Law enforcement officers face myriad situations that often appear outside the scope of traditional police work. Increasingly, they encounter persons with mental health issues, address homelessness, or deal with problems involving youths in schools. Current movements aimed at reducing police agency funding or redirecting funds to other services make it difficult for departments to answer these calls for service while meeting public expectations.
The shift from the “warrior” to the “guardian” mindset in policing is slowly taking hold within many departments. Agencies are recognizing that what Sir Robert Peel said in 1829, that “the police are the public and that the public are the police,” could not be truer today. In that regard, law enforcement is obligated to work with the community and address existential challenges like homelessness and mental illness. While some within policing’s ranks say responding to calls involving societal issues is not law enforcement’s responsibility, communities are crying out for help.
In many of these crises, police departments respond because they are the first point of contact for people seeking help. But how can officers, who receive minimal training in homelessness and mental health, effectively address these issues? Society and law enforcement must recognize that arrests will never solve the problem. Being homeless is not a crime. Neither is having a mental illness.