June 12, 2021

What happens when the social worker asks the police to step in?


Dear PERF members, 

This picture in the PERF Clips on Tuesday caught a lot of PERF members’ eyes.  Two longtime friends, Kim Dine and Howard Buffett, emailed me about it. Did you see it?  It depicts a cop installing an air conditioner in a resident’s home in Cambridge, MA, just before a heat wave was predicted to hit the city.

Some wondered how this happened.  How exactly did the police get this assignment?  It started when an older woman bought the air conditioner but was unable to install it herself, so she contacted a social worker with the Cambridge Housing Authority.  The social worker then contacted the Police Department’s Family and Social Justice Section, and asked if any police officers could help.

The whole situation struck me as a little odd. Why did the social worker think of a cop to install an air conditioner? Wouldn't you expect their first thought would be to call an air conditioning company? But somehow the social worker thought of the police. And with good reason. 

It turns out that the cop in the picture is Officer Mike Padua, a 26-year veteran who currently serves as one of two Homeless Outreach Officers in the Cambridge Police Department. Some of Officer Padua’s past assignments, such as youth resource officer and community service officer, also involved providing outreach and direct services to city residents. His supervisor, Deputy Superintendent Pauline Wells, told me, “Officer Padua’s level of compassion is unmatched. This country would not be in the state it’s in regarding policing if we had many more like him.” Mike was previously honored with five other officers for his heroic actions rescuing residents from a burning building in Cambridge.

After I learned more about how this happened, I began to understand it on a local level, but it still flies in the face of the current national narrative about policing. We keep hearing this business about the police being asked to do too many things.  The problem of individual police officers sometimes using excessive force has devolved into “the police are being asked to do too many things.”

I’d hate to think that we’re supposed to tell Officer Padua, "Hey Mike, installing air conditioners isn’t your job.  You should have told that social worker to call someone else.”

And it’s not just about this particular case of an elderly person with an air conditioner that needed installing. This idea that “the police are being asked to do too many things" is having unfortunate and short-sighted consequences. In Seattle, for example, the police department’s Navigation Team established productive programs to help persons who were experiencing homelessness. But those officers have now been told, “That is not your job.”

Or the knee-jerk reaction of pulling School Resource Officers out of schools. Is anyone asking school principals and teachers what they think about that? In many school districts, the role of School Resource Officers has evolved, and they provide valuable services such as mentoring, coaching sports teams, and assisting at school functions. Having worked in some of the most challenging high schools in Chicago, I am sure the principals I worked with aren’t happy with the recent decision to pull officers out of schools for the remainder of the year. Good cops working with school officials can help prevent problems. But there is a sort of collective punishment going on, where everyone is painted with the same brush.

Taking police out of the community and cutting back on what officers do also have broader implications, especially for crime prevention. When PERF conducted a survey last November in which we asked police chiefs and sheriffs to name their top issues for the incoming Presidential Administration, the number 1 response was “increasing public trust in the police.”

Restoring public trust can’t be done overnight, but the Officer Paduas of the world can do it, day by day, in each encounter they have with community members.

How does public trust translate into safer communities?  Well, installing the air conditioner generates good will, not just with that one resident but with her family members, friends, and neighbors as well. That good will means more trust in the police, and a greater willingness to talk to the police about neighborhood issues, which results in police and communities working together to prevent the next crime from being committed.

It just makes sense. In any situation where people have preexisting relationships of trust with each other, they are much more likely to share sensitive information and commit to working together. Building relationships at the neighborhood level could prevent serious crimes like shootings, or help police solve crimes when they do occur.

I think it’s especially unfortunate that much of the talk about “police reform” these days is about reducing the police role in handling calls about persons with mental illness.

Some reformers say, “Let's have mental health workers handle those calls.” And yes, there’s a lot to be said for involving mental health experts in calls that are about mental illness. But we’ll have to find the right balance, starting with ensuring that mental health workers are available when the calls come in at 3 a.m., or on weekends and holidays.

And we'll still need cops to be there alongside the mental health care workers for some calls, when there are indications that the subject of the call may be dangerous, or the neighborhood where the social worker is going may be unsafe.

After the killing of George Floyd a year ago, it became clear that a lot of people are upset about incidents in which police have used force improperly or abused their authority.  But it seems like a big leap to think that these misuses of power are happening because the police are being asked to do too many things outside of law enforcement.

Step back and think.  Imagine that it’s midnight and you notice someone walking down the middle of the street, who appears to be in some kind of distress.  Isn’t it a good feeling to know that you can call 9-1-1, and you won’t get a recording, you’ll talk to a live human who will dispatch cops to check it out. Or a child with autism wanders away from home or school, someone calls 9-1-1, and police respond to begin a search. Or a kid in school is being bullied, and the School Resource Officer works behind the scenes to get the situation squared away.

And while we’re at it, let’s look at how police responded to the worst health crisis in 100 years.

In Chicago, police already had lists of elderly people they check on during extremely hot or cold weather. So when COVID happened, police used those lists to make tens of thousands of calls and in-person visits to seniors, to see if they might need help. Everyone was so isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic; imagine what it was like for seniors living alone, who had been depending on their children or friends to help them get groceries or other necessities. Suddenly, it was dangerous for the children and friends to visit their loved ones.  Many police departments created programs to help fill this gap. For example, in Mesa, AZ, police delivered food boxes to elderly residents.

The pandemic also complicated the issue of homelessness, because people experiencing homelessness were understandably reluctant to stay in shelters. But in cities like Los Angeles, police worked with other agencies to administer COVID tests in the field to homeless persons, and distributed shelter-in-place kits containing masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and other supplies, to help them survive in their tents if they were afraid to go to a shelter.

So yes, the police are pulled in a hundred ways that have little to do with enforcing laws.  But isn’t this one of the reasons that good people become good cops?

Doing good deeds has never been more important for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is regaining public trust.  Instead of trying to create bright lines separating the types of matters the police will or will not deal with, let’s focus on creating real problem-solving partnerships among police, other government agencies, social services organizations, and the community.

This isn’t just about police hosting picnics or other police-community events. It’s about everyone rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on specific crime and safety problems in their neighborhoods. Sometimes the police will be the leaders; other times, they will play a supporting role. But it will take true partnerships for us to get a handle on the crime problems in our communities.

Let’s push back against the narrative that police reform means reducing the role of police in their communities. We don’t need less involvement of police. In fact, that’s the last thing we need right now.

At a time when shootings and homicides are off the charts, installing that air conditioner may do more than just keep people cool.