Content warning: This story mentions police violence and discusses police responses to mental health crises.
The University of Maryland Police Department is training a dog to be a comfort animal who could support the community in crisis when he wraps up training in a few months.
Teddy, who is in obedience school now, will be trained to support crime survivors, assist with bereavement, comfort people in mental health crises and attend events to help people relax, Maj. Carolyn Consoli said.
The initiative could help build community trust, but experts say there’s more to do in improving police relations, especially when it comes to mental health crises.
Amid nationwide protests against police violence in summer 2020, many voiced concerns about the way that police handle mental health situations. Since 2015, nearly 25 percent of all people killed by police had a known mental illness, according to the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database.
Gary LaFree, a professor in the criminology and criminal justice department, said that police violence triggers more than protests. In the aftermath, some don’t want to call the police or report crimes, which leads to less effective policing and more crime victimization.
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“We’ve gone from fairly good community relations with police to very poor ones,” LaFree said. “I think anything the police can do … to get the trust back with the community and build legitimacy with the police are better for sure.”
University Police chief David Mitchell said he’s heard concerns from students about how police handle calls for those experiencing mental health crises, and Teddy could be part of the solution.
“These are calls for help. The best way for us to address those calls for help are increased training of the police, partnerships with comfort dogs, partnerships with the counseling center, so that we get the desired result that we want to see,” Mitchell said.
In their research, University Police noted the success of comfort dogs in other police departments, Mitchell said. The Prince George’s County Police Department introduced an emotional support dog this year and the Baltimore Police Department added its first therapy dog in 2018.
Since the comfort dog will be more involved in events around campus, Teddy could also help “rebuild trust” with the community, Mitchell said.
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Ashley Deng, a junior neuroscience major and director of the Student Government Association’s health and wellness committee, said the comfort dog could help in “destigmatizing the UMPD” in the context of mental health.
“In the past, students have definitely had various opinions about how UMPD handles mental health situations,” Deng said. “I think using [comfort] dogs to try and connect with students again and try to reopen that relationship is a really awesome opportunity.”
María Vélez, a criminology and criminal justice professor, said that the dog on his own is not a solution to improving community-police relations. Community policing includes listening to what community members have to say about services they need and the issues that they are raising.
“[You] would want to see a variety of programs that work towards improving police-community relationships,” Vélez said.
LaFree emphasized the need to include mental health professionals in crises. In some communities, police and mental health professionals respond to crises as a team, LaFree said.
“The more we can do to get mental health professionals involved in the loop before violence happens, the better,” LaFree added.
Depending on the feedback the university receives, more comfort dogs or other initiatives could be on the way for the campus and the community, Mitchell said.
Teddy, his handler and the police department will have a tent at the Terp Carnival next Friday on McKeldin Mall.