Friday, May 07, 2021

If Our Goal is to Help Our Fellow Humans Rather Than Merely Control Them


Yesterday, I arrived home from walking the dog, to find police cars, fire trucks, and an ambulance filling the city block just below my apartment window. Last weekend, the seven square blocks just north of the building were completely shut down for an entire morning due to a gas leak and I wondered if it had something to do with that. In recent years, I've taken it on as a civic duty to get nosy about anything involving police activity, so instead of just staying out of the way, I got out my phone and got it ready to record. As I waited to cross Westlake Avenue, a young man excitedly told me that there was someone on the roof of my building, eleven stories up, threatening to "start a fire and jump." 

My first thought is to wonder if it was was someone from the building I know. One would need to gain access to the building and then use an elevator code to get up there, so it was likely that it was one of the 300 or so people who live in the building. 

I did what we all do, I think, when we consider suicide. I recognized how small my problems were compared to what this person was going through, I despaired about the tragedy of mental illness, I wondered if there was something I should be doing to help. I finally decided that the best thing I could do would be to just get out of the way and leave it to the professionals.

It wasn't until I was back in my apartment, the flashing blue and red lights just below me, that I thought to ask, "What professionals?"

Fire fighters, EMTs, and ambulance drivers aren't mental health professionals, and if the last decade has taught me anything, it's that your typical cop certainly isn't. If someone is threatening to start a fire and jump from the roof of a tall building, I can understand why you would want fire fighters and trained medical people on hand, but why police? I counted at least 10 officers milling around below me and just as many squad cars, including one larger, ominous looking van. From what I could determine, they were there for -- What? -- crowd control? Two of the police vehicles were being used to block off the roadway to traffic. Fair enough, but do we really need an army of well-armed men on the scene of an individual's existential despair? I can't imagine that their presence gave any sort of solace or peace to the poor man on the roof. 

If you have to send an army of any kind to the scene of a potential suicide, wouldn't it make more sense to send in an army of mental health professionals, people trained in the art and science of talking people off of ledges? It occurred to me that I was probably better equipped to handle the situation than a cop: I've spent my entire career working with human beings in emotional moments. I even considered making my way to the roof of my building. What stopped me were all the guns. I was afraid of getting caught in crossfire or being mistakenly identified as a threat. I spent the rest of the afternoon anxiously anticipating, not the tragedy of a despondent fellow human throwing himself to his death, but rather the sound of gunshots. 

There are times when armed police are required, but this was clearly not one of them. Unarmed people could have blocked off the street, they do it all the time in my neighborhood, due to all the construction. Could the suicidal man have turned violent? I suppose, but he was 11 stories in the air and all these guns were on the street below, being carried by men strutting around like an occupying force. What could they do from down there, other than add tension to an already tense situation? If we're going to send people to the scene, wouldn't it make far more sense to send in a team of mental health professionals? That's what the man on the roof needed, not a bunch of cops.

Of course, I don't know what really happened because I was too afraid of this overwhelming and completely unnecessary police presence. And I'm a middle-aged white man. 

I imagine I'll learn about the details in bits and pieces over the course of today, but whatever the story, I'm left with asking why we persist in our insane reliance on an armed response to everything. I have no way of knowing what was in the hearts of those individual officers. Maybe they, like me, were comparing their own small problems to those of this poor man. Maybe they were in despair over the tragedy of mental illness. Maybe they wondered if there was something more they could do to help. I'm not denying their individual humanity, but taken together, they were a menacing and useless force, one that can only bring the threat of violence to a place where it is unneeded and unwanted.

We really do need to rethink our nation's relationship with policing. There are certainly times when we need armed police, but not for this, and not for most of what we expect cops to do, from issuing traffic citations to responding to human beings suffering from a mental health crisis to domestic disputes. There are professionals better equipped to handle these types of situations, people who have not been trained in weapons use and choke holds, but rather to listen, understand, and support. That's what makes sense if our goal is to help our fellow humans rather than merely control them.

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