Sometimes Your First Reaction is Not Your Best Choice
Ours is a country in some turmoil today. The time around the 4th of July is, it seems to me, a most excellent time to remind ourselves that this country is less about what it is than about what it could be. We should be mature enough to admit our shortfalls, hopeful enough to believe in our promise.
Let’s talk about how we police in the USA. This issue has been a lightning rod for commentary, much of it loose on the Left and the Right Things are getting sorted out enough at this point that I think we can have a productive discussion.
Sometimes our choice of words can carry outsized impact. Take Black Lives Matter. I absolutely get why the phrase exists in this form. I have no problem with it at all. But I cannot help but think that if the choice had been Black Lives Matter, Too, a few million more people would have been on board years ago that only now, in the current anguish or the constant drumbeat of Black lives snuffed out so needlessly.
Might we be further along if all those folks could have joined in earlier? Perhaps not, but I will always wonder.
So, too, it is with Defund the Police. This one has different meanings for different people. Some mean it in its simplest forms. I hear people saying, “Cut the police budget by 50%.” When asked how they came to that number and what would they like to see cut in services or support, there is not much of an answer.
They are angry and this is one way to strike back. It is an unfortunate choice of words in that it is far too simplistic. For those who have not suffered at the hands of bad policing, it raises the fear of anarchy and a lack of protection. This does not help in bringing on board allies needed to make this happen. It also does not give good police anything constructive to work with going forward.
Ah, THAT’S What You Meant
As I had hoped, the conversation has matured a bit, and broadened into some useful discussions on several fronts. Some interesting, and welcome in my book, alternative phrases are popping up. Reimagine the Police is among by favorites. How about Repurpose, Refocus, and Resource the Police? These, I think, speak to where we want to be.
There are some serious discussions going on around the country now, and some fine writing about this subject. I am having difficulty keeping up with it all, but much of it looks promising.
This is, however, a long and complex task. A lot of people need to pay attention and stick to it until we are on a better course. Oh, and a not unimportant footnote. A lot of good cops and their leaders agree with much of what I am about to describe. They have to be full partners in this process. Otherwise, the changes sought will likely never take root.
The Police as Catchall
Most of us realize by now that the call to 911 gets you a police officer in almost every case. Whether the issue is domestic violence, a mental health episode, or a crime, a policeman or two are sent out to sort out what is happening and to establish control. Good luck with that. How would you like to have that as your job description? How often might such an arrangement go astray?
Some law enforcement entities do better than others in training for things like de-escalation, mental health encounters, family fights, etc. But realistically, how many skill sets can one person master? Realistically, not everyone will be good at overpowering and hauling away a threatening person AND talking down an agitated mentally ill person.
Making sorting this out and resourcing solutions for the 18,000 thousand law enforcement elements in the US, employing about 1.1 million people is nuts. The smaller entities don’t have a prayer of doing such wide-ranging training, yet they get that same mix of calls.
Blending 411 with 911
One of the more promising approaches is setting up a mixed response team. That same 911 call goes to a better trained dispatcher who can quickly discern that a given call, for example, likely requires a policeman for security, a medic for assistance, and a social worker to ascertain what follow up is needed.
Resources in all those areas are on call and dispatch as a team. The police officer in this situation has the traditional role of security and setting an environment of a reasonable amount of control, giving room to the possibility of figuring out what else is required.
Police and medical personnel are accustomed to quick reaction requirments and 24/7 capabilities. The other services mentioned for such a team approach are not. They are not trained nor staffed for such a requirement. Funding and training will be required, but both are first-rate investments.
What About That Defund Part?
Simply defunding law enforcement to make room for other capacities is an inadequate response, but it can be part of the solution. If we ask less of law enforcement in response scenarios, we can free up some resources. Two other defund-related elements also play a role.
One is to demilitarize policing. The amount of military and military-like hardware in so many police departments should be reversed. Most of it is overkill for the scenarios in which they are used and even if bought at bargain prices from the defense department, operations and maintenance are costly.
And do we really want to see armored personnel carriers and similar hardware in our streets? I do not. It sends the wrong message right up front.
The other is to refocus police unions away from the model of defending every cop charged with any offense, no matter what. This mindset has made it exceptionally difficult to investigate and where appropriate terminate, charge, or discipline bad police officers.
The cost to local governments for wrongful death and other suits is in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. We could solve many of the resource issues with these funds alone. And make better law enforcement units as well.
We Know What Works
Some communities have already tackled these issues with good success. We know what to do. Do we have the will to make it happen?
- Set realistic job descriptions for police. Train and equip them for those roles.
- Build a response team model. Resource and train for that.
- Invest to mitigate as well as respond. Minimize high tech military equipment and swat teams to the few places that really could use such things.
- Make law enforcement real, fully participating partners in the reshaping mission. Listen to what they say. Those that resist the changes get a career change. Same for citizens and communities. Leave either stakeholder out and you will fail.
- Figure out what can be trained nationally and regionally, vs. locally. Ease the burden on local authorities and build some national standards on what we find acceptable.
- Make transparency and accountability the foundations of community relations.
The list of other things that get better when we get this right is long and encouraging. Mess this up and a lot of other things will not heal either. Let’s get to it, America.
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