Readout of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice Teleconferences Related to Social Problems Impacting Public Safety

This week, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice held hearings on social problems impacting public safety, specifically mental illness.  The hearings were held over three days via teleconference.  Each teleconference featured a panel of expert witnesses who provided testimony and, subsequently, answered questions from the Commissioners.  Next week, the Commission will continue its analysis of social problems impacting public safety, hearing testimony from experts on homelessness and substance abuse. 

On Tuesday, March 24, the Commission received testimony from San Bernardino (Calif.) Sheriff John McMahon; John Snook, CEO of the Treatment Advocacy Center, and; Sergeant Sarah Shimko from the City of Madison (Wisc.) Police Department Mental Health Unit.

Testimony and discussions focused on the current interactions that arise between individuals suffering from untreated mental illnesses and law enforcement.  Sheriff McMahon and Sergeant Shimko spoke of the importance of mandatory mental illness course training for all law enforcement officers, not just because of the scope of the mental health crisis across the country, but also because law enforcement will always play a role in responding to people with mental health issues, and, therefore, adequate training is essential.  Speaking about the connections between mental health and law enforcement, CEO John Snook recommended, “This Commission must resist the urge to force greater responsibilities on law enforcement.”

On Wednesday, March 25, the Commission heard testimony from Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff Donald Barnes; Dr. Shannon Robinson, Principal, Health Management Associates (formerly the Chief Psychiatrist for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), and; Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Paul Penzone.

Testimony and discussions focused on the intersection of mental health and substance abuse disorders and law enforcement.  Sheriff Barnes called for a national naloxone program in jails to keep victims of opioid overdoses alive.  He also called attention to the ever-growing quantities of pure fentanyl being seized in his county and the impact that pure fentanyl has on the general public.  Dr. Robinson’s testimony shed light on the multi-generational effects, as well as the resource requirement, that mental health and substance abuse issues have on society at large.  And Sheriff Penzone called attention to the public’s instinct to call 911 based on the expectation that law enforcement officers will handle any problem, regardless of whether or not it is within the scope of law enforcement’s traditional role.

On Thursday, March 25, Dr. Keith Humphreys, Professor and Section Director for Mental Health Policy in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, addressed the Commission.

Dr. Humphrey’s testimony focused on the intersection of alcohol and law enforcement, calling attention to the number of calls law enforcement receive daily that are linked to an incident involving alcohol abuse.  He pointed to statistics that show that those who receive treatment for alcoholism are less likely to re-offend, and called for treatment to be part of probation or parole options.

For more information on the Commission, please visit: https://www.justice.gov/ag/presidential-commission-law-enforcement-and-administration-justice

Audio recordings and transcripts of the hearings will be posted online once available.

Please note, these hearings were originally to take place in person in Orange County, Calif., but were changed to teleconference format in response to CDC recommendations regarding COVID-19.

The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice.  Learn more about the history of our agency at www.Justice.gov/Celebrating150Years.

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Author: March 27, 2020

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