Jurisprudence

“Master of All Emergencies”

Police have become the first responders to virtually all social problems. A new Supreme Court case could change that.

Two police investigators talk outside a house at night
George Frey/Getty Images

In August 2015, Kim Caniglia asked police in Cranston, Rhode Island, to check in on Edward, her husband of more than 20 years. She was worried he might hurt himself, she explained; during an argument the night before, he’d placed an unloaded gun on the dining room table and asked, “Why don’t you just shoot me and get me out of my misery?”

Edward, who was in his 60s, was calm when police arrived, and told them he’d just been exasperated. Nevertheless, officers decided to send him to a local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. The hospital discharged him that same day, but while he was away, police went inside and confiscated his two handguns. In the weeks that followed, he says, police rebuffed his, his wife’s, and his lawyer’s requests for their return. Not until December did he get them back.

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Last March, a federal appeals court upheld these seizures of both Caniglia and his guns under the “community caretaking” doctrine, an exception created by the Supreme Court to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement some five decades ago. The police officer, the appeals court explained, is a “master of all emergencies,” charged with performing an “infinite variety of services to preserve and protect community safety”—including, from time to time, acting as short-order marriage counselors and mental health clinicians. Officers, the court concluded, need some “elbow room to take appropriate action” when they decide the circumstances require it.

Edward’s next stop is the Supreme Court, where the justices will have the chance in Caniglia v. Strom to clarify just how far this concept extends. Their decision could help shape the ongoing national debate about why, exactly, cops have become the go-to response to virtually all social problems, particularly when they have so much unchecked power to inflict violence in the name of keeping people safe.

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The doctrine, as the court outlined in the 1973 case Cady v. Dombrowski, gives police some leeway to conduct warrantless searches while performing job duties unrelated to what is ostensibly the profession’s bread and butter: investigating crime. In Cady, a 5–4 court upheld a routine search of a car that needed a tow after a not-criminal-in-nature accident—a search that turned up evidence of a very-much-criminal-in-nature homicide. Given the frequency with which police interact with motorists driving on public roads, the court reasoned, there aren’t constitutional concerns when they happen to stumble upon evidence of crime in the process.

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In dissent, Justice William Brennan and three of his colleagues criticized the Cady majority for its “serious departure from established Fourth Amendment principles.” “The fact that the professed purpose of the contested search was to protect the public safety rather than to gain incriminating evidence does not of itself eliminate the necessity for compliance with the warrant requirement,” Brennan wrote.

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Since Cady, though, some courts have extended the doctrine well beyond broken-down cars to contexts that, as in Caniglia, pretty clearly implicate the Fourth Amendment’s fundamental right to be secure in your house: Officers following up on noise complaints, checking for gas leaks, escorting guests from a belligerent host’s house, serving court papers, responding to loud parties, and helping potential overdose victims have all been beneficiaries of its protections. As the responsibilities of police multiplied toward the end of the 20th century, so too did the credulous grants of discretion and power that courts felt compelled to afford them. When Cady was decided, less than a fifth of Americans had 911 service. Now that Americans place nearly a quarter-billion 911 calls every year, much of the work of law enforcement consists not of enforcing laws, but of triaging a multitude of urgent requests for help.

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The problem with a police-centered model of public safety, of course, is that police are startlingly, alarmingly bad at keeping the public safe. Nationwide, about a quarter of people killed by police were struggling with mental health issues, according to the Washington Post; people with untreated mental illness are, by some estimates, 16 times more likely to die when they encounter police. In March 2020, Joe Prude called police in Rochester, New York, to ask for help after his brother began acting strangely. Officers ended up pinning Daniel Prude to the pavement for two minutes, killing him. In January, Rochester police again made headlines for pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl with a history of mental health challenges, even after her mother told officers that her daughter needed help, not cuffs.

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“I was saying, ‘We need mental health out there,’ ” Elba Pope told the Washington Post. “He ignored me.”

In Caniglia, the justices will have the chance to clear up whether the doctrine applies in people’s homes, as the lower court decided. Although conservatives are generally more sympathetic to the purported exigencies of policing, Fourth Amendment cases don’t always break down along neat ideological lines. Justice Antonin Scalia could be an enthusiastic Fourth Amendment booster, especially when it came to intrusions on the home, and basically every conservative judge in America, to some degree, thinks of themselves as following in his footsteps. In 2018, the court in an 8–1 opinion in Collins v. Virginia declined to extend a different exception to the warrant requirement—one for searches of vehicles—to vehicles parked in a home’s driveway. The state-sanctioned confiscation of guns at issue in Caniglia, which has elicited a flurry of amicus briefs from concerned gun rights organizations, could also nudge the conservatives to deem this an instance of police overreach.

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A decision that formally extends the community caretaking doctrine, though, would necessarily expand the power of police, for the simple fact that community caretaking tasks are so central to the day-to-day of modern police work. Like many bureaucracies, law enforcement agencies behave like gas, expanding to fill every crack that appears in the social safety net. Decades of chronic underinvestment in front-end social services have left cops as the nation’s default back-end crisis responders, a status quo that at once bloats law enforcement budgets and makes it harder to find money to meaningfully address those underinvestments. In many areas these days, the largest provider of mental health care or substance use treatment is the local jail.

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Police are simply not equipped to solve these problems. Even the limited training officers sometimes receive is of little practical use; one of the officers who sent Edward Caniglia to the hospital later conceded that he based his decision on “experience,” not expertise. The reason these encounters so often end in needless suffering and death is that the people the state dispatches to help are not trained as helpers. They are police officers trained in the use of deadly force. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.

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These obligations also set police up to fail by badly straining the time and resources they can dedicate to solving serious crimes. In 2019, law enforcement agencies managed to clear about 45 percent of violent crimes, a figure that has remained more or less constant for more than two decades. (Only about half of these crimes are reported to police in the first place.) And although investigating violent crime is supposed to be the most important task police fulfill, most of the tax dollars that go to these agencies are spent on something else: One analysis of three different departments found that officers spent about half their time either responding to noncriminal calls or conducting traffic enforcement, and only 4 percent on handling violent crime. At this point, continuing to deputize police to serve as community caretakers is a failure of imagination, leadership, or both.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. Across the country, experiments with non-police first responder agencies are yielding encouraging results. In Denver, a pilot program dispatched teams of a medic and a clinician to respond to 748 calls related to homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse in six months. None of them led to arrests. In Austin, Texas, a similar program is integrated into the 911 system, where dispatchers ask callers if they need police, fire, emergency medical services, or mental health assistance. The gold standard here is CAHOOTS, a community-based program in Eugene, Oregon, that has been providing unarmed crisis intervention services for more than 30 years. The idea behind all these initiatives is that the person who knocks on the door to help doesn’t need to be an armed state agent able to shoot and kill whoever answers it.

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No Supreme Court opinion will end police misconduct overnight, and the community caretaking exception is hardly the only legal tool available to cops looking to justify their dubious choices after the fact. But the more Fourth Amendment loopholes that judges preserve, the freer police will be to abuse the same people they claim to serve. A decision in Caniglia that puts some limits on the special powers of police acting as community caretakers could prompt more cities to think about why they still delegate these duties to underqualified, overextended law enforcement officers in the first place.

Police have proved themselves incapable of actually taking care of their communities, no matter how much “elbow room” they get. There’s no reason for the justices to help prop up this failed system any longer.

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