

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Aaron Blumer's picture


Four months later, a police officer killed George Floyd in broad daylight. Thousands of citizens piled onto the streets of LA demanding change, demanding justice, demanding a reimagination of our society. The city’s answer? Chopping $150 million from the LAPD budget.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Great article. On a side note, the article illustrates the consequences (for better or for worse) of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill from mental hospitals from around 40 or so years ago. Here's part of an article from an organization I used to work with over 20 years ago that explains the historical context. From it, one can see how important it would be for the police and social service organizations to work together in dealing with the mentally ill homeless population.

About the Mentally Ill Homeless by Rev. Donald Tack, Servants Center Founder

"According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 40% of America’s chronically homeless people suffer from some type of serious mental disorder.  The major mental illnesses we see among the street people are neurological brain disorders. These are real diseases.  These disorders are not caused by bad parenting, drug abuse or satanic activity.

Fifty years ago, most mentally ill persons were housed in large state hospitals.  During the second half of the twentieth century new psychiatric medications were discovered which helped to control the delusions and hallucinations of neurological brain disorders.  With these new medications, doctors and politicians believed that mentally ill persons could be released from hospitals and return to their home communities.

A network of local government funded Community Mental Health agencies was established.  Mentally ill people were to come to these centers as outpatients to receive medications and have case workers check on their general well-being.  These agencies were also to assist with appropriate housing placement.

For many of the mentally ill persons who had been institutionalized a couple of generations ago, the nationwide shift to community based treatment has been a wonderful blessing.  But for hundreds of thousands of other mentally ill people, deinstitutionalization has been a tragic disaster.  As the large state hospitals were being closed down, serious problems developed in America’s mental health system.  Not enough appropriate community housing with adequate support was funded.  And the housing and care facilities that were developed had a tendency to accept only cooperative clients.  Mentally ill persons who exhibited bizarre behavior or were thought to put other residents at risk, were not accepted or were ordered to leave.  Often, the only housing alternatives for these folks were the homeless shelters or literally living on the streets.

Persons suffering from untreated mental illnesses usually do not function well in homeless shelters.  Most shelters require people to leave during the day.  This is a serious problem in northern U.S. cities during the winter.

Shelters must have regulations.  But the disorganized thinking of many mentally ill homeless persons often interferes with their ability to comprehend and comply with rules.  For example, a man was told to leave a Grand Rapids shelter because he kept getting in and out of the supper line.  He wasn’t cutting in front of others as each time he left the line for a few moments, he would return to the same place in line.  A shelter staff person, untrained in dealing with mentally ill persons, told the ragged man to leave.  The homeless man protested. He tried to explain that he was getting in and out of line to place his ear against a certain brick in the wall.  His schizophrenic delusions caused him to think the brick was a special telecommunication device through which he needed to send and receive important messages on behalf of US Armed Forces.  The staff person simply laughed and put this pitiful man on the street.

Another case illustrates the lack of appropriate response to the mentally ill by the staff of most homeless shelters and missions.  An elderly mentally impaired man who had stayed nightly at a rescue mission for many years was suddenly told to leave.  Servants Center workers found him late that winter night, sitting in the lobby of the downtown Post Office.  He had contracted scabies which can rapidly spread to others.  Rather than get medical help for him, he was simply put out on the street in the dead of winter.  He survived the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, but was in danger of freezing to death on the streets of Grand Rapids!  He didn’t know that the Post Office lobby would be cleared out and locked at midnight.  We filed a petition with the Probate Court and were appointed legal guardian for this man who was suffering from dementia.  After a brief stay at our COIT HOUSE, we were able to help this man get accepted into the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans where he lives safely today.

While the major mental institutions were closing down all across American, another trend was developing which would greatly contribute to the rising number of mentally ill homeless persons: the patients’ rights movement.  While no thinking person wants to return to the bad old days when a person could be confined to an institution without legal representation, the pendulum has swung too far.  Today most states have laws that allow a mentally ill person to refuse treatment, unless it can be proven in court that the person is a danger to self or others, or is likely to put him/herself at risk. Untreated persons suffering from major thought disorders, such as paranoid schizophrenia, are often unable to accept the fact that they have a treatable disease.  These folks tend to have a high rate of declining treatment.  They often are highly suspicious of social workers and physicians.  Government funded mental health agencies justify their lack of services for the schizophrenic street people by stating that they are allowing these people to make choices about their treatment.  Servants Center’s response is that the ability to make valid choices is broken because of the neurological brain disease from which the homeless person is suffering.

Servants Center has found that many mentally ill homeless persons will respond positively and accept psychiatric treatment if we slowly build up trust with them over a long period of time.

This trust building phase can involve a wide variety of approaches.  Sometimes it is simply making regular contact with homeless people at the free meal places and shelters.  There are 13 emergency and transitional homeless shelter programs in Grand Rapids.  There are about 800 people in these shelters on any given night.  To overcome the paranoia and suspicion of many street people, we distribute blankets to those living under bridges and freeway overpasses.  We have helped mentally ill homeless people who have been victimized by crime, get the justice they deserve by going with them to file charges and work through the intimidating process of going to court. Sometimes a mentally ill street person will start to trust us because they have observed us helping other people get off the streets. Hospital emergency department staff call us and the response we bring helps to create trust with homeless patients.  Often the police are involved with the same people we are trying to serve.  Helping those who have contact with police get treatment instead of going to jail builds trust."

Aaron Blumer's picture


Thanks for sharing that, Joel.

Organizations like the one I work for have been working for years in a wide variety of ways to help police better respond to both the the homeless population and to calls for service involving mentally ill persons. Many of those efforts cost more than older ways of policing... and will be set back years by the funding cuts going on. 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.