By Scott Burris
We know, and now most people acknowledge, that police activity has some clear, and in some instances intentional, effects on health. To start with the obvious, police are instrumental in reducing the number of people who are murdered, assaulted, raped, or otherwise terrorized. Policing – like any form of social intervention – can also have unintended consequences. There is, for example, considerable evidence that criminal law and legal practices can increase risks of HIV and other harms among drug users.
These facts are well-established and pretty well recognized. So now the question is not whether policing has health consequences, but rather whether social and health work is to be seen as an integral element of law enforcement in the 21st century. In much of their day to day work, police are engaged in far more than the prevention of crime or the maintenance of social order. This is something we all know, something that has probably always been true of police work, something that is shaping a lot of programs around the world, and yet something we need to talk more openly about.
Police fight crime and maintain social order. They are also the first responders to citizens in health distress, especially acute distress, and to people engaging in risky behavior like commercial sex and drug use; thus they are triage officers and gate keepers – sometimes transportation providers — to services; moreover, for some classes of people in distress, the police and the criminal justice system has become a site of treatment and/or a treatment provider. Austerity has and will increase the intensity of these roles: fewer other public responders will be available; competition for resources and the demands for efficiency may lead to more concentration of services within law enforcement and criminal justice. Are we ready to move from tacit acceptance of these phenomena to active engagement with them?
This is the question posed at an important international conference this week in Melbourne, Australia. PHLR and Temple Law School are among the health and law enforcement groups sponsoring the first International Conference on Law Enforcement and Public Health. Top police officials from Asia, Europe, Oceania and the U.S. (Gil Kerlikowske) are meeting public health researchers and practitioners discussing how we can work together in topic areas like traffic safety, alcohol and drug control, mental health, communicable disease, and emergency preparedness.
The organizers promise to put the presentations on the conference website, and to move the conversation forward. Please join it.