Law enforcement and public health are intimately related. Police are the first responders to a range of complex situations involving criminal, civil or public health related issues. We know that much of what occupies our police agencies is directed at preservation of health (often under the guise of public safety or security). The easiest example is the enforcement of compulsory seat belt and motor cycle legislation by police: the only motive for this police role is a public health one.
Here is just a brief list of law enforcement/public health intersections:
- Violence against women
- Public disorder/violence in general
- Mental illness
- Road trauma
- Alcohol and other drugs
- Alcohol regulation/liquor licensing
- Management of epidemics and pandemics
However, while police are key partners in many specific public health programs, their role in public health is not often recognized. Here are some reasons why.
Criminal justice system vs public health
The evidence tells us that traditional justice system can contribute to adverse health outcomes, with its prohibitionist laws, coercive law enforcement, retributive sentencing and the mass use of imprisonment. The police role has been to criminalize the activity (for example drug use or sex work) for reasons including police coercive training methods, conservative culture, and few if any alternatives to arrest.
A major difficulty is the failure to legitimize the role of law enforcement agencies in protection or promotion of the public health. Most law enforcement agencies do not construct their identity in this way, despite having an active and integral role.
“Effective and sustainable relationships between the law enforcement and the public health sector are essential to the addressing complex community issues involving marginalization and social inequality”
That said, there are many innovations happening around the world in which police are defining new roles for themselves, finding and creating new partnerships with new common languages and goals.
Injecting drug use and HIV
One increasingly familiar scenario has been the change in front-line policing in the era of HIV: seeing drug use and associated harms as public health, not just criminal issues. Examples include protocols around needle syringe programs, safe injecting facilities, non-fatal overdose attendance and so forth. However these programs are not always welcomed in many communities. Some people (including police) may incorrectly believe that they will increase drug use or ‘send the wrong message’. Research shows however that many of the negative beliefs held about harm reduction are unfounded.
These public health approaches have also led to more effective ways to approach front line policing, and innovative and creative ways for police to carry out their roles: for instance, diversion programs, which broaden the range of responses police can choose from.