Communities all across the US are facing public safety crises. Crime is rising in ways that leave many people feeling unsafe. At the same time, police violence and killings of unarmed civilians demonstrate that pouring more money into more-of-the-same policing is not the answer.
Here’s some good news. There is a new road map for public officials who are eager for solutions. And there is a growing network of mayors and other officials who are ready to do what it takes.
‘All Safe: Transforming Public Safety’ is a game plan for transformative change. This massive policy blueprint just published by People For the American Way is grounded in real-world data and the expertise of local elected officials, law enforcement experts, clergy, and other community activists.
There are two truths about authoritarian policing. They do not contradict each other. In fact, they point us toward the possibility of building coalitions that are broad enough to make change happen.
One truth is that black Americans, Native Americans, and other people of colour pay a disproportionate price. Black Americans are more than twice as likely as white people to be shot and killed by police officers. Racial profiling is experienced by communities of colour throughout the United States.
A second truth is that people of colour are not the only victims of authoritarian policing. As with so many other issues, black and brown communities are the canaries in a much larger American coal mine. White people make up the second largest group in our prisons, disproportionately low-income white men, and they make up a majority of people killed by police each year.
Four years before George Floyd died under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a white man named Tony Timpa called Dallas police to ask for help during a mental health crisis. He was handcuffed and zip-tied and killed by an officer who pressed his knee into Timpa’s back for 14 minutes while Timpa cried, “You’re gonna kill me!”
Every community is put at risk by systems that resist accountability for those who abuse their power.
Every community is put at risk by a police culture that promotes and tolerates an aggressive “warrior” mentality among law enforcement officers.
Those problems are compounded by communities’ over-reliance on police. Over the decades, we have added additional burdens to police officers that distract them from their primary purpose. That leaves all of us underserved and less safe.
Transforming public safety requires policy change in four major areas:
• restructuring public safety systems to ensure communities’ underlying safety and social needs are met;
• holding unfit officers responsible and accountable for their actions;
• removing unfit officers, particularly those with a demonstrated history of violence, aggression, or other misconduct from police departments; and
• recruiting well-trained public safety personnel committed to serving and protecting their communities.
One transformative public safety plan is currently moving forward in Ithaca, New York. It will replace the current police department with a new public safety department that will include armed officers and unarmed crisis intervention specialists. It would allow police officers to be more focused and effective while minimising the chances that police-civilian interactions will spiral unnecessarily into violence.
The ‘All Safe’ road map for transforming public safety demolishes the false narrative often promoted by police unions and their political allies to resist change and accountability. They claim that public safety reform is incompatible with effective crime fighting. In reality, the opposite is true.
The system of authoritarian policing that we have inherited from our past is not aligned with our national ideals of equality and justice for all. It is a threat to our people, our communities, and even our democracy. And it is not working to keep us safe.
Making America safer and more just requires a commitment to address root causes of criminal activity and violence, including unjust laws, discriminatory enforcement, and insufficient effective investments in individual and community well-being. And it requires a lasting transformation in the US public safety system, including mechanisms to hold officers accountable for excessive use of force.
We know what kind of change is necessary. Let’s make it happen.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. He has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned non-profit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.