Looking to Replace Police with Crisis Response Teams? Consider These Lessons Learned from the Military.

San Francisco is one of several cities looking to replace the use of law enforcement with other specialists for calls related to behavioral health.

San Francisco is one of several cities looking to replace the use of law enforcement with other specialists for calls related to behavioral health. SHUTTERSTOCK


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Many cities are exploring how to cut police funding and replace some law enforcement officers with teams of social workers and other specialists. The shortcomings of teams of social scientists deployed by the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan can provide some valuable insights into the kind of mistakes to avoid.

The impetus behind calls to “defund the police” are clear. Local leaders cannot ignore the perception of a militarized police force that can appear at best indifferent—and at worse openly hostile—to their citizens. As cities and states struggle to respond, many are looking at the idea of shifting some resources from police departments to create “crisis response teams,” as Los Angeles and San Francisco are now moving to do. This shift is reminiscent to recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2007, the U.S. Army created the Human Terrain System (HTS), a program intended to embed anthropologists with units battling insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. The intent was for these non-militarized social scientists to interact with the population to better understand the “human terrain,” giving commanders on the ground an insight into the local society and culture in order to make better decisions and improve effectiveness. While the program was well received by the commanders it was designed to help, it suffered from management issues, criticism, ethical dilemmas and was expensive to maintain. For those reasons, along with the overall draw down of forces in those theaters, the program was cancelled in 2014.

While comparing the U.S. Army HTS with the introduction of crisis response social workers in American cities is an acknowledged stretch, the parallels behind these programs are similar enough that the lessons learned from the shortcomings of HTS are worthy of review by any public official or community leader involved in current police reform efforts.

  • Define the team’s responsibilities and objectives. An enduring criticism of the HTS identified by Christopher Sims in The Human Terrain System: Operationally Relevant Social Science Research in Iraq and Afghanistan was that while the need for their expertise was evident, the teams themselves were mischaracterized and misplaced in the organizational structure. Municipal leaders need to clearly identify the functions the crisis response team or any alternative will take over from the police and other first responders. In addition to spelling out the “lanes in the road” between these agencies, the overall relationships between government agencies also needs clarity. For example, if a crisis intervention team successfully defuses a family dispute before it becomes violent, will that information be reported to the district attorney or other state agency? There will also be some tricky encounters, as even if the intent is to provide a non-hostile or non-threatening face of government, practicing social workers are still mandatory reporters and therefore must follow certain legal and ethical guidelines.
  • Recruit the people you want and train them in the skills they need. An acknowledged problem with the HTS was the need to quickly fill vacant positions. The Congressionally Directed Assessment of the Human Terrain System report conducted by the Center for Naval Analysis found that to meet the personnel need, requirements were relaxed, candidate vetting slipped and key positions were filled with unqualified people. Cities that have defunded their police departments and shifted resources to a new crisis intervention force will experience pressure to quickly put people on the street. That pressure can’t result in the hiring of unqualified social workers. Similarly, city officials will need to determine what additional skills or certifications are needed before their new hires can effectively and safely perform their jobs. These might range from CPR and first aid to language skills and self-defense.
  • Create and disseminate a shared vision among all stakeholders. The HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan was plagued from the beginning of the program by the desire to have an immediate positive effect to demonstrate the usefulness of the concept. The malleability of what HTS did, and should have been doing, resulted in confusion and dissatisfaction with their results. Here in America, everyone has their own idea of what a crisis response team should do. Leaders of these new teams will have the responsibility to make sure the mission, vision and values are clear, shared and understood by all the stakeholders.
  • Reliable and consistent internal and external communication is essential. Compounding the HTS organizational and personnel issues were weak internal communications and a poorly managed outreach effort. While municipal crisis response teams won’t face the same challenges as teams deployed in two war zones, the importance of communicating both inside and outside the group can’t be understated. These new teams will get things wrong and will need to learn as they go along. Internal and external criticism is a given. Leaders shouldn’t ignore legitimate critiques, but instead take them as an opportunity to grow and improve. At the same time, leaders must respectfully push back against attempts to mischaracterize the new force or unfairly criticize it.
  • Any organization you develop won’t be a silver bullet to systemic issues or a substitute for good governance. As identified by Ryan Evans in his piece, "The Seven Deadly Sins of the Human Terrain System: An Insider’s Perspective," while the HTS did good work, they couldn’t overcome flawed military strategy and execution. If the underlying problems in your city are poverty, drug abuse or the lack of affordable housing, a crisis response team of social workers won’t solve those for you and shouldn’t be expected to.

Community leaders now have an opportunity to implement a profound change in how their cities respond to citizens with addiction issues, mental health problems and other non-criminal societal problems. Heeding the lessons of the HTS program can help avoid potential pitfalls and give this opportunity the best chance for success.

Dr. John Borek served as a strategic intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army and later as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Defense Department.  He is currently an adjunct instructor at Grand Canyon University where he teaches courses in governance and public policy.   

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