Denver Now Routing 911 Calls About Mental Health Issues Away From Cops, Towards Trained Health Professionals

from the saving-lives-by-limiting-state-violence dept

Sending out armed law enforcement officers to handle mental health crises has often been a bad idea. Situations that require compassion, de-escalation, and nuance are far too often greeted with force, more force, and deadly force. Since there’s always “excited delirium” to excuse the deaths caused by officers ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues, very little has changed. Until now.

Recently, there has been a nationwide uprising against police brutality and the senseless killing of unarmed citizens by law enforcement officers. Legislators are actively pursuing reform efforts and finally suggesting some things cops just aren’t trained to do well should be handled by others who can handle them better. Some police officials believe this is “defunding.” But it isn’t. It’s just taking money being used badly and rerouting it to programs and personnel who are specifically trained to work with people suffering from mental health issues.

A lot of city lawmakers are talking about shifting resources away from the “guys with guns” approach that has seen a great many people in need of health intervention “assisted” to death by police officers. The city of Denver is actually doing something about it. Denver’s Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) — launched four days after George Floyd-related protests began in Denver — sends out health professionals and paramedics to respond to 911 calls about people behaving erratically.

Since its launch June 1, the STAR van has responded to more than 350 calls, replacing police in matters that don’t threaten public safety and are often connected to unmet mental or physical needs. The goal is to connect people who pose no danger with services and resources while freeing up police to respond to other calls. The team, which is not armed, has not called police for backup, [Carleigh] Sailon said.

This limits the number of interactions involving weapons with the power to maim or kill. This makes it a program that saves lives — not only because the STAR team gets people the help they need, but because it prevents situations from escalating to the point where jailing or force deployment (or both) seem to be the only options. This new task force is all that much more important since so many Denver residents appear to feel 911 is just a city customer service line.

The team has responded to an indecent exposure call that turned out to be a woman changing clothes in an alley because she was unhoused and had no other private place to go. They’ve been called out to a trespassing call for a man who was setting up a tent near someone’s home. They’ve helped people experiencing suicidal thoughts, people slumped against a fence, people simply acting strange.

The STAR team only handles a small percentage of the city’s 911 calls. Most are still handled by law enforcement. But it does free up police resources to handle situations requiring their presence, rather than asking under-trained officers to handle everything residents ask them to handle because they don’t know who else to ask.

Police are always talking about working smarter. But they rarely seem to recognize their own shortcomings could be addressed by others who won’t take an approach that ends in death, arrest, or injury. They should embrace programs like these that allow them to pursue actual criminals, rather than treating people who are victims of mental illness, homelessness, or suicidal thoughts like criminals because that’s how they’re trained to treat everyone.

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Comments on “Denver Now Routing 911 Calls About Mental Health Issues Away From Cops, Towards Trained Health Professionals”

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76 Comments
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Whoa.

"It took massive protests to fix this idiocy, but I’ll take it."

I guess if you’re stuck in the third circle of hell you would be grateful if the torturer in charge switches his cat-o-nine-tails for a regular horsewhip.

All I can say is that looking in from outside I’m inclined to wonder why saner people haven’t either left the US or headed for the hills while hoarding canned goods and shotguns.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

When all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target

While it’s disappointing that it took this long to realize that maybe sending out people armed and trained to see everyone around them as potential threats to deal with people acting erratically might be a bad idea late is better than never, and hopefully other cities/states(all of them would be good) follow suit, saving many lives that would otherwise have been lost through police ‘fearing for their lives’.

Koby (profile) says:

Need Backup

Sending in the SWAT team to deal with a homeless guy is like trying to pound a nail with a steamroller. My concern, however is mission creep. Things are probably okay right now, but I’m guessing that it’s only a matter of time before someone having a mental health crisis grabs a weapon and does harm to a health professional. Then the union is going to demand safety for their workers, which will require a police escort, and then we’re back to square one. It’s similar to how fire and ambulance won’t currently enter into an area where a confrontation is taking place until after police have the situation under control.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

“Things might get worse if we change what we’re doing, so let’s keep doing it the way we’re doing it now because we’ve always done it this way.”¹ That’s you. That’s you right now.

Yes, mental health professionals don’t have the same license (or training) as the police to commit violence. Yes, someone should go with them to help if things turn violent — ostensibly, a police officer trained in deëscalation tactics that teach violence as a last resort instead of the first (or only). But mental health professionals don’t need to accompanied by a phalanx of police officers who would more than likely shoot someone in the middle of a mental breakdown because that person blinked one eye instead of two.


¹ — FYI: “We’ve always done it this way” is one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. Anything that implies such a mindset isn’t much better in that regard.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

GP: Things are probably okay right now, … Then the union is going to demand safety for their workers, which will require a police escort, …

P: “Things might get worse if we change what we’re doing, so let’s keep doing it the way we’re doing it now because we’ve always done it this way.” That’s you. That’s you right now.

What part of "we need to remember why we changed things to prevent them from returning to that state" did you fail to read in the GP’s post?

Koby (profile) says:

Re: Re: Need Backup

No, I don’t want to give up. I’d like to know what can be done to prevent the prediction from happening. Eliminate the union? Legalize drugs? Mandate that vagrants go off to rehab? Sending health professionals out into the street to put out fires doesn’t sound like it’s getting to the root cause.

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Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Need Backup

Sending health professionals out into the street to put out fires doesn’t sound like it’s getting to the root cause.

Um, Denver isn’t sending health professionals to put out fires; the fire department is doing that. However, if there is, say, a person who is loud and obnoxious or threatening to take their own life, a health professional would be more appropriate for the situation than someone who shoots first and doesn’t ask questions.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I don’t want to give up.

Could’ve fooled me… ????

I’d like to know what can be done to prevent the prediction from happening.

I’m guessing that you’ll somehow reject any answer as “not satisfactory enough” and throw your hands up in defeat, which would — again — fall back to the “well, we’ve always done it this way” position. But if I must

As a practical short-term solution: Provide to those professionals a police escort — two officers at most — and have them hang back unless absolutely needed. As a longer-term solution that will require more effort from more people: Boost the social safety net so mental health issues can be treated without bankrupting people.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Need Backup

"Sending health professionals out into the street to put out fires doesn’t sound like it’s getting to the root cause."

Neither does sending thugs to shoot them, but this is a good step in the right direction compared to the traditional alternative.

"Legalize drugs? Mandate that vagrants go off to rehab?"

Worked for Portugal, if I’m not mistaken.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Need Backup

" I’d like to know what can be done to prevent the prediction from happening. "

Well, in europe where we look at your hypothesis and shake our heads in disbelief we’d say "This shit doesn’t happen in a nation which has a social security net. Or, for that matter, less triggerhappy police"

You need to realize that a "problem" which is gorram unique for the US only indicates the US specifically is failing to use methods which every other country in the world has, apparently, mastered.

I swear somethimes when I look at that nation across the atlantic, every time social issues crop up I’m reminded of nothing so much as a group of children all whining their shoes keep coming off because they never bothered to learn tying their shoelaces.

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Iggy says:

"Some police officials believe this is ‘defunding.’ But it isn’t. It’s just taking money being used badly and rerouting it to programs and personnel who are specifically trained to work with people suffering from mental health issues."

lol

This is a wonderful start and finally some good news. Maybe next we can reroute funds used to jail homeless people or put them up in emergency rooms and use it to provide housing instead. If you don’t want to call it defunding the police, then I won’t call it that.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Can you guarantee that all police responses to mental health emergencies, no matter the severity of said emergencies, won’t always end in someone dying at the hands of the cops? No, you can’t, and if you could, you’d be God.

Some situations call for the police to show up, possibly with lethal weaponry, and handle things. Other situations need a more delicate (and far less violent) approach. Sending the police — a group of people trained to see everyone else as a threat and use violence to neutralize threats — into both situations would be like trying to do surgery on internal organs with a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel: It may or may not solve one problem, but it’ll certainly make a lot of new problems in the process.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Read first, then comment

It helps if you read the article before commenting.

Since its launch June 1, the STAR van has responded to more than 350 calls, replacing police in matters that don’t threaten public safety and are often connected to unmet mental or physical needs.

The STAR team only handles a small percentage of the city’s 911 calls. Most are still handled by law enforcement. But it does free up police resources to handle situations requiring their presence, rather than asking under-trained officers to handle everything residents ask them to handle because they don’t know who else to ask.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Are you an idiot, or do you just play one on the internet?

when and if I do ever call 911 for an emergency situation I would be very pissed were the dispatchers to send 2 social workers or forward my call to a grief counselor.

You failed to state the nature of your emergency correctly.

If this is such a serious need then establish a separate 3-digit number and leave 911 for emergencies.

It’s the same shit 911 has been used for since forever. Are you implying that only police (and begrudgingly, fire and rescue) shall have a monopoly on receiving 911 calls? Or are you just suggesting that anyone bothered enough by a schizophrenic talking loudly to himself to call 911 should necessitate the cops murdering someone?

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"ROTFLMAO… This shall end in disaster."

So what works for the rest of the world once again won’t work for the US which has no other recourse but to keep sending government agents likely to shoot or brutalize the mentally ill…

I swear, all I keep hearing from the US lately seems to be "No, we can’t have ANY of the nice things the rest of the world has because…". Stupidity, apparently.

It’s as if there were 350 million children going barefoot and continually complaining about cuts and bruises. And when you tell them "so put on the shoes you have" they all pout and say that’s not possible because not one of them knows how to tie their shoelaces.

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Anonymous Coward says:

a) about time
b) the police unions that think that the police can do no wrong, who should have ‘carte blanche’ to do whatever they want to whoever they want, particular if it involves killing someone for, basically, doing nothing except ‘looking wrong’ and even more particularly if that person on the wrong end of a police gun barrel IS BLACK! in so many instances, it’s the union officials who should face charges just as much as the officer committing the ‘action’!

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ECA (profile) says:

For all your comments.

There is something to remember from the past.
What the hell was 911 created for int he first place.
Why not, Just, call the Police?

911 was to SORT out those that had other problems.
Fire, police, Suicide, poisoning, and to have 1 number for ALL the services needed.
The problem is Who do they send? Can anyone find the list of services that they SHOULD be using? Or routing to for services?

Who knows the other ?11 numbers?
Some states have other numbers along the roads to call in case of Situations.. And direct to STATE patrol.

In the END its Ghost busters, Who do you call, and whats the number??

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Uriel-238 (profile) says:

"If this is an emergency, dial 9-1-1"

This is a boilerplate instruction on most medical services phone directory and messaging services, including psychiatry. I get to point out to the staff that very few emergency situations are improved by the addition of a law enforcement officer.

Typically, they begrudgingly agree, but there’s no other place to direct emergencies, and the message serves as a disclaimer that this number is not for crises.

Hopefully we won’t have to see a disabled kid get shot to shit by police officers before California rethinks its 9-1-1 routing strategies.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: "If this is an emergency, dial 9-1-1"

The interesting part is WHO gets sent.
With all the money spent, $3-5 per person, Per Phone/cellphone. Someone is getitng Lots of money, and not redirecting calls to hospitals/psych, poison control, suicide hot lines, or Many other emergency numbers.
911 is supposed to decide, and with only 2-3 numbers Who do they call?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Who gets there first?

In San Francisco, the SFFD would arrive in three minutes and are trained as full first-responders.

The police arrive in 15 minutes to most areas, though there are some mini-ghettos to where they take the longer, scenic route.

Mind you, I’ve not had any encounters with the SFPD since my late twenties.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 "If this is an emergency, dial 9-1-1"

Oh! yes.
We do.
Hospitals are Corporations.
And Ambulance Companies support them.
And there are nightmares about this.
As some are registered only to certain hospitals, and that could be 10+ miles away, and not the nearest.

In the USA, when we have an emergency. Our bills end up like this.
Ambulance bill
Hospital bill
Emergency bill
Doctor bill
Drug bill
Extra doctors/dept bills.

Slip and fall and bang your head, and get ruched to the emergency, they Plug you in, get x-ray and scans, then hold you for 24 hours, and you get a Total bill of over $2000-3000.
All the sections and dept. are corp owned.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: "If this is an emergency, dial 9-1-1"

That boilerplate instruction happens at the phone line of my medicaid clinic in NYC; directing people to 9/11 seems like an abdication of duty considering that cops make the situation that much worse. That being said, I’m fortunate enough that I have my shit together to handle myself if things should go south, which is usually temporarily.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "If this is an emergency, dial 9-1-1"

Just so you know, 911 really isn’t just for police. You know, fire, ambulance, that sort of thing.

But also, the number of other services they can (and do call) is limited to the services they CAN call. That is, the services that are available to be called, and that will respond.

Remember the joke about funding services:

"Suicide hotline, please hold".

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

What’s the difference between a person with a real health problem and one who has taken too many drugs and is having hallucinations?

The difference is negligible in the long run — especially since police will kill both people with the exact same level of callous disregard for life. Mental health professionals aren’t (and shouldn’t be) trained for violent responses to violent people. But I doubt few people would object to a police presence (two cops at most) as a backup in case someone must be detained or subdued before hurting themselves or others. And when the police must do that, they would ideally use violence as an absolute last resort.

The point isn’t to fully replace the police and keep them from doing a job that other people aren’t trained to do. The point is to avoid having the police continually killing people having mental health emergencies because a concerned family member or neighbor called 9-1-1. Police can be on the scene without being judge, jury, and executioner; it’s long past time for them and their supporters to learn that lesson.

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Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Crazies on hallucinogens

People who suffer from mental illness get abused or murdered by police in disproportionate numbers. Like non-whites and LGBT+ demographics. Crazies actually are less likely to be harmful or violent than the general population, but they are more likely to be victims of violence.

Sufferers of mental illness also disproportionately abused and murdered in the penal system and the hospital system. (About one in three patients in mental wards suffer from abuse by hospital staff, including sexual abuse. It’s really bad, as it is with all our other unpersons.)

But no, neither crazies with a poor grasp on reality, nor hippies hopped up on hallucinogenics are known for pulling guns or trying to fly off buildings. That sort of thing only happens in Reefer Madness style educational films. IRL, it’s one of those things like vending machines or ball lightning in which singular stories drive the moral panic. Even those who take angel dust are not often that violent. Violent incidents from recreational drugs are way safer than say, inebriated drinkers operating motor vehicles.

If you want to be worried about crazies killing people, you could worry about war vets who come back with advanced PTSD. They have been reconditioned to think of all circumstances as ambushes waiting to happen, and everyone as a potential hostile. (Audie Murphy talks about a fugue state in combat in his memoir To Hell and Back.

On occasion we’ll get a story in news about how a vet beat a DVA staffer into a coma because the clerk shined him on, or ripped out a doctor’s eye because he disregarded the vet’s grievances about the new medication. Sometimes they manifest a knife or sidearm and kill someone. Reports pour in that the DVA is notoriously abusive to vets, so it just might be these mad killers were provoked. Doc Daneeka types find disgruntled vets an occupational hazard (or they just get terrorized at night to madness by Chief White Halfoat.)

For the future of our veteran population, I strongly recommend going to war less.

On the civilian side, mental patients, even violent ones don’t attack councilors who are straightforward with them and mean them well. Attacks by patients on hospital staff are rare enough.

I can’t speak for staffers who have been knifed by their patients; we can’t ask them if they were subverting treatment somehow. At least we can’t expect honest answers if we did.

But I can say that our rate of patients with violent histories who don’t stab their service providers is super high. In the psychiatric sector, violent patients are regard as a very low-risk hazard.

Again, serial killers are ball-lightning/vending-machine rare, and a Hannibal-Lecter-brilliant patient would be a unicorn and is on the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit wishlist. Most of them are smart enough to circumvent their needs to kill. Those that remain escape detection.

And then, serial killers neither hallucinate or use hallucinogenics while they engage in their dark work.

Of course, in the meantime, there are murderous law enforcement officers, and they seem to number not single spies, but in battalions.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Mental Health Denver

"Sounds like a great idea, but how many Health Professionals will be injured trying to talk someone into dropping the weapon?"

Are they all holding weapons, or are the dispatchers correct sending these people out only when there is no such danger present?

"What’s the difference between a person with a real health problem and one who has taken too many drugs and is having hallucinations?"

A trained mental healthcare professional will presumably be able to tell you that and be able to call for backup if they feel they are at risk.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Mental Health Denver

"Sounds like a great idea, but how many Health Professionals will be injured trying to talk someone into dropping the weapon?"

Looking at the rest of the world? Not many.

But I guess to the Breitbart crowd, as per usual, the US is a unique snowflake country so beset by mysterious ills what works everywhere else will, as usually, not work for you.
I’m surprised you didn’t manage to insert your usual "But Obama" just to indicate US mental health is another area where the Bad Black Man managed to screw White America.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Mental Health Denver

Yep, America is the greatest country in the world and is capable of anything, and every country should strive to imitate them. Unless something bad is happening that every other country has managed to fix by sensible government action, in which case the problem cannot possibly be fixed and any suggestion that it can be is tantamount to calling for the installation of the next communist state.

"I’m surprised you didn’t manage to insert your usual "But Obama" just to indicate US mental health is another area where the Bad Black Man managed to screw White America."

From what I’ve been reading, they seem to be spending their effort on trying to somehow blame Joe Biden for the poor handing of the pandemic. I’m sure Obama ties into that somewhere, though.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Exactly, the issue isn’t that they will try to tie both men into it, the issue is how utterly ridiculous it is to try and blame them for actions taken after they were in office, relating to a disease that didn’t exist while they were in office.

However, we can certainly point to actions they took that would have had an effect on the handling of the disease – their improvements to the pandemic team that would have had the job of preparing for and reacting to a major pandemic in order to reduce the danger of and damage from such an event. You know, the team that Trump fired.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Mental Health Denver

"From what I’ve been reading, they seem to be spending their effort on trying to somehow blame Joe Biden for the poor handing of the pandemic. I’m sure Obama ties into that somewhere, though."

Oh, "Shel10"’s comment history is a marvel to behold. One long line of wordwalls sorting out the blame of every ill, real or imagined, since the Fall of Man, with a venomous "But Obama!".

He must be a bit miffed, looking at his previous rhetoric, that now come election time he more or less has to start saying "But Biden" instead. Biden may be a liberal but he’s also decidedly Not Black.

It helps to realize, when one finds an alt-right troll in the forum, that the main reason their arguments are pretzels of broken logic is that as long as liberals get fucked they do not care about anything else.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Mental Health Denver

but how many Health Professionals will be injured trying to talk someone into dropping the weapon?

Very few. Here where the police are better trained, I have seen two police deal with a psychotic person, waving a sword, without even drawing their truncheons, or using hand cuffs. Both remained in front of the person, and one calmly, politely and firmly request they put the sword down, several time, and the asked them to get into the back of their car, whereon the took the person off to the local mental ward.

Note both staying sight, and not showing aggression, trying to rush the person, or aggressively shouting orders are central to de-escalating such situations. A crowd of cops surrounding the person, pointing guns, and aggressively shouting orders is certain to escalate the situation.

Avoid feeding the paranoia, and keep things calm, and things can usually be resolved, feed the paranoia, while creating confusion by more than one cop shouting orders, and things go bad quickly.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Mental Health Denver

What’s the difference between a person with a real health problem and one who has taken too many drugs and is having hallucinations?

That’s the problem – the cops don’t know the difference and defer to their gun for both.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Insanity vs. On Drugs

Not much. The latter has the advantage that sobriety usually only a short matter of time away, though depending on the circumstances that can be unpleasant or dangerous.

In the recovery sector someone inebriated in unsafe circumstances is looked at as a symptom of a bigger problem that got him (her) snookered and in public. All recreational use of drugs are self medication, and indicative of dysfunction.

(Granted there are caveats here. Temperate use of booze, pot or even meth might be a better alternative to stressing out over your shit job and abusing your loved ones. And if you took acid in a place you expected to be safe, and it got interrupted by a fire or swat raid, or California earthquake, well, there are bigger things going on.)

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Mental Health Denver

"That’s the problem – the cops don’t know the difference and defer to their gun for both."

Not always. Sometimes they use their knees instead.

I’d accept that a LEO might not be able to spot the difference between the mentally ill and the drugged but I wish they could at least tell the difference between "not resisting arrest" and "charging them with guns blazing". They all too often defer to the gun in both situations there as well.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Mental Health Denver

"how many Health Professionals will be injured trying to talk someone into dropping the weapon?"

What weapon? What kind of bullshit argument is this?

What weapon was in Elijah McClain’s possession?

What weapon was in the hands of any of the almost countless number of innocent people murdered by law enforcement?

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Mental Health Denver

"What weapon? What kind of bullshit argument is this?"

Rather than deal with the facts of the matter, some people need to create a worst case scenario strawman to attack. In this case, the facts of the matter suggest that mental health professionals are being sent to non-dangerous situations instead of police, to more safely defuse situations and get the person the help they need without the risk of escalating.

But, that’s not good enough for him, so he’s had to invent a situation where the mentally ill person is violent and presenting an immediate danger to those around him, and healthcare workers are being sent into the line of fire without backup.

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Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Plausible worst case scenarios

We’ve seen police and elected officials use worst case scenarios often to defend their bad choices.

The next line of argument is, well, how often do plausible worst case scenarios actually occur? It’s right to look at the hazards caused by policy (or lack of policy), but that needs to be assessed and compared to the hazards that already exist.

Little girls occasionally do get snatched up by total strangers and then trafficked as sex slaves. That’s a non-zero factor. But by far, abductions are by known adults (other parents and guardians) and kids are (90%+) returned safe and untraumatized. And yet we spent decades imagining a stranger-danger model of kidnappings.

Right now, police officers are far more dangerous than armed lunatics. Even when we account for the belligerent ones.

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Anonymous Coward says:

glances at all the police advocates moaning that this initiative will not end well

You know, I seem to recall that one of the complaints of the police is that they’re called in for too many things, which justifies their heavy-handed and immediate responses, for which they demand no criticism whatsoever.

It’s very strange that people who support the police and claim that they’re undersupported still insist on wanting the police to deal with everything.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"It’s very strange that people who support the police and claim that they’re undersupported still insist on wanting the police to deal with everything."

Not so strange. Consider that the people who complain about this tends to be a crowd which "knows" something is wrong if a "liberal" approves of it.

It’s an odd sort of religion.

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