Confusing Public Health With Public Safety Is Neither Healthy Nor Safe

Published on August 21, 2020, 12:12 pm
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Disease, recession, and the deadly use of force: 2020 has not been easy for anyone, and COVID-19 continues to plague our country and our world with manifold struggles and hardships. Earlier this summer, however, racial injustice surpassed public health in the American spotlight, and in addition to heightening accountability and cracking down on misconduct among police departments nationwide, lawmakers are beginning to reevaluate the roles and responsibilities with which our law enforcement officials have been tasked over the past few decades.

As New York Attorney General Letitia James recently put it, “Schools and social issues are beyond the scope and training of the police.” Over the past half-century, however, NYPD officers have been handed a ridiculous breadth of social and human services, including animal control, homeless services, mental health intervention, and school oversight, among others. This incongruity is most acutely manifest in the realm of mental health; law enforcement officials spend a startling 21 percent of their time responding to and transporting people with mental illnesses—a public health issue, not a public safety issue—and they wait an average of 2.5 hours longer when bringing an individual to a medical or psychiatric facility than a jail. Many officers report having to wait with individuals for 72 hours or more in these situations, doing nothing but still on duty, until beds became available for a custody transfer.

Police Officers will always serve a vital role in reducing crime in New York City, but we cannot afford to continue blurring and confusing that place by putting police in charge of social and human services that have nothing to do with law enforcement. In so doing, we have placed NYPD officers in untenable situations, left NYC’s disadvantaged populations in the dust, and wasted billions of taxpayer dollars helping nobody.

Racial bias and discrimination among police officers remains a well-documented phenomenon, but police departments have the capacity and urgent responsibility to minimize these outcomes through implicit bias training. What they do not have the capacity to do, and what they should never have been asked to do, is attempt to fast-track active duty law enforcement officials through a crash-course version of a Master’s in Social Work or a Doctor of Psychology.

People experiencing mental illness need expert help from mental health professionals, not tense confrontations with armed officers. By arbitrarily delegating mental health intervention responsibilities to police whose training and job descriptions have (rightly) never entailed social work or psychological treatment, we have doomed one of New York City’s most underserved and at-risk populations to stigma, ostracism, and a strong possibility of being arrested or killed before ever receiving the treatment they need.

Meaningful change of this kind, however, will never come from spurious baby steps taken to temporarily appease protesters and pundits until the national attention shifts to another issue. We need a systemic overhaul of the policing system in our city to place sensitive, socially nuanced responsibilities like mental health intervention services in the hands of trained, nonviolent experts. We do not need to continue treating public health problems like public safety problems, and we certainly don’t need to continue ordering legions of officers to muscle acutely underserved populations into submission without addressing the underlying issues they face on a daily basis.

In addition, the impetus for this change has become unprecedentedly urgent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; a combination of heightened micro- and macro-environmental stressors, increased isolation, reduced healthy social functioning and community engagement, and unreported domestic and child abuse have left at-risk NYC children and families in dire need of mental health services but without any clear support networks to which they can turn. Social distancing efforts and quarantine isolation practices have served as important measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, but they create perfect storms for traumatic experiences and mental health problems within the home. As a result, mental health experts anticipate that in analogous fashion to the way our medical systems were overrun with COVID-19 patients during the height of the pandemic, our mental health systems will be overrun with survivors of trauma, abuse, and suicide attempts about six months after quarantine restrictions lift— the typical length of time after a traumatic incident when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) begins to reveal itself through outward behavior.

In light of this impending crisis and NYC’s deeply flawed delegation of mental health intervention services, our path forward has become soberingly clear. We do not need reactive apprehension and arrest; we need proactive outreach. We do not need muscling or submission; we need evidence-based preventive services. We do not need police officers imitating expert Social Work on the fly; we need to redelegate those responsibilities—and their corresponding budget allocations—to social and human services agencies with decades of experience serving NYC’s most vulnerable.

Having worked for the past three summers as a full-time intern at Catholic Guardian Services, one of New York State’s oldest and largest human services agencies, I have had the chance to witness the life-changing effects that community-based human services programs can have for people in need. Having lived in Brooklyn my entire life, I have also seen the way the grand majority of police officers dedicate their lives to keeping our city safe. What I have not seen—what I am growing impatient to see—is a systematic examination from NYC’s leadership into the inexplicable breadth of the NYPD’s slate of responsibilities.

Impulsively delegating complex social issues to the police is sub-optimal at best and mutually disastrous at worst. Invest in human services. Invest in human beings. Invest in the future of my city.

My name is Dan Tully. I am a graduate of Regis High School in Manhattan, a rising Sophomore at Brown University in Providence, and a life-long New Yorker. For the past three summers, I have been working full-time in the Development Department at Catholic Guardian Services, one of New York State's oldest and largest human services agencies, and I have gotten the chance to witness the profound impacts that holistic human services can have on the lives of NYC children and families in crisis.