Reimagining Public Safety

There are some great conversations happening around the country about reforming police tactics and departments. By broadening the conversation to reimagine public safety, communities can create a more humane, cost-effective system.

The first step in reimagining public safety is to understand what the public wants and how the community defines safety, making sure to differentiate among different parts of the community and the impact of living in different neighborhoods. Some activities, like panhandling, affect peoples’ perception of safety, while others, like drug use, are “victimless,” but still matter in defining public safety. Of course, we also need a solid understanding of trends in property crime and personal violence and their root systemic causes.

The second step is to decide how to best address these goals and who should do it. What is the role of nonprofit groups, faith-based organizations and neighbors? What would happen if we addressed issues like graffiti, drug use, loitering and vandalism using community resources first, instead of police? What would happen if we addressed vehicle accidents and violations with traffic engineers first, instead of police?

What might come out of this discussion is the realization that there is a better way to create safety while preserving human rights. In 2003 Denver police shot and killed a 15-year-old with mental illness, Paul Childs, who stood in the doorway of an empty home with a knife. Paul’s family had called 911 fifty times over the past several years for help. Clearly other resources should have been tried first, instead of police.

Most police work, in fact, is not related to crime but social problems, and our officers are usually not well-equipped to provide these services. Many cities have trained their police officers in crisis intervention and encourage them to call for social services when needed, but due to a variety of circumstances these services are often not available when situations arise.

In most communities the support systems like family counseling, economic assistance and mental health services that would greatly reduce calls for police are not funded to the extent needed. The result is that we end up using a more expensive system, police and jail, to address problems that should have been solved earlier in alternative ways. This is more expensive not only to the city but especially in terms of the lives damaged, destroyed and lost.

One of the early adopters of services in place of police calls is Eugene, Oregon, where the White Bird Clinic operates the CAHOOTS response program. Since 1989, CAHOOTS vans with mental health workers and paramedics have responded to calls in place of police where a social service response is more effective, answering 17% of calls in 2017 and saving the police department over $8 million/year.

Communities like Minneapolis are using this moment to reimagine public safety, reaching out to the public for input and potentially changing the role of police departments and city budget allocations. Ann Arbor, Michigan is also taking a broad approach, with the potential to “totally redo how we handle public safety.”

The key in these conversations is to take a broad approach, focusing not on policing but public safety. In this way, communities can create a system that not only generates better results but also treats people with respect, a system in which all parts of the community share responsibility–police, nonprofit agencies, residents, businesses and neighborhoods alike, a system that is fair for all, regardless of race, age, nationality, immigration status or gender identity, and a system that offers tranquility through wisdom and collaboration, rather than conflict through command and control.

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