The Policing System and Its Failure to Address Mental Health

On Sept. 2, 2020, police body camera footage, written reports, and autopsy reports were released regarding the death of a black man named Daniel Prude; he died on Mar. 23, 2020 in Rochester, New York. For months everyone had been unaware of Daniel Prude’s death. It was formerly stated by officials that he died by overdosing on PCP. However, new reports present evidence that he had died by asphyxiation and the autopsy report declared it a case of homicide.

The Murder:

Daniel Prude was a Chicago native, living with his sister Tameshay. He had started acting strangely, most likely due to a mental health episode. Thus, Tameshay put Daniel on a plane to New York, where Daniels’ brother, Joe, lived. Tameshay hoped that Joe could help Daniel through this. Joe Prude told the New York Times that Daniel was talking to himself, saying how everyone was out to get him, and how the episodes got more and more frequent, so Joe requested for help. He called an ambulance and asked that Daniel be admitted to get some help as he was having a mental health crisis. Three hours later, they sent Daniel back home, which was shocking, because he was having a mental health crisis and was admitted for evaluation and help. But the doctor refused, saying it wasn’t necessary. Joe recalled that when he came back, he was acting like his normal self. Daniel wasn’t resentful about the idea that his brother thought he wasn’t okay, instead was accepting of what had happened and thankful for the care he was receiving. They were talking, just about normal brotherly things, when Daniel asked for a cigarette. Joe had gotten up to get one but when he came back, the back door was open and Daniel had gone out into the freezing cold, completely bare, most likely having another episode. Joe then called 911.

A while after the police came in contact with Daniel Prude, Daniel took his last breath under the suffocation of one of the police officers. The video[Trigger Warning: Please proceed with caution as the video might be disturbing for some viewers. Audience discretion is advised].

Daniel Prude’s death uncovered just how inexperienced the police can be in every other emergency taking place except a physical one. It may not be the first you have heard about the issue, but the police are spread too thin. They are receiving phone calls for things that they aren’t equipped to handle. The police respond to everything from murder and kidnapping phone calls, to intervening in the issues of homelessness and shoplifting. They are prepared for the worst as they should be. But that means that it is so dangerous for those same people to be handling issues where it is CRUCIAL to know how to de-escalate like in the case of Daniel Prude and those with mental illnesses. You may hear the phrase “Defund the Police,” and it may sound extreme, but the idea behind it is basically what we’ve been talking about.

It’s the slogan that supports divesting funds from police departments and reallocating them to non-policing forms of public safety and community support, such as social services, youth services, housing, education, healthcare, and other community resources. This could drastically help communities in dire need of assistance rather than protection as almost one-fourth of the people in the US who are shot by the police are those with mental health crises according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How can we maintain public safety without the aggressiveness that the police present which sometimes results in the loss of the very lives that they have sworn to protect?What system should the most praised democracy in the world use to keep our citizens safer and less scared?

Reforming Policing:

The United States policing and public safety system is quite unique from those of other advanced democracies and they could honestly learn a lot from them. Policing systems in many of these countries are more centralized; for example in Sweden, there is one national police force overseen by the national government. A mental health ambulance, staffed with two specialized psychiatric nurses and a paramedic, respond to emergency calls in Sweden from people with severe mental health or behavioral distress. Before this initiative, those kinds of calls were handled by the police but now this psychiatric team works with the police in cases like these. For the conservatives here in the US afraid of bigger government oversight, we can take lessons from Canada or the UK, that also have national, state, and local authorities. A 2020 study found the team “created a safe environment and actively involved the patient in their care by creating an open and safe place for dialogue”. This type of environment that is present in many there European nations like the UK uses a method that’s on the basis of policing by consent. The countries with this type of philosophy believe that the police should gain authority with the notion of respect, rather than fear. This model of policing encourages that success is measured not in how many arrests officers have made but rather, by the absence of crime itself. The actions taken by these countries aren’t an act of weakness on crime, but they have shown that they have been able to statistically raise the public safety of those in their community. Being a respected body of authority has been proven a much more impactful and effective way to maintain public safety than to be a feared body of authority.

That atmosphere comes from the type of environment the police end up creating and that is when policing education comes into play.

Police training varies a lot from country to country but the US spends a surprisingly low amount of time training their recruits. On average, police trainees spend about 21 weeks in training and they are modeled in military boot camps while, for example in Norway, police-hopefuls must complete a bachelor’s degree where they even spend one year on society and ethics and then more time in training in specifically psychiatry and sociology.

“I think that the United States must learn that it takes time to educate people,” says Rune Glomseth, a professor at Norweigan police university college. “Police are a very special role in society and you can’t just train them for a few weeks. You need time.”

Giving better training to our police officers won’t only help increase public support for the police and public safety, it also allows the police to be more firm on their grounds and actions. If the police are trained more extensively, they know what they are doing, they know the procedures, and they can stay calmer during an incident. It allows them to be more competent and not react in an unwise way because they can remain a cooler head. This in turn will give officers more options to take decisive and effective action without harming themselves, or the person they are trying to reach.

Accountability is also a huge part in how police officers end up doing their job at the end of the day. In the US, it’s extremely hard to hold police accountable for their actions for a lot of reasons and one of the reasons is that it’s extremely hard to even start an investigation for police officers misconduct. Why? Because of police unions. Police unions have managed to arrange strong protections for the members of their union unfortunately many times at the expense of public safety. In some states, there is something given to the police as a “cooling-off period.” where they are given a period of time between when they are accused of something and when they have to get interrogated, and some of these cooling off periods can be as short as 24 hours or as long as 30 days. Most other citizens aren’t given that time frame because it is known that the first 48 hours after the accusation are the most crucial and the police know that. Once they finally get interrogated, they still have more protections. In some places, police officers are allowed to request for documentation of all the evidence that is presented against them and they can know who filed these complaints which allows for intimidation among their communities. In the US, a lot of the time we see circumstances where institutions are more interested in protecting the police than they are about protecting the public, and that’s why the police are so unafraid to use excessive violence because they know that it’s unlikely that they could get prosecuted. That type of excessive force is what leads to a 22% murder rate among police of mental health incidents and is the reason why we need to tackle the issues regarding protections of police union.

We shouldn’t be afraid of the very people tasked to keep us safe, however, the police make it hard when they use tactics of manipulation, intimidation, and brute excessive force. We do have to keep our public officers to a higher standard BECAUSE of the role they play in our society, and we cannot excuse misconduct. Their actions have criminalized people with mental health adding on to the stigma that already surrounds it. Their actions have caused mass protests across the globe, and it’s time to listen to these protests. We need police reform and we need it now.