Why did the cops do that?

7 Nov

Whenever I read a news article about the police, there are always a slew of comments asking why the police acted the way they did. Reading through those comments, it’s apparent that while some of them are just from people who will always hate the police no matter what, others have formed opinions based on a misunderstanding of how the police are supposed to handle a given situation. For example, in an article like “Police shoot, kill deranged machete-wielding man”, you’ll see people ask questions like “I don’t understand, if they had just gotten to know him, they would realize he’d never hurt anyone. Besides, they had 10 big officers there, all heavily armed and wearing bullet-proof vests. Why were they so scared of one man? Couldn’t they have done anything else?”. You can see where the person is coming from, but because they have misconceptions about what happens in these situations, they go away thinking the police are murderers and cowards.

I’m going to post a series of blog entries attempting to address why situations play out like they do. Obviously if you’re the type that thinks everything the police do is wrong anyways, this probably isn’t for you. I’d love to answer questions about why the officers may have taken a specific action, but I’m generally not interested in debating with a reader over whether or not a given policy is correct. Without further ado, here’s today’s entry:

For the first example, we’ll discuss a scenario that happened in Boston, and was recently posted on UniversalHub. To summarize, someone observed an older gentleman out late at night near the Faulkner Hospital and out of concern for his safety, called the police. According to the man’s account of the incident, he was out for a jog, but he admits that he may have looked like an escapee from a nursing home. The man refused to answer questions posed by the officer, and was handcuffed, put into an ambulance and taken to the Faulkner Hospital ER, where he was held against his will until a doctor determined he was alright, and then released.

It’s obviously not a crime to jog, or to suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other mental illness. There is, however, a significant public interest in caring for people who cannot take care of themselves, or who are in danger of hurting themselves or others. Many of these people willingly check themselves into a hospital for an evaluation, but others refuse to go. Massachusetts General Law Chapter 123, Section 12, allows for emergency, involuntary hospitalization of a person in this situation. This can be initiated by a police officer, doctor, psychologist, or certified mental health nurse. This form is completed, including justification as to why the applicant feels it is necessary, and the person is generally restrained and taken to the nearest emergency room for an evaluation. They will be evaluated by a doctor within two hours, and the doctor will then make the determination whether to release the person, or to authorize them to be held against their will for up to three days. At this point, the patient has the right to have an appeal before a court, and also to agree to a voluntary admission (under certain conditions), instead of involuntary.

In this specific case, police were tasked with making a judgement about the man’s condition. The only way to do this is by conversing with the patient. Generally, you would be asked things like, “What is your name/address”, “Do you know where you are”, “What is today’s date/what day is it?”, “Do you know who the president is”, that sort of thing. According to his account, the man refused to answer the questions, or gave answers that to the police may have seemed rambling or disconnected (I’m doing this for your children.).  Of course, this is perfectly within the man’s rights when dealing with the police, but the officers have no way of knowing whether the man is unwilling to answer these questions, or unable to based on his mental condition. It sounds like the police explained to the man why they were there, but even though he hadn’t committed a crime, the man kept asking to be handcuffed, which could easily be seen as a cry for help. Also, through experience, police officers have learned that a person asking to be handcuffed usually has a good reason. So, as far as the police could tell, the man was unable to answer questions, behaved oddly, and the situation seemed strange. Based on their observations, they decided the man needed medical care, and they put him in an ambulance and sent him to the emergency room. From there, per the man’s account, the police were no longer involved, and the rest of the Section 12 scenario played out.

There are multiple scenarios in which the police, under the rubric of general public safety, can detain you against your will without a crime being committed. The most common of these is when an intoxicated individual is placed into protective custody (commonly known as “the drunk tank). Section 12’s as detailed above, are also common, especially for people believed to be suicidal. In a third example, a court may issue a warrant for a drug addict to be forced into rehab, and police may be called upon to execute that warrant. Another common example is a CHINS (CHild In Need of Services) warrant, issued for a runaway or truant juvenile. In each of these examples, because the person is not under arrest or being charged with a crime, their rights are different than what you may be accustomed to. For example, because police aren’t questioning you and you aren’t under arrest, you won’t be read a Miranda Warning. Unlike the usual voluntary encounter with police, you aren’t free to leave unless you’re being arrested or charged.

If you are ever stopped by police due to a mental health concern, you have two options:

1) Answer their questions to the best of your ability, and if there is no reason for them to be concerned, they will let you go.

2) Remain silent and take a free ride to the emergency room. Once there, you can have a chat with a doctor. Of course, you can remain silent there, too, in which case they’ll just keep you longer.

Comments, questions, and criticisms are always welcome.

DISCLAIMER: My post addresses general policies and laws. I do not speak for the police officers on scene that night, or for any police department.


One Response to “Why did the cops do that?”

  1. Anonymous November 9, 2011 at 2:39 am #

    That pot was gold!!! Thank you.

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