Local law enforcement is an agency that nearly all citizens are aware of and know their number: 911. This is the number most of us would call first in a time of distress or difficulty, and so local law enforcement are also called "first responders."

Whether it is the Tahlequah PD, the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service, or the Cherokee County Sheriff, we have a reasonable expectation that they will arrive and arrive quickly. They respond because it is their responsibility to do so. Since they are generally on patrol, they will be the first on the scene of a noncriminal event, too, generally arriving before fire or medical/EMT service arrive so they can assist with traffic control or other help.

Over the years, I have known and worked with many police and sheriff's officers or deputies. To a person, they would acknowledge they chose their jobs because they want to help their communities, to ensure safety and interdict and-or solve crimes. As I've noted before, I'm not and never have been an officer, but I worked in emergency response at a mental health center. My work with law enforcement is from that angle, of serving the public in addressing issues related to mental health.

You don't have to read the Tahlequah Daily Press frequently to know the police report is often filled with officers responding to events that typically would not be considered "criminal" in the sense of the definition. The Free Dictionary says a crime is "an act committed in violation of law where the consequence of conviction by a court is punishment, especially where the punishment is a serious one such as imprisonment."

Most of us know that an illness is not a crime. When actions that are unlawful are taken as a result of an illness, the court takes the illness into account and the person may be hospitalized or held against his or her will for observation (OK Statute title 43A). In that regard, I've spoken with many law enforcement officers who have found themselves responding to matters that involve social issues or health issues, such as homelessness, mental illness, domestic disputes and other events they are not trained to deal with.

Some local departments have developed specific training for officers to deal with mentally ill citizens; the Memphis Model is one such program. Other communities have partnered with local mental health providers to have trained staff work with the police to respond such as COPES in Tulsa. In those cases, it either prepares officers who volunteer to develop specific skills for crisis intervention or relieves the officers of such responsibilities.

The officers I've spoken with signed on to serve their communities as officers of the law. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to frustrated officers who said they did not sign on to be "social workers." It is in that vein that some have suggested resources be identified that would enable law enforcement to do what they signed on for and leave the other work to those who are trained and prepared to do so. The problem, of course, is resources. The police are available 24/7, and in most small communities, the Memphis Model is a more likely solution.

I've never lived in a community where the police chief - Tahlequah PD Chief King - had an opportunity for local citizens to voice their concerns, and hopefully, their support. I don't use Facebook, so I don't have that opportunity, but if you do, there's a great opportunity to be heard. That's a good thing!

Robert Lee is a retired social worker with interests in history and politics. He lives in Tahlequah.

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