November 23, 2021
The holidays are a time for celebration, renewal, and enjoying the company of friends and loved ones.
Of course, they’re also often a time for discussing politics and current events with those same friends and loved ones.... And one subject that’s sure to come up around the dinner table this season is the movement to invest in communities and defund the police. Well, we think that there’s a way to talk about transforming America’s approach to public safety that can bring people together instead of pushing them apart.
We put together some information that we think can help push the conversation, and our entire country, forward.
Let’s Treat Public Safety Like It’s a Matter of Public Health
We can all agree that someone who is experiencing a health crisis should be able to get the help they need—from experts trained to provide that help—safely, quickly, and effectively.
But right now, in most of the country, when someone’s in crisis, there’s really only one thing we can do: Call the police. Doesn’t matter what the crisis might be, whether it’s about mental health or substance use or some other health-related issue, armed police are the first responders more often than not. And when armed police show up, the situation often escalates—and people too often wind up dead. Black people are more than three times more likely than white people to be killed by police, and people experiencing a mental health crisis are 16 times more likely than the average person to be killed by police.
This system clearly doesn’t work, but we don’t talk nearly enough about how it also doesn’t make any sense. We don’t call the police when our house is on fire or when our power goes out for the simple reason that police aren’t trained to put out fires or get our lights back on. Well, they’re also not trained to help people experiencing mental illness or families in crisis, they are not psychologists or social workers. Some cities, like Denver, CO, and Eugene, OR, have created a new system of public safety that sends mental health and behavioral experts to respond to health emergencies and other noncriminal issues, like homelessness. Shifting money from bloated police budgets to fund new programs like this saves lives, reduces crime, AND lets police focus on doing the thing they’re actually trained to do: Solve crimes.
Transforming Our System of Public Safety Will Save Us Money
Who loves having billions upon billions of our taxpayer dollars spent on something that doesn’t work? That’s what we’re doing with bad policing. The good news is that there’s a more affordable and effective way to keep people safe.
We mentioned Eugene, OR, earlier. Their CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) program started back in 1989. It sends mental health workers for calls related to issues like mental health episodes, welfare checks, and public intoxication. These unarmed experts work to resolve most issues without ever involving the police. Not only does CAHOOTS now handle about 20% of ALL the city’s 911 calls, it requested police backup in only 150 out of 24,000 total calls (in 2019). Shifting resources from policing to public health has not only saved lives, it’s saved money. CAHOOTS saves Eugene about $8.5 million a year on policing.
Think about it: The US spends $115 billion on police every year—and yet, despite that gigantic investment, only about 2% of violent crimes are ever solved. (Most of what police do is respond to non-criminal calls and complaints.) Add to that the millions of dollars that cities routinely pay out in misconduct lawsuits—Chicago alone has paid more than $524 million over the past decade to settle lawsuits against police. Add to that the $82 billion we spend annually on incarceration. To us, investing in programs that ensure people get the help they need without involving the police at all sounds like a bargain.
Transforming Public Safety Will Mean Ensuring Justice for Everyone
All of us believe that people should be treated fairly, just as we believe that if we see injustice, we should do something about it. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.
There’s injustice and racism baked right into this country’s criminal legal system. Police harass, intimidate, abuse, assault, and kill people of color every single day. Black people are five times more likely to be arrested than white people, and Black men serve longer prison sentences than white people when convicted of the same exact crimes. Black people make up 13% of the US population, but 40% of the prison population.
Given the generations of violence and bias we’ve seen in American policing, what if we reduced how often armed police enter communities for low-level crimes like disturbing the peace and substance-related infractions? What if we stopped sending armed police to make traffic stops? By moving money from policing to other public-safety agencies, to programs and services that serve and support communities instead of criminalizing and monitoring them, then we could begin ensuring that people of color are safe and secure where they live. That sounds like justice to us.
We’re In this Together
We’ve been spending a lot of money on bad, ineffective policing for a very, very long time. There’s a better, more effective and just way of ensuring public safety, and it’s already being put into practice in many cities.
A huge majority of Americans want to transform our system of public safety. We may not always agree on the terms and words we use, but we’re united in our desire to ensure that all people in every community are treated with dignity and respect. We’re united in the knowledge that Black and Brown people have long been mistreated by the criminal legal system. And we’re united in the belief that addressing the root causes of crime, providing the kinds of programs and services that can prevent crimes from happening in the first place, and dismantling systems of oppression and strengthening our communities will benefit all of us.
This year, as we gather together to give thanks and celebrate our connections, here’s to hoping that we can be led by these shared values and beliefs to create a better world.
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