Policing alternative: What a community-led public safety system might look like

Some Americans are calling for a redesign of public health and safety systems amid national outcry against police brutality, racism

Alondra Cano, a City Council member, speaks during "The Path Forward" meeting at Powderhorn Park on Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Minneapolis. The focus of the meeting was the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP) (Jerry Holt, © 2020 Jerry Holt/Star Tribune)

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd some Americans are calling to “defund the police” as a potential solution to widespread police brutality and systemic racism.

Defunding the police means to divest funds from police departments and reinvest them into social services that can help address the root cause of crime and prevent over-policing and police brutality, especially in marginalized communities.

Advocates for “defunding” aren’t calling to abolish police immediately, or even completely -- rather, they are suggesting an incremental process that prioritizes community needs through a reimagined public safety system.

So now you must be wondering what the U.S. would look like without its traditional policing system: Here’s what some researchers and advocates are proposing as an alternative.

Community-led safety initiatives

Advocates believe that a new approach to public safety is necessary to ensure the safety of all American lives -- especially Black Americans who are disproportionately arrested, sentenced and killed by police around the country. Black Americans are reportedly incarcerated at more than five times the rate of White Americans, and are three times more likely to be killed by police than White people. According to a 2018 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Black men accounted for 40% of unarmed people fatally shot by police officers in the U.S. in 2015 -- even though they only represented about six percent of the population.

Many agree that police reform will not be enough to produce significant change because the traditional policing system was designed with racist beliefs and practices in mind -- therefore any changes made will just serve as a Band-Aid covering up a much larger issue.

As a solution, advocates are calling for a redesigned public safety system that addresses the root causes of crime rather than policing the effects. The solution includes reducing the power of police and their contact with the public by defunding them in an effort to reduce over-policing and police brutality.

How it works

In practice, community-led safety initiatives prioritize community needs to improve the quality of life for everyone. Such initiatives are designed to address the root causes of crime by providing a supportive environment to help people tackle whatever issues they are facing, whether it is mentally, financially and so on.

With this system, funds would be diverted away from police departments and reinvested into local infrastructure and services that would benefit the community.

Some examples of community infrastructure and services that the funds could be reallocated to include:

  • Publicly financed supportive housing
  • Community-based anti-violence programs
  • Trauma services for young people
  • Education
  • Increased school counseling
  • After-school programs
  • Restorative justice programs, and more

So what happens when there is an emergency, who would you call if not the police?

Advocates are calling for trained professional emergency response teams -- not police officers -- to respond to emergencies, including those related to substance abuse, homelessness, domestic violence and mental health. The ultimate goal is to have one phone number to call (instead of 9-1-1) in which specialized professionals can respond to situations they’re specifically trained to address and resolve.

If someone was struggling with drug addiction, for example, instead of calling the police and potentially escalating the situation, health care workers or an emergency response team could respond and get the individual the help they need. If someone were to call and complain about a person experiencing homelessness, rapid response social workers could assist by providing them with housing support and other resources.

In non-violent situations, conflict interruptors could mediate and help resolve issues. In scenarios where violence is occurring, “violence interruptors” could help diffuse the situation.

Currently, police officers in most U.S. cities respond to situations that they are not specifically trained for -- at least, not to the same extent that a social worker is trained to handle housing issues, or a medical professional is equipped to address drug overdose and addiction. Advocators say that untrained police cannot effectively resolve some of the issues they are called to address; however, the solution is not to train police to be equipped to handle every possible scenario, but rather to allow already-trained professionals to address crises related to their field.

In a 2018 report by the Urban Institute researchers reiterate that police officers responding to situations they aren’t trained for increases the likelihood for arrests and incarceration, when that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Law enforcement and corrections officials are often called on to respond to and handle situations that they are not trained or well-positioned to address, and resourcing community partners can ameliorate this problem. For example, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has been outspoken about how too many people are in jail in Chicago simply because they need mental and behavioral health care that they are not receiving in the community.”

Advocators argue that by implementing restorative practices and prioritizing supportive community services, the factors leading to criminal behaviors would eventually diminish -- and so would the need for police intervention (which, they argue, does not always result in safety or de-escalation, anyway).

The Urban Institute’s report states that there is evidence of crime reduction among cities that prioritize community needs and services.

“Research shows that community organizations play an integral role in public safety and community health," the report reads. "Recent work by Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar (2017) found that cities with a higher concentration of organizations focusing on addressing crime and increasing community well-being experienced greater reductions in violent and property crime. Research has also shown that local, community-based organizations provide critical services and facilitate engagement in ways that strengthen neighborhoods.”

Marginalized communities would be positively impacted by the community-led approach, as most of these communities have been heavily divested from by state and local governments, and many of these public and social services either do not exist or are not equipped to fully address communities’ needs.

For example, the U.S. Commission on Human Rights published a report in 2018 that said school systems in predominately Black and marginalized communities don’t have access to the same public funding as White communities do, which results in limited access to quality education and programs for students living in marginalized communities. Advocates for community-led safety initiatives argue that education and youth programs are among the most important community services required to improve conditions for minority communities.

The point of the community-led safety initiatives is to help ensure that people’s everyday behaviors and struggles aren’t unnecessarily criminalized and instead people can get the help they need to improve their lives and the overall community -- which will arguably result in a reduction of crime. Community members would be expected to work together to identify and address their individual community needs, as they are aware of those needs more than any outsider could ever be.

Is this idea a real possibility for the U.S.?

There has been significant research conducted on potential community-based public safety systems as alternatives to traditional policing for years. The idea garnered some attention in 2014 amid the protests in Ferguson following the killing of Black man Michael Brown by police officers, but it was not necessarily widely accepted.

However organizations like Reclaim the Block and MPD150 have been working to raise awareness of a potentially “police-free” society and advocating to defund the Minneapolis Police Department -- and they have already found some success.

Minneapolis city council members announced Sunday evening their intention to disband the Minneapolis Police Department following the killing of George Floyd. Other cities like New York City and Los Angeles announced plans to partially defund their police departments and redistribute funds to community services.

The Urban Institute’s report shares multiple examples of some state and local governments experimenting with the alternative public safety solutions over the last decade. For example in NYC, funding for the police department’s involvement in schools was divested and reallocated to restorative justice and social service programs such as guidance counselors, mental health service providers, job programs and more, resulting in a decrease in student arrests and suspensions.

A separate study from 2017 also found that a few weeks’ reduction of “proactive policing” in NYC led to more than 2,000 fewer crime complaints.

The Urban Institute’s report argues that there is more public support for redesigning public safety than some might think.

“A national poll conducted by Lake Research Partners in October 2017 found that voters overwhelmingly support community-based services as a strategy for improving public safety," the report reads. "More than 90 percent of those surveyed support treatment for mental health and drug addiction, job and skills training, and mentoring and counseling programs that address the root causes of crime. Further, more than 75 percent of voters supported proposals to shift funding from incarceration to community-based solutions.”

It is difficult to say whether or not more state and local governments will adopt community-led public safety systems at this time. The controversial movement has not gained much support from representatives on either side of the aisle.

Still, some see the movement’s national attention as an opportunity to rethink public safety operations in the U.S.

“Now, I don’t believe that you should disband police departments,” Rep. Karen Bass, of California and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus said in an interview with CNN. “But I do think that, in cities, in states, we need to look at how we are spending the resources and invest more in our communities. ... Maybe this is an opportunity to re-envision public safety."

Whether the movement becomes more widespread or not, the transition from traditional policing to community-based safety initiatives is a slow one -- so don’t expect a complete overhaul in your city overnight.

It is important not to confuse a community-led public safety initiative with community-oriented policing, as these two practices are actually quite different. The reimagined public safety system is designed to exist apart from the traditional policing system, while community-oriented policing is a practice that works in tandem with traditional policing. Community-oriented policing does work to address root causes of crime, but the process also maintains traditional policing operations and works to increase community trust in police.

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About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.