How Spending a Week Training with Police Officers Changed Me

My Reflection On the Need to Unite the Police Departments and Communities in Preventing Further Tragedies Throughout the Country

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Over the past 9 months, I volunteered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Criminal Justice Diversion Project (CJDP). The focus is on preventing the unnecessary arrest, detention and incarceration of persons living with mental illness. This project aims to develop a statewide strategy to make high quality training on mental illness accessible to police departments in all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. The ultimate goal is to put in place a sustainable approach to diverting individuals with mental illness from the criminal justice system. Below is my reflection on the April 2015 Community Intervention Teams (CIT) training spearheaded by CJDP.
These were my highlights:
  •  Renewed hope in officers who took part in the training, the skills they gained, and their commitment to learning in order to better serve communities.
  • An opportunity to learn about the limitations, frustrations, and culture of police departments.
  • A sense of what policies must change for greater safety for officers and communities alike
  • An understanding of the unmet and significant mental health needs within police departments
    • i.e There’s a risk of losing their jobs if an officer reveals his/her own mental health struggles.
  • Uniting people with mental illness in the community with officers for an honest and open dialogue centered on our shared humanity

As a White woman with considerable privilege and absolutely no real danger, I began the week feeling truly unsafe in a room with armed male officers (there were 3-4 female-bodied officers present). Feeling tremendous despair about the recent deaths of individuals, as well as officers, I feared what I might discover at the training. Instead, I developed compassion and hope for the incredibly difficult work of police officers. I recognize that the sampling size might influence my positive impressions, but perhaps, this reflection will expand your perspective and help us find an end to the tragedies happening across our country.

Nothing will change until police officers and communities come together and listen to each other’s experiences, frustrations, and shared hopes for a world free from violence. For instance, at the training, one officer expressed frustrations that after she helps a person with mental illness get to the hospital, she she’s the same person on the street a few days later. The social worker at the training respond to this officer’s point of exasperation by providing context for the limitations of mental health treatment in our country. Few people stand by the impossibly short mental health treatments that hospitals and mental heath services currently provide: this must change if we are to halt the revolving doors of hospitals and more importantly, prisons where more people with mental illness end up (Read more about failures of the “de-institutionalization” of the mentally ill after the Community Mental Health Centers Act). We live in an era where the average psychiatric stay is about five days and most people who are psychotic never get a bed at all.

May we create more spaces that bring us together for conversations to open our hearts to each other’s suffering.

One component of the CIT Training was to introduce members of the community and their families and listen to their their experiences with mental illness and experiences with police departments. In small groups, individuals joined the police officers in sharing about their recovery and lives with mental illness. After, officers thanked the presenters and much to my surprise, they responded by sharing their own experiences with family members and major mental illness, as well as addiction. One officer turned to the presenter and asked, “What would you recommend I do for a family member who is in need of help but in complete denial about the seriousness of her symptoms?” The presenter responded by telling her to be their friend and listen. Additionally, anyone can contact the NAMI helpline at 800-370-9085 during the hours of 9:00 am and 5:00 pm ET, Monday through Friday.

Read Julia Blount’s letter to her White Facebook friends. Remember, “Continue the conversation, ask questions, learn as much as you can, and choose to engage. Only by listening and engaging can we move forward.”

Watch this short documentary, Mental Illness on Trial, on the criminalization of mental illness.

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Happy Racial Discrimination Elimination Day!

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Where are the peonies and wisteria here?

Would they feel safe and welcome to grow and heal here?

Would they see themselves reflected in their teachers faces, wall decorations, and food choices?

Would they be attended to and exposed to the same sun as the others?

How can we bloom when others are missing?

Where are the peonies and wystera?

Why don’t they grow here?

Who decided some flowers don’t belong, don’t deserve, don’t access?

Our ecosystem feeds off of the survival of all flowers.

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“The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is an opportunity to renew our commitment to building a world of justice and equality where xenophobia and bigotry do not exist. We must learn the lessons of history and acknowledge the profound damage caused by racial discrimination.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Experts and anti-racism activists hold a debate at the Human Rights Council on the state of racial discrimination worldwide. Among the participants were Ms. Christiane Taubira, French Minister of Justice and Mr. Doudou Diène, chair person of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

The discussion aimed to explore the root causes of racism and racial discrimination. Experts stressed the essential need to learn the lessons from historical tragedies, in order to combat racism and racial discriminations today.

Watch the video: http://sm.ohchr.org/1GDIfue

A Week I’ll Remember

This past week has been a roller coaster ride of emotions. I feel full, inspired, and ready to try to integrate these experiences aka make sense of the madness. IMG_3053 Saturday I attended a fundraiser hosted by Haymarket’s People Fund for Community Change. The community conversation led by longtime anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise and Haymarket People’s Fund Executive Director Karla Nicholson focused on the recent lack of indictments, the Black Lives Matters movement and the impact of these events on the anti-racism community. I was drawn to the event because Tim Wise was my introduction to antiracism work (heard him speak my first semester of college at Mount Holyoke). The highlight for me was getting to talk to an inspiring Smith alumnae, currently Director of Client Services at Project Place.  I’m looking forward to meeting with her next month to learn more about her awesome work! Also, I loved Tim’s perspective on the importance of remembering that mistakes are part of organizing and activists and leaders should be supporting young people leading this movement. Monday was Martin Luther King Day. I participated in a protest against police brutality, mass incarceration, etc. Out of the 4 other protests I’ve been to this Fall, this one had the most children and most energy of solidarity, and the most inspiring speakers. I learned Samuel Jackon’s I Can’t Breathe Song, which gave me chills. Cassandra Bensahih, Community Organizer from EPOCA , was one of the speakers and it was amazing to learn about her organization’s work. Friday, I finally made it to an organizing meeting. I can’t believe they keep scheduling them on Friday evenings. Still, there seemed to be a great turnout (over 100 people). I left at 9:30PM and most people were still there! The setup was thoughtful and I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of a segment on self care for activists! I so appreciated the question posed to the crowd: What can we do to make the movement inclusive to ALL people? As I headed to my car from this meeting, I was struck by the fact that I was literally walking around and between sleeping bodies who did not have a warm bed to go home to. My thoughts began wandering from short term solutions to anger. How could our society allow this to happen? How do we justify this? How do we look away and become numb to these human beings without family, without jobs, without beds to sleep in. IMG_3055 Rewind to Tuesday evening- it was the first Girls Empowerment (waiting for the girls to give us a better name!) group. This is something I’ve been planning and talking about for over a year now. I attended multiple trainings last year that fueled my passion for group work with teen girls and finally the opportunity arrived.The experience of getting the group started reminded me how patience and persistence pays off. I believe whole heartedly in the power of groups to transform us- and I couldn’t be more excited to create and hold space for these beautiful young women. I have no doubt these girls will change my life, in fact, in a week’s time, they already have.

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The next night, I joined two of my colleagues at Wayside for a panel and screening of A Path Appears. Despite some anxiety about being on a wait list, it all worked out. I was blown away by the documentary clip (focused on anti trafficking work in Boston) and can’t wait to see the rest on PBS. There was a huge acknowledgement of the real heroes of the story (not Nick Kristoff, the film producers, the celebrities, the nonprofit, etc. )—but the women who chose to share their story in the documentary simply for the sake of helping others. I was elated to learn Becca Steven’s Thistle Farms social enterprise is one of the select few organizations featured in the film because of their effectiveness in this issue. Can you BELIEVE the average age of girls who are trafficked in the US is 12-14?! My Life, My Choice (Boston NGO) begins their prevention work in middle schools. TUNE IN TONIGHT 10PM ON PBS.  Then this weekend I received tragic news about one of the families I’ve been working with over the past several months. I won’t be able to go on here due to confidentiality concerns. As you can imagine, I was tired after such an intense and full week. I was grateful to have planned an overnight with one of my closest friends. We snow-shoed, relaxed in a sauna & whirlpool, met an interesting social worker on a beach, cried, tried some delicious beverage with my mother, watched Broad City, cooked an insanely delicious salad for our friend’s housewarming/birthday party. I am definitely looking forward to this blizzard and getting to enjoy a quieter week since I’m ready to hibernate the rest of Winter! On a lighter note, I recently started dating again as an adult for the first time and these are my findings. 10407218_3426649820175_1425560900590800704_n