Personal Demons 2/28/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Clearly, she was having a fight with someone. Or maybe she was fighting with everyone.

Living in New York City you would see people walking alone and yelling at somebody far too frequently. The voices in their heads were going too far, and they were fighting back. They were harmless, and terrifying at the same time as they walked around screaming at these invisible demons. I guess it was to be expected in a city as large as New York, but to see such a person here in Omaha was unexpected and hearkened back to my time in the rotten apple.

It was a grocery store, and I think she was yelling at, or at least towards, the other shoppers such as me. I wondered, in fact, if she was talking to me at one point, but she would look away and move on, mumbling to herself in a loud argumentative voice. She carried with her a few items as she walked the isles. As I was checking out, she put the items down at an empty checkout lane and walked out.

I guess it could have been a ruse. Maybe she was creating a distraction and carrying items to put down to divert attention from something she had put into her clothes. Either way, it was no business for the police, and I’m proud of this little grocery store that they did not call. Overhearing a conversation between employees, there were a few things that were clear. She was unknown, she was watched, and they saw her put the items down, so they don’t believe she stole from them. This woman was the living embodiment of personal struggle and why resources need to be diverted away from the police.

Who were her demons? Was she on a “bad trip” from drugs”? Was she schizophrenic fighting the voices in her head? Was she homeless and shoplifting after all? In any of these cases, the police are the wrong answer. While I do believe police try to do their best (at least the bulk of them; there are always the “bad seeds”), they would have removed her, taken her to the station and looked to see if she had committed a crime. This is fine if a crime was to be had, but at best, she might have been part of a misdemeanor. She was frightening but caused no harm and was fighting hard to prevent from causing harm. Her efforts were heroic but went unsung.

If she was schizophrenic (or suffered from some other mental issue), then she needed professional help from a psychiatrist or psychologist. Only somebody trained in psychology could truly diagnose her needs and get her the help she needs. Police have limited training in deescalating situations, but that’s about it. They’re not psychologists, and yet as we cut funding from social programs and support for public mental health facilities more of these cases end up in the hands of the police. I’m sure their lack of training makes this a frustrating reality, and I’m sure it periodically leads to angry outbursts as police become tired of dealing with people with mental issues.

If she was on drugs, she could have been arrested, but probably only as a misdemeanor. Where I was a civilian police employee, the laws were written such that if you tested positive, you were guilty of possession even if they didn’t find anything you were carrying because the drugs were, after all, still in you. But she was not dealing, and at the time she was not manufacturing narcotics. If she was on drugs, she needed the help from trained professionals in rehabilitation and psychological help to keep her off of drugs. She wasn’t driving, so there was no danger to others by her condition, and yet while police are not trained at rehabilitation services, they are still the first responders in these cases. Again, they would look for a crime, which, if this is the case, they would have found, so they could put her in prison. Yes, sometimes the police work with hospitals as well, but a vast majority of the cases and time spent by police is narcotics, but not necessarily dealers or manufacturers. They are called upon for minor users, which has to be tiring before long. And yet, money is being provided to police, who can do really nothing but put drug users into already overcrowded private for-profit prisons, but not to rehabilitation centers to get these poor souls the help they truly need.

Maybe she was homeless, hungry, and shoplifting. Again, a crime has been committed, and in jail she certainly would be fed, and yet the root of the problem is not being addressed. Right now, cities and city engineers are looking for ways to make it impossible for homeless to stay in their city. They’re putting uncomfortable stone under overpasses so the homeless cannot sleep there, and dividers on park benches so homeless can’t stretch out. Some people might applaud such actions, but to me it’s just a way to cover up a problem. They’re trying to sweep the problem of homeless under the rug by forcing them out of the town because, if they’re not sleeping in their city, the problem is at least not visible. Money spent for this, and on for-profit prisons for the misdemeanor of shoplifting has to come from somewhere. It is being pulled from homeless shelters, food banks, and services to feed the hungry. And the only crime is petty, and yet police have to handle it.

The term “defund the police” is a woefully inaccurate and unfortunate title. It won’t happen. It can’t happen because there are still violent criminals, rapists, arsonists and a plethora of truly heinous crimes with which to contend. But wouldn’t it be nice to begin funding social services other than the police (which is, after all, a social service)? Maybe if we can get money into the right places, the police wouldn’t be so busy.

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