Lauredhel (who came up with the title for this post, incidentally) tipped me off to a fascinating series of events that took place in Perth this weekend. A nude man with a history of mental illness who appeared to be armed with a gun climbed onto a billboard, where he stayed for almost four hours. He paced, he heckled passerby, he waved the weapon in the air. ‘Helpful’ passerby peered out of windows, shouted at the man, and evidently even encouraged him to jump.
We know how this story usually ends. This story usually ends with snipers and a dead man.
The Perth police, to their lasting credit, decided to change the narrative. Despite the fact that the city was brought to a standstill and tensions were high, they worked with him. They talked to him. Yes, they did station armed officers in the area, in addition to cordoning off the streets for safety, but their primary concern was this man’s well being. And, eventually, they got him to agree to come down and surrender the ‘gun,’ which turned out to be a replica.
Policing: You’re doing it right.
Inspector John Lindley, describing the standoff and how the police handled it, said that it was ‘textbook.’ That may be so in the sense that this is how police are supposed to respond, but these encounters very rarely work out this way. Police officers may be trained to resolve situations like this in the least traumatic way possible, but, somehow, situations like this rarely end so peacefully. Something that the Perth police are doing is right, and I would like to find out what it is so that other police forces can benefit from it.
Is it better mental health training? Police officers are often provided with inadequate training in working with people with mental illness, which means that they are frightened and unprepared in situations like these. Unfortunately, stripping of funding from community based services means that encounters between police and people with mental illness are increasing. I’d be curious to learn more about the type of training Perth officers receive, and if the training programme is developed with input not just from law enforcement, but also people with mental illness.
Is it a clear chain of command with very clear lines of communication? Many situations involving people with mental illness and police end badly because either communications get garbled, communication isn’t available in the heat of the moment, or the chain of command becomes disrupted. Police shootings are sometimes the result of dispatcher error, describing a situation as more dangerous than it is, or of miscommunication between multiple agencies on scene. Sometimes, it is officers who are unclear about where their orders should be coming from.
Is it extensive action plans for dealing with situations like this? Have the Perth police sat down to sketch out potential scenarios and how to deal with them, and practiced for these kinds of situations so that when they happen, the response is automatic, rather than being made up as they go along? Extensive preplanning can make the difference between panic and a calm response.
Is it that the police have prioritised getting people in these situations to safety, even if it takes time and becomes disruptive? In a lot of these situations, the goal is to resolve it quickly, by whatever means possible. When pressure is put on police officers to end standoffs quickly, it’s hard to think clearly and to consider the safety and wellbeing of the person at the core of the situation.
Implementation of all of these things costs money, but I believe it’s funds well spent. Many police departments, especially rural and small departments, complain of chronic lack of funding that makes it difficult to provide trainings, buy supplies, and pay for other expenses related to policing. Is it possible that targeted funds specifically designed for mental health training and response are being used to ensure that the Perth police will be ready when situations like this develop?
I commend the Perth police on the nonviolent resolution of what I am sure was a very stressful and tense situation. I would like stories like this to become the norm, rather than the rare and astounding outliers.