By David M. Greenwald
We hear the term defund the police. It is easy to mistake it for another concept—abolish the police. But it’s not, and that’s part of the problem. Perhaps a better way to think about it is to re-imagine the police.
My week started with a trip to Walnut Creek, of all places. Middle class, upper middle class community is not where you would expect to find a police shooting. But that’s the point. It could happen to you.
Miles Hall was Black, but he was also the child of educated, professional parents, growing up in a community of privilege. As Taun Hall, his mother, put it, they were living the American Dream, a Black family in Walnut Creek.
But mental illness is a great equalizer and one day, with Miles having an episode, they called in the cops. The cops, rather than attempting de-escalation, went in hot, pursued Miles in the street—and when the bean bag didn’t work, they went to the guns and shot and killed him.
Was he charging them? Maybe. The video is panned far out and very makes it difficult to discern details and depth perception. He had a crowbar, but it appeared to me that he had it facing down and was attempting to run around the police rather than at them.
Later in the week, video was released in the West Sacramento shooting of 88-year-old Robert Coleman. I was on a conference call in West Sacramento, organized by Martha Guerrero and the NCAAP. Once again, concerns were raised, not by the authorities but by members of the community, that this elderly Black man, who did have a firearm on him, needed mental health intervention—not deadly force.
West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said this about the shooting: “After reviewing the footage, I felt even more deeply the profound tragedy of Mr. Coleman’s battle with mental illness, as well as the trauma endured both by his family and by police officers on the scene.”
But it doesn’t appear that anyone is all that concerned that an 88-year-old man was shot and killed.
And, of course, we also revisited the decision that the cops made in the death of Breonna Taylor. There is understandable frustration that once again an innocent life was taken by police. And, while we can debate over the culpability of the individual cops in this case, there is no denying that major systemic problems exist here.
Some believe that the police are simply not qualified to deal with some of these challenges—particularly on the mental health front. For them, defunding the police means diverting resources away from police and toward others who are better equipped to handle the challenges of the 21st century world.
But I had a good discussion last week with Sheriff Jerry Clayton of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The progressive sheriff, in our podcast, pointed out that the people who are advocating defunding the police are people who live in areas where they’re not calling the police at all.
He said, “When I go to communities that are economically challenged… they’re not talking about defunding the police.” He said, “They’re telling me, sheriff, we want to be sure that you have what you need.”
He added, “We want to be treated with respect and to understand Black lives matter.”
The sheriff did say, “I’m all for re-imagining” but he believes, even on mental health calls, that police need to be there.
That’s the conversation that should be had on the left. One of the problems we see in all three of the incidents above is that the police came into the situation hot. And they treated it like an enforcement rather than a mental health crisis.
The Breonna Taylor situation screams for us to re-examine how warrants get served, because unfortunately the Breonna Taylor’s death is a scene that plays out time and again—the police’s own actions here put the residents into a difficult situation, because they had no way to respond to a situation where the residents had no reasonable way of knowing that they were being raided by law enforcement rather than intruders.
But it’s Miles Hall that really captures the essence of the need for a different response—the call was for help with a mental health crisis and it ended tragically.
On the Zoom on Thursday, however, Tracie Olson of the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office and others noted that there were alternatives to sending police officers armed with guns out to handle mental health crises.
In Eugene, Oregon, CAHOOTs has been operating since 1989 with very good results.
All across the country, people are looking at ways to “re-imagine” public safety in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.
CAHOOTS seems like a natural fit. They are part of the nonprofit White Bird Clinic and the remarkable part of their operation is they have a number of medical professionals and social workers who man vans, drive around Eugene, and deal with people who are homeless or who have severe and persistent mental illness—they very rarely need to utilize the police and their encounters do not end up in fatalities.
Administrators with CAHOOTS said they don’t see their teams as replacing police, but doing things police were not adequately trained to do.
“What we hear again and again from law enforcement is that they are tired of being the defacto mental-health response,” CAHOOTS’ administrative coordinator Ben Brubaker told the LA Daily News in June. “They are tired of picking up the pieces of our behavioral-health and physical-health systems.”
The Daily News reported: “Last year, CAHOOTS, on a $2.1 million city-funded budget, handled 24,000 calls, 20 percent of the 911 calls for Eugene and Springfield.”
Here is the remarkable thing—24,000 calls last year, only 150 police backups.
They estimate the city of Eugene saved $8.5 million per year from would-be police responses, and millions more on other calls that would have gone to the fire department or EMT services.
But forget about that. The point here shouldn’t be cost savings, not that I oppose that idea—the point here is that instead of 24,000 interactions with police where something can go wrong, there were only 150 of them and they had mental health professionals on the scene calling the shots.
That’s the frustrating thing—there are better ways to do this; we’re just not doing it.
How that looks, I am open to discussing. CAHOOTS has found ways to respond, with the need for police backup being very rare. But that is where this conversation should go.
But how do we even get there? The NY Times this weekend ran a piece: “When a majority of City Council members promised to ‘end policing as we know it’ after George Floyd’s killing, they became a case study in how idealistic calls for structural change can falter.”
“I think the initial announcement created a certain level of confusion from residents at a time when the city really needed that stability,” said Mayor Jacob Frey, who declined to support the pledge. “I also think that the declaration itself meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people — and that included a healthy share of activists that were anticipating abolition.”
Re-focusing this discussion on a simple concept like the CAHOOTS model could ground the discussion in what is possible versus what is aspirational. For all of the claims that we need policing, there are few looking at the stats which show that the way we police now really doesn’t work.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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