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Who do we think of when we hear the term “first responder”? Do we envision a doctor? A firefighter? A police officer?

Do we envision a SWAT team? A paramedic? An air marshal?

Or do we envision a civilian? After all, the first people who respond to almost every crime, natural disaster, or other traumatic event are almost always civilians.

At many workplaces, a few employees in each department or on each floor are given annual First Aid and CPR training, perhaps even defibrillator training. Some are given training in how to lead fire, earthquake, or tornado drills.

But something almost no firefighter is trained to do, almost no police officer, no paramedic, no SWAT team, no bank employee, is how to deal with a mental health crisis. It wouldn’t hurt to require some basic training on the subject, but it can never match the training mental health professionals receive.

I recently saw online a flier taped to a light pole. The designer had posed the following scenario and asked people to choose the correct answer: “You think someone is experiencing a mental health crisis and needs help. You call 9-1-1. Who shows up?”

The end result of reassigning these mental health calls is that both the police and the public are better served.

There are four possible responses to this multiple-choice question.

  1. An armed police officer
  2. An armed police officer
  3. An armed police officer
  4. An armed police officer

The message concludes, “The answer is the problem. It’s time to rethink community safety.”

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I’m confused by the pushback against this idea. Wouldn’t most police officers prefer someone else take care of the mental illness calls? I know when I’m on the bus and a passenger boards, ranting and raving, I start praying to the universe. “Please don’t let him see me. Please make him walk past. Please help—”

And then then fellow sits right beside me.

Sure, I manage to get through the following ten minutes before I reach my stop, or I pull the cord and climb off early, walking the rest of the way or waiting for the next bus. I’m sympathetic to the difficulties faced by folks with various mental health issues. I try to say something kind, engage or not engage as best I can guess will work better. But even though I understand that most of the unpleasant behaviors and outbursts aren’t really their “fault,” I still don’t want to deal with the situation. The behaviors are still unsettling, still annoying, even if I don’t blame the people doing them.

If I was a police officer trained to fight crime, and not trained to understand or address mental health crises, wouldn’t I want another agency to take those calls?

“Defunding” the police, part of which simply means directing the funds necessary to address mental health crises to the folks trained to handle mental health crises, isn’t really taking anything away from me.

I regularly pay folks to tend my lawn because I don’t want to do it myself. I accept that I must give these workers money to do what to me are unpleasant tasks. My neighbors benefit as well by no longer being burdened with the unsightly weeds in my yard. There are extremely few “front yard missionaries” going house to house tending people’s yards for free. The task needs to be done. I either do it poorly, hating every minute of it, or I pay someone to do it for me. That’s life.

Some people suggest we come up with a less threatening term than “defund the police,” and if we can, that’s great. I learned in freshman composition class that even the best arguments will fail if the author fails to reach their audience. But whatever term we use, “defund the police” or “reallocate certain public funds to more appropriate departments” (and doesn’t that roll off the tongue smoothly!), we need to point out that we’re freeing police officers to do what they’re trained for. We’re eliminating unpleasant tasks from their duties that most don’t want to do anyway, that often end badly, that rake their names through the coals and inflict unmeasurable harm across the community.

The end result of reassigning these mental health calls is that both the police and the public are better served. Folks who join the police force do so because serving the public is their goal. Paying mental health experts and social workers or other “agents” to deal with mental health crises is a win/win/win.

Johnny Townsend

The people who don’t allow themselves to understand this are just acting…crazy.

Too bad we don’t have anyone trained to send out and talk them down.

Johnny Townsend