Can ‘Defunded’ Police Handle a Crush of Non-Crime Calls?

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Photo by Phillycop via Flickr

As calls to “defund” the police gather momentum across the U.S., some have raised questions about whether it can be done in a way that preserves public safety, while dealing with social issues that law enforcement officers are called on to handle.

That was the subject of an online forum Thursday co-sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Council on Criminal Justice.

The three speakers generally agreed on a major aspect of the challenge:

Despite decades of efforts to reform policing, U.S. law enforcement officers spend a disproportionate amount of their time dealing with community problems that have little to do with violent crime.

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Carmen Best

Carmen Best is police chief in Seattle, which has been the site of a long-running effort by the federal government to improve police practices through a court-supervised consent decree.

The police department “did everything we were asked to do” by the Justice Department to reform its operations, Best told the forum, yet many in the public remain angry at police, not trusting many officers.

Seattle was in the national spotlight in recent weeks when the police department temporarily abandoned a downtown area occupied by protesters, a move that attracted criticism from President Donald Trump and others. (The police department ousted demonstrators after their takeover became violent.)

Best agreed that much work still needs to be done to “reimagine” policing, partly by ensuring that problems like homelessness, substance abuse and severe mental illness are handled by “other entities…better equipped” than police officers to deal with them.

“We don’t know where it’s going to end,” Best said of the ongoing debate.

Best was followed by the Rev. Jeffrey Brown of Boston, president of RECAP (Rebuilding Every City Around Peace), a faith-based community and law enforcement partnership that helps cities work with religious groups, government and law enforcement agencies to reduce gang violence.

Brown has been involved in intensive anticrime efforts in Boston that were successful for a time but eventually weakened, and crime rates rose again.

‘Tip of the Spear’

In Brown’s view, the police are the “tip of the spear” combating a long list of “structural weaknesses in society” that include inadequate housing, education, health care and employment opportunities.

Brown, who like Best is African American, declared that the “average Black citizen wants to be respected” by police, but that largely has not happened.

Instead, the seemingly endless reports of Black people being abused by police leaves African Americans thinking, “this could happen to me,” Brown said.

The third speaker was Adam Gelb, president of the Atlanta-based Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank pursuing solutions to major justice system problems.

Gelb offered two statistics that illustrate a major dilemma facing police reformers: There are an estimated 240 million calls annually to 911 emergency numbers, but police spending amounts to only four percent of government budgets.

The large call volume shows that “people want policethey need help,” Gelb said, but redistributing some of the four percent of public spending to other agencies “won’t produce the transformational change that we need.”

Gelb noted that some jurisdictions have tried to “triage the calls” by asking the public to call another number311when they need help but not from a uniformed, armed police officer.

Brown agreed with the other speakers that some combination of other professionals like social workers and mental health professionals should be organized to relieve police officers of their work overload on non-crime matters.

The speakers all called for more accountability for police misbehavior.

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Rev. Jeffrey Brown

Brown recalled hearing one police official complain about an officer who had had 32 complaints filed against him over the years but still was on the job, a pattern that has occurred in several recent cases of cops accused of abusing minorities.

Most cities and counties are just beginning to consider seriously the implications of the “defund the police” movement, and there is no agreed model for reform.

Forum moderator Faye Taxman, a criminologist at Virginia’s George Mason University, cited as one promising possibility a program in Eugene, Or., featured last month on NPR called CAHOOTS (“Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets”).

In Eugene, a social service agency called the White Bird Clinic handles more than 20 percent of 911 calls that involve “strong behavioral health components,” sending out a team of a medic and a “crisis worker” trained in de-escalation techniques.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report

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