“Robert” was arrested and booked in our Hennepin County jail last week for the 31st time — 15 of them since 2012. He’s been a defendant in 59 Minnesota criminal cases, but never for a felony-level charge. His most common offenses are trespass, vagrancy and disorderly conduct. Robert was civilly committed as chemically dependent in January 2014 and discharged in August 2014. But then he was booked in our jail again in November, December and February — and again just last week.

A 64-year-old homeless veteran, chemically dependent and likely suffering from mental illness, Robert has been living on the streets of one of our suburbs, and falling through the gaping holes in our support network, for well over a decade.

All too often, law enforcement is called upon to solve these problems. Jail is now the landing place for all those caught up by the system, or by their own chronic needs. But our one-size-fits-all criminal justice system treats every situation, including Robert’s, as if a violent crime has occurred.

The criminal-justice system was designed to address society’s problems — with criminals. Most of the violent crime we see today stems from the lethal combination of guns, gangs and drugs. We want to hold these criminals accountable.

When we engage in community-oriented policing, and take advantage of technology, information sharing and strategic partnerships, we can target our efforts to reduce, disrupt and even prevent violent crime.

When police have the resources and the extended time to work with community members and build trust, we can focus on unsafe neighborhoods, in partnership with community leaders, and target violent crimes and violent offenders.

But when someone calls 911, it’s our job as first responders to stabilize the situation, to remove the threat, and to restore some measure of safety to the home, the community, the business, the school.

But then we leave.

We can restore order and safety temporarily, for a few hours or a few days, but an arrest doesn’t solve underlying problems. In fact, an arrest creates even more hardship and complexity: court hearings and criminal records, loss of dignity and privacy, drug tests, fees and fines, lost work, lost parenting time, and time away from one’s support systems.

All too often, police resources are spent responding to and arresting folks whose “offenses” are just symptoms of more fundamental issues: homelessness, mental illness, alcohol or chemical dependency, unemployment, or low levels of education.

Calling on law enforcement to solve these societal problems, with only one solution (arrest and booking), often has a negative impact on police-community relations — especially when the arrests have a disparate impact on minority or immigrant communities.

The more we are called to help, the more we become distrusted. The more the justice system fails behind us, the more we become the public face of the entire system’s dysfunction.

Some would criticize us for becoming an “occupying force” because of the way we do our jobs: We get called in, remove the threat and leave. And in some respects the critics are right. That’s what we want to change.

Because, in fact, as law enforcement officers we dedicate and train ourselves for so much more. As peace officers we swear an oath to serve and protect. Fulfilling this oath means we respect and protect the civil rights and civil liberties of all residents, in addition to securing their safety.

This is why last week I joined the Coalition for Justice Reform. It is a national bipartisan initiative to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by elevating proven solutions, bringing together diverse partners and communicating a powerful new narrative about the devastating impacts of incarceration and the urgent need and opportunity for transformative change.

I offered the following proposed reforms: 1) Develop jail alternatives for low level/chronic offenders; 2) redraw the lines between criminal conduct and addiction and/or mental illness, and 3) clearly identify the second responders in the system and help them engage where and when they are needed.

If child protection, victim’s assistance, veterans’ housing, mental health services, family therapists, school counseling, or chemical dependency intervention or treatment is needed, we need to secure those services before the crisis, as an alternative to arrest, or before these folks are released from jail or prison. And we need to ensure sustained levels of support for those in need.

Jails should never be used as substitutes for hospitals, veteran’s homes or homeless shelters. You need only look in my jail to see that the entire criminal-justice system is failing, at every level of government.

And you can see the hard work we have ahead of us to make the changes that are so long-overdue.


Rich Stanek is the Hennepin County sheriff.