Puzzle me this

I like puzzles as a general rule.  Sometimes I do crossword or sometimes jigsaw puzzles or Sudoku.  In my day job, I also do puzzles.  I look at data we gather in the course of our work and examine it to see if any patterns emerge that we can impact using our scarce resources.  We’ve gotten pretty good at looking at crime patterns and trying to target our efforts where they can do the most good and produce an outcome (i.e. a bad guy in ‘cuffs). 

But not all of the data is crime related per se.  It can be indicative of other community issues or societal trends.  I try to envision the impacts of trends, of decisions being made now, of actions we take or don’t take.  Of actions taken by others at other levels of government.  Often police are among the first to see community changes happening and to recognize a trend.  What we don’t know is whether it is a good or bad thing. Whether it is a welcome change or not and whether it will have long-term impacts on the community and change it in ways that disturb its core nature.

For us, one of the changes we think we may be seeing is an increase in single family homes becoming housing for multiple individuals.  In some cases the individuals may be students at one of our many colleges and universities.  In a former life I worked in a university town and there were conflicts between students and year round residents. We used a variety of tools used to address and minimize those conflicts.  We want to be a vibrant and interesting college town but we want to minimize the negative aspects and see that students (a kind of vulnerable population) have access to safe housing and services in the community.

Another increase seems to be in group homes that house people for other reasons.  As the state has moved to privatize mental health services and some aspects of the correctional system to save money at the state level it impacts local communities.  I can agree that it is important to “normalize” the environment of people who struggle with mental health issues and to include them in the community.   I don’t believe that folks with these challenges need to be locked up as they were in the old days but I do think that the needs of communities should be considered in the equation too.  Transferring responsiblity for people needing supervision from the state to the local governments looks cheaper on the state’s books, I’m sure, because the equation doesn’t include the local impact.  And there is an impact. Sometimes I wonder whether a system that rewards decreasing services to these folks has the impact of inserting a profit motive into a system that should be caring for the most troubled of us as the first priority.  As the police chief, I have to consider what is best for the community as a whole.  Particularly in a time of declining revenues impacting our service delivery. 

When we look at overall crime statistics we are fortunate that our crimes are not growing rapidly but on the other hand the service issues ARE growing.  The multiple individuals in a home is a case in point.  A person whose largest investment is their home is highly sensitive to what is going on next door.  In the case of group homes in neighborhoods, we know that non state licensed group homes without live in supervision have significantly increased demand for services from police and fire over state licensed homes.  Everything from acute psychotic crises to suicidal subjects and various kinds of disturbances.  It is easy to judge police effectiveness using only reported crime statistics not the full range of activities police do. Crime statistics are numbers reported in a standardized way.    Other non crime activity is reported internally, not in standardized ways so it makes it difficult to compare between communties.  Issues of mental health do require a very strong police and often fire department response .  A person who is a danger to themselves or others can be taken by police to a medical facility for observation.  When the police are called that usually means that the person is in crisis and has not voluntarily agreed to go to the hospital with their friend or family member.  The police are called to take the person, often by force.  It takes 3-4 officers and a lot of time to accomplish that task in a way that does not injure the person or the officers.   It is not a job we want to do but there is no one else to do it.  And no one to respond to the home. 

If we are correct that our residential community has an increasing number of privatized,unsupervised group homes that demand more public safety services than an average single family home–should we be analyzing what that will mean in the future?  Should we know where those homes are?  Are we stigmatizing people whose mental health issues make them vulnerable?  Should the neighbors be expected to deal with a group home resident wandering the neighborhood saying they have no food, with no information who to contact to help the person?  Should the police?  Or is it none of the government’s business who a homeowner chooses to sell or rent to?  Even when it impacts the community at large?

It is a puzzle, isn’t it?

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I'm the Chief of Police for the Auburn Hills Police Department.