Policing ‘With Compassion’: Tucson Draws Lessons From Gabby Giffords Shooting

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Tucson police

Photo by Bill Morrow via Flickr

In the aftermath of the 2011 Tucson mall shooting that killed six people and severely wounded 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords,  the city’s police force has become a role model for the nation in dealing with cases involving the mentally ill or addicts, reports ABC15 in Tucson.

Officers who respond to mental health calls have put in many hours of training. They typically wear plain clothes and travel in unmarked vehicles. It’s all part of a strategy to de-escalate situations from the moment they arrive on the scene, says Tucson police officer Darrell Hussman, who notes that such can get out of control quickly.

“Every one of them has the possibility of turning dangerous,” said Hussman.

Police say more than a third of the calls officers respond to involve someone suffering from a mental health or addiction disorder.

Hussman, who worked as a patrol officer before the formation of the mental health support unit, remembers responding to many of those calls with no training. Another challenge officers in many departments face is the lack of time to spend to de-escalate situations.

With officers going from call to call, the mental health support team officers operate differently. They don’t have to wrap it up or rush to another call quickly. They know that these are situations that could take a lot of time to diffuse.

“In the past, the way we dealt with people with mental health crisis was really, just take them to jail,” said Hussman.

He added that officers knew what many of these people needed was counseling and medication or treatment, not punishment. That is where compassion comes in.

“With someone that is having a mental health crisis, they may not be seeing the same reality we are,” said Hussman.

For officers in Tucson, this was more than a job.

Hussman called it a personal mission — one that started eight years ago, when Jared Loughner opened fire in a strip mall, leaving six people dead and 13 others injured. One of those injured was Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Police quickly learned that Loughner was someone who had already been on law enforcement’s radar. Officers and deputies had dealt with him before, but back then there was no mental health support unit.

The mass shooting changed life for many people in Tucson. Shortly after the shooting, Pima County voters approved a bond to build a Crisis Response Center which became an emergency room for those who suffered from mental illness.

As a response, Pima County and Tucson also began training many of their officers on how to deal with those suffering from a mental illness. The officers in the unit say they take their time with these calls.

In one case, the report states police stepped in to help a woman who was already stocking up on guns and had threatened to go on a “killing spree” at her former place of work. The woman had just lost her job. Police were able to talk to the woman and get her into treatment for bipolar disorder.

“Let’s try and get these people to help and prevent them from going to jail at all,” said Hussman.

While that was one big goal accomplished, the bigger one he did not mention, was that they might have prevented other potential mass shootings from taking place in Arizona.

Additional Reading:

Why Liberal Policing Shouldn’t Be a Contradiction in Terms, TCR Q&A with author Luke Hunt

Texas Cops Forge Different Approach to Policing Mentally Ill, Nick Selby, TCR

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