When 911 is the wrong num­ber

Los Angeles Times - - OP- ED - By Conor Friedersdorf Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at the At­lantic and found­ing edi­tor of the Best of Jour­nal­ism email newsletter.

On a clear night last win­ter, a man in Venice Beach broke the quiet of the wee hours by stand­ing in the mid­dle of the street in front of my house and shout­ing vi­o­lent threats. “I’m go­ing to kill you,” he shrieked, adding an ex­ple­tive and a dis­parag­ing term for women. I rushed to the win­dow to see what was hap­pen­ing. Thank­fully, he wasn’t shout­ing at any­one in par­tic­u­lar. He ap­peared to be men­tally ill, and his words were di­rected at parked cars, build­ings and the sky.

He wasn’t wav­ing a gun or a knife, but he didn’t move along; he just stood there shout­ing ev­ery threat imag­in­able. Would he hurt him­self? Would he attack a pedes­trian if one hap­pened by? Or would he do no more harm than wak­ing up the neigh­bors?

Years ago, I’d have di­aled 911 “just to be safe.”

But on that night, I wit­nessed a dis­tur­bance of the peace by a (pre­sum­ably) home­less man and de­cided that, “just to be safe,” I would not call the po­lice. On too many oc­ca­sions in my ca­pac­ity as a jour­nal­ist, I’d seen videos or read ac­counts of men­tally ill peo­ple who were beaten or killed in en­coun­ters with law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

In the clas­sic sce­nario, a men­tally ill per­son is given an or­der and fails to re­act. Many cops know how to de-es­ca­late a sit­u­a­tion like that. But oth­ers see any fail­ure to com­ply as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to use force. I didn’t want to risk sum­mon­ing the lat­ter sort of of­fi­cer.

Across the coun­try, pro­test­ers have been call­ing at­ten­tion to in­stances of ex­ces­sive force by the po­lice, es­pe­cially when their ac­tions re­sult in the death of young black men. In May, an LAPD of­fi­cer killed Bren­don Glenn, an un­armed home­less man, a few min­utes from my house. In Novem­ber, a 911 call alerted po­lice that some­one in a public park in Cleve­land, “prob­a­bly a ju­ve­nile,” had a gun that was “prob­a­bly fake.” Tamir Rice, 12, was killed. His gun shot harm­less plas­tic pel­lets.

In those cases and oth­ers, ev­ery­one would have been bet­ter off had the cops never shown up.

At the same time, there is a cost to public or­der and a risk to do­ing noth­ing when a kid in a park is wav­ing a gun around or a home­less man is rant­ing in the street. Stand­ing in my living room, I was think­ing how guilty I’d feel if my call to the cops ended in the rant­ing man’s death, or if I did noth­ing and he wound up hurt­ing a pass­ing in­no­cent. I wished there was some­one to call other than the cops, some­one trained to deal with the men­tally ill.

As it turns out, some­thing like this ex­ists here: The L.A. County Depart­ment of Men­tal Health has a 24-hour phone line and what a spokesper­son called “a va­ri­ety of re­sponse teams, depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion.” (In some cases a po­lice of­fi­cer and men­tal health worker could show up to­gether.)

But few peo­ple know about that op­tion; I didn’t un­til this week. Even among those who do, it’s eas­ier to re­mem­ber 911 in an emer­gency than 1-800-854-7771. And by virtue of the num­ber of po­lice of­fi­cers, their cruisers are more likely to be close by. Be­yond Los An­ge­les, ju­ris­dic­tions vary in whether they of­fer any “al­ter­na­tive” first re­spon­ders.

Al­ter­na­tive ser­vices should be more ro­bust, and bet­ter pub­li­cized. Re­duc­ing po­lice con­tact with the men­tally ill is good for both groups.

Many of us were taught from child­hood to seek as­sis­tance from po­lice in any po­ten­tially danger­ous sit­u­a­tion. But some­times a dan­ger is small enough that the right civic de­ci­sion is to re­frain from sum­mon­ing the cops, who do not de­serve the pre­sump­tion that they will com­port them­selves pro­fes­sion­ally. There are real-life he­roes among our lo­cal po­lice. But there are also bad ap­ples and peo­ple who sim­ply aren’t good at their jobs. Po­lice of­fi­cers are primed to ex­pect dan­ger, and they sel­dom face con­se­quences when they use deadly force un­nec­es­sar­ily.

That’s why, when de­cid­ing whether to call men­tal health ser­vices, the po­lice, or no one at all, I’ll con­tinue to err on what I’ve come to be­lieve is the side of cau­tion: I’ll re­frain, if pos­si­ble, from dial­ing 911.

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