Dump It On the Police

     A tall skinny fellow dipped into the city Dumpster where I recycle my garbage, stuffing cans and bottles into trash bags, cramming them into an overflowing shopping cart. He was clean and sober. I gave him my bottles and cans.
     Was he breaking the law by fishing for nickels instead of robbing people?
     I don’t know. I suppose so.
     Was I breaking the law by giving him my empties? I don’t know.
     Contributing to the delinquency of a veteran?
     Four days later he was still clean and sober, but a bit raggedy. He told me he was a Marine — vague about when he was discharged and under what conditions. I gave him five bucks and my bottles and cans.
     Just about every time I’ve returned he’s been there, raggedier and crazier. Last week he told me that everything he said was “right out of the Bible, man. I don’t know how I do it. Everyone can see it. It’s just biblical.” And so on.
     Three days ago he was bleeding from the head. He was not drunk and I don’t think he was on drugs. I think he was off drugs, and needed them.
     I believe that the first time I saw him he’d just been released from a program and the meds hadn’t worn off. Now I’m pretty sure he’s off his meds and getting crazier by the day.
     So, my fellow Americans: What’s my responsibility here?
     Anything at all?
     Do we have any responsibility to strangers, or only to ourselves?
     I talked it over with a friend. We decided I should tell the police. But no one was at the dispatch office, where a sign in the window said the police were very busy and please don’t bother them unless it’s an emergency. So I walked across the parking lot to the state offices, but no one there was assigned to … whatever this problem is.
     Look: This veteran of war is off his meds and needs help. I’m not scared of him. I don’t know if he’s dangerous to others, though he’s getting so crazy he could be. I think he’s dangerous to himself.
     I’m an old hippie. It’s not my job to turn people in to “the authorities.” But this guy was totally respectable, to me anyway, three weeks ago, and now he’s stark-raving nuts.
     What should I do?
     This has nothing to do with law. It has nothing to do with religion. As a human being, what is my responsibility to this poor fellow, raving about the Bible, bleeding in a Dumpster, fishing for nickels?
     I asked my family and friends. I asked attorneys, journalists, human rights and medical workers. Nearly all of them told me to tell the police.
     But one attorney who’d met the man at the Dumpster, and told him where he could go for help, put me in touch with a community liaison officer with the police. That woman knew him too, and had talked with him, and offered help if he wanted it.
     Millions of people might say, in this campaign year, that I have no responsibility to this man at all. Perhaps. But I’m glad I live in a town and state — Vermont — where other people agree that we have responsibilities to people other than ourselves, even if we’re not sure what those responsibilities are.
     Here’s another question. Why are these problems dumped on the police?
     Police officers have killed a lot of people recently, many of whom were mentally ill. That makes the police look bad. But if we don’t want police to kill mentally ill and homeless people — and I certainly don’t — why are the police so often the first, in fact, the only ones we ask to deal with millions of people whom we have been dumping from mental hospitals for decades because we’re too cheap and politicians too cowardly to ask us to pay taxes for humanity.
     So we turn over mentally ill, sometimes helpless people to people with guns.
     That’s not responsible behavior. It’s not fair to anyone — least of all to the police.

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