At its worst, the “Defund the Police” movement is an absurdity, an imminent threat to public safety.
At its best, it is a visionary strategy that may help us rethink the way we approach law enforcement by — among other things — shifting resources to ensure mental illness is not treated as a criminal offense.
That is why we are pleased to see that the Columbus Police Department is training its officers to handle calls where mental health is suspected of being a key factor and is partnering with Community Counseling Services to make sure their responses are appropriate.
Statistics show 10 percent of all police calls involve people with mental illnesses. CPD Chief Fred Shelton said his department responds to those kinds of calls a couple times per week.
Police are asked to intervene in such cases sometimes with little understanding or training, and the results can be tragic. Again, statistics say people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than the rest of us.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, less than half of the millions of Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness receive treatment.
The scope and scale of the problem demands our nation take a different approach when police are called to deal with mentally ill persons.
In its training, CPD is providing its officers with information on how to communicate with people who are having a psychological breakdown, how to deescalate these potentially dangerous confrontations, avoid injuries and, perhaps most important of all, how to get these people the help they need rather than a trip to jail, where the person’s underlying condition may only create greater risks.
Having a mental illness is not a criminal offense, although sadly, those mental illnesses can spiral into serious crimes.
But in many cases, the “acting out” is confined to violations that would be rightfully judged as a disorderly conduct were they committed by healthy citizens.
To help make that distinction and provide an outcome that is humane and appropriate, Shelton would like to establish a crisis intervention team made up of a specially-trained officer, a social worker, a counselor and maybe a nurse. The team would be able to respond to situations that require more training and experience with mental health disorders than a typical officer receives.
Shelton hopes to have a team ready to respond to calls around the clock and operational by October.
How to pay for that is the question, especially given the city’s budget situation.
Shifting resources from the police department and, perhaps, other departments to fund this effort is something our city leaders should carefully consider. We suspect it would pay great dividends in terms of the care of our citizens and the overall safety of the community.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.