Homeless welcome more compassionate criminal justice, activists say reforms don’t go far enough, and scholars fear scaling back police presence could endanger civilians.
By Katie Aulenbacher
Who do you want to respond when you call 911? When 911 is called on you? Does the answer change if you’re experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis?
Against a backdrop of “defund the police” and decades of failed mental health policies, Trump signed Executive Order 13929, “Safe Policing for Safe Communities,” directing law enforcement to partner with social services in their response to homelessness, mental illness, and addiction.
While the legal system no longer officially takes a punitive approach to homelessness, some advocates embrace further caps on law enforcement officers’ authority over this vulnerable population. Others see the order as an affirmation and continuance of standard police practices.
Highlighting the growing social work burden on law enforcement officers, Section 4 of the June 16th order begins, “Since the mid-twentieth century, America has witnessed a reduction in targeted mental health treatment. Ineffective policies have left more individuals with mental health needs on our Nation’s streets, which has expanded the responsibilities of law enforcement officers. As a society, we must take steps to safely and humanely care for those who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse in a manner that addresses such individuals’ needs and the needs of their communities.”
Excerpt from Executive Order 13929
“Since the mid-twentieth century, America has witnessed a reduction in targeted mental health treatment. Ineffective policies have left more individuals with mental health needs on our Nation’s streets, which has expanded the responsibilities of law enforcement officers. As a society, we must take steps to safely and humanely care for those who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse in a manner that addresses such individuals’ needs and the needs of their communities.
It is the policy of the United States to promote the use of appropriate social services as the primary response to individuals who suffer from impaired mental health, homelessness, and addiction, recognizing that, because law enforcement officers often encounter such individuals suffering from these conditions in the course of their duties, all officers should be properly trained for such encounters.”
One dark side of this increased burden is the threat to life. “People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians,” according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
In light of officers’ expanded responsibilities, Safe Policing for Safe Communities directs the Attorney General to “identify and develop opportunities to train law enforcement officers” for encounters with people experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. The order also requires departments to enact community-support and co-responder models of policing, which emphasize proactive problem solving and the provision of social services. The Secretary of Health and Human Services has until September 14th to survey successful examples of these models and make recommendations for their broader implementation.
“This is a good start…having teams of people respond to some of these calls instead of just police officers that have the expertise to be able to de-escalate and deal with people in a mental health crisis,” said Former D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, per the Pennsylvania Municipal League.
A police officer with experience in Texas and Washington, D.C., whose department asked him to remain anonymous, commented that the order’s “recommendations align with the best practices of many major police departments,” and he thinks more widespread crisis training “is a great idea, as it most immediately results in shorter police response times instead of calling for a specialized officer from across the city.”
Many members of Congress expressed their support for the order as well. “With this executive order, President @realDonaldTrump is taking a strong lead on progress toward more safe policing for all Americans,” Indiana Senator Mike Braun tweeted.
Trump’s order aligns with the analysis of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit policy organization. PERF’s 2018 policy brief, “The Police Response to Homelessness,” explains that law enforcement agencies “increasingly are viewing the [homelessness] issue as a problem to be solved, rather than an enforcement issue that can be addressed by arresting homeless persons. So the police role is evolving. Because most police and sheriffs’ departments are not given funding and resources to take on responsibilities for helping homeless persons, they must develop partnerships with a wide range of social service agencies and other government departments in order to have an impact.”
PERF’s brief suggests that police departments should “provide staff with training to work effectively with persons experiencing homelessness,” and “involve the full range of service providers—health, human services, housing, employment, fire and emergency medical services, and nonprofit and faith-based communities.” The particular trainings PERF recommends are Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training and Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) training.
A similar orientation towards support over punishment is seen in the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s policy towards the homeless, which states: “The purpose of this policy is to ensure that personnel are sensitive to the needs and rights of the homeless population…and reaffirm that being homeless is not a crime.”
“When homeless persons are described as a suspect in a 911 call, the first thing that goes through my mind as a police officer is whether or not the behavior is in fact criminal…I find that the homeless are often more educated on [relevant] ordinances than an average citizen.”
The policy also affirms the need to protect “the rights, dignity and personal property of the homeless” and outlines the following policies for arrest situations: “If a police officer observes a homeless person(s) engaged in criminal activity, when practical and prudent to do so, an alternative to a physical arrest shall be used…When encountering a homeless person who has committed a misdemeanor law violation and the continued freedom of the individual would not result in a breach of the peace or a more serious crime, police officers are encouraged to offer services when available in lieu of physical arrest.”
Broward County Sheriff’s Office (BSO) Homeless Initiative Captain Scott Russell is also “extremely pleased” about the reforms, describing the increased awareness of issues impacting homeless individuals as “the pearl in the poo” of 2020. “I want to be a part of the solution and definitely don’t want to be part of the problem,” he said. Broward is “way ahead of other places in this country,” with other departments across the nation having sought out their expertise for decades, he added.
BSO’s Homeless Outreach Team, which received the International Association of Chiefs of Police 2014 Civil Rights Award, undergoes a total of 80 hours of social services training and leverages de-escalation techniques, trauma-informed care, and the knowledge of behavioral health professionals.
“If you’re going to help the homeless you really need to have a constellation of colleagues who are going to assist you in addressing these very complex issues,” Russell said, explaining that his team functions as “mainly the introduction” to other services: “Our job is to build that rapport, try to convince that person to seek out help if they’re not a threat to themselves or others.”
The Texas officer commented that “when homeless persons are described as a suspect in a 911 call, the first thing that goes through my mind as a police officer is whether or not the behavior is in fact criminal…I find that the homeless are often more educated on [relevant] ordinances than an average citizen.”
These policies contrast with historical vagrancy laws — broadly ruled unconstitutional in the 1970’s for vagueness — that did in fact criminalize the state of being homeless.
Some worry that current policies don’t do enough, arguing that police should not be in the business of managing mental health and social welfare crises.
While COSAC Foundation fundraising director Arthur Goncalves has had a “great” experience with law enforcement in North Florida so far, not having “had one single problem with the police,” when he was living in a shelter and vending papers in South Florida, his experience was mixed. “I had police officers opening the window and telling me, ‘Get out of here, you don’t belong here, yada yada yada yada.’ And then ten minutes later, here comes another police officer — great. ‘Thank you for the work you guys do,’ and handing us ten dollars, twenty dollars.”
Goncalves tries not to dwell on his negative encounters with officers in South Florida because, “unfortunately, I went through hell with them,” he says.
Some worry that current policies don’t do enough, arguing that police should not be in the business of managing mental health and social welfare crises. “Rather than transferring responsibilities from over-burdened police officials to other professionals better equipped to deal with the challenges posed by mental illness, homelessness, and addiction, Trump’s Executive Order doubles down on the role of police officials,” writes Villanova University Law Professor Teressa Ravenell on the American Constitution Society blog. “Emergency response systems currently assign different responsibilities to firefighters, EMTs, and police officials. It is hardly a stretch to imagine adding other professionals, like counselors and interventionists, to this system.”
In the same vein, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and American Psychiatric Association, among others, signed an open letter saying that “increasing the capacity of social workers and other mental health professionals to work alongside law enforcement to co-respond to address situations does not go far enough in reducing the role of law enforcement.”
Echoing these concerns, the Los Angeles City Council issued a motion on the same day the executive order was signed recognizing that “budget cuts in social services have resulted in law enforcement taking on a greater role in dealing with homelessness, mental health and even COVID-19 related responses. We have gone from asking the police to be part of the solution, to being the only solution for problems they should not be called on to solve in the first place.”
Novel emergency response models have already gained traction in some communities. Eugene, Oregon has incorporated crisis workers in its response system for over 30 years, and Los Angeles is planning similar changes, with the LAPD union spokesperson saying, “Not every call our city leaders have asked us to respond to should be a police response. We’ve been saying that for years. We are willing to work with stakeholders to determine how, or if, we respond to non-criminal and non-emergency calls so we can free up time to respond quickly to 911 calls, address violent crime and property crime, and expand our community policing efforts.”
Others caution against too much scaling back of police forces, since studies show the presence of law enforcement officers decreases violence. “One of the most robust, most uncomfortable findings in criminology is that putting more officers on the street leads to less violent crime,” writes Princeton Sociology Professor Patrick Sharkey in the Washington Post.
“I think the argument to remove police from the social work business altogether is predicated on a belief that the police inherently escalate situations,” commented the Texas officer. He explained that most departments require de-escalation training, and not all calls are safe for other emergency workers. For example, when the subject of a call “seems very irate or unpredictable, other services — whether EMS, the fire department, or some social service — are usually very hesitant to approach without the police at least standing by.”
When he responds to an emergency, first he has to determine, “Is the scene safe? Is the suspect or a weapon still on scene? Do I need more officers or an EMS unit to respond?” Only after the scene has stabilized can he put the person in touch with whatever services are needed “to improve their long-term situation.”
“Generally, the majority of my encounters with the homeless deal with them as victims or witnesses to crimes rather than as suspects…”
Even Eugene’s CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program, which dispatches a mobile crisis intervention team through local emergency and non-emergency numbers, acknowledges their own limitations, warning that “any person who reports a crime in progress, violence, or a life-threatening emergency may receive a response from the police or emergency medical services instead of or in addition to CAHOOTS.” The program stresses that these situations are rare: “Last year, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police backup was requested only 250 times.”
The question of minimizing crime is of particular relevance to the homeless community.
Homeless individuals both commit and fall victim to crime at a higher rate than the general population, especially when mental illness is involved. A meta-analysis of criminal activity and victimization among individuals suffering from severe mental illness published in Psychiatric Services found lifetime arrest rates of 63 to 90 percent and lifetime victimization rates of 74 to 87 percent.
Observing a violent crime rate 40 times higher in the unhoused mentally ill population than the housed mentally ill population, a different Psychiatric Services study concluded, “Homeless defendants were significantly more likely to have been charged with victimizing strangers.” This data raises questions about the need to protect the homeless and the public, and the proper intervention to crime in vulnerable communities.
“Generally, the majority of my encounters with the homeless deal with them as victims or witnesses to crimes rather than as suspects. The risk of being victimized as a homeless person is even more amplified when one lives alone, as they’re more vulnerable to crimes of opportunity,” the Texas officer said.
He explained that shelters are another area of vulnerability: “I have heard homeless persons say that they are hesitant to report cases of assault or theft because the shelter staff may not believe them and they’re afraid that if they’re seen as causing trouble, then they may not be allowed to stay in the shelter. I think there is still a lot of productive work that can be done to protect homeless persons — such as more security in shelters and more cameras in their public areas — and to educate homeless persons on their rights and protections as victims.”
Former LA County Prosecutor Joseph Charney presented another perspective in Pasadena Star-News: “Our politicians, media and homeless advocates obscure the issue of rampant crime with claims that street encampments are primarily due to a lack of affordable housing. But this is not the primary cause of violent crime by the homeless. It is rather the toxic mixture of lawlessness, drug dependency and mental illness that prevails on the street that has propelled a high percentage of homeless to commit serious crimes, against other homeless as well as the general public.”
“In some cases they need us to be there, because all of a sudden they show up and here’s a guy that is covered from head to toe in feces and wielding a knife…”
The statistics on violent crime within the homeless community could raise concerns about the safety of crisis workers in the co-responder model, but Russell said that over the course of 20 years and 20,000 contacts with homeless people, no one working alongside him has gotten hurt, “not that it can’t happen.” One time, a person took a swing at his co-responder, and he “was there to prevent that. And that’s one time out of 20,000.”
Despite this track record of safety, Russell explained that police are still a necessary piece of the puzzle when someone presents a danger to themselves or others: “In some cases they need us to be there, because all of a sudden they show up and here’s a guy that is covered from head to toe in feces and wielding a knife. Mobile Crisis [a behavioral health emergency response team], they’re not trained for that.”
While the crisis intervention model BSO follows — the “Memphis Model” — was designed with an eye to civilian rights and safety, it may keep officers safer as well. The implementation of the model in Memphis “resulted in an 80% reduction of officer injuries during mental health crisis calls,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports.
In order to read a situation and decide the best course of action, officers must be trained to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness, personality disorders, developmental disorders, and memory disorders, according to Russell. Standard operating procedure is to use escalation to maintain control — if someone is shouting, you shout louder. When responding to a behavioral crisis, however, the opposite approach is needed. Officers should steer clear of triggers — words or actions that could upset the person — and find hooks, or areas of emotional attachment, so as to de-escalate the situation. “Anybody that knows anything about life knows that you’re not going to get a mentally ill person to quiet down because you’re yelling back at them,” he said.
Russell illustrated the importance of assessing a suspect’s mental state with additional examples: “Cops back in the day loved mirrored sunglasses, sometimes today. You take those mirrored sunglasses [off] because those guys with schizophreni[a] are going, ‘Who’s he? You’re hiding your eyes because you’re one of them.’ So, you know, you turn your radio down…They’re already hearing voices. They don’t need to hear a third.”
He contrasted memory disorders like Alzheimer’s with psychological disorders, using the example of an unruly retirement home guest: “That needs to be a hospital, not a psych ward, and let’s certainly don’t arrest that person…Because they’re acting out and they’re a little violent, they may have [discomfort] from a UTI. How many times they can’t tell or express what’s going on in that retirement home. They’re just agitated, they’re deeply upset, and those are the first things you ask for — have you looked at the medical side.
Goncalves has to make similar on the spot assessments in his supervisory role at COSAC’s homeless shelter. Asked who he would prefer to respond to a 911 call, Goncalves said that it “all depends, you know, the situation. I call both of them already.” For medical interventions, he thinks social workers do a “very nice” job at helping shelter residents. Despite the unpleasantness he experienced from some law enforcement officers when he was homeless, for other events, he wants the police.
Safe Policing for Safe Communities honors Goncalves’ preference, preserving a role for the police while expanding social service options.