Earlier this month, 18-year old Keith Vidal was fatally shot when police arrived at his home to help his parents contain him during a schizophrenic episode. Predictably, the officer who shot Vidal claimed the use of force was necessary to protect another officer.
While this story is undoubtedly tragic, it’s a common side effect of calling the police. The term “excessive force” commonly appears in news stories involving police. Family members and pets become casualties of simple encounters with the officers we depend on—and pay—to protect us.
Some mistakenly attribute these excesses to “a few bad apples,” an assessment that ignores the progressing trend of police aggression. The police aren’t trained to listen or reason, only to demand obedience and react harshly when compliance isn’t immediate. Enlisting the aid of law enforcement to diminish risk will instead almost certainly exacerbate that risk.
Most of us are resigned to call the police when we’re in distress, be it for a crime or medical emergency. It’s really the only choice sometimes, since our self-defense options are highly restricted. But we need to look past our inclination to rely on law enforcement for protection and understand that doing so could easily result in someone being hurt or arrested (and not necessarily the someone you intend). If you’re in a position where you’d normally call the police, consider these options instead:
1. Mental Health Professionals.
When a loved one becomes erratic, calling the police seems like the right thing to do. But a mental health professional is preferable, since they have expertise in the specific treatment you need. This requires forethought, so make sure you have the number(s) readily available and learn the warning signs of serious episodes so you can make the right call early and avoid the need for forceful assistance.
2. Rape Crisis Centers
Sexual assault survivors often report feeling re-victimized when they speak with police. While doing so might still be advisable, especially if you continue to feel threatened, rape crisis centers are an alternative that focus on the victim’s well-being and offer support to deal with the aftermath of an assault. If you do chose to speak to law enforcement, calling a crisis center first to ask for direction can help minimize subsequent distress.
Minorities have long been aware of the racial bias through which police justice is meted out. To cope with the imbalance, some communities created their own crime prevention systems, such as the Citizens Local Alliance for a Safe Philadelphia (CLASP). In the 1970s, CLASP members kept their community safe by investing in crime prevention tools—like better lights, locks and alarms—and community participation in neighborhood walks. Creating and improving social connections is a great way to become less attractive to criminals, who select targets based on ease and perceived risk.
You may, at some point, be in a predicament that requires you to call the police. I hope not, but if you are, remember the police specialize in enforcement—not empathy. If you need the latter, please consider looking elsewhere.