by William Skink
One of the easiest things to do right now is bash cops. The me from 20 years ago would have no problem bashing cops. Remember the riots that went down in Missoula when the Hells Angels rolled into town and cops from all over the region descended in an absurd show of force? I do, and it was ugly.
The reason I won’t simply bash cops with angry words right now is because nothing is simple, and my experiences working directly with cops and other first responders changed how I perceive what is now happening.
When I spoke of my white privilege I admitted the limit of my understanding when it comes to being black in America. There is something similar going of with the experiences of being a cop, though cops do choose to enter their profession, and obviously no one chooses the color of their skin.
My perspective comes from creating and leading an outreach program to address chronic homelessness in Missoula. I tried making a difference by pitching our HOT line as an alternative to 911 when it came to–and this is important–NUISANCE issues related to people on the streets in various stages of addiction and mental distress.
I had a great power point presentation that I would give to anyone with 90 minutes and an open mind where I would describe how this program interfaces with first responders and law enforcement to improve outcomes. My anecdotal stories kicked ass, as I’m sure anyone who has heard them can testify to.
One example is a situation that developed on the street behind Walmart near the Reserve Street camps. The cops could have been heavy-handed immediately, but they didn’t. Instead it took multiple police reports from conflicts with campers and Walmart staff for local PD to decide something had to be done.
The police reached out to me and asked if I could be present during the “eviction” and I said yes. I had worked hard to make inroads with PD and to show them that there was value in collaborating with my outreach program.
That day there were about half a dozen police offices and myself. The cops went down the sidewalk, knocking on doors and informing people they had to go somewhere else. Everything was going fine until one guy in a trailer came out yelling. I moved closer, but obviously held back as the lead officer spoke with this angry man.
The lead officer used techniques he probably learned at the Crisis Intervention Training, which now goes on regularly with local PD. He kept his distance and kept his tone calm as he spoke with the angry man, who was shouting about how HE was trying to help these people.
The officer replied that they also wanted to help people, and he pointed to me, telling the man they had asked me to be there to help connect people to services. My presence was their proof, and the man could see that, and he DID calm down.
After the cops moved on I stayed to talk with the angry guy in his trailer. He was very against the Federal government and he was very well armed. I wasn’t afraid for my safety because he seemed like a rational person from what I could tell. He really was trying to help people, and had land off the grid where he normally lived.
I would tell these stories to champion the idea of collaboration and to credit specific examples of good policing so people knew what was possible with the right training and the right support.
The harsh reality, though, is the non-existence of a viable social safety net turns cops and first responders into babysitters of people who are almost impossible to manage. And if your job does not put you into constant contact with these individuals, you don’t know what it’s like.
Another story I got from a first responder. This was after I got a standing ovation from ER staff for informing them a particularly nasty frequent flier had just left the bus station for Helena, where he had a family member I had convinced to help him.
The story was about their colleague’s last day and how he flipped out. Apparently 911 got a call from someone in a local restaurant regarding a person they thought was passed out on the sidewalk and needed help, but it turned out it was just a coat, not a person. The EMT went into the restaurant, asked who called on the coat, and then proceeded to take the person’s meal and chuck it in the trash.
I shared another story recently on a different blog about seeing a cop lose his cool with a local drunk. He had just given the guy a ticket for having an open container because the man refused to leave. He was too drunk and had shit himself, but he had enough piss and vinegar in him to take the ticket, crumple it up, and throw it at the cop, so the cop wrote him a ticket for littering and threw it at him.
I knew this officer by his first name, so I said hey _____, let me take _____ back to the shelter and I’ll get him cleaned up. I’ll take care of it so you don’t get any more calls on him today.
Putting myself out there in this capacity was very appreciated, but I paid a price similar to what many first responders pay for doing the job they do; vicarious trauma, burn-out, and maybe a little PTSD thrown in for good measure.
For cops, their shared experiences and traumas make the blue line nearly impenetrable. If there is no effort to at least try to understand some of this from their perspective, then we are doomed to cycles of escalation.
And, as we fight each other, guess who’s still clinking their crystal snifters?