Baltimore will now send "counselors" to some 911 calls

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

It’s no secret that the violent crime rates and endemic gang violence in Baltimore, Maryland have been out of control for years. So when Mayor Brandon Scott announced that he was launching a plan to get those issues better under control, people were probably understandably excited. The main thrust of this plan was to put more police officers in some of the high-crime areas and reduce response times when gunfire and other issues are reported. Sounds good, right? But where will he get the officers to handle this work when the Baltimore Police Department is already understaffed and facing budget cuts? Here’s where things begin to look rather suspicious. Mayor Scott plans to stop “wasting the time” of police officers responding to certain types of 911 emergency calls, specifically the calls dealing with people experiencing mental or “behavioral” health issues or “domestic disturbances.” Rather than sending out someone with a badge and a gun, Scott claims the dispatchers will instead send mental health counselors to handle the situation. (CBS Baltimore)

Mayor Brandon Scott wants police to focus on violent offenders and said officers should not be handling calls for people having behavioral health issues.

He announced a new pilot program to divert those 911 calls – averaging about 36 a day – to specialized counselors.

“Think about the sheer number of hours that our police officers are actually out dealing with something that they’re not trained to do, versus being out there going after someone who’s committed an armed carjacking,“ he said.

I’ll give the Mayor credit for at least taking a clever approach to this. He’s certainly framing the discussion in the right fashion. People are up in arms about the out-of-control violent crime spree plaguing the city and Scott ran on a platform of bringing the situation under control. He’s saying that the officers that would have been responding to these calls will now be free to crack down on the gang bangers and various bad guys.

But under the covers, this just feels like something that Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby would have cooked up. Brandon Scott didn’t invent the idea of taking police officers off of various duties including people with mental health crises or traffic stops. That’s been a plank in the whole “abolish the police” platform from the beginning, and Mosby is a big fan of that. You’ll recall that she already put a permanent moratorium on prosecuting a variety of lower-level crimes. While the Mayor is describing this as a way to put more officers on the trail of violent criminals, it could also just as easily be seen as a way to have fewer police getting involved with crimes that are not seen as being as important.

But is that really true? Some non-profit groups are supposedly providing the “counselors” who will be answering these 911 calls, but most experienced police officers will tell you that this is a recipe for disaster. When people see a person who may be experiencing mental health issues acting out in a way that alarms them enough to dial 911, that’s the type of situation that the cops know could turn explosive at any moment. Particularly if the individual turns out to have a weapon of some sort and suddenly reaches their breaking point, well… that’s not the type of encounter where a clipboard and a white lab coat are going to do you a lot of good.

Similarly, domestic unrest calls also put the police on high alert when responding to them. There are a gut-wrenching number of stories out there every year where a couple in the midst of a relationship meltdown ends in a story of severe domestic violence or even a murder-suicide. Some of those conflicts end in a standoff that can take out some of the law enforcement officers as well. Yes, those couples could no doubt benefit from the services of a counselor, but that needs to happen when things are calmer and they are in a professional office setting. The middle of a fight that could escalate at any moment, particularly if drugs or alcohol are involved, requires more than a calming bedside manner.

We have police departments for a reason. The more you try to steer their established responsibilities away from them in some half-baked effort to abolish or “reform” the police, the less safe you make your community. This new plan in Baltimore could end in tragedy, but I’ll cross my fingers and hope it doesn’t go to a worst-case scenario.