A Tennessee Highway Patrol officer at a recent protest outside the Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: Alex Kent)
Over the past few weeks, I have watched as the sentiment of “Defund the Police” has broadened throughout the country. At first, this idea was off-putting to me and I was frustrated “all” law enforcement-related jobs were being villainized by the absolute horrendous actions of a few. Throughout Nashville and this nation, there are excellent law enforcement folks doing a really tough job and doing it the right way. As some time passed and I was able to think about what people are truly asking for, I realized I have been calling for similar action, just under a different banner.
I have worked in jails and prisons all my adult life. Many years ago, I became active and took a leadership role as president of the American Correctional Association. During that time, I traveled internationally as a representative of the United States corrections profession. At a conference in Belgium, with a large sense of pride, I stood to introduce myself in front of practitioners from all over the world.
The reaction from my international colleagues was not what I expected. I could hear a low murmur sweep the room – even snickering. The feelings from other country representatives regarding the U.S. and our criminal justice system became painfully clear. I was aware our incarceration rates were much higher than other countries; I wasn’t aware we were (and still are) a source of mockery when it comes to this subject until that very moment.
This experience made me recognize here in the U.S., unlike many other countries, we use the criminal justice system for far too many social service-type issues. I started to better understand the importance of redirecting funds. My hope was money could be used in other areas to benefit the most vulnerable of our community. Many times, I have said publicly: “Thirty percent of those individuals in our facilities suffer from mental illness. You should take 30% of our budget, 30% of the police budget, the district attorney’s, the courts, etc., and dedicate that money to a fully functioning community-based mental health system that actually helps people, doesn’t criminalize them.”
People like to say we “deinstitutionalized” the mentally ill in the late 1960’s. No, we didn’t. We began institutionalizing them in the criminal justice system. During this same time, the number of diagnosable mental disorders tripled. These two factors are what led our country to this crisis; making jails de facto mental health institutions. We hide mental illness and charge the bill to local jails by calling it a criminal justice matter. This isn’t unique to Nashville. Taxpayers across this nation are paying for a person to be arrested, booked, secured, and housed as a security threat inside of a facility that is not designed with mental health treatment in mind. Most people, when encountering someone who is naked in the park or counting pink elephants in the air, automatically call the police, instead of call for help. Our society has conditioned itself to believe police are necessary when someone is sick. Take this problem out of the criminal justice system and take the money with it.
Law enforcement must deal with many social issues that do not require a sworn officer. Honestly, our society has left few viable alternatives. I recently watched a Sunday morning show featuring the International Association of Chiefs of Police past president. He explained how officers in their routine daily job assignment spend 80% of their time on social service needs and 20% on law enforcement needs. Ironically, 80% of their training is on law enforcement and 20% on social services. This isn’t an issue police agencies asked for; it’s something that has evolved over the years and landed in the criminal justice system. It became popular for politicians to pass legislation and funding to support “public safety” initiatives. The end result is what we are seeing today. Many social service and healthcare issues such as mental health, addiction, and homelessness have transferred to the criminal justice system.
It’s important for us all to stop and seek common ground. Anyone who feels they are wrongly attacked or accused is naturally going to be defensive. Law enforcement has been under attack lately, although in some cases rightly so. For many, it is a difficult time to discuss the subject “Defund the Police” because, on the surface, it sounds extremely offensive or even an impossible consideration. If we look at it as shifting funding to the appropriate place maybe we can meet in the middle. Reallocating resources and building a community-based mental health system will not only save those who suffer from mental illness, but will also allow sheriffs, police, district attorneys, courts, and others to focus on more appropriate matters.
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