Thursday, July 08, 2021

New, Not Improved


Got a problem? Expand the bureaucracy and do something new and different. There is no joy in determining the value of an existing program . Wednesday night, Rachel Maddow welcomed (at 2:40 of this video)

Phillip Goff, a Yale scholar and an advocate on guns and policing issues, and Katie Porter, who this week in the New York Times about trying to promote nationally an innovative idea to reduce police shootings when people call 911 because somebody is in a mental health crisis or because they need a safety check-in, somebody behaving irrationally, somebody, for example, posing a threat to hurt themselves.

Worse yet, those individuals often are posing a threat to hurt others and may be armed. But please go on:

If somebody calls 911 for that kind of a crisis, the first responders dispatched in response would be trained mental health workers. That's who would get there first, not necessarily armed police officers as the first response, but people instead specifically trained in mental health and substance abuse issues, to defuse the situation, de-escalate, try to get some help there.



They would be trained in mental health and substance issues, but not, it appears, at all in enforcement. They also would not be feared or respected in the same manner as would police officers, which could be a huge problem.

Nonetheless, it's only fair to go to the original source, the op-ed by Porter, perhaps the foremost expert in business law in the House of Representatives, and Goff, whom Maddow cannily failed to note is a professor of African-American studies and psychology. (I'm shocked, shocked! that a psychology professor would think that social workers can displace policeofficers.)  Goff and Porter explain thatin February, Porter introduced the Mental Health Justice Act, which

would create a national grant program to pay for first responder units made up of mental health providers on the local level. When people call 911 because of a mental health crisis, these units would act as an emergency response team. Their goal would be to defuse the immediate crisis and serve as a gateway to resources such as counseling, substance abuse treatment and housing assistance. Decisions about when and how armed police officers would become involved would be left to each locality. 

They claim

In a national poll from Data for Progress and The Appeal, 70 percent of likely voters support federal grants for programs that send “responders with the proper training and expertise instead of armed police officers” to calls for mental health crises, substance abuse issues, homelessness or safety check-ins. The issue enjoys majority support from Democrats, independents and Republicans — a rarity in our current political landscape.

It turns out that The Appeal is an organization with a website including such articles is "Policing is not 'Public Safety'" (except, evidently, in New Jersey, where a mob decided it is); "Mass Clemency is a Necessary Response to Mass Incarceration" (throwing open the prison doors always a solution to violent crime); and "NYC Voters: Prioritize Policing Alternatives to Tackle Violence" (as they took the most significant step in electing as mayor a supporter of stop-and-frisk).

There was a semblance of objectivity to the survey question:

Do you support or oppose federal grants to support programs that send responders with the proper training and expertise instead of armed police officers to calls for mental health issues, substance use disorder crises, check-ins for health and safety, or someone experiencing a lack of housing?

Respondents were asked to compare sending "armed police officers" with individuals "with the proper training and expertise."  The Appeal was sufficiently savvy not to specify "social workers." It also was wise to ask the question immediately following a question referring to Derek Chauvin who, as anyone to the right of The Appeal would acknowledge, is not a typical police officer. The Appeal got the results it was looking for.

And so Goff and Porter were able to slide it into an op-ed endorsing a new program instead of building one one already in effect. In November, Peninsula Press reported of the second largest city in Missouri

Sgt. Jake Becchina, a public information officer and member of the KCPD for 17 years, said the department faces decisions about where to pare down resources as they work with the new budget. “One of the obvious ones . . . right off the top would be the Social Services Program,” he said.

“A large budget cut portion would take a lot of resources away from some of those elective things that we consider to be so vital, but that are still less vital than responding when you call 911,” he added.

Kansas City was the first major metropolitan city to staff social workers as part of police deployment, according to (public information officer, St. Jake) Becchina. They announced the program in 2018, with aims to embed a social worker in each of their six patrol divisions. 2019 was the first full year all six workers were officially active.

While the social workers were initially contractors funded by a donation from a local Kansas City family, 2020 was the first year the Kansas City Police Department took over full funding of the program and the workers became full-time employees.

“There are a lot of people dealing with issues in Kansas City that are frankly not the job of police to address: family problems, poverty, addiction and more . . . Social workers can address such issues in a way that brings lasting, positive change,” Kansas City Police Chief Richard Smith said in a 2018 blog post announcing the program.

Police officers will refer social workers to a scene to support families in need of assistance. From the program’s inception in 2018 to June 14, 2020, the social workers have been referred 3,074 times, according to Becchina.

Lindsay Moran, a licensed master social worker (LMSW) stationed in Kansas City’s metro patrol division, says the city’s program is unique.

“We respond to 911 calls with them . . . They are our partners . . . we’re a package deal. And so that’s something that we’re really proud of,” she said. Tori Cawman, another Licensed Master Social Worker stationed in the central patrol division, added that other social workers in police departments are typically brought in from an outside agency as opposed to embedded in the force.

 One social worker is embedded at each division: One in Clay County, one in Platte County, and four in Jackson County. Moran added that the needs of each station are specific to each part of the city they cover.

This appears to be a very good idea and program, yet one which has garnered little attention.  Perhaps the US Congress is relatively disinterested precisely because it is in effect. Why bother with a tried-and-(possibly) true approach when we can be, in Maddow's words, "innovative."

Investigating this approach would be productive. However, the program itself in Kansas City is in jeopardy. That public information officer, Sgt. Becchina, also

said the department faces decisions about where to pare down resources as they work with the new budget. “One of the obvious ones . . . right off the top would be the Social Services Program,” he said.

“A large budget cut portion would take a lot of resources away from some of those elective things that we consider to be so vital, but that are still less vital than responding when you call 911,” he added.

As of six weeks ago, funding for the Kansas City Police Department’s Social Services Program and its divisions in flux.  That is unfortunate because placing a social worker (or two), ready and able to assist the department for which it works and to which it is accountable is superior to the Goff-Porter idea. The federal government could generously subsidize such a program in many major cities.

That should be pursued, and would be, were it not insufficiently imaginative or cutting-edge for a social scientist, a US congresswoman, or the US Congress generally. It's always more fun and more self-affirming to be "innovative."



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