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The crisis of the American police: 4 options for replacing traditional law enforcement

A world in which there will be much less police is possible. VOX tells what experts think about how this world might look.

Photo: Shutterstock

On the night of Friday, June 12, a policeman shot and killed Reishard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, near the drive-thru service of Wendy's Atlanta fast food restaurant. The police arrived after receiving a complaint that Brooks was sleeping in his car, which blocked the passage and forced other cars to go around it.

Video from the scene of the incident shows that communication begins calmly. Brooks repeatedly asks for permission to leave his car in the parking lot and go to his sister's house, which, according to him, is nearby. But the officer insists that he pass a field sobriety test, which discovers that Brooks’s blood alcohol level is slightly above the limit. The officer tries to handcuff Brooks, the man resists, and the physical struggle begins. Brooks grabs the officer’s stun gun, starts to run away and turns to use him. After a few seconds, the man lies motionless on the ground, having received three bullets.

This was not the first time that a black man who had fallen asleep in a parked car was killed during a police interaction. This was not the first time in recent weeks. At 5:30 AM on Memorial Day — the day George Floyd was assassinated — Dion Johnson was sleeping in his car on the side of a highway in northern Phoenix when he was approached by an Arizona police officer who was planning to arrest Johnson for "suspecting driving violations." According to the officer’s report, Johnson resisted the arrest and reached for the officer’s weapon. An officer shot Johnson for self-defense.

In both cases, the same basic question arises: why did the armed representatives of the government choose this answer to the fact that these men were sleeping in their cars? You can ask the same thing about a dispute over a (possibly) fake $ 20 bill (George Floyd's case). Erroneous drug search invasion. Road fine. Sale of tax-free cigarettes. None of these violations began with violence, but each ended with the death of a black man or woman killed by an armed police officer. Stories abound with examples of the fact that in such situations, police kill both white and Native Americans, and Hispanics and Asian Americans.

This dynamic reflects the structure of US policing. Those officers who write accident reports and respond to noise complaints can also shoot and kill. This means that one policeman has a monopoly on the entire continuum of power, from casual conversations to aggressive arrest, shooting and killings. The situation can develop from a calm conversation to the use of deadly force in a matter of seconds, completely at their discretion. If the one who answered the call did not have stun guns and firearms, Brooks would be alive today.

Many European countries view the use of lethal force as a narrow specialization and accordingly structure their police forces.

“If this happened in the UK, the first person to contact Brooks would be a community support officer,” said Colin Rogers, a former UK police inspector who became a criminologist at the University of South Wales. “He certainly would not be armed.” And even if this interaction went badly, an officer would come to the rescue, armed only with a baton and handcuffs, and not with a gun. ”

In 2015, a Guardian investigation revealed that British police shot dead fewer people (24) in 55 years in England and Wales than US police in the first 24 days of 2015 in the United States. This discrepancy can only be partially explained by differences in armed clashes: the U.S. police shot 161 unarmed people only in 2015. This is partly due to the exceptionally high level of gun ownership in America, which is why police officers are constantly on the alert.

This is also due to the fact that in the UK, government officials who carry the vast majority of public safety responsibilities — from patrolling the streets to responding to non-violent crimes — do not carry firearms. Only about 10% of British police carry weapons, and they mainly work in teams of highly qualified specialists whose full-time job is to respond to the challenges of the highest possible level of threat, such as an active shooter or a terrorist attack.

What if the United States decides to do the same? What if, against the background of widespread calls for US departments to be financed, the traditional police would be made - determined by the ability to deploy potentially deadly forces as a narrow specialization? What would this world look like? What will the police no longer do and who will take her place?

“It’s easy for me to imagine a world in which Reichard Brooks will be taken home that night and not shot,” says Christie Lopez, professor of law at Georgetown University. “For me, the question is whether we have the will and desire to create a system of public security that will make this world a reality.”

Over the past few weeks, the author of this article, Roger Karma, has spoken to more than a dozen sociologists, criminologists, police experts, nonprofit leaders, and legal scholars to better understand the range of alternatives that exist in the current universal US police response model. The author wanted to know what alternatives could be developed to address unique challenges, such as the overwhelming presence of firearms, the interwoven history of racism and police activity, and the relatively high rate of violent crime in the United States. Here are four ideas they suggested.

Idea 1. Creation of specialized departments of road regulation

The vast majority of civilian interactions with the police take place on the road. According to a Department of Justice report for 2015, of the 50 million Americans who made contact with the police for the year, 25 million were stopped in the cars that they rode or were in as passengers (black Americans were the most likely objects of such attention). Another 8 million people had a car accident. And many of the 9 million who called the police to report crimes reported road accidents.

There is no justifiable reason why armed police officers should be responsible for road safety. Police officers are not hired for a specific talent in traffic regulation, accident reporting, or fines. And deploying armed officers to carry out such routine tasks poses a risk of unnecessary use of lethal force in millions of clashes every year. The murder by the police of Filando Castile in 2016 was one example (among many others) that an ordinary stop on the road was a disaster - and this simply would not have happened if the officer did not have a gun. Sandra Bland’s arrest for the fact that without any signal she changed lanes, and her subsequent suicide is another example.

It is not difficult to imagine the transfer of most of the functions of road patrols to specialized employees - this is done for many other roles in the field of public safety, such as checking restaurants and food. Unarmed traffic officers who drive different vehicles work on England’s roads, and many of the country's other road duties are left to the discretion of “public support officers” who can write fines, but without weapons, and they don’t have authority to arrest them.

Some cities in the United States are even starting to take steps in this direction, mainly because armed police are a very expensive way to control traffic. In 2017, the city of New Orleans approved the NOPD department, hiring third-party officers to deal with accidents in which there are no injuries and there are no fears that the driver was driving the machine under the influence of alcohol or any substances.

On the subject: Trump signed a police reform order: what's in the document

Idea 2. Participation of mediators in the resolution of minor disputes

A huge number of police appeals is associated with relatively small interpersonal disputes: disputes over noise levels, illegal entry into someone else's territory, poor behavior of pets or hooliganism; disputes between spouses, family members, roommates, homes, or neighborhoods.

Without a mediator, what begins as a minor argument can turn into violence. But there is no particular reason why mediation should be entrusted to armed police officers; in any case, the traditional police tend to exacerbate these situations unnecessarily, leading to arrests or worse.

That is why a number of countries, such as Great Britain, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and South Africa, have created a special class of employees who can be called “public security professionals”. They are unarmed, they do not have most of the formal police powers, and they perform duties such as working with young people, mediating in conflicts, patrolling in communities and fighting low-level crime and unrest. The preliminary results of their impact on crime and community well-being have been promising.

“The idea was for community support staff [the British version of this role] to play the role of a bridge between communities and police,” says Rogers. “Since we are unarmed, we maintain order in the communities and with them, and not above them.”

A similar approach was first adopted in many street-sweeping programs in the US, such as Cure Violence and Advance Peace, which use “violence breakers” and “peacekeepers” from local communities to mediate conflicts before they develop into higher-level violence level. Scientific evaluations of these efforts have shown that non-police mediation can be very successful if properly executed.

“If someone is angry or thinking about shooting, violence breakers are almost always able to reassure that person and stop him from acting,” says Cure Violence founder Gary Slyutkin. “The goal is to deter incidents before it becomes a matter for the police.” If nothing has happened yet, this is not a police case. ”

The author of this article asked A.T. Mitchell, the former "violence breaker" who now runs Cure Violence's ManUp in New York, is thinking about a dispute between George Floyd and a store cashier who claimed that Floyd used a fake $ 20 bill.

“In this situation, someone was needed to resolve the conflict,” Mitchell said. - Should [Floyd] have to apologize? Did he even understand what was going on? We do not know. But I’ll tell you something: if they called us, we could stand between them, and this person would still be alive. ”

One can imagine how cities hire “public mediators” as local health workers — this will be a department trained in conflict resolution, applied psychology and relationship management. Like their European counterparts, these mediators would be completely unarmed, would not have formal police powers and would wear uniforms other than traditional officers. They could spend their time building relationships with members of the local community and maintaining a presence in schools, neighborhoods and public places with high attendance.

Cities can even develop special numbers 2-11 or 3-11 so that interested neighbors, spouses, or citizens can make calls when they witness disputes, and can redirect appropriate calls from 9-11 to a community mediation group. If any of these disputes begins to escalate into violence, community mediators may have special silent alert systems (similar to those used by older people to receive medical care) to call the armed police for reinforcements.

“Imagine a world in which primary responders really can calm situations so people can continue their lives and no one ends up being arrested — or worse,” says Barry Friedman, director of police at New York University. “In this world, we don’t need so many policemen who go with weapons.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Idea 3. Creation of mobile crisis response units

Often the role of the policeman moves from mediation to a kind of social work, usually involving people such as the homeless, drunk, substance abuse or mental illness.

The results can be disastrous. About half of the prisoners have mental illness. About a quarter of law enforcement deaths relate to a person with a mental health problem (and these figures may be seriously underestimated). The massive disproportionate number of police calls and arrests in cities across the country affects homeless people. In Portland, Oregon, the city's homeless population accounted for 52% of all city arrests in 2017, although they make up less than 3% of Portland's population.

“You would not try to build a house with a jackhammer,” says Zachary Norris, director of the Center for Human Rights at the Ella Baker Center. “But that’s what we do when we instruct police to solve public health problems such as substance abuse, homelessness and mental illness.”

One of the most promising alternatives to the police social work model is a program called Cahoots, a collaboration between local police and a community service called White Bird Clinic, based in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon. In these cities, police do not go on every 9-11 call. Instead, about 20% of calls — often those from homeless, drug addicts, drunk, or mentally ill — are routed to a separate group of professionals well trained in counseling on mental health, social work, and crisis management.

Cahoots do not swing weapons of any kind. They dress in black sweatshirts, listen to police radio stations through headphones, and purposefully speak in calm tones, using their body language. Their role is closer to the role of ambulance on social issues than to the role of a traditional policeman: they assess the situation, help the person as best as possible, and then, if necessary, direct them to a higher level of care or service. If the situation escalates, they can also call the police for reinforcements, but this rarely happens. In 2019, Cahoots received about 24 calls, and police support had to be called in less than 000% of cases.

“For 30 years, we have never had serious injuries or deaths for which our team was responsible,” said Ebony Morgan, a crisis worker at Cahoots. “I think this is important.”

To top it off, Cahoots saves about $ 15 million a year at the Eugene and Springfield police departments, according to clinic coordinator Ben Brubaker, while taking care of incidents that would otherwise have to be handled by law enforcement or emergency departments - much more costly solutions .

The Cahoots model scales easily elsewhere. And lawmakers in cities across the country, including San Francisco, Auckland and Minneapolis, are considering doing so.

City authorities might also consider building and improving this model. The main limitation of the existing program is the fact that its jurisdiction lies only in “non-criminal” challenges. This means that ordinary police officers can be sent to solve situations with which crisis workers at Cahoots are much better trained.

There are two possible remedies here. One of them is the decriminalization of issues such as addiction and homelessness.

“At present, police actions to combat homelessness are driven by the criminalization of city laws,” said Maria Foskarinis, executive director of the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. - Usually calls about homeless people concern issues such as sleeping in the wrong places or begging, which should not be decided by law enforcement agencies. Changing laws criminalizing such behavior can expand the range of actions that a mobile crisis response unit such as the Cahoots can take. ”

Another idea is to deploy hybrid response units, consisting of both police officers and mobile crisis services, in situations that would normally fall outside the scope of Cahoots. For example, police may be called to the scene to stop a fierce fight. But it’s easy to imagine that the Cahoots team will come first and try to defuse the situation while the police are waiting nearby, out of sight, to be called in only if deemed necessary.

“I would be very happy to imagine a completely different model of the first response,” says Friedman. “This means that people learn in a completely different way, distribute these people in a different way and give them a different reward system than we gave the police.”

On the subject: Know Your Rights: How To Behave With US Police

Idea 4. Experiment with community self-control

The first three ideas include solutions that local government officials could easily add to existing policing models. But what if you completely change the model? What if instead of keeping an eye on the public, the public will be given resources for the police?

Just over 20 years ago, the Australian government did just that.

The history of the indigenous community in Australia is full of state repression, cruelty and violence. Descriptions of the relationship between the police and indigenous peoples are read as if they could be drawn directly from contemporary African American experience in the United States (not to mention the indigenous communities of the United States). According to Harry Blagg, a professor of law at Charles Darwin University in Australia:

“Historically, the police have been an instrument for controlling, restricting, or monitoring the entry of indigenous peoples into the dominant white community. According to criminologists, this has led to a legacy of excessive policing in relation to indigenous peoples in the public sphere - where they can pose a threat to public order - and inadequate policing (“insufficient service” may be the best term) for indigenous peoples in their own communities. ”

This began to change in the 1990s when a government commission found that there were too many indigenous people in prisons as a result of systemic bias. The authors concluded that the only way to end this injustice is to completely rethink the way Australian people interact with the criminal justice system.

One recommendation they made was for the government to fund local forms of community self-control, such as Julalikari Night Patrol in northern Australia. The idea of ​​night patrols was simple: to enhance public safety by creating a buffer between indigenous peoples and the police. Here's how Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey described his visit to the Nyongar Patrol in Perth, Australia, in his book, The Challenging World: The Great Decrease in Crime, the Revival of Urban Life, and the Next War with Violence, in 2018:

“I joined a team led by Annie and Rachel, two wonderful women who were wonderful to watch in action. I watched them try to calm a shirtless man who was drunk and warlike in front of a crowded bar. I saw how they talked with a man who was feeling ill, lying on a bench in the middle of the city square, and stayed with him while an ambulance officer asked him questions and eventually took him for treatment ...

Problems arise during the shift every night, but the main goal of the patrol groups is to maintain a presence in public places where young people spend time, in search of Aboriginal people who look like they need some help, and also give to anyone who causes problems. the ability to cool down or go home before the police intervene. Sometimes the intervention of the patrol team is accompanied by a strict warning, but usually it is accompanied by a warm smile. "

Reading this description, it’s hard not to think about how differently things would have gone for Reichard Brooks or Dion Johnson if there were members of such a night patrol on duty. Maybe they would take Brooks to his sister's house for the night. Maybe they would take Johnson to a local shelter to sober up and feed him a hot breakfast. No one would even call the police.

Today, hundreds of such night patrols have been organized in indigenous communities across Australia, many of which are government-funded. Patrols lack formal police powers, but their legitimacy stems from the fact that they are created by community councils, approved by elders, use local knowledge and work within the framework of indigenous laws and culture.

In many ways, patrolling was extremely successful.

“These days, the relationship between night patrols and the police is generally excellent,” says Blugg. “The police cannot do without them.”

Police do not have a permanent presence in most night patrol communities. They intervene to reassure or arrest, but usually only when a patrol contacts them. One study found that patrols in three areas were able to reduce arrests by about 30%.

A public safety approach has also been put in place in some of America’s most brutal areas by many street coverage programs, the largest and most carefully evaluated of which is Cure Violence Global.

Like Australian night patrols, Cure Violence’s “breakers of violence” are local people with close public relations, many of whom were in prison themselves. Their job is to build community-wide relationships so that they are aware of ongoing disputes, interpersonal conflicts, and potential clashes before it escalates into violence by civilians or comes to police intervention.

“We have a level of trust in the community that the police will never have,” says Mitchell. - This is because we hire only those who live in the neighborhood. Information comes to us long before it gets to the police. ”

The role of interruptors of violence goes beyond mere mediation in place. They provide mentoring and economic opportunities to individuals who are considered “at risk” for violence. After brutal skirmishes, they mobilize the family and friends of the victims and respected community leaders to prevent revenge. And in a quiet time, they are working to spread the social norms of non-violence.

Cure Violence programs have been implemented in 25 US cities, often in areas with high levels of gun violence. And numerous independent program analyzes in places like New York, Chicago, and Baltimore have shown that this model could potentially lead to a significant reduction in violent crime and gun violence by a fraction of the cost of a police effort.

Then one option would be for local lawmakers to simply expand the Cure Violence model from one or two districts to a whole city. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that he will invest an additional $ 10 million in expanding the program to 20 of New York’s most violent and violent areas.

“The time is more than adequate for a major investment in Cure Violence,” said Katerina Roman, a sociologist at Temple University who has conducted a study of the organization’s approach. She points out that although the organization has never been tested on a scale that is currently in demand, it is also one of the few models that has been shown to successfully make communities with a high degree of violence much less violent without using arrest tools and detention.

Another option for local lawmakers in the US is to experiment with community policing approaches. Sharkey believes that city officials should bring together local community organizations, community leaders, and residents to form a new community organization tasked with planning a new model of public safety in a predetermined number of districts.

The group will receive funding equivalent to that received by the police department in this jurisdiction. They will be allowed to use the funds at their discretion. They will plan their community’s relationship with the local police station, which is likely to serve as a sort of reserve in case the situation worsens. Then they will be given at least 10 years to conduct an experiment with careful monitoring and evaluation.

“The communities themselves must address these issues,” says Tracy Kesey, a former police officer and co-founder of the Police Justice Center. - Who do you think should provide services? Who should be responsible for public safety? These questions should be asked to the community. ”

These ideas may fail - but the current system is already failing

There is no guarantee that any of these offers will be successful in all directions. When it comes to police alternatives, even the best of the existing models have not been tried out on a scale, and it is impossible to say how different communities will react to them. The implementation of any idea on this list will mean entering a relatively uncharted territory.

This means that there will be setbacks. Everything will go wrong. The systems will break. Programs will fall apart. In some places, violence may temporarily increase. Sometimes a “violence breaker” or mobile crisis worker is seriously injured or dies.

But the current system is already a kind of profound failure. Americans live in a country that has built the largest prison system on earth, where state agents kill unarmed community members that they must protect and terrorize those who are still alive. Where peaceful demonstrators are beaten in the streets.

Communities across the country are already living with failure every day. This failure, at least in part, is due to the fact that police in the United States have responsibilities — from road patrols to mediation and crisis response — that increase the risk of unnecessary violence.

There are many models for how these responsibilities could be transferred to non-police personnel, while making the use of lethal force much more rare. The question is, are the Americans ready to give them a chance?

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