OPINION: Question for a new age | To call a cop or not?



The world is a tense, even bleak, environment these days. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, an economic meltdown, a public uprising over race relations and police brutality, and a bitter, mean-spirited political discourse in which facts are optional.

Some mornings you might wake up and just want to pull the covers over your head rather than plant your feet on the floor.

So I will delve here into a tale that’s a slice of Atlanta where perceptions, community action and police response all interact.

Matt Garbett, the manager of a small grocery in Atlanta’s Westview neighborhood, was ready to get off work one recent afternoon when an employee came inside saying there was a man outside having “an episode.”

It was a middle-aged Black man having some sort of mental crisis. He was holding a small wrench and muttering about the need to fix a screw in his house while repeatedly apologizing.

“It didn’t make any sense,” said Garbett. “He was not in the moment.”

Lain, another store manager (who asked to use only his first name), also came outside and decided they should go into “triage mode” — talking the guy down, holding his hand, connecting with him as a human being, and giving him sips of water and a cold compress. It was a hot afternoon, maybe he had sunstroke. Still, Garbett said dealing with drunk, high and even mentally unbalanced people is not abnormal for them at the store.

The man kept handing them his wallet. It had a Department of Veterans Affairs benefits card inside. They called all sorts of numbers, including the VA, but could get nowhere. Half an hour of this led to nothing, so they came to a decision that is often a dilemma in some communities — should they call the authorities?

Credit: Photo courtesy of Westview Corner Grocery

Credit: Photo courtesy of Westview Corner Grocery

For years, dialing 911 has been a default for people to get help. But cellphone and police body cam footage of incidents involving rough treatment of civilians has roiled the American landscape. Often those in interactions with police are mentally ill.

So, increasingly there are cases in which folks — especially people of color — don’t want to call the cops. This was one of those cases.

“We were both hesitant to get authorities involved,” said Lain, a young Black man from Los Angeles who “fell in love with the South because of its human interactions.”

“We didn’t want to call the police because there’s a history where situations with mentally ill people get out of hand,” he said. “We just wanted paramedics. There was no need to criminalize the situation. He didn’t threaten anyone or damage anything. He simply needed help.”

Garbett, who is white, said: “It’s a big deal to call 911 on an African American male. But we had exhausted all options.”

He called 911 and explained the emergency, asking that they not send the police, that they send an ambulance.

But then the cops rolled up. “Our first reaction was @$&!,” Garbett said. Lain discreetly got his cellphone ready to record whatever went down.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Westview Corner Grocery

Credit: Photo courtesy of Westview Corner Grocery

The officer who arrived was B. Miller, age 29, white, with five years on the force. He is about the same age as the two cops arrested in the June shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, an incident that turned this town upside down for days.

The episode outside the Westview grocery store was one of 73 calls the Atlanta Police Department got that day for a “person down,” a catch-all phrase for people who are injured, have medical issues or mental health episodes. Often the latter.

Officer Miller declined to speak for this article. But Sgt. John Chafee, an APD public information officer, told me, “These are calls we frequently go on. We are asked to be everything to everyone. Those are big boots to fill.”

In the current public debate, many are arguing that social service workers with a background in mental health issues should be called in because police have limited training in that area. (Chafee said Atlanta cops go through 40-hour sessions that include role-playing and de-escalation techniques.)

Again, you can turn the debate all over the place. Forty hours is not a lot of training. But should you send well-trained social workers to volatile situations that could quickly devolve and get them injured? It’s a debate for another column.

That afternoon outside the Westview grocery, the cop “walked up, he didn’t strut, and he looked at me holding the guy’s hand and (Lain) with a compress to his head,” Garbett recalled. “He squatted down and said, ‘It’s OK, we have an ambulance on its way. We’re going to take care of you.’”

Officer Miller spoke softly and with reassurance, Garbett said. He didn’t demand the foundering man’s ID. He didn’t ask if he was drinking or on drugs. He didn’t run a check for outstanding warrants.

“He came and saw two people trying to help someone,” Garbett said. “He embraced it and it was good. His reaction was everything I needed. I trusted him. He de-escalated everything. He de-escalated the man and (Lain) and I. It was the way you should go about it.”

The ambulance finally came, and then the man’s son arrived and brought him home. With the tension dissipated, Garbett turned to the young cop and said, “So, been an interesting few weeks for you guys.”

The officer, he said, responded: “I really needed to see something like this. What y’all are doing. I needed this.”

Credit: Courtesy of Westview Corner Grocery

Credit: Courtesy of Westview Corner Grocery

Garbett said the cop seemed melancholy yet uplifted at the same time.

His response “burned into my heart,” said Garbett. “It was a moving experience.” He said he hoped the officer would remain that same guy and not become jaded or bitter, as can happen in that line of work.

Since Officer B. Miller would not speak to the AJC, it is unclear exactly what it was that he “needed.”

Was it going to a situation where he could help another human being? Was it arriving to a call where he wasn’t surrounded by people muttering and shooting video on cellphones?

Or was it just heartening to see others giving aid to a fellow citizen in need?