March 2, 2024

Opinion: create synergy related to public safety and public health

Stock.adobe.com photo by Niyaz.

By Karl Bickel

The writer is a senior policy analyst for the US Department of Justice, former second in command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, a former metropolitan police department and former assistant professor of criminal justice. It can be reached at [email protected]

Tragic and violent criminal events, especially those targeting Maryland’s children and youth, draw much-needed attention for short periods of time in our 24-hour news cycle. Unfortunately, we fail to acknowledge that crime is a public health problem. Tragedies continue, communities despair, police are distrusted, and morale among police officers and law enforcement leaders declines.

Our collective failure to reframe crime as a public health issue means we fail to focus on root causes. The solutions are to strengthen the social determinants of health across all communities, leaving no one behind and integrating law enforcement into the process. Only then will we see long-term changes and rebuild the police as a reliable partner in community life.

When our communities are thriving, everyone can see their personal interest in maintaining health and stability, discouraging disorder and crime. Struggling communities need this too. So why do we continue to view public health and policing through separate lenses, and make policy in silos that foster a zero-sum mentality?

By flipping the script, we can break down the silos and create collaborative partnerships. Community leaders in the social determinants of transportation, health care, education, social services, public safety and economic development can come together to create and implement policies and programs that meet real needs. It means, in plain terms, that the people with boots on the ground share their knowledge, while leaders leave their turf behind and think of public health and crime prevention as interwoven threads, not parallel lines.

We are already doing this in some areas. Maryland has taken strong steps in the education and health arenas to recognize and add to what we now know about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), lifelong, mental health and behavioral trauma, and the fundamental need to address these health challenges from birth. But are we integrating these critical areas of knowledge into law enforcement policy, training and protocols? We know that interdisciplinary models of crisis intervention can work for a number of mental health and behavioral situations, reducing trauma and improving safety.

What we can do differently:

  • Training law enforcement officers in procedural justice and social determinants. Procedural justice is guardian-minded policing that ensures public safety and well-being through fairness and transparency. This changes the way officers view their communities and the way members of the community view them.
  • Talk to each other. Cross-train law enforcement, public health, social services and education providers to understand what we have in common. This fosters communication and changes the way we perceive each other.
  • Encourage collaboration, not resource funding. State grants and budget allocations could encourage new models that reward collaboration and partnership building. This results in improved services and more efficient use of limited resources.
  • Mapping communities to understand overlaps in crime and gaps in social determinants. A police officer may see a corner store as a location for drug deals and a community health worker may know that it is the only walkable place in the neighborhood for milk and bread. This allows us to see the day-to-day life of the community from a broad perspective and create accountability.
  • Involve law enforcement officers in community planning at all levels. Prevention happens when we get ahead of the curve. If community development is viewed with social determinants as a guide, we can make more equitable and sustainable plans, and public safety should be an integral part of the process. This creates a proactive rather than reactive approach to public health and safety.
  • Fund support infrastructure throughout the country. Police de-escalate volatile cases, but what happens next? Community health workers and other providers are trained to act as a bridge to community services; 24-hour availability would allow for a face-to-face transfer which would reduce repeat calls for police intervention.
  • Expand health care/correctional collaborations. Mental health and behavioral issues are an upstream source of many incarcerations. Jails and hospital emergency rooms see the same people over and over at great expense. Investing in increased primary and specialized care in the prison setting through collaboration with health providers, and improved case management, has been shown to improve medication management and reduce recidivism. This results in improved quality of life for individuals and reduced costs across systems.
  • Use a community dashboard to display real-time data. The COVID pandemic has demonstrated the use of data dashboards, and Maryland has an impressive crime statistics dashboard. Showing data on prevention, collaboration and services together with crime statistics can tell us what is and isn’t working.

We can no longer ignore the connection between the social determinants of health and policing. Our children, our neighbors, those who want to make their careers in the public service deserve a better and more truthful answer to the problems that surround us. Let’s make Maryland the nation’s leader in tackling crime as a public health problem – creating synergy in every town, city and county, leaving no community behind.

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