Incidents involving police and homeless individuals with mental illnesses have recently captured the attention of the public, as news media have drawn attention to both tragic shootings of homeless individuals with mental illnesses by police and the increasing number of individuals with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system. However, interactions between police and homeless individuals with mental illnesses occur in cities across the United States everyday, prompted by structural changes in social and economic policies and economic dislocations that have resulted in reduced funding for public mental health services, loss of affordable housing, and a reliance on criminal justice systems to manage inequality. Using ethnographic data on partnerships between police officers and homeless outreach workers in Washington, D.C., I illuminate the political economic processes, organizational inefficiencies, and management practices that shape the field of police interactions with homeless individuals with mental illness. I argue that the political economy of Washington, D.C. has impacted the public mental health system, criminal justice system, and urban redevelopment in such a way that police officers are compelled to serve as frontline mental health workers. This sits uncomfortably in the nexus of an “impossible mandate” (Manning 1977) for police to both reduce crime through law enforcement and provide services. To navigate this impossible mandate, police officers have informally partnered with homeless outreach workers.

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