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In matters of mental health, do we ask police to do too much?

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Shocking video of a Black Chicago man naked, handcuffed and losing consciousness at the hands of white police officers in Rochester, New York, triggers justifiable outrage and questions, including one that can be painfully difficult to address:

Are we asking our police officers to do too much?

We are certain to hear the question come up in the case of seven Rochester police officers who were suspended Thursday in the suffocation death of Daniel Prude, 41, in March. The Chicagoan was visiting relatives in Rochester when he had a psychotic episode and ran into the street naked in the cold night, according to news reports.

Police body camera video shows Prude complying with police orders to lie prone, still naked, and continuing to talk semi-coherently to the officers, who put a fabric “spit bag” over his head (used when a detainee is spitting continuously at officers). He vomits and loses consciousness. He died seven days later in a hospital after his family allowed him to be taken off life support.

It is easy to note similarities between this tragedy and the death of George Floyd, whose video-recorded death by suffocation beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer occurred two months later.

Video of Floyd’s death touched off nationwide protests and a historic racial reckoning that continues in many American corporations and institutions, including sports teams and even newsrooms.

 

But the death of Prude, in my view, also highlights the need for a reckoning of another sort: Are we asking too much of our police officers?

Unlike the Floyd video’s graphic depiction of what appears to me to be a homicide in broad daylight, the Prude video might simply and tragically show some well-intentioned officers who were in over their heads on a cold night in Rochester.

No, I’m not trying to make excuses or prejudge whatever legal action might be taken by prosecutors or Prude’s family. But as our society grapples with today’s super-heated calls to improve policing, you don’t have to be a “defund the police” radical to see the beefing up of social services as a very good way to support the police by helping them to focus more on law enforcement.

Four years ago, when Chicago’s new police Superintendent David Brown was still police chief in Dallas and a deranged gunman killed five police officers and wounded nine others, he made a passionate case for the need to relieve police of some of the burdens brought on by social failures outside law enforcement.

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