Training Options To Improve Contact
Police officers cannot replace healthcare and social workers, but they still need to understand the impact, causes and effects of homelessness and mental health issues and know how to interact with people with these experiences. Coleman reviewed police training literature and found that the literature is unequivocal that education and training of police personnel in conjunction with mental health professionals and persons living with mental illness is critical to improved police/PMI . He also wrote that:
preparation should include structured and focused learning. Even though the literature is not clear about what works and does not work with respect to improving outcomes, there are strong indications that de-escalation techniques based on understanding mental illnesses and their attendant symptoms as well as appropriate oral communication skills are just two of the key elements for success.
While police training is vital to improving contact with people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues, we must go beyond it. As the story of Alain Magloire a homeless man who was shot to death by police in Montreal showed us, training simply isnt enough to keep homeless people safe. The inquest found that police in Quebec only receive about 15 weeks of training regarding homelessness and mental health issues, and while they can opt to receive more training, it isnt used frequently.
Conceptualizing Police Response At Multiple Levels
As highlighted above, much of the literature and research on CIT has focused on the effect of training on officer attitudes, recognition of mental illness, injuries, and call dispositions. While some of the literature acknowledges the importance of other key elements , the conceptualizations and evidence are not well developed. Here we present a model that includes considerations of individual officer characteristics and behaviors and the effect of training. We further develop our conceptual model to incorporate key organizational, community and systems level factors that influence police response and the outcomes of these encounters .
Effectiveness of CIT
Factors Contributing To Homeless Encampments
Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.
Encampments are usually located close to goods and services that transients need: food, alcohol, employment opportunities, and shelter . Services geared toward this population obviously contribute to a concentration of transients in certain areas. Although soup kitchens attract the chronically homeless, food pantries are less popular with transients because they often lack facilities to cook the items pantries distribute. Social service providers and day labor sites attract some transients.§ Liquor stores and drug markets attract others.41 Homes and businesses are targets for theft or burglary, but also for short-term work for those so inclined.
§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 44, Disorder at Day Laborer Sites.
Because many transients do not have their own vehicles, encampments, even in wooded areas, are likely to be located by pedestrian access points , or close to public transportation facilities and railroad tracks.
Transients look for overgrown brush to help hide their encampment from public view, providing privacy and the opportunity to establish the camp before it is discovered and dealt with by the authorities.
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The Philosophical Debate On Chronic Homelessness
Dealing with homeless people living in encampments can be fraught with moral danger. Few people would argue that the police should do what they can to reduce burglary or car theft. Yet there are many strong and organized advocates of the chronically homeless. Some believe chronic homelessness is a lifestyle choice and, as such, should be protected by law. Others claim it is a consequence of socio-economic factors, such as high unemployment and the lack of affordable housing, or that the chronically homeless are victims of abusive childhoods, addiction, or mental illness. In any event, they oppose criminalizing what they perceive to be a status beyond a homeless person’s control. Still others object to the “criminalization of homelessness” because it violates fundamental constitutional rights, in particular those codified in the First, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
On the other hand, problems associated with transients and their encampments can often lead business owners and residents to demand the police use traditional, and perhaps somewhat punitive, law enforcement methods to solve them.
It is important to be aware of the fundamental differences in people’s beliefs about chronic homelessness because how the problem is defined determines what is considered to be an “effective strategy.”§
§ See Harcourt for a fascinating discussion of the conflicts between owners of single room occupancy hotels and real estate developers in Los Angeles’ skid row.
Individual Officer Characteristics And The Impact Of Specialized Training On Knowledge Attitudes And De
A cornerstone of the CIT model is 40 hours of specialized training for a select group of officers. This training typically involves education about the causes, signs, symptoms and treatment of mental illness information on commitment criteria and procedures personal stories from consumers and family members visits to treatment providers and training in communication and de-escalation skills, which often includes role play exercises . Some would argue that de-escalation training is the active ingredient that effects officers ability to resolve a call without the use of force, injury, or arrest and several studies examining CIT effectiveness focus on the training as the intervention and report pre-and post measures of individual officer variables such as knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions . While it seems common sense that the training is a necessary component to improving interactions with people with mental illness, the existing research does not discuss whether training and how much is sufficient for improving outcomes.
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Police Role With Homeless Population: Enforcers Or Helpers
- By March 19, 2015
Dave Ritchie, a plumber by trade, lives in a nearby self-made shack in the woods in Allentown, Pa.
Several cities have launched homeless outreach teams, made up of officers dedicated solely to helping people who are homeless.
Video by NationSwell
In Pennsylvania, the homeless population has increased for three of the past four years. Thats in contrast to the country as a whole, where the number of people who are homeless has been decreasing each year.
Keystone Crossroads has written about how Pennsylvania cities are approaching these communities and in some cases, shutting down tent cities that pop up.
Thats why this video caught our attention. Its a profile of Houston Police Sergeant Stephen Wick, whos part of the citys Homeless Outreach Team. Its an initiative that turns the usual police as enforcers model on its head.
Sergeant Wick has worked for the Houston Police Department for more than 20 years. He was a bicycle patrol officer for many years, and he got to know the people who lived on the street. He tried to help them out when he could.
And then about four years ago, Wick attended a conference hosted by the Colorado Springs Police Department.
In 2008, the city of Colorado Springs started to see a jump in the number of homeless camps on its public land. The police department launched a team of three officers to help people who live on the street find housing and jobs.
The simple things
So we help them, Wick says.
General Description Of The Problem
What are homeless encampments?
The term “homeless” refers to someone who is usually poor and frequently on the move from one temporary dwelling situation to another. Many slang words are used to describe such a person: transient, squatter, hobo, bum, vagrant, and vagabond. Homeless encampments take a variety of forms: tent cities groups living under freeway overpasses and groups sleeping in parks, in skid rows , in subway tunnels, on sidewalks, etc. One person setting up shelter in such a location does not constitute an encampment. Studies show homeless encampments vary in size. Some, particularly those in the woods, can be fairly small with only a few campers. Those under freeway overpasses and in urban vacant lots and parks may be larger, with some reportedly having 100 or more people. Shelters in homeless encampments range from lean-tos made of cardboard, to tents, to more elaborate structuresin one case including French doors, a skylight, and a picture window.1 Obviously, the more established the encampment, the better constructed the “housing” is likely to be.
Some encampments, particularly those in the woods, such as the one shown above, can be fairly small with only a few campers.
Who lives in homeless encampments?
To understand who lives in homeless encampments§, it is useful to begin with the entire population of homeless people and whittle it down.
§ The behavior in question is known as “sleeping rough” in the United Kingdom.
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People Experiencing Homeless And Mental Health Issues
An estimated 30-35% of people experiencing homelessness also have a diagnosis of mental illness, and sometimes multiple. And as many researchers and activists have noted, Canadas mental health system is not equipped to deal with these issues. As described in the 2014 Toronto report, Police Encounters with People in Crisis:
Ontario does not have a coordinated, comprehensive approach to treating mental health issues. Instead, there is a patchwork collection of hospitals, community treatment organizations, housing programs, and mental health practitioners, only some of which receive public fundingfunding that is, in any event, often inadequate to meet the needs of the community.
The same report considers community-based mental health services, peer-based groups and supports, and housing supports and services as valuable for people diagnosed with mental illness. Back in 2009, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released a report recommending that services be integrated and available to those who need them, and prioritized recovery- and community-based practices and services.
What their research shows is how we discuss police interactions with people experiencing homelessness and/or mental health issues matters. If we present homeless people as dangerous and the problem as a lack of police resources when the problem is actually a lack of appropriate community and socioeconomic resources our responses will only strengthen police forces, ignoring the root of the issue.
The Risk Of Police Involvement
When officers arrive, they often issue move-along orders or citations. Cutler said SF police are handing out tickets for illegal lodging like candy. In 2016, the SFPD filed 337 such reports, issuing 282 tickets.
The effect of getting ticketed can be instant and destructive. If individuals dont pay , they can be subject to a bench warrant, which is issued by a judge when someone fails to show up in court. That then makes them ineligible for a shelter bed, even if theyve been on a shelter waitlist for a long timethereby creating a vicious cycle.
They end up in this very expensive cycle of engaging with the criminal justice system for the so-called crime of povertyof having no house. Im not sure who that serves, said University of San Franciscos Rachel Brahinsky, who directs USFs program in Urban and Public Affairs.
Homeless people can, however, get a reprieve from the justice system if judges intervene on a one-off basis. Sometimes they do so en masse. In 2016, San Franciscos chief judge threw out over 66,000 bench warrants for quality-of-life violations that had accrued over five years. Additionally, homeless individuals facing charges can seek help on a pro bono basis from defense lawyers through organizations like the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
Yarbrough has also found that people are more vulnerable to violence in unfamiliar locations. In some cases, women have reported that theyve experienced sexual assault immediately following a move.
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What Can Ordinary People Do If They See Police Laughing At Homeless People And Moving Them On
In this series Poppy Noor discusses an issue concerning how we can build happy, well-run communities. But what do you think? Send us your thoughts and responses
I want to know what ordinary people can do if they see police officers moving homeless people on. The other day I saw some police laughing at a guy who looked as though he was having a drugs-related attack they were trying to move him on. They were just giggling, and eventually got some other homeless people to help move him. I was on a bus in the middle of a traffic jam, watching. There was nothing I could do and I found it pretty horrible. There have been other times when I have seen homeless people just sitting under a bridge and police have arrived and told them to pack up and move on. I want to know, are the police instructed to do this or are they just being nasty? Do they realise the people they are moving have nowhere else to go? The ones who were laughing clearly were just being horrible and I felt angry at them. What could I do next time to intervene?
This sounds like a really distressing situation, and I understand why you felt so powerless: you saw an injustice that you were unable to act on. Even if you were able, its hard to know whether you would have made the situation better or worse, or whether these were just some poor coppers doing their job.
What do you think? Or have you got a question for Poppy and readers to consider? Post your responses below or email them to
Homeless Outreach During Covid
Police homeless outreach teams should temporarily shift from a problem-solving model to a public health and safety model.
Iain De Jong, a leading homelessness consultant and CEO of Orgcode, Inc. suggests outreach options depending upon available shelter options in your community:
- For communities that have expanded their shelter or motel options, outreach can be shifted to connecting the unsheltered homeless to available emergency shelter options.
- For communities without increased shelter capacity, take the time to plan your outreach efforts and dont compete for increasingly scarce shelter resources. Instead, focus upon assisting the most vulnerable populations within your community. Consider leaving disinfecting wipes and hygiene supplies at encampments .
Homeless outreach officers are critical to keeping the lines of communication open with the homeless community so they can remain informed.
Be very clear the purpose of your outreach at this time, and how the intention of the outreach may currently be different than if these were normal times. You dont want to confuse people now or later, said De Jong
Maintain social distancing and do not conduct outreach as a group activity. Agencies that use a co-responder model should consider working individually.
Existing homeless outreach teams have already had the opportunity to develop trust between the police and the homeless. Police agencies can leverage this trust at a time when it is needed the most.
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Cities Are Realizing Its Time To Stop Calling The Police On Homeless People
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After seven years of homelessness, Theo Henderson knows to steer clear of white dog-walkers, crazy parents, and overinvolved business owners. Theyre the people most likely to call the police on a Black man for just sitting or sleeping outside, he said.
He also knows thats not always enough to avoid interacting with the Los Angeles Police Department. People are suspicious of Henderson. And that has led to multiple traumatic encounters with officers who drew their weapons on him.
Im constantly wasting time having to worry any time I see police officers drive by, or they stop at the park and see me, said Henderson, a 46-year-old who lives in Los Angeles and hosts a podcast called We the Unhoused.
Im always beset by the worry that this was done by some NIMBY, he said. I have to sit here and be non-threatening, and pray I dont get shot to death.
But the constant, nagging threat of police responding to complaints about homelessness may soon change at least a little.
Just so were abso-fucking-lutely clear, we do not want any of these services to run through the LAPD.
Responses With Limited Effectiveness
22.Enforcing “sidewalk behavior” ordinances. “Sidewalk behavior” ordinances prohibit behaviors on public sidewalks. Examples of these prohibited behaviors include lying or sitting on the sidewalk, or on any object placed on the sidewalk impeding or obstructing the passage of pedestrians by getting in their way or putting obstacles on the sidewalk leaving belongings unattended on sidewalks and soliciting.64 There have been successful class-action legal challenges§ to arrests of homeless people for sleeping in public places and carrying out other “life-sustaining functions.”65 The courts’ decision rules have generally been:
1) Are the plaintiffs involuntarily homeless? If your community does not have enough shelter beds to house all the homeless people, a court is likely to rule, based on precedent, that homelessness is not a choice and thus involuntary.
2) Do the plaintiffs have access to non-public spaces to carry out the punished activities? If your community lacks bathing and toilet facilities for the homeless, enforcement of laws prohibiting these activities could run into legal challenges.
3) Are the activities for which the plaintiff is being punished involuntary? Courts have tended to rule that sleeping and excretion are involuntary.
§ See, for example, Pottinger v. City of Miami, Johnson v. City of Dallas, and Jones v. City of Los Angeles.
§§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 13, Panhandling for more information.
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