What I Learned About the Police During the Pandemic

September 21, 2020

The role of police has expanded from law and order to first responder, mental health intervention, and other duties others may be better qualified to fulfill.

The protests following the death of George Floyd inspired the organization Freedom Lifted to sponsor a “History of Policing” class. This organization supports Black communities while also teaching history and politics to educators and children.1 I took this policing class in June and early July of this year. Since all classes were online, about 500 students could attend from all around the United States. We were able to discuss current events and the previous lesson in small “break out groups” on Zoom. My history classes had not covered the development of law enforcement, and I had never discussed topics of race and policing in groups before. I did not know how our police system evolved until I stumbled upon this class. 

The development of American law enforcement

In the North, the police originally served to divide classes and protect wealth. The police defended wealthy people from the less advantaged. In the South, slave patrols were the first form of policing. These groups cruelly punished enslaved Black people. After slavery was abolished, a new form of policing oppressed former enslaved people: The Black Codes. These allowed white people to criminalize Black people as a way to keep them in manual labor. The rise of the KKK and later the Jim Crow Laws restricted the freedom of Black Americans.2 The foundations of policing reflect our raciallydivided society. Although there have been many advances, racial bias and profiling are still prevalent today.

The role of police officers has also expanded, and they are often first responders to persons with mental illnesses. For crime, the police may investigate and arrest. However, for a case involving a mental health crisis, the police can do more harm than help. For example, a man named Eddie Lee Johnson had been a patient in a few mental institutions. According to The New York Times, in 1981, Eddie was holding a knife and started charging at the officers around him. An officer felt threatened and fatally shot Eddie.3 Officers are taught to shoot when threatened, so this response was justified from a legal perspective. However, Eddie’s death may have been avoided if mental health counselors had been on the scene. Later, Houston would pass reforms to better protect the lives of persons with psychiatric disorders.4 Even with these reforms, jails today hold more people with mental health issues than hospitals do.

It is also dangerous for police officers to handle these cases. Moreover, it is much more expensive to incarcerate persons with mental illness than to properly treat them in mental care facilities. Since the 1970s, around 170 police officers died at the hands of persons with mental illness.5 To better protect our police officers, we may want to redistribute some of the roles police play in our society to better-qualified health care professionals.

The need for more emergency response medical workers mirrors the needs in cases of domestic violence. The pandemic trapped victims with no escape from their abusers.6 The unstable economy, the pandemic’s stresses, and the close quarters of quarantine drove abuse rates up.7 A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that “female victimizations (24%) were four times as likely as male victimizations (6%) to go unreported due to fear of reprisal.” An estimated 110,000 cases in total were unreported because of fear.8 Police may also not be the best responders for abuse cases. Instead of emphasizing the arrest of the abuser, we should focus on the psychological distress of the victim. Domestic violence should be handled by psychologists or psychiatrists and assisted by police only as needed.

Empathy plays a role

Sometimes we speculate, “I would never do something like that if I were in that situation.” Humans try to heroize themselves, prompting such a self-serving statement. When officers panic, they may reach for their guns. Our instincts for self-preservation are very persuasive. Unfortunately, race may influence an officer’s decision in heat of the moment. Because of racial biases, racial training for our police is vital to a safer community. Training, as well as more awareness of instances of police violence, and more professionals to respond instead of the police, would help build a more humane society. These problems stem from the policing system, not from the officers themselves. Many risk their lives and join the police to protect our communities.

Ultimately, the police system is a reflection of the society we choose to live in. Let’s build a police system that protects everyone.

Ms Goldstein is from Evanston, IL. She is 15 years old.

References

1. Core Values. Freedom Lifted. 2018. Accessed September 18, 2020. https://www.freedomlifted.com/about-civil-rights-tours-values

2. Muhammad KG, THROUGHLINE staff. < American Police. NPR. Published June 4, 2020. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/869046127

3. Mental Patient Killed in Houston After Confronting Group of Police. The New York Times. Published December 15, 1981. Accessed September 18, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/12/15/us/mental-patient-killed-in-houston-after-confronting-group-of-police.html

4. Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. A Guide to Understanding Mental Health Systems and Services in Texas, 3rd ed. 2016. Accessed September 18, 2020. https://hogg.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Mental-Health-Guide-2016.pdf

5. Earley P. Mental illness is a health issue, not a police issue. The Washington Post. June 15, 2020. Accessed September 18, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/15/mental-illness-is-health-issue-not-police-issue/

6. United Nations. COVID-19 response. Domestic Abuse: How to respond? Accessed August 7, 2020. https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/domestic-abuse

7. Taub A. A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide. The New York Times. April 6, 2020. Accessed September 18, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html

8. Reaves BA. Police Response to Domestic Violence, 2006-2015. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. U.S. Department of Justice. May 2017. Accessed September 18, 2020. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/prdv0615.pdf