We need a real public safety system

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The VCR approach will not work

Author Sonya Renee Taylor says it’s instructive to think about the process and acceptance of technological advancement as an analogy for how we think about social advancements too— including policing and public safety. She calls this approach the Theory of Obsolescence, or VCR Theory for short.

Today, the Minneapolis Police Department is our primary and largest investment toward safety. Everyone—from the U.S. Department of Justice, Republicans, centrist Democrats, progressives—agree it’s not great. 

In effect, we are stuck with an old VCR that works inconsistently, ruins tapes of our most precious memories, and keeps us stuck watching old movies. 

Our policing system is equally old and ineffective technology that rarely prevents crime, inflicts trauma and (at worst) death on our residents, and rarely tries new ways to keep people safe.

If we were actually talking about technology here, what would we do? We would honestly assess the current system and start investing in and building something new. We would put dollars into research and development and would conceive of, test, learn and invest in solutions that show promise. We would shift resources away from the VCR and into new programs and platforms.

Yet, what we actually see happening is those deeply invested in the VCR yelling: We can fix it! Better design (new policies, better culture)! Better tape (training)! Better customer service (more use of force reporting)!

Supporters of the status quo imply that change is incredibly risky and that those calling for promising alternatives are naïve, simplistic even. Everything they say we should do to fix the VCR has been tried before, multiple times, over multiple decades. 

Their solutions have clearly not made us meaningfully safer so instead, they rely on fear, trying to distract us from having the real conversations we need to have. The system is broken. No one person or even a set of “good people” can fix it. The VCR does not and cannot meet our current needs.

New systems are not built overnight and they are never built without investment, vision, tough decisions, and commitment. In the case of public safety, the best part is that we know so much about what would keep our city safe while honoring the dignity and needs of all. 

This new approach will actually include police officers, but in a new Public Safety Department that’s designed to prioritize the health, safety and wellbeing of all of our neighbors instead of doubling down on contain and control tactics that disproportionately harm our Black and Brown neighbors and create a false and short-term sense of “safety” for others.

We have a chance to vote Yes for Minneapolis and to vote for city council members and mayoral candidates who understand that systems change is what is required here. It’s time to stop fixing the outdated VCR and start investing in a better future for us all. 

Maggie Rittenhouse and Molly Leutz live in Minneapolis’ Ward 11.

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