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The Police and Public Health

by Melissa Morabito
August 16, 2020

This interview with Melissa Morabito, a professor in the Criminal Justice department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and an expert on police response to public health problems, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Melissa | There are spaces that we don't necessarily want the police to be in, and the police don't necessarily want to be in, but they're there. I look at police responses to people with mental illnesses. I look at police response to sexual assault. I have a new project looking at public schools and police.

frank | How did it come to be that the police are the ones to call for all these situations? 

With the advent of 911 in 1968, we were socialized to call the police. It is a practice that we've been socialized into. 

The police create this boundary for unpleasant things we don't want to deal with, we rely on them because it's easier. I always give my students the example of an officer friend responding to a noise complaint during the first week on the job, and it was a woman who had turned her music up while she was vacuuming, but had refused to turn it down for her neighbor, so he called the police. 

On top of the socialization piece, we have not fully funded alternative systems in these areas. Think about mental illness. We know that we built community mental health centers, but we established no funding for them. So you had people who were let go right out of psychiatric hospitals, and there was no community healthcare provider for them.

People ask, “what do we do about police response to homelessness?” Well, we can provide housing for people, but the police can't do that. They're still going to end up getting called when a person has been living in front of a business or in front of someone's house. And as long as those calls persist, the police have to figure out something to do there to keep the community happy and engaged.

I want to be clear up front. I don’t think we will ever reach a point where the police are never responding to these things.

Even if we fully fund other sorts of services, I think that there will always be times where the police are the ones who show up. That's a concern for me with the conversation around defunding the police because if the police are going to show up, we want them to be the best possible when they get there.

 Does it feel plausible to socialize other outlets, different versions of 911?

Some cities have worked with 311, which is a non-police information line. In Houston, they have a behavioral health version of 911.

I mean, the Tampa Police Department put up some of the craziest 911 calls on Youtube - I am talking about calls completely unrelated to criminal activity, but people don't know where else to call. In many communities, it is the only 24 hours a day number that you can call and you can get somebody.

And if the police are to respond, what is the framework that underlines how they approach these crises?

If you're looking at police response, there are a few models. There's the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), which came out of Memphis, Tennessee from Lieutenant Sam Proctor - you train 10% of your police department as CIT officers. They go through 40-hour training, they wear special pins so that the community members know who they are, and there is a partnership with a local hospital. 

Co-Responders is another model. This is also the model in Boston, MA where I am the evaluator. In this model, a clinician rides along with a police officer. The clinician has access to medical records that the police officer doesn't and should have access to. For example, they know where and by whom someone is being treated so they can connect those pieces. The idea is the police officer makes sure everything is safe, and the clinician would then take over. 

Can you see a change in the decision-making process when these models are used?

There has been research that shows that the training does reduce stigma. In that sense, it's an evidence-based practice. But terms of long term outcomes for people with mental illnesses, it is still unclear. 

You wrote in one of your papers, “Not surprisingly because they are policed based interventions, they have historically been evaluated on quantifiable police outcomes."

What do you mean by that? 

A police department is interested in what's happening at that moment. 

Was force used? Are they able to deescalate the situation? If a person has committed a crime, how was it handled? Was that person arrested? They don't want to have a lot of arrests of people with mental illnesses because they know that that's not going to help, especially for a low-level offense where they will be right back out.

For a long time, taking that person to the emergency department was considered to be a successful outcome. But when we look at what happens for people who go to EDs they're unlikely to get hooked up with long term care. They're going to be patched up, and then they're going to be sent back on their way for this whole cycle to happen again. But for police departments, they're just concerned with what happens at that moment because that's what they're tasked with doing.

As a researcher, I want to know what happens next. And what are the outcomes with a crisis intervention team versus co-responders versus another approach? And are there long term benefits to the person? Are they more likely to get his housing? Are they more likely to get access to drug treatment if that's what they want?

What do you think the best approach is moving forward?

I think we need more relationships between police and mental health providers. On the emergency services side, we need to keep up in the partnerships.

This is not police created problem. And police shouldn't be looked at as the only solution, but we know that they're going to get called.

If we are thinking long term, we need to fund other services, and we need housing for our most vulnerable people. 

I think we want to continue training police and creating these partnerships for those times of crisis, but I think, overall, we just want to reduce the number of crises. I think we do that by beefing up some of the other services. 

For me, when I hear “defund the police,” I hear let's move funding to take away some of those responsibilities from the police and put them where they should be. We know that these things are possible with money, but there has to be a political will to do that.

What do you make of the push for reform and abolition? 

I'm really happy to have these conversations and I'm so glad that they're occurring. I think discussions about reform and abolition and defunding are important. 

I'd like to start out though by really thinking through what the police role is and what they do on a regular basis. 

I think we need to start off with an honest accounting of what that job looks like, what we want them to do, and what we don't want them to do. If we want that job description to change, how do we take those responsibilities away and who do we give them to? I'm not a big fan of just saying, we're going to take all money away. Because in a time of crisis, if you call 911 and if they're not ready to respond right that is a problem.

Also, 911 call takers and dispatchers make the decision of who to send. And 911 call takers are frequently left out of reform efforts. That was one of the big problems with community policing. A lot of communities didn’t train the dispatchers. So they didn't care that you were problem-solving and talking to community members, they were going to respond to the next call. 

How do you feel like the reputation of police officers affects their ability to police and the interactions that they have? 

We can look back at history. This is not the first time we've been here. If we think about the 1960s, you had Kent state, you had the Vietnam War protests, you had civil rights protests, you had rioting throughout cities. 

Police morale was at an all-time low, crime was at an all-time high, and budgets were low. And they came back from that. I think it will come back around, and officers will retain the legitimacy that they had before. Even now, if you look at polls of police officers, people generally will say that they don't like police officers, but when you ask them about the police officers in their community they have a much higher rating for them.

In the 1990s where there was a big push for transparency. There are things now that came out of that. You go on websites for most major police departments and you can pull up crime data. You could never do that before. You can find out a lot about what's happening in your community because it was demanded.

Now, there is a lot of discussion about officers who have a lot of complaints who are not fired, and instead given the opportunity to be very resigned and can move from one department to another. The police community owes it to us to make sure that they do not become police officers. If they're doing such a bad job, that your department is telling them they need to leave, there needs to be a way to make sure that they can't work someplace else. 

Why hasn't that happened? 

Well, I mean, it's the same reason that businesses allow people to resign rather than fire them: because we don't want a lawsuit. We hope they will get another job and it won't be a problem.

I don't think that what happens in policing is so different in that regard from the corporate world, but the implications are much greater. 

What needs to be done about addressing racism directly?

A lot of the focus has been on implicit bias. I'm not sure that that's necessarily the way to go, and the research doesn't really show that it is particularly promising. 

There needs to be greater transparency in the discussion about where resources are put in communities and which communities are going to receive the bulk of patrolling. 

Are police departments organized locally? Who is in charge of coming out and saying that they are going to make these changes?

There are between 12,000 and 18,000 police departments. And I can't tell you how many, because police departments can open up and shut down at any time and they don't need to tell anybody. 

We have designed it on purpose because they are hyperlocal. When we look at the national incident-based reporting system and when we look at those national crime numbers, that is all voluntary response. They are not required to submit to the federal government.

Who knew.

There has been a big push in Congress to collect more data, but again, they can not mandate it.

What do you think about that?

It comes from the fact that we didn't want an occupying force in the United States. We wanted to give local control.

States that will create their own posts, officer standards, and training, and they will set minimum standards for the state. And then you have departments that may go above and beyond. But states can require that the police department do something, and the federal government can not.

Interesting. Have you seen a push by states to get more information and data from their local police departments?

Absolutely. Here in Massachusetts, there is a big push for reform. They're pushing for a Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) to set minimum standards in Massachusetts, which we never had because we didn't think we needed it, apparently.

Academy training is decided either by the individual department or by the state, depending on what type of Academy. Most police departments don't have their own police Academy, they're not big enough. They will go to a regional one, or a larger city.

And are they public or private academies?

In the Northeast, they're all public. If you go down to Florida, you can go to a community college academy, which you can pay for yourself and then put yourself out to be hired. So it depends on which part of the country you're in. The standards are very different all over - some of the more rural areas the rules are quite flexible. 

In parts of Louisiana, if you work 35 hours a week or less, you never have to have to go through the Academy because you are considered part-time.

Do you think there needs to be some sort of blanketed national police exam that you need to pass in order to carry a gun? 

But what would that entail? Really?

I don't know...

When I think about it, like universally, every police officer has to qualify with their firearm. They have to know how to use it. When you think about it, most police officers will never even pull their weapon out of their holster, and they never fire it except in training. Research tells if they're not great shots.

What happens on top of that, that is different across communities and across states. So what would a blanket policy look like? 

What would we want officers to learn? We don't have any consensus on that.