Activists propose upending present policing structure

Other cities explore new visions of public safety

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(Photo by Charles Hallman/Graphic courtesy of https://policy.m4bl.org.)

The demand for community control of police was placed on the national political agenda in August when over 50 organizations, under the banner of the Movement for Black Lives, adopted the political platform, “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice.” The section on law enforcement calls for representative community-based entities to be vested with the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action in cases of police misconduct and brutality, and establish department funding priorities, policing policies and protocols.

The upsurge in activism driven by the Black Lives Matter movement has elevated this demand as central to African American social and economic progress. Locally, ideas for rethinking public safety and policing have grown out of recent struggles to hold law enforcement accountable for systemic police brutality and the killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile.

Beginning next month, a series of public conversations will be held to explore visionary ideas for what Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), calls “public safety beyond policing.”

“NOC and our allies are thinking broadly about ways to rethink how public resources are spent on public safety,” Newby said. “This is the broad umbrella that we think gets us on task for abolition of the police state as we know it. And frankly, at the end of the day we would like to see the current system upended altogether and start with new and innovative ideas of public safety.”

Newby cites several examples of rethinking public safety and policing, such as the “Power Project” of Critical Resistance (CR) in Oakland, California and the Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition’s demand to redirect law enforcement dollars to youth development.

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“I think we have reached a tipping point where the public is saying wait a minute. We don’t like what we are seeing with the authorities we have given you, and ultimately you are accountable to the people.”

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Such innovative models, as Newby defines them, “would be comprised of people from the community, without guns, that citizens could call on for matters of public safety. These team members act as navigators who have the option of calling law enforcement if necessary, but they can also call mental health specialists, or your grandmother.”

Newby stressed that these alternative public safety services should not be linked or accountable to current law enforcement structures. He cites evidence that shows that when programs are funded and governed independent of law enforcement they are more effective.

CR developed the Oakland Power Project (OPP) to fill unmeet needs in their community. According to CR member and volunteer Woods Ervin, the project aims to “increase people’s capacity, people’s confidence, and people’s power to resolve problems and harms without bringing cops into their neighborhood.”

This CR initiative stems from ideas expressed by community members during dozens of interviews and conversations. A common concern expressed was that police often show up when someone makes a 911 call even though they are not needed. Also, some residents are reluctant to call 911 because of their immigrant status, outstanding legal issues or substance abuse. Yet, they need assistance.

To offer a safe community-based alternative, this past summer OPP began training outreach workers and volunteer healthcare workers to be alternative points of contact to aid people in finding proper care or, when possible, taking care of it themselves. The response to a call for volunteers from the community was so enthusiastic that they needed to find larger facilities when 50 to 75 volunteers showed up for the workshops.

In L.A. the Youth Justice Coalition is organizing to redirect one percent of the City and Los Angeles County’s law enforcement budgets to create a Youth Development Department and programs. A 2016 report, “Building a Positive Future for LA’s Youth,” showed the city annually spent $615 per capita on policing and only $37 on programs for youth development, a 17 to one ratio.

Redirecting just one percent of these budgets would free $100 million to invest in youth development. This minor shift in priorities would allow for building and staffing 50 full-service youth centers, provide free public transportation for youth, pay for 25,000 youth jobs per year, and hire 500 full-time intervention workers.

Applying a similar budget analyses to Minneapolis shows the city allocated $392 per capita for policing and $9 on youth development in the 2016 budget. Redirecting one percent of the public safety budgets of Hennepin County and Minneapolis would free approximately $4.6 million for youth programs and jobs annually, more than twice what Minneapolis currently spends.

Another public safety innovation Newby suggests that can reduce reliance on traditional policing are community drop-in centers, staffed 24-7 to handle mental health crises, physical abuse or other issues that if left to fester can lead to police intervention and conflict.

“In many police-community incidents, officers are asked to be a guidance counselor or a mental health professional,” explained Newby. “Officers do not have the capacity, the training, the skills and the funding to be all things to all people,” he said in stressing the logic behind creating alternative public safety programs.

Newby cites that on average it costs about $150,000 per year for a new police officer, as opposed to as little as $50,000 to hire those trained in occupations and skills that can better meet people’s needs at a lower cost. When asked what might remain of traditional law enforcement, Newby is realistic, yet at the same time challenges the public and political leaders to begin thinking differently.

“I think we would all acknowledge we need some kind of publicly funded backstop” to deal with hardened criminals or terrorists. “But I think if we start with the framework of radically rethinking public safety altogether, and work backwards from there, that’s the conversation we would like to have.”

Such a strategy focuses on redirecting policing resources as a means to transform public safety services. As discussed in a recent MSR article (“Chicagoans push for community control of police: Organizers say only an elected civilian council can hold cops accountable,” Sept. 1, 2016), Chicago activists are fighting for civilian control of police as a means to gain the power to remake public safety and redirect law enforcement budgets.

Clearly, each route requires winning massive public support for the radical changes envisioned. So far, there few indications law enforcement and allied political leaders are open to such sweeping change.

In reflecting on the need for public support, Tersea Nelson, legal director of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union, noted, “The police really do derive their authority from the people.” And today, a majority of the public still gives law enforcement indirectly through their elected officials “a tremendous amount of power and authority.

“But I think we have reached a tipping point where the public is saying wait a minute,” Nelson continued. “We don’t like what we are seeing with the authorities we have given you, and ultimately you are accountable to the people.”

Newby said initial responses to NOC’s ideas have been two-fold. At first when he mentioned ending society’s reliance on traditional functions accorded to an armed police force, “Many folks initially recoil, even some allies. That’s understandable,” he said. “But once we start to map out a more holistic approach to public safety…folks began to open up and have these ‘ah-ha’ moments where they say this is very logical and pragmatic.”

Taking his assessment one step further, Newby suggested, “We are probably at a moment in our country’s history where we need to invent new and more sophisticated mechanisms of public safety, and that time is now.”

 

For more information on Movement for Black Lives’ “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice,” go to https://policy.m4bl.org.

Wayne Nealis welcomes reader response to wynnls@hotmail.com.