Editorial: Top Priorities

“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Dallas Police Chief David Brown made those comments in the sleepless hours after five of the city’s law enforcement officers were fatally shot in the July 7 ambush. The remarks pushed past the nation’s racial tensions and tragic instances of brutality—or incompetence—on the part of a few in blue. His warning should resonate well beyond the Big D, and should spur reflection here in our backyard.

At budget time, county and town leaders fret over requests for increased pay and additional positions for their law enforcement agencies. In flusher economic times, any request attached to a flashing light was a virtual lock to find a supporting majority; that hasn’t been true in recent years. The unfortunate truth is that we’ll not know whether the pennies have been pinched too tightly until the worst has happened. Are shifts adequately manned? Would that denied equipment purchase make a difference? How costly was it to have lost that experienced officer who left the force for better pay or more reasonable hours?

But to Chief Brown’s point, we also must look beyond the needs of the law enforcement agencies. In our area, there is inadequate access to treatment centers for addicts and counseling services for those suffering from mental illness; mostly they’re unavailable, unaffordable or have long wait lists. For a decade or more, governments have been cutting back on those services and relying on the private sector, faith groups or nonprofits to pick up the slack. They haven’t kept pace with the spiraling need.

What has filled that gap? The county jail has become a place that parents of opiate addicts have come to welcome as a safe haven for their children and a frequent holding pen for those with untreated mental health conditions. Using the jails as a social safety net not only is faulty public policy, it also is extremely expensive—especially in Loudoun, which routinely ranks among the costliest jail operations in the commonwealth. For fiscal year 2014, the state compensation board put Loudoun’s daily per inmate expenditures at $212. The cost of providing help to keep some of these folks out of jail surely is far less.

Residents have high expectations for deputies and police officers. Those who come to work every day prepared to be placed in harm’s way should also have the expectation to have adequate funding, training and staffing to ensure they can protect and serve the community and can return home safely to their families at shift’s end. One thing we’ve learned in the past week is that these need to be top priorities—in Loudoun County, too.

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