“Defund the police” advocates write off law enforcement as beyond reform. Among their movement’s pernicious side effects is the tendency to undermine past and ongoing efforts at reform, such as de-escalation—a major focus prior to the death of George Floyd on May 25. Today, while few advocates have come out strongly against it, enthusiasm has palpably diminished; de-escalation is seen as a naïve and ineffective goal.
Pointing to academic studies that question de-escalation’s effectiveness, critics allege that it falls short of being an “evidence-based practice.” It’s true that studying the practice entails significant methodological challenges: the decentralized character of American policing; the varying quality of de-escalation programs; the reality that, in the words of one study, “police use of deadly force itself is relatively rare,” thus making it hard to measure policies that purport to reduce its incidence; and uncertainty over the meaning of the term “de-escalation,” which often seems to rival “community policing” for vagueness.
But “evidence-based” as a criterion is also vague. Even when high-quality statistical evidence about a social program exists, the question remains of how to evaluate it. Generally, the expectation is that “de-escalation training will reduce the frequency and severity of police use of force.” But no police department is evaluated exclusively on how rarely it resorts to force. More broadly, we want to know how well police departments succeed in keeping crime down; we want to know about the health of police-community relations, and about officer safety. An effective de-escalation program would check those boxes, as well. In any case, we’re far more informed about de-escalation than about fashionable ideas such as deploying social workers to respond to 911 calls, for which evidence of effectiveness is virtually nonexistent.
The value of de-escalation training stems mainly from the brokenness of our mental-health system. De-escalation with a special focus on mental health is known as “crisis intervention training” (CIT). CIT programs, first developed by the Memphis Police Department in the late 1980s, now number close to 3,000 nationwide. Few situations are as unpredictable for first responders as those involving people who suffer from mental illness. Police officers arriving at such calls often have little more information than a civilian calling 911 about someone who had “not been taking his medication” or is “acting erratically.”
As attested by the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated mentally ill individuals, the United States does a poor job of providing effective psychiatric treatment to those who need it. CIT is just as often described as a jail-diversion program as a form of de-escalation. Diversion to what, though? Some programs have won praise for reducing arrests of mentally ill people. Without knowing what happened to those who weren’t arrested but might otherwise have been without CIT, we can’t evaluate how important it is relative to the larger goals of mental-health reform. Often overlooked in the “defund” debate is that few social workers, psychologists, or psychiatrists have much interest in working with violent schizophrenic people, especially at the scene of an unmedicated outburst. When the mental-health-care system absolves itself of responsibility for the hardest cases, as it routinely does, these untreated individuals become the responsibility of the criminal-justice system—especially police departments.
Successful CIT training is not simply instruction in “slowing things down” and using force as infrequently as possible. Cops should not need special guidance to avoid using force unnecessarily; department guidelines and statutes already prohibit the excessive use of force. CIT is most valuable when it conveys knowledge about the nature of mental health and the effect that it has on the afflicted individuals that officers may confront. Even the best-trained cop can’t properly diagnose and treat mental illness, but CIT allows police to be the link between those in distress and the help that they need.
Educating members of law enforcement about serious mental illness is money well spent. For instance, at a typical Emergency Psychological Technician training session for members of the NYPD, cops navigate the complexities of situations based on actual encounters. Sessions are conducted by seasoned police officers and John Jay College psychology professors, supplemented by the participation of actors portraying individuals suffering from mental illness.
While de-escalation can produce positive results, resolving a mental-health crisis call successfully can tie up a team of responding officers for hours. This kind of investment can be time-consuming. All things being equal, a more robustly funded police department will be better positioned to implement CIT. Cutting the NYPD’s headcount and budget risks endangering the effectiveness of de-escalation efforts in New York City.
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