When I was training to become a police officer in the Madison, Wi., Police Department, I heard one phrase over and over: “customer service.”
It may seem odd to think of policing in this way, but it's a big part of the Madison Police Department's (MPD) Community and Trust-Based Policing approach.
There have been many times when I could have made an arrest, but chose not to. I determined that an arrest would not help the individual in this crisis moment in his life, nor would I be putting my community at risk by allowing him to go free. MPD officers are encouraged to use our discretion in finding the best possible resolution to a call. We are trained to look at the bigger picture of a problem, and given the latitude to try creative solutions.
My work as a police officer provides examples of this approach every day. I remember a call concerning a young adult male who had recently gotten out of prison and had been consuming alcohol (a violation of his parole). This man's parents contacted us for help because their son was suicidal. They made sure to tell the dispatcher that he was not violent and they reiterated this to me as I approached him sitting on their front stoop. At the time I was a Mental Health Liaison with MPD and I knew that no mental health professional would talk to him until he was sober.
The traditional response to such a call for help would be to refer the young man to a detoxification (detox) facility. That's about as welcoming and as healing as it sounds. The other traditional response would be to confine him in jail. Sure, he would have been safe in jail, but how does this help him regain sobriety?
We talked for a while in his parents' front yard. It was clear that he was suicidal because he felt he messed up his pledge to stay sober. He told me he wanted mental health help and he dreaded sitting alone in the depressing building that is our detox facility. Considering his fragile state of mind, I didn't blame him.
I asked him to blow into a portable breathalyzer to estimate how long he would have to wait to get some mental health help. The result, unfortunately, suggested he would have to wait until the morning—and, being an adult, he did not want to stay with his parents. I laid everything out for him: my concerns, my legal responsibilities, and his options (detox, jail, or parents), and we talked some more.
In the end he agreed to stay with his parents until they could take him to the emergency room in the morning to see a social worker. His parents agreed to the plan and my partner and I shook their hands and left.
As I write this, I am reminded that this call could have gone very differently. From a police perspective, there were several risk factors I was aware of in making my initial approach. I had run the man through my law enforcement databases and I knew his history, which included several violent offenses. I knew he had been drinking, which meant the likelihood of his being volatile and unable to listen was increased. And finally, I knew he was suicidal, which is an expression of hopelessness.
Police officers have a lot to assess with every contact we make and very little time to do it in. And as I am reacting to you, an unknown quantity; you are also reacting to me, the Police Officer.
On this day and on this call, everything worked out well. I believe my partner and I provided quality “customer service” to this family. Ultimately, the trust we were able to engender in this young man and his family outweighed their apprehensions, which included the parents' fear that the situation might go horribly sideways and I would shoot their son.
I don't know what ultimately tipped the scales. But the young man's mother did tell me that she had “heard good things” about MPD.
I was taught, and I firmly believe, that every citizen contact matters. And good customer service is crucial to a police officer's sense of security as well. We are keenly aware that our actions can endanger or protect the officers coming after us on every call. It is clear that police are being watched, now more than ever, but it has always been that way in some respect. The power police have is given by the consent of the citizenry to be policed.
And that consent is based on trust. I hope as a nation we can win back the public's trust. It will be safer for everyone.
Roberta Stellick is a member of the Mental Health liaison team of the Madison Police Department, where she has been an officer since 2010. The opinions expressed in this essay are on her personal experience and do not reflect the views or opinions of the Madison Police Department. She welcomes readers' comments.