Law enforcement and public health

Within the crowded public health space, there is a noticeable absence of law enforcement actors, especially police. Police are typically not viewed as having an important role in achieving public health goals. The role of police is not taught in most schools of public health worldwide and police also rarely see themselves in this light. This is extraordinary as you begin examining common societal responses to complex issues.

Two women and a Man in police uniform crouch respectfully in front of a homeless person.There is an enormous range of issues in which the role of police and others from law enforcement are vital in achieving public health outcomes. For instance, road safety is a public health issue where the importance of police engagement is obvious. For many other public health issues the police role is more ambiguous and their involvement may even be problematic, such as the response to mental health crises, drug use or domestic violence.

We see the failures of this role magnified – in the abuse of people in mental health crises by police, in the killings of unarmed black men in the U.S., and in excessive force shown by police in many countries responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet there are many alternative approaches being explored. Worldwide, public health issues that have historically been criminalised or over-policed are being addressed in new ways, building on the fundamental principles of partnership and collaboration between public health, police and community.

These programs may take the shape of joined-up responses between police and mental health services in responding to people experiencing mental health crises; of restorative justice and justice reinvestment programs led by police in partnership with indigenous communities; of trauma-informed approaches to violence prevention across a wide number of settings; and thousands of other innovations.

The Global Law Enforcement and Public Health Association (GLEPHA) brings pioneers of a new social order together to engage in research, share experiences, and explore humane and effective approaches to complex societal issues. One of its key goals is to keep people out of the criminal justice system and reduce society’s massive over-reliance on incarceration.

The Nossal Institute is working on a new project, initiated by the founders of GLEPHA, that identifies, collects and showcases such initiatives. Rather than revisiting the problems that have been detailed and named repeatedly, the project focuses on finding tangible solutions and paths forward, drawing on the value of and potential for international and comparative learning and exchange.

The project documents practical, alternative and innovative programs from around the world that envisage and inspire a new way of achieving community safety and well-being.

As part of the project, an online  forum is being held in September 2022 will be the first major activity of the Nossal Institute collaboration. The 2022 Marketplace of Ideas invites individuals, program teams and/or organisations with innovative, practical law enforcement and public health programs to submit a presentation for the online event.

For too long, public health and law enforcement have largely operated in shared spaces, but disconnected silos. The 2022 Marketplace of Ideas champions their convergence.

For further information and to submit your project/program for the event, please visit the 2022 Marketplace of Ideas  site.

Professor Nick Crofts, Director, Centre for Law Enforcement and Public Health, is an epidemiologist and public health practitioner who has been working in the fields of HIV/AIDS, illicit drugs, harm reduction and law enforcement for over 35 years. As an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Nossal Institute, Nick is developing a program of work on law enforcement and public health, with a global focus.

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Professor Nick Crofts AM