The fatal shooting last month of homeless, mentally ill James Boyd by Albuquerque, New Mexico police officers raises serious questions about their strategy and tactics in dealing with the 38-year-old Boyd, whose initial crime was camping out illegally in the desert.
Most fair-minded people who've seen the police helmet-cam video of the incident, will come away, like me, believing that that the 38-year-old Boyd—although holding two knives—posed no immediate threat to officers who were confronting Boyd in the Sandia Foothills.
Too far away to lunge at the cops or throw his knives, Boyd seemed guilty of nothing more than the sin of annoying a cop.
Such incidents have happened often enough for the Albuquerque PD to have shot an astounding 37 people over the past four years; and for the US Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to accuse it on April 10 of being guilty of “a pattern or practice of use of excessive force,” and of regularly violating people's constitutional rights.
The wider question is what the incident says about the culture of American policing. And, in particular, whether that culture is capable of handling the mentally ill, especially the homeless mentally ill.
The Albuquerque officers acted as if they were on patrol in Fallujah, and James Boyd was an enemy combatant. The same mind-set has accompanied the increasing militarization of U.S. police departments, who conducted up to 80,000 “no knock” raids on citizens' homes in 2010; and deployed SWAT teams 45,000 times in 2010—often on small-time drug raids and searches based on unsubstantiated tips from informants.
Experience tells us that this “warrior” kind of policing cannot address effectively, safely— and democratically—the homeless mentally ill.
What works is a community policing approach, with its emphasis on problem-solving, working in partnership with local residents, and enhancing neighborhood stability and cohesion.
Although training in de-escalating potential volatile encounters between the police and the HMI is, in fact, already taking place within many police departments, nonetheless, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff's Association, half those killed by police are mentally ill — indicating that something other than just relevant officer training in psychiatric social work is required.
And that something is for cops to be professionally committed to the underlying precepts of community policing—even when confronted with the difficult, irrational and potentially violent among the HMI.
That will require cultural buy-in.
In traditional police culture, formal training in the kind of counseling that is viewed as “do-good social work” is often disparaged and ignored.
Police managers, moreover, only reinforce that cynicism when they fail to hold officers accountable for violating that spirit of the operational philosophy, as well as the letter, of that training.
That was clearly the case in Albuquerque.
If police departments like Albuquerque's are serious about decreasing the violent, killing nature of their encounters with the HMI, they're going to have to fully change and expand their cultural norms regarding police work to include a much wider view of what the service component of policing should encompass.
Twenty-first century police departments must commit themselves to making operational a key realization when it comes to policing the homeless: it's they, the police, who have to change.
It's also important to recognize that police are facing a problem that should have been addressed by the nation's disgracefully underfinanced, undermanned and inhumane social-service network.
But that doesn't let cops off the hook.
Los Angeles is a case in point. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was hated as much by black LA as any police department in the deepest heart of Dixie had ever been hated. It was only when the LAPD began viewing the city's African-American community as comprised of constituents to be served, as opposed to a people to be oppressed, that the dynamic changed.
But while New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton (when he was Chief of the LAPD), and his successor, Chief Charlie Beck, were famously successful in institutionalizing policing breakthroughs in the black and brown areas of L.A., these exceptionally creative cops failed to apply the precepts of community policing to the homeless mentally ill on LA's notorious skid row.
About 40 percent of LA's homeless are mentally ill, and many are also serious substance abusers. Located for the most part in the city's downtown civic core, they were a public embarrassment and annoyance to a municipal establishment anxious to gentrify the area. The 50-block area of prime real estate featured a large open-air drug market, long rows of small tents and discarded cardboard refrigerator or TV-box bedrooms, and human feces and urine on the sidewalks.
In 2002, Beck, then a captain, was put in charge of policing skid row. He instituted tight enforcement of all municipal laws, including the ticketing of the homeless for minor crimes that either landed them in a revolving-door jail situation or forced those who could to leave. The efforts would eventually lead to lower crime rates in the center of Los Angeles and to the slow but steady gentrification of a good chunk of skid row.
It would be foolish to argue that the city isn't decidedly better off because of it.
But in the bigger-picture scheme of things, they had not been successful at all. What the Bratton-Beck clean-up strategy didn't do was in any way help the impoverished, mentally ill and chronically addicted, as a way of reducing the potential criminogenic behavior of them, or of the next generation of such afflicted people.
In effect, old- school tactics were applied to a problem that required new-school solutions. The courts apparently felt the same way.
In 2007 a Federal District judge declared that the LAPD's policy of stopping and sometimes searching parolees on skid row without evidence of a crime was also unconstitutional.
The lesson here was that, despite police arguments that it wasn't their responsibility to worry about the needs of the homeless, the HMI were just as much part of the community as the business people who were negatively impacted by their presence.
What's required now is for the policing profession to accelerate the conversation on how the police can best assist the HMI as part of a long-term crime prevention strategy. The conversation can be led by innovators like Bratton and Beck and former San Diego police Chief William Lansdowne, and broadened through research and educational programs such as the Criminal Justice Policy and Management Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
The discussion should focus on expanding the community policing model and, in the process, the cultural and operational definition of policing in the 21st century. Included in the conversation should be the development of a wider, more expansive cultural and operational definition of “social-work” policing in the 21st century.
Cops, of course, are not social workers—but at the junction where the need for a psychiatric social workers skill-set meets short and long term pubic order and crime prevention necessities, police departments must broaden their cultural horizons and mission statement.
Whether they like it or not, they are on the front lines of some of this country's most painful failures of social policy.
Joe Domanick is West Coast Editor of The Crime Report, and a veteran crime journalist and author, based in Los Angeles. His latest book, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD will be published by Simon & Schuster, in January, 2015. He welcomes comments from readers.