Police, Policy, People



Illustration of criminatl justice policy being painted

Police Departments and Lawmakers Are Striving to Create Safer Communities

By Amanda Essex

From holding lip-sync challenges to negotiating serious policy changes, law enforcement officials, citizens and policymakers are working together to create safer communities and increase police effectiveness. Efforts can be seen at all levels of government. At the state level, the volume of legislation addressing law enforcement has increased significantly in the last few years. In 2017 alone, lawmakers introduced some 1,500 bills nationwide and enacted more than 260 of them. That’s a big leap from the 93 new laws passed in 2016 and 64 in 2015. Police have worked with legislators in the development of some of these new laws.

States and law enforcement agencies have re-evaluated their use-of-force policies in light of high-profile incidents involving police and community members. New approaches to dealing with mental illness and emerging technologies have also spurred changes.

Significant legislative trends in recent years include alternatives to arrest, law enforcement training and officer safety.

Not Just Arrests

It used to be that when law enforcement officers encountered someone having a mental health crisis, the only option available was to arrest that person and hold him or her in custody.

As we recognize the unique response required for people with behavioral health needs, however, police options are changing. A few state legislatures have expanded police authority, allowing officers to take people in crisis to treatment facilities or hospitals to address their needs.

A bill signed in August in Illinois supports programs that direct people with substance use disorders away from the criminal justice system and into treatment services. Known as “deflection,” an officer makes the connection between a person who might otherwise have been arrested and a treatment provider or medical professional.

The new law acknowledges that “law enforcement officers have a unique opportunity to facilitate connections to community-based behavioral health interventions that provide substance use treatment and can help save and restore lives,” reduce drug use, overdoses, crime and recidivism, “and help prevent arrest and conviction records that destabilize health, families and opportunities for community citizenship and self-sufficiency.”

A current Illinois police chief and a former chief and current city manager were instrumental in getting the legislation passed. Eric Guenther, chief of police in Mundelein, Ill., says the legislation is unique because it “recognizes a paradigm shift in law enforcement’s approach to those who struggle with substance use.”

Danny Langloss, city manager and former police chief in Dixon, Ill., describes the enactment of the law as a “hopeful day for Illinois law enforcement and those suffering from substance use disorder. … With this bill, the police now have new programs at their disposal that save lives and make our communities safer.”

Kentucky, New Jersey and Texas are among the states that have enacted laws allowing deflection programs.

Law Enforcement Training

States also are requiring officers to complete training on how to respond to someone experiencing an acute crisis. Alabama, California, Montana and South Carolina are among the states to require or encourage crisis intervention training for officers.

A resolution adopted by the Alabama Legislature in 2017 encouraged the state’s Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission to offer mental health awareness training. Resolution sponsor Representative Mike Ball (R) says the training is important because it might allow an officer to avoid using force—especially deadly force. “Nobody wants to use deadly force, though in some instances you might have to,” he says. “But we need our officers trained to de-escalate.”

Arkansas requires officers in the police academy to complete at least 16 hours of training on behavioral health crisis intervention, and South Carolina requires some officers to complete continuing education credits addressing mental health or addictive disorders. Both states’ requirements were put in place in 2017.

Protecting Those Who Serve

Training requirements ensure that officers are prepared to protect themselves in a crisis, to diffuse dangerous situations and to prevent harm to the people they encounter.

States also are considering the mental health needs of their officers, about a quarter of whom have thoughts of suicide, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness. In addition, law enforcement professionals report “much higher rates of depression, PTSD, burnout and other anxiety-related mental health conditions” than the public.

Colorado created a task force that studied the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on police officers, many of whom see “horrific things the vast majority of the public will never see,” Sgt. Sean Harper, one of the task force co-chairs, says.

Among the task force recommendations lawmakers incorporated in legislation was making counseling services available to officers. “Who protects the protectors when they fall down?” asked Representative Jonathan Singer (D) before introducing the legislation. The state now includes PTSD among the conditions that qualify for workers’ compensation.

As the body of evidence and research grows, legislatures will be better equipped to make policy decisions that lead to safer communities and promote police effectiveness.

Opioids: What’s Working

State lawmakers are all too familiar with the human costs and policy challenges associated with opioid misuse. They also recognize the need for collaboration between health, criminal justice and other professionals whose daily work is touched by the epidemic and who can aid in preventing overdoses.

Lawmakers have led efforts to forge new partnerships between criminal justice and health care stakeholders and have encouraged evidence-based practices. Recent legislation has focused on intervening at the front end of the justice system by rerouting people toward community-based treatment and other supports before they are arrested and by increasing access to treatment for people involved in the system.

Recent research has shown the effectiveness of these collaborations in reducing overdose deaths. A new publication from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Evidence-Based Strategies for Preventing Opioid Overdose: What’s Working in the United States,” identified 10 best practices, some of which directly involve collaboration between public health and public safety partners.

Access to naloxone, the opioid-overdose antidote, is the focus of two of the strategies. Putting naloxone into the hands of individuals reentering the community after a period of incarceration can help mitigate their heightened risk of overdose. Providing the antidote to people likely to witness or respond to an overdose, such as law enforcement officers, also has been shown to save lives. Every state has a naloxone access law, and by the end of 2016 it was estimated that more than 1,200 law enforcement agencies had naloxone programs.

Bystanders who witness an overdose often have been using opioids themselves and may be hesitant to call 911 for help. All but five states have adopted a 911 Good Samaritan Law, which provides limited immunity for bystanders and overdose victims who seek medical assistance.

People who have had contact with the justice system have disproportionately high rates of substance use disorders. But correctional facilities are not always able to provide comprehensive treatment. In fact, abstinence requirements often disrupt medication-assisted treatment. In its report, the CDC identified expansion of such treatment as one of its best practices.

Equally important is ensuring continuity of care for people leaving the system by establishing links to treatment in the community. Several states have enacted legislation in the past few years to increase access to medication-assisted treatment, and some corrections facilities have started programs of their own.

The Rhode Island corrections department, for example, runs a statewide program that offers access to all FDA-approved medications for treating opioid addiction, something other correctional programs have been hesitant to authorize due to security concerns. After one year, fatal overdoses for recently incarcerated people dropped by 60 percent, and overdose fatalities statewide fell by 12 percent.

States will continue to innovate in their efforts to stem the opioid tide. Time will tell if those efforts are succeeding.

 Amanda Essex is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

Additional Resources

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