A linchpin of professional law enforcement is training, control and supervision of police use of force. A short video of a confrontation between police officers and a man said to suffer from mental illness has brought that reality into sharp focus.
Chief Sam Dotson is investigating the incident. We will wait to render judgment until we have all of the facts. But the chief's findings must be part of a much larger discussion. As The New York Times reported earlier this week:
In towns and cities across the United States, police officers find themselves playing dual roles as law enforcers and psychiatric social workers. County jails and state prisons have become de facto mental institutions; in New York, for instance, a surge of stabbings, beatings and other violence at Rikers Island has been attributed in part to an influx of mentally ill inmates, who respond erratically to discipline and are vulnerable targets for other prisoners. "Frequent fliers," as mentally ill inmates who have repeated arrests are known in law enforcement circles, cycle from jail cells to halfway houses to the streets and back.
The problem has gotten worse in recent years, according to mental health and criminal justice experts. St. Louis police, taxpayers, non-profits and the community at large have had to cope with severe cutbacks in the State of Missouri's financial support of people with chronic or severe mental illness.
Our city has a proven commitment to constant improvement in compassionately dealing with this complex problem. Crisis intervention in behalf of people with mental illness is a crucial part of police training. Local taxpayers invest about $8 million a year in health care for the City Division of Corrections, including to assist inmates with significant mental health problems, including those related to the ravages of alcohol and other substance abuse.
It is not yet clear if what we saw on the video was the whole story. Whatever the story is, we need all of it. But, with the video as the impetus, we need everybody coming to the table -- including the State of Missouri - to address the underlying tragedy. That conversation, difficult and expensive, must happen soon.