This research and analysis is part of our Discourse series. Discourse is a collaboration between The Appeal, The Justice Collaborative Institute, and Data For Progress. Its mission is to provide expert commentary and rigorous, pragmatic research especially for public officials, reporters, advocates, and scholars. The Appeal and The Justice Collaborative Institute are editorially independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.
Policing in America has gone too far. It has now become the one-stop response to our communities’ public health and public aid problems. Police officers must enforce traffic laws and respond to domestic disputes. They must manage mental health crises and drug overdoses. They must deal with homelessness and school discipline. Police officers, of course, are neither trained nor equipped to be part of our social support systems, and so it’s unsurprising that they often make them worse.
Even when it comes to crimes of violence, it turns out that law enforcement often fails to protect people. Less than 4 percent of an officer’s time is spent investigating so-called violent crimes, and police don’t even do a particularly good job at that. In Chicago, for example, police typically solve only 4 out of 10 murders, and only 2 out of 10 when the victim is Black. Yet police are expensive, eating large amounts of municipal budgets. The City of Chicago spends approximately $4 million dollars per day on the Chicago Police Department, an amount equivalent to 5 months of mental health services, 18 months of substance abuse treatment, or 32 months of violence prevention programs.
As former Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “We are asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it… Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops… that’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all these problems.”
Police should no longer occupy all of our vital support systems in our communities. Here are ten ways to make our communities safer for everyone. The following concrete steps present a way forward, one that would begin to reduce reliance on policing.
1. Mental health and social workers to respond to crises.
Instead of dispatching police to intervene in mental health crises, municipalities should hire mental health experts and social workers who are trained to de-escalate tense situations and work with vulnerable populations. Police officers are not trained for these sensitive interactions and use the only available tools at their disposal: arrest, jail, and, in some instances, violence. One study shows that 25 percent of people diagnosed with a mental illness have been arrested at some point during their lifetime, and, according to one conservative estimate, 1 in 4 deadly police encounters involve someone experiencing a mental health crisis. As a result, some are reluctant to call for help because they fear arrests and violence.
There are many examples of successful programs that reduce contact between law enforcement and individuals who require a therapeutic response. In Denver, Colorado, an innovative program launched earlier this month dispatches experienced, trained mental health medics in response to 911 calls made for help with people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. San Francisco just announced a similar program, and Los Angeles is considering one, that would replace police response with unarmed specialists for mental health and substance use-related calls.
The public supports such programs. Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute conducted a survey finding that 68 percent of voters support the creation of a new first responder agency to deal with issues related to substance use or mental illness that do not need police.
2. Violence interrupters to reduce gun violence.
Violence interruption programs reduce gun violence through targeted community interventions that interrupt ongoing conflict and prevent violence. Such programs focus on shifting community norms surrounding conflict resolution. The best of these programs include peer-based mentoring, job assistance, and other community support. When done well, they have been successful. In Baltimore, for example, a violence interruption program reduced serious violence by 69 percent. In New York City, one study found that gun violence rates declined significantly in two neighborhoods operating violence interruption programs.
Violence interrupters acknowledge that the victims and perpetrators of gun violence typically come from the same community. Law enforcement agencies often rely on the traditional responses of surveillance, stop-and-frisk, mass arrests, and prosecution. They fail time and time again to reduce violence. Researchers have shown how flooding communities with law enforcement sows distrust, renders the police even less effective, and can lead to spikes in violence.
There is public support, too. Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute found that 68 percent of likely voters support funding programs to train community leaders to de-escalate potentially violent situations.
3. Unarmed traffic patrols.
Every year, approximately 20 million drivers interact with the police. These police encounters often lead to unwarranted searches, tense confrontations, and, in some cases, deadly force. Consider, for example, the arrest of Sandra Bland, originally pulled over for failing to signal a lane change only to die just three days later in jail. Such policies disproportionately impact communities of color. Black drivers are 30 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, and people of color are significantly more likely to have their cars searched and their cash seized than whites. Despite this, the roads aren’t any safer. The national death rate from traffic accidents has remained the same over the last decade, and there’s no evidence that police patrols decrease other types of dangerous driving or vehicle safety.
Unarmed traffic patrols can better respond to traffic accidents and direct traffic or conduct other calls for service. A proposal in Berkeley, California, for example, would replace police with a city department of transportation, staffed by unarmed public works officials, who would conduct parking enforcement and stop cars for violations such as running a stop sign or driving at night without headlights. Even more serious traffic incidents do not require armed police; for example, traffic patrol officers with substance abuse training could be trained to respond to violations of driving while intoxicated.
4. Civilian control of crime labs.
One of the oldest, and most problematic, links between faulty science and criminal justice is the state crime lab, which collects, stores, and processes evidence for use at trial. But crime labs are far from neutral; they were developed in parallel with police departments and maintain close ties to the same people in charge of arresting, interrogating, and investigating. As a result, incorrectly processed or stored forensic evidence is at the heart of many wrongful convictions. As a former Texas state senator wrote after the discovery of botched evidence by the Houston Police Department, “When crime labs are operating within a police department, examiner bias can undermine the integrity of scientific results.”
After years of study, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report concluding that, alongside other reforms, forensic science must function independently of law enforcement. According to best practices, law enforcement agencies should not collect and control the testing of evidence, and crime labs should be independent third party functionaries. They should not control the maintenance of evidence required for securing a conviction. Civilian scientists, with scientific training in the collection, maintenance, and testing of evidence, must instead be at the helm of independent labs in order to ensure the reliability of results.
5. Fund better and safer transit service.
In San Francisco, Boston, Portland, New York City, Chicago, and elsewhere, videos have captured transit police beating, assaulting, arresting, tasing, and even shooting riders. These, like most other well-documented cases of police shootings and assaults, disproportionately impact Black people.
Armed officers have no place and no special training to maintain safe and better transit communities. Moreover, we cannot afford armed officers in our transit spaces. In Los Angeles County, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has dedicated more than $650 million over five years to policing its transit network; in New York City, advocates are calling on the state transit authority, which faces massive cash shortfalls because of the pandemic, to reverse its plan to hire additional police officers. Even in smaller cities, divesting from unnecessary transit police can yield significant savings: Portland, Oregon, recently approved a $15 million cut to its police budget that includes disbanding patrol units in the city’s public transit system.
If cities want to ensure that food vendors in transit spaces are licensed, they should hire licensing agencies, much like the restaurant licensing process. If cities are concerned about safety on transit systems, they should hire a team trained to de-escalate encounters, particularly with those who are intoxicated or facing a mental health crisis. Moreover, instead of armed forces, transit systems could hire more transit staff to ride the trains and buses to support drivers and ensure adherence to train and bus rules. Our transit systems do not require armed officers to keep the peace.
6. School wellness centers.
For children growing up during the era of mass incarceration, seeing armed officers in their schools is commonplace. Federal grants have supported more and more cops in schools. Federal programs like the Community Oriented Policing Services (“COPS”) have provided millions of dollars to hire and train local police, including police in schools.
Police officers do not have specialized training in adolescent or childhood development. They are not mental health experts, social workers with licensed degrees, psychologists, or school counselors. They are not educators. To be clear, school resource officers are career law enforcement officers, with arresting authority, and a license to carry a weapon. Police officers patrol school hallways just like they do city streets. More than one and a half million students attend schools with an SRO, but no counselor.
There are better, safer, and cheaper alternatives. In 2016, Intermediate School District 287, a school west of the Twin Cities with a high concentration of students with special needs and mental health needs that can result in behavior issues, replaced their school resource officers with Student Safety Coaches. The Student Safety Coaches specialize in mental health, restorative justice, de-escalation, and building positive relationships with their students. Arrests decreased by 80 percent in the pilot school after implementation of the program.
7. Dispute resolution experts for neighborhood and domestic disputes.
Domestic and neighborhood disputes are among the most common calls for law enforcement. In some places, these calls are almost 50 percent of all calls received. The vast majority are not violent, however, and most end in no arrest. In some jurisdictions, mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence calls mean that arrests occur, but there is no evidence that they reduce domestic violence. In fact, the knowledge that police response means arrests, potential incarceration, and collateral consequences means that many victims don’t call law enforcement at all. The truth is that while federal, state, and local governments have thrown money at policing for interpersonal violence, little has changed.
There is a better response: mobile, crisis-response units employ first responders that are not police to respond to calls involving neighborhood disputes and domestic disturbance. Social workers and teams that work to de-escalate disputes cost less, and are likely to create opportunities to engage community members in conflict resolution. Instead of armed officers, crisis-response teams are trained to mediate conflict, and often know and live in the neighborhoods to which they’re responding. They cost a fraction of the money spent on policing initiatives that simply haven’t been proven to work. In the vast majority of situations, like calls for excessive noise or neighborhood disturbances, an unarmed response from a mediator who can negotiate between the disputing parties is all that is needed. In France, for example, trained mediators respond to the vast majority of calls involving interpersonal conflict. Instead of calling for police, communities can and should be trained to reach out to crisis management teams in their own neighborhoods to help resolve the majority of disputes.
8. Support, not police, for people experiencing homelessness.
People who experience homelessness are often the targets of police calls and unnecessary arrests that only make it harder for people to find stable housing. In Portland, for instance, the Oregonian reported that people experiencing homelessness accounted for 52 percent of arrests, despite being only 3 percent of the city’s population. The vast majority of those arrests—over 80 percent—were for nonviolent offenses, such as disorderly conduct, drug possession, or failure to appear for court. Studies have also shown that people experiencing chronic houselessness are often repeatedly arrested and booked, experiencing constant negative repercussions associated with jail and court involvement.
Specialized outreach units reduce these unnecessary and harmful police interactions. Organizations like Portland Street Response provide compassion and appropriate care by medics and trained, non-law enforcement community workers. Such groups are also better able to conduct affirmative outreach, by building community trust and leading the way for other, long-term solutions.
9. Integrated crisis centers.
For those suffering from an acute mental crisis, law enforcement typically responds by arresting individuals and transporting them to an emergency department, where wait time, care, and community support are likely unavailable. Police officers are then forced to spend countless hours waiting in emergency rooms, despite the fact that most people experiencing such crises do not require involuntary admission.
Instead of criminalizing those who require stabilization in the midst of a crisis, non-law enforcement integrated crisis drop off centers meet their needs. Integrated drop off centers are community-based mental health systems, with a “no rejection” policy, for individuals experiencing a mental health or addiction crisis. Such centers allow crisis management teams, or even trained law enforcement, to drop off individuals in the midst of crisis, reducing incarceration and police contact.
A survey of voters conducted by Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute found that 76 percent of respondents supported the use of an integrated drop-off center in lieu of arrests.
10. Trained civilians for property offenses.
The call to the police about a suspicious $20 bill ended in the murder of George Floyd. An investigation built around counterfeit money does not require the presence of armed officers. Likewise, armed police officers may not be the best suited to investigate property crimes. When police are called, there is no realistic expectation, for instance, that a stolen bike or iPhone will be returned or that the perpetrator of the crime will be prosecuted.
Instead of armed officers, unarmed, trained, citizen officers, trained in interviewing and de-escalation techniques, might be tasked with walking foot patrol beats and handling reports of counterfeit bills and other low-level property offenses.
Alex S. Vitale is a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. He is the author of “The End of Policing.”