Pattern or Practice, Patient or Suspect

Brutality, the word, is often associated with acts of aggression or violence.

But brutality does not necessarily have to be violent. In fact, brutality can be quite subtle – brutality can be in the bias.

A bias many who suffer from substance use dependencies find themselves facing when confronted by law enforcement. Are they suspects or patients? Are they suffering from addictions or craving as addicts?

Creating a conundrum that forms out of the lack of medical training among most law enforcement, and the underlying mental health conditions most patients with substance dependencies suffer from. That inevitably results in complex, high pressure situations that often distill into the one critical questions – in what instances should someone be treated like a patient or like a suspect?

For law enforcement, this is an incredibly difficult situation unfairly imposed upon them.

As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Law enforcement only recently began training to identify mental health conditions among patients and to defer traditional criminal enforcement tactics for more clinically sound, restorative approaches to justice. But the training is by no means standardized and inconsistently implemented across police departments across the country.

With the recent announcement by Attorney General Merrick Garland initiating a practice-or-pattern investigation on the Minneapolis police department, and a similar investigation on the Louisville police department, we should also consider the value of initiating an investigation to identify police practices that best address the patient-or-suspect conundrum in which many officers find themselves mired in.

Such an investigation would glean tremendous insight on the nuanced decision-making both law enforcement officers and mental health patients go through during high pressure situations, and would elucidate the subtle biases that lead certain officers to initiate medical interventions and others to initiate traditional law enforcement tactics.

Some may counter that the diverse population and varied police enforcement needs across different communities make it impossible to conduct such a study nationwide. A valid criticism – law enforcement must be locally-focused, to address specific needs unique to each community.

But we can still learn much by comparing communities, determining whether certain practices apply to other areas, or why certain practices only work in specific areas.

And develop models unique to each community that analyze police department activities and traditional crime metrics to the clinical outcomes for patients with substance use dependencies. These models would define patterns that emerge through when observing collective behaviors, among both law enforcement and mental health patients.

Patterns that can identify best practices among different police departments across different communities to improve the overall quality of law enforcement – helping police recognize that sometimes what appears to be a nail is not nail.

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