Last night I had a real treat in listening to the wonderful James Forman Jr. speak at the Nourse Theater with Lara Bazelon, as part of the City Arts and Lectures series, about his excellent new book Locking Up Our Own. Among the issues that came up was the big question behind the book: why did so many people in color in a city where African Americans hold power positions–mayors, chiefs of police, prosecutors–make again and again choices that aligned with law and order interests? In the book, Forman does not mince words about how misguided these choices were, but at the same time shows you, through careful analysis of personalities and socio-cultural contexts, where these people were coming from: they were responding to calls of distress coming from their own community. At yesterday’s talk he added that, like all of us, these lawmakers and actors suffered from a lack of imagination in terms of what we might expect as good solutions for social problems. Violence in the streets? The answer is more law and order. War on drugs? The answer is more law and order. Why, asked Forman, do we never pause to think that, given how unsuccessful the previous prison term was, another one might be a waste of time and money?

Part of this “poverty of the imagination” in responding to criminal justice issues, Forman explained, was in tackling various street and quality of life offenses. What if the police, rather than arresting someone, could take that person directly to a drug problem? Or, better still, what if the police were not at all involved and there were social workers or therapists at the frontline of the problem, as befits a true public health model?

Forman’s words reminded me of a fascinating and pragmatic blog post by Broke-Ass Stuart, titled What To Do When Someone Is Having a Mental Health Crisis in the Street. When confronted with that situation, Stuart himself reports of his dilemma:

I knew for sure that I didn’t want to call the police. There’s the great quote by Abraham Maslow that says “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” And unfortunately that’s often how it is with the American police. They are trained in ending crisis situations forcefully, but there isn’t enough training in how to deescalate them so that no one gets hurt or killed. While that is in the process of changing as we speak, I’d still rather involve people who already have the training. 

I understand where Forman and Stuart are coming from. It is scary to consider the possibility that calling the police to an incident site starts a chain reaction that classifies the incident as criminal, the person involved as a threat, and could lead to violence. But I’m wondering if the understandable and well-meaning reaction not to involve the police doesn’t reflect its own version of “poverty of the imagination”, in the sense that it gives up on the possibility of a police force we can trust and believe in.

One of the first cases I teach in my criminal procedure class is City of San Francisco v. Sheehan. Teresa Sheehan, who was severely mentally ill, lived in a group home; one day, when her social worker, who was concerned about her came to check in with her, she threatened him with a knife. The social worker retreated and got the police; the cops, Reynolds and Holder knocked on the door and Sheehan threatened that she would kill them. The case tells what happened next:

Reynolds and Holder had to make a decision. They could wait for backup—indeed, they already heard sirens. Or they could quickly reenter the room and try to subdue Sheehan before more time elapsed. Because Reynolds believed that the situation “required [their] immediate attention,” the officers chose reentry. In making that decision, they did not pause to consider whether Sheehan’s disability should be accommodated. The officers obviously knew that Sheehan was unwell, but in Reynolds’ words, that was “a secondary issue” given that they were “faced with a violent woman who had already threatened to kill her social worker” and “two uniformed police officers.”  

The officers ultimately decided that Holder—the larger officer—should push the door open while Reynolds used pepper spray on Sheehan. With pistols drawn, the officers moved in. When Sheehan, knife in hand, saw them, she again yelled for them to leave. She may also have again said that she was going to kill them. Sheehan is “not sure” if she threatened death a second time, but “concedes that it was her intent to resist arrest and to use the knife.” In any event, Reynolds began pepper-spraying Sheehan in the face, but Sheehan would not drop the knife. When Sheehan was only a fewfeet away, Holder shot her twice, but she did not collapse. Reynolds then fired multiple shots. After Sheehan finally fell, a third officer (who had just arrived) kicked the knife out of her hand. Sheehan survived.

Sheehan sued the city and the cops under  42 U.S.C. §1983 making a novel and interesting argument: In crafting their response to the situation, the cops were providing a “service,” and under the Americans with Disabilities Act had to take her disability into account when doing so. The Supreme Court took the case in order to decide whether the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that search and seizure activities be “reasonable” should be informed by the individual’s condition (in other words, that what is “reasonable” for a healthy person is “unreasonable” for someone suffering from a schizoaffective disorder, such as Sheehan.)

In court, things were complicated by the fact that the city chose to rely on particular aspects of Sheehan’s behavior to show that, given the threat she posed, she was not “qualified” for accommodations. The Court, albeit miffed with this change in legal tactics, ultimately sided with the city and the cops. Holder and Reynolds were under no obligation to apply the ADA to the situation at the time, said the Court, because the had no “fair and clear warning of what the Constitution requires.” It didn’t matter, for the Court’s analysis, that “the officers did not follow their training.” According to the expert witness heard by the court,

San Francisco trains its officers when dealing with the mentally ill to “ensure that sufficient resources are brought to the scene,” “contain the subject” and “respect the suspect’s “comfort zone,” “use time to their advantage,” and “employ non-threatening verbal communication and open-ended questions to facilitate the subject’s participation in communication.” Likewise, San Francisco’s policy is “‘to use hostage negotiators’” when dealing with “‘a suspect [who] resists arrest by barricading himself.’” 

Even if an officer acts contrary to her training, however, (and here, given the generality of that training, it is not at all clear that Reynolds and Holder did so), that does not itself negate qualified immunity where it would otherwise be warranted. Rather, so long as “a reasonable officer could have believed that his conduct was justified,” a plaintiff cannot “avoi[d] summary judgment by simply producing an expert’s report that an officer’s conduct leading up to a deadly confrontation was imprudent, inappropriate, or even reckless.” Considering the specific situation confronting Reynolds and Holder, they had sufficient reason to believe that their conduct was justified.

But what if the training had been thorough and effective to the point that officers like Holder and Reynolds were more likely to follow it? Our tax dollars pay for the police; policing our streets is, after all, a service that our government provides us–in ADA terms, but also in general. Shouldn’t we want this service to be of exceptional quality, so that you and I would not need to hesitate when calling 911? Wouldn’t you want to rest safe in the knowledge that the people responding to your call would tailor their responses to the situation at hand, including the mental condition of the person involved?

It seems to me that it is best to adopt a dialectic approach toward this. In the near future, until such training is available, Broke-Ass Stuart’s advice is well taken. But I think it is unwise to just give up wholesale on the idea of effective policing, and even as we are concerned about police responses we need to continue pursuing improvement of the police force. Because the ideal endpoint is not doing away with a public order organization altogether, it’s having an organization that is trustworthy, knowledgeable, well trained, and accountable.

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