An Unfortunate Family Incident
We had an unfortunate incident here at our home this weekend. A relative was angered that my father-in-law, who is living with us, had blocked her phone number so she immediately jumped to the conclusion that he was in danger and called the police to conduct a welfare check. I won’t go into all the family dynamics of why this was incredibly inappropriate behavior, but suffice it to say this resulted in two armed police officers coming to our door to talk to my father-in-law who is now very irritated at his stepdaughter. Meanwhile, who knows what our neighbors are thinking. The ones who don’t know us probably now think we’re up to no good when in reality we are accepting responsibility our accuser shirked. Good going, step-sis. I love you too and I’m so feeling the love.
The Larger World
Sometimes these welfare checks culminate in death.
In Hawaii, armed police officers tried to perform a welfare check on a supposedly mentally ill man, who opened fire on them before setting fire to the apartment complex, resulting in several deaths. Having worked in the mental health field for over a decade, I can’t help but wonder if that could have been avoided.
There have been several incidents of cops shooting the homeowner while supposedly checking up on their safety. This is just one example. In others, the welfare check triggered a violent reaction no doubt born of fear that cops were going to arrest or even kill the person being “checked” on. Yes, in many cases the death can be blamed on the reaction of the citizen, but let’s consider that they weren’t hurting anyone until the point where armed officers showed up on their doorstep engaging in intimidating and aggressive behavior. Maybe the ultimate blame lies with the fact that there were cops at their door to begin with.
A friend tells me he recently had cops on his doorstep not long after telling a neighbor to not allow her dog to take a dump on his lawn. You don’t get much more passive-aggressive than that. He rightfully told her to stop violating his property rights and she called the cops on him rather than admit to herself that she was wrong in the first place.
While our interaction with the cops turned out okay, my husband had the distinct impression the officers tried to escalate the situation through the use of body language that was subtly, and at turns, overtly intimidating. I think he has a point. If I didn’t have 15 years in the mental health field, things might have turned out differently and certainly, that appears to have been the hope of my husband’s stepsister who sought to use the police as a proxy for her aggression.
We want our elderly and vulnerable citizens to be taken care of, but is calling for men and women with guns to invade their personal space the way to do that? What is the message we’re sending? Is the message being received as care and love or intimidation and oppression? And are we not setting up future stress and possible violent response because now the person being “checked” on feels harassed and in fear of their freedom and safety?
Just pause and think about this. Why are we calling the cops on our neighbors in order to find out if they’re okay and not hurting themselves? Why don’t we care enough about our neighbors and relatives to do the welfare check ourselves? After all, I know my neighbor of 16 years far better than a cop with two minutes of acquaintance does and I am manifestly less intimidating. Are police even qualified to determine if a person is fine? And, are we sometimes simply using the police as a proxy for our own aggression?
Cops are Hammers
Police are trained to arrest people — to use force and intimidation to elicit responses from citizens in order to fine them or put them in jail. That is the #1 job of a police officer and it is the primary focus of their police academy training. Most receive very little training in mental health assessment and less training in constitutional rights or non-violent conflict resolution. They exist to be the first-responder to a crime and so the cops at my door last night assumed there was a crime in progress. They weren’t there to determine if my father-in-law was okay, but to determine if my husband and I were guilty of the allegations made by an out-of-state relative. Cops are hammers and to them, everything looks like a nail. If they’re at your door, they’re looking for evidence of a crime. That’s not friendly or loving.
Viewed that way, does it make sense to send them — fully armed and wearing tactical gear — to investigate whether someone who is vulnerable or mentally-ill is okay? Does that feel loving? Caring? Is that likely to cause fear and set off a response that isn’t loving or caring?
Medium Is the Message
Marshall McLuhan wrote “The medium is the message.” How we say something is as important as what we say — possibly more important.
Nothing about a cop on my doorstep feels like the person who sent them wants my good health and happiness. I’m an ordinary adult with an advanced degree who has never been arrested, but last night I felt attacked, oppressed and intimidated … like I might be arrested for making sure that an old man gets fed, kept warm and has interaction with people who care about him.
Pause and Rethink
This country needs to rethink a whole lot of things that have developed without deep consideration. Without paying attention, we’ve become a fairly totalitarian state in many of our interactions with our fellow citizens. How we check on the welfare of vulnerable people is among those things. We consider almost everything in our lives to be someone else’s responsibility — including the welfare of our elderly relatives and neighbors. We don’t go and talk to our neighbors anymore. We harass our relatives over the phone and then expect them to comply with our wishes. We call the cops rather than take a deep breath and consider what we might be doing to alienate the other person. But more than this — we call the cops to do what they are not trained or tasked to do.
Social workers are more appropriate to the task of welfare checks. They are unarmed, dressed in plain clothes and therefore are a lot less intimidating — not to mention they don’t send the wrong message to the neighbors. They lack the authority to arrest anyone and — bonus, they are actually trained in assessment of health conditions that should be a concern.
A lot of the violence in society stems from people feeling violated and, yes, cops on our doorstep are a violation of the dignity of the individual. We need to consider the messages we are sending and most especially how the medium we choose to use distorts our messages. Maybe we do care about our relative’s safety, but armed cops on their doorstep says, “We’ve come to restrict your freedom and put you in a box until you comply with our demands”. That’s not a loving message.
Nothing about a cop on my doorstep says you love and care about me, so hey, if you want me to feel loved, don’t send a cop.
Lela Markham is an Alaska-based author and blogger with diverse interests, especially from a libertarian perspective.