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West Jordan Journal

West Jordan police chief shares thoughts on "Defund the Police" movement

Jul 27, 2020 01:58PM ● By Erin Dixon

By Erin Dixon | [email protected]

“Defund the police” state many news headlines.

West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine said the mental health programs that many residents call for have already been tried, then left behind. 

“We’ve done defunding of community health programs; we’ve done defunding of early intervention in our schools,” he said. 

Funding for law enforcement comes from the city government in which they operate. Mental health services are usually funded by the county or the state. Though mental health resources may exist, there is no procedure that helps an individual connect with those resources. 

“What we’ve done is transferred the responsibility to deal with people in crisis to the police department,” Wallentine said. “Parents in our community that have a 16-year-old with mental health problems who may have the physical body of an adult—the parents don’t know what to do. They don’t have a social worker they can call, so who do they call at 9 o’clock at night when they've got the child that’s acting up. They call the police. We do our best to train our officers to deal with that situation, but frankly, that’s not a police problem. That’s a mental health emergency; that’s a social problem.” 

Wallentine said there is a place for social services intervention. 

“I’m a huge adherent to training officers to deal with mental health crises as we can, but I’m a big proponent of expanding our social services,” he said. “I don’t want to take a 16-year-old to detention, I really don't.” 

Currently in Utah, most officers can take an individual to a hospital, fill out a pink sheet, and the hospital will detain them for a few days. Or, if the individual reacts violently because of their mental state, the officer can take them to jail. 

In the past, programs have been tried. Cities will receive funding for a time but then lose the money to run it when the government can no longer keep up. 

“Mental health is almost like an ebb-and-flow situation where it will be funded through the state, county, however that looks, and then they’ll lose that funding,” said Sgt. Jolayne Sampson of Unified Police Department (UPD) and director of the Mental Health Unit. “I do know we have lost a lot of resources over the years.” 

Wallentine said emergency health care used to be easier.

“As a young cop 38 years ago, we had someone who was on call 24/7...a mental health crisis worker,” he said. “If the person was not being violent, we could call one of these folks; we [officers] could walk away. If someone needed acute care, they could find a space for them at the community health center. They’d take them up there, or to help them find some different placement if they needed long-term care. That resource exists...if we don’t have access to follow-up care, if we don’t have a structure where folks can get the help and get pointed to the right corner of the safety net, we end up dealing with them again and again.” 

Is there any program in Utah that has a follow-up system?

UPD is the only police force in the state that has a joint response program with a licensed clinical social worker. Wallentine is head of West Jordan police, so his team doesn’t have access to follow-up care. Sampson, who works for UPD, does. 

“Our [unit] is different than anybody else in the state, because we are a co-responding model,” Sampson said. “We deal with people in a crisis that require both an officer and a mental health worker together, and we respond out into our jurisdiction. We have both resources on scene.”

Other Utah law enforcement departments do have LCSW on their team, or mental health detectives, but none respond cooperatively, as on Sampson’s team. 

UPD’s LCSW however is funded by a grant from Salt Lake County. This grant is available to them for the next two years. 

Another practice that sets the UPD’s Mental Health Unit apart from any other department in the state is their ability to follow-through with people in a mental health crisis. 

“We get them where they need to go, whether that’s counseling or whatever that may look like, so that individual has resources available to them,” Sampson said. 

What about defunding police officers and shift the funding to mental health workers?

“It would be like...making me a surgeon and expect me to be able to do open heart surgery,” Sampson said. “You cannot take a social worker and throw them out on the street and expect them to handle it like law enforcement.” 

Sometimes a person who needs mental health care can turn violent.

“Social workers are not trained [to work with violent people],” Sampson said. “We’ve had people who have produced a firearm, a bat.” 

Sampson acknowledges that the life of an officer is changing and many people have a different view of officers. 

“Society has changed; we have to change with it,” she said. “That is partnering, not defunding.” 

Sampson expressed frustration that an officer must never step a toe out of line. A resident can go over the speed limit, but an officer can never stray. 

“Everybody makes a mistake,” she said. “Expectation to have the same reaction, do it a certain way every single time. The reality is that no call is the same. No person acts the same, and no situations are going to be the same.” 

Wallentine also expressed frustration that people cry for defunding but also for more training. 

“The irony is we’re hearing we need to train our officers better, community-oriented policing and cultural competency addressing the implicit bias in de-escalation, in crisis intervention and communicating with the mentally ill,” he said. “Well, great! That creates professionals; that kind of training takes money. You want to cut my training budget then tell me we’ve got to do things that really we don’t teach in the police academy.” 

Wallentine knows that accountability is critical. 

“No one, no one, dislikes a bad cop more than a good cop. We have the responsibility to police our own profession. I’m all for reform steps; I’m all for more transparency in police discipline records. One of the things we’re trying to do is listen very hard.”