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Police training isn’t the answer to avoiding violence, better funding of basic human services is | READER COMMENTARY

Florissant, Missouri police officers carry away a woman after she was arrested while officers were trying to confiscate painting equipment across the street from the police department on Sunday, June 21, 2020, in Florissant, Mo. Protesters had just started re-painting "Black Lives Matter" on Lindbergh Boulevard when officers came out of the station and began taking their rollers and paint cans. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
Florissant, Missouri police officers carry away a woman after she was arrested while officers were trying to confiscate painting equipment across the street from the police department on Sunday, June 21, 2020, in Florissant, Mo. Protesters had just started re-painting "Black Lives Matter" on Lindbergh Boulevard when officers came out of the station and began taking their rollers and paint cans. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP) (Robert Cohen/AP)

In 1968, I had just returned from the war in Vietnam when my boss at St. Luke’s Hospital (Columbia University) in New York City tossed a challenge to me. He’d been asked to evaluate and recommend changes in police responses to community outrage after several atrocious police actions. The most recent incident had resulted in the deaths of two local unarmed Puerto Rican boys in the back of a police car. Since my boss was leaving for a new position, he said something like: “OK, John, you’re the community psychiatry expert, you understand the military mind, go fix this.”

I picked up where he had left off trying to get the police and community members to understand each other: flying police officers to San Juan, bringing parents on night patrols, holding endless community meetings, etc.

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After a while, having “trained” police cadets in “community service,” we were asked by the commissioner to write a manual on training police in community relations. And we spoke and wrote about it all over America and at a UN meeting in Japan.

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We believed, as Frederic Weisman’s film about 24 hours in the lives of St. Louis police officers clearly showed, that the job of the police had grown from public safety to include dealing with community disputes, domestic violence, drug addiction, the neglected elderly and people on the street exhibiting strange if not obviously psychotic behavior. So, we tried to figure out how to get police officers, often ex-military, to become part couples’ therapists, social workers, medics, nurses, case managers and psychologists. No wonder we failed.

Poverty, inadequate housing, drug addiction, poor nutrition, mental illness and family dissolution are not police problems, but as a result of under-funding basic human services and public health, de-institutionalization and the fraying of social network supports, we’ve shoved everything onto our police forces.

We don’t need to defund the police, we need them to get the bad guys, stop corruption and keep us safe and sound. But then we need to fund the surround services so that everything else is not shoved onto the police.

Dr. John A. Talbott, Baltimore

The writer is chair emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

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