With the recent calls for civility from our elected officials, I believe we should also consider the same standard for those who unnecessarily inflame difficult issues and distract from productive conversation to resolve them.
The tragic death of Andrew Holland became the lightning rod and central issue of the sheriff’s race. Those who would have had Sheriff Ian Parkinson step down or face criminal prosecution went so far as to label Parkinson’s actions and the support of other law enforcement leaders, both current and retired, akin to “fascism.” This labeling is patently untrue and distracts focus from the steps that have already been taken and the work that needs to be done to assist those with mental health issues.
Those of us who have been in law enforcement take great pride in being identified as “peace officers.” Over the past 40 years as the traditional social service programs at the state and local level have been diminished or eliminated, we have worked with our officers and with our local communities to move from a strict “enforcement of the law” mentality to a role more likened to an ombudsman for maintaining peace and order. This is particularly true in working with those suffering from mental illness. It remains law enforcement’s goal to work with this population with compassion and understanding, and by helping to provide the best resolution to whatever incident caused an interaction with law enforcement in the first place.
Unfortunately, for four decades the women and men of our police departments can tell you first hand that this has been a growing challenge. As mental health services have declined at the state level, this placed increasing pressure on counties and local agencies to deal with the consequences. It has generally fallen to law enforcement to become first responders when a person suffering from mental illness is in crisis and becoming a threat to themselves or others. While law enforcement has increased training and provided equipment to deal in a less-than-lethal manner in these crisis contacts, the fact remains that many of these individuals are out in the general community without medical supervision, programming or support because mental health services, including housing, have become unavailable.
Law enforcement agencies have worked for many years to adapt to this growing concern. To the officers on the street, it represents an increasing part of their workloads. It ranges from reports of someone who is apparently disoriented, to an agitated person confronting a passerby, to a person armed with a deadly weapon threatening to harm themselves or others. Each and every situation is different and the outcomes represent a consistent threat to the person in crisis, to the officer trying to resolve the incident and to the members of our communities who are affected.
While it took the unfortunate death of Andrew Holland to bring attention to the issue, we should now support all involved in dealing with mental illness and work with them to help fill the voids in our system.
A number of specific steps have already been taken, including the hiring of a physician who serves as chief medical officer for the jail and the opening of a new Crisis Stabilization Center. The San Luis Obispo Police Department has established a program that will be integrating a mental health professional into the department’s Community Action Team to help deal with individuals with mental health issues on the street before they take actions which could lead to their arrest and incarceration. These are good first steps but even more work needs to be done.
On the mental health issue, characterizing law enforcement leadership as cruel, unethical and uncaring is untrue and counterproductive. In the spirit of civility, we should ask everyone to work collaboratively with our elected officials, government agencies, and community leaders to enhance our county’s mental health services.
Jim Gardiner was in law enforcement for 34 years, including 14 years as chief of the San Luis Obispo Police Department.