By David M. Greenwald
On Tuesday night, in a meeting that went into the wee hours despite the fact that the council removed items from the agenda and didn’t even include the police, 162 people called in. That may be a record, although I do remember going until 1 am in January of 2009 on a resolution about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which drew people from both sides.
By one count, there were 137 calls supporting the reforms proposed, 22 in opposition and three that did not state a clear position.
This is a delicate discussion as we have seen from the results in Minneapolis. The city council there jumped too quickly into too amorphous a call for defunding the police that led to police leaving and disengaging—and with the lack of police presence, crime has surged.
A November Washington Post article reports: “Homicides in Minneapolis are up 50 percent, with nearly 75 people killed across the city so far this year. More than 500 people have been shot, the highest number in more than a decade and twice as many as in 2019. And there have been more than 4,600 violent crimes — including hundreds of carjackings and robberies — a five-year high.”
However, it might not all be about disengagement by the police. Some experts also believe it is in part due “to the lingering anger over the slaying and the effects of the coronavirus, including job losses and the closure of community centers and other public spaces.”
That is probably a warning to be cautious with change, but also to be cautious about jumping to unproven conclusions about causation in a dynamic situation.
Locally, while there is strong support for change, there was also pushback.
Elaine Roberts Musser noted, “I am deeply concerned about many of the suggestions.” Three in particular she noted: “Prohibiting the use of physical force against fleeing subjects who have committed minor crimes,” where she noted that “allowing thieves to walk out the door unimpeded. Even if the police are summoned, by the time law enforcement arrives, the thieves are long gone.”
Second, she noted, with nuisance and code enforcement, “what happens if these calls turn violent because it turns out the person is armed? Unarmed responders are being asked to face a potentially dangerous situation with no weapon.”
Finally, “Demilitarizing the appearance of officers” she noted the ambiguity of the plain clothes officers of Picnic Day.
We have pushed perhaps hardest for the CAHOOTS model, which we discussed at length yesterday. That seems to be a relatively easy call. The model calls on a non-profit organization working in partnership with cities and other locales to be first responder for mental health calls.
Because they have successfully operated for 30 years, we have good data here. For example, they allowed Eugene and Springfield to save a huge amount of money—$15 million annually. They soak up about 20 percent of the calls in that locale, 24,000 a year and only about 150 require eventual police back up.
There is a lot of defensiveness about changes to policing—naturally we can see some of that in Minneapolis where police disengaged in the face of criticism. Similar scenarios have played out in other communities.
But while officer-involved shootings get a lot of attention, little attention is paid to the fact that policing overall is not very effective. We actually lack evidence-based study of policing overall—how to improve it.
Consider, if someone is killed, what is the chance that the killer will be caught? In a lot of areas it is almost a coin flip—nearly fifty-fifty. That means about half of all murders go unsolved.
If someone is actively breaking into your home, what are the chances of the police arriving in time to protect you? If you are robbed on the street, what are the chances of the police intervening? Or even finding the person after the fact? To put a local spin on this, if someone steals your bicycle, what is the chance of getting it back?
As you can imagine, the chances are pretty low to either stop or catch perpetrators in a whole host of situations. And we know that even when police do arrive, often their response escalates rather than de-escalates a crisis.
So why do we continue to engage in models that may not work particularly well when it comes to either stopping crime when it occurs or catching a perpetrator after it happens?
The point about CAHOOTS is instructive because police are being asked to respond to situations where they have no particular expertise. Mental health calls are particularly hazardous because normal authoritative commands are unlikely to be followed, and police may lack the training to de-escalate them as they occur.
In the comments yesterday, I noted two incidents I observed first-hand, one where a teenager was on a roof threatening suicide and the police were ill-equipped to attempt to talk the teen down—ultimately they jumped, though from a height insufficient to cause much damage.
In another incident, a teen was holding a saw, threatening self-harm, the officer was unable to reason with the teen and put them in handcuffs. This time it worked.
But as we have seen, in many incidents the police come in hot, and are unable to resolve it without the use of tasers and sometimes deadly force.
That seems like an easy call for reimagining what the public response should be.
But fear of change and resistance by police officer unions has led to a difficult situation, where we know across the country a whole host of practices do not work, and we should rethink which situations call for armed police response and which could be better resolved through other means.
Moreover, we should also think about how we train our officers and whether the skills that worked perhaps 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago, are not what we need today. That’s a tough conversation that is likely to provoke recriminations and more slowdowns, but it is one we desperately need—not only at the national level, but locally.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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