This week, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice held hearings on social problems impacting public safety, specifically homelessness, federal programming, and substance abuse. The hearings were held over three days via teleconference. Each teleconference featured a panel of expert witnesses who provided testimony and, subsequently, answered questions from the Commissioners.
On Tuesday, March 31, the Commission received testimony regarding homelessness from Salt Lake City (Utah) Police Chief Mike Brown; John Ashmen, President/CEO of Citygate Network, and; Chief Brian Redd of the Utah Department of Public Safety, State Bureau of Investigation.
Testimony and discussions focused on the intersection of public safety and homelessness. Chief Brown asserted that “law enforcement is consistently put in the position of triaging homelessness, which often is a symptom of underlying mental health and/or substance use issues.” John Ashmen, CEO of Citygate Network, suggested that the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States “confirms that homeless services providers and the law enforcement community need to collaborate like never before.” Chief Brian Redd provided a detailed account of the successes of Operation Rio Grande, an initiative to address public safety issues in the Rio Grande District of downtown Salt Lake City near Utah’s 1,000-bed homeless shelter. An additional encampment of more than 2,000 individuals had formed around the shelter, resulting in an open-air drug market, violence, victimization, and public health concerns. The Operation deployed a three-pronged approach: law enforcement, treatment and housing, and dignity of work – designed to help individuals become self-sufficient.
The panelists also outlined the pressures law enforcement professionals are currently experiencing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether mitigating the risks of the virus from hitting the homeless population or balancing public safety with prisoner safety.
On Wednesday, April 1, the Commission heard testimony regarding federal programming from Christopher M. Patterson, Regional Administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Region IX; Dr. Matt Miller, Acting Director for Suicide Prevention, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and; Dr. Robert Marbut, Jr., Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Testimony and discussions focused on federal programming for social issues. Chris Patterson of HUD spoke of the Foster Youth to Independence program. As youth age out of foster care, they become vulnerable to homelessness, trafficking, and other dangers. Mr. Patterson underscored that it is crucial to get youth into proper housing through a voucher program as they age out of the foster care system. Dr. Miller called attention to the term “lethal means safety,” which “refers to decreasing the mortality associated with certain forms commonly used to implement suicide.” He stated that suicide is often an impulsive act, further noting that the chances of suicide and death by suicide increase “up to six times” when individuals have access to firearms. Dr. Robert Marbut, Jr. argued that officers often have more success getting homeless into recovery programs through innovative law enforcement programs that feature constant engagement with those requiring assistance.
On Thursday, April 2, the Commission heard testimony regarding substance abuse from Carson Fox, CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals; Mike Sena, Executive Director of the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA); Middlesex County (Mass.) Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian; Sue J. DeLacy, Chief Deputy Probation Officer for the Orange County (Calif.) Probation Department, and; Michael B. Stuart, United States Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.
Testimony and discussion focused on public safety and substance abuse. Mr. Fox asserted that law enforcement plays a role in the success of treatment courts across the nation. When law enforcement work side-by-side with other providers and agencies, it significantly affects the outcome. Mike Sena argued that to successfully address substance abuse in our communities, the public safety community needs real-time data. He suggested that HIDTA’s ODMap, which tracks real-time overdose data, be adapted nationwide. Sheriff Koutoujian addressed the need for Medicated Assisted Treatment programs to treat those who are experiencing opioid dependence throughout jail and prison systems nationwide. U.S. Attorney Stuart called attention to the opioid crisis in the Southern District of West Virginia. He called for a substantive discussion for developing a picture of what victory over substance abuse would look like.
For more information on the Commission, please visit: https://www.justice.gov/ag/presidential-commission-law-enforcement-and-administration-justice. Audio recordings and transcripts of the hearings will be posted online once available.
Please note, these hearings were originally to take place in person in Orange County, Calif., but were changed to teleconference format in response to CDC recommendations regarding Covid-19.
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