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Illinois State Lawmakers Vote To Eliminate Cash Bail

The move is part of a broader criminal justice reform bill that also ends prison gerrymandering, and mandates body cameras for all police departments.

Rally organized by Coalition to End Money Bond, as part of the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice's Statewide Day of Action, on Sep 26, 2020.
Courtesy of Chicago Community Bond Fund

Illinois State Lawmakers Vote To Eliminate Cash Bail

The move is part of a broader criminal justice reform bill that also ends prison gerrymandering, and mandates body cameras for all police departments.

Jeffrey Pendleton was held at the Cook County Jail for close to two years. On March 26, in the midst of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the court denied his public defender’s request to lower his $50,000 bond, according to news reports. Unable to pay the $5,000 he needed to be released, he remained in jail.  

By March 30, Pendleton had tested positive for COVID-19 and was taken to Stroger Hospital. At the hospital he was shackled, by hand and foot, to the bed, according to a lawsuit filed by his family. He died on April 5, at the age of 59. He is the first known prisoner from Cook County Jail to die from COVID-19. 

“We asked for an expedited bond review on this client and to be released from jail before trial. We lost that fight,” Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli tweeted after Pendleton’s death. “He should have been sent home.”

On Wednesday, state lawmakers took action to help prevent tragedies like this from occurring. They approved House Bill 3653, an omnibus criminal justice reform bill championed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus which, among many other provisions, eliminates cash bail. 

“For questions around safety, money has no relevance and all that it does is increase inequities and racism in the system,” said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a member of the Coalition to End Money Bond.  

The latest version of the bill was introduced shortly before the vote, prompting its opponents to accuse the bill’s supporters of rushing it through in the last hours of the lame duck session before new legislators were sworn in.

In addition to eliminating cash bail, the bill bans chokeholds “unless deadly force is justified,” ends prison gerrymandering, and mandates, over a multi-year phase-in, body cameras for all police departments. The bill prohibits officers from firing firearms or impact projectiles indiscriminately into a crowd and from targeting a person’s head, pelvis, or back with non-lethal projectiles. The legislation also changes Illinois’ felony murder law

Law enforcement condemned both versions of the bill, claiming the provisions would jeopardize the lives and safety of residents. Contrary to their claims, studies have shown that limiting cash bail does not affect crime rates.

The legislation abolishes cash bail—a system that made avoiding pretrial detention contingent on an ability to pay—in all circumstances except when required by laws and agreements Illinois entered into with other states. 

Cash bail has been widely condemned as criminalizing poverty. Recent polling conducted by The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, found that more than half of likely voters surveyed in Illinois support a presumption in favor of release for those accused of crimes. 

People accused of almost all misdemeanors and most low-level felonies cannot be jailed pretrial at an initial hearing, Grace explained. For those charged with what are considered more serious offenses, courts will be required to hold hearings to determine if a person poses a danger to a specific person or is a “willful flight risk,” meaning they intend to evade prosecution. “Past non-appearance in court alone is not evidence of future intent to evade prosecution,” the bill reads. 

Risk assessment tools, which have been found to be racially biased, can not provide the sole justification to deny someone pretrial release. In cases where a court orders electronic or GPS monitoring, or home confinement, the court must review its order every 60 days to determine if less restrictive conditions can be imposed. 

Under the current system, said Grace, “the decision of whether or not to jail or release someone is being made in mere minutes.” This bill passed, she said, “ensures that there are going to be robust, meaningful, adversarial hearings before somebody’s liberty is taken away.” 

The governor applauded the bill’s passage, but did not explicitly state he would sign it. 

“I was proud to make ending cash bail and modernizing sentencing laws a legislative priority of my administration,” Pritzker said in a statement released Wednesday. “I have long pledged my support to the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in their efforts to pass not just criminal justice reform and police accountability measures, but also to truly root out the systemic racism that pulses through all our nation’s institutions.” 

Those who are incarcerated because they can’t afford bail can face catastrophic consequences. Pretrial incarceration can lead to a person losing their job, housing, and custody of their children. It can also have serious ramifications for their case. Those who are incarcerated are more likely to plead guilty and more likely to receive harsher sentences than those who are free pending resolution of their case. 

And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a jail stay, as in the case of Pendleton, can be fatal. On Dec. 7, 370 people incarcerated at the Cook County jail tested positive for COVID-19—more than the previous high of 307, on April 10, according to data obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times

As of Jan. 13, 91 incarcerated people at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19, which includes four people who are hospitalized, according to the Cook County Sheriff’s website. Nine detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 have died. Four correctional officers and one deputy have died due to complications from COVID-19.

“[Jail has] always been violent, it’s always been dangerous, but COVID has made it even worse,” said Sharone Mitchell Jr., director of the Illinois Justice Project, a member of the Coalition to End Money Bond. “For us it’s really about significantly reducing the jail population as a whole and we think the offshoot of that will be, you will see less deaths in custody.”

Lawmakers Calling for “Unity” Should Support Policies Voters Actually Want

Americans largely support progressive policies—despite objections from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Now is the time to pass them.

Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Lawmakers Calling for “Unity” Should Support Policies Voters Actually Want

Americans largely support progressive policies—despite objections from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Now is the time to pass them.

In the wake of an historic election and even more historic insurrection, Democrats find themselves in an unusual national moment. For the next two years, they will control both Congress and the presidency, offering the possibly short-lived opportunity to make good on the promises they made to voters during the election. 

A key lesson from the Democrats’ Senate runoff victories in Georgia is that voters, whatever their traditional partisan loyalties and ideological leanings, respond to ambitious, results-oriented leadership. In a last-minute bid to win re-election, even the Republican incumbents opted to follow the lead of Senator Bernie Sanders by voicing their support for $2,000 stimulus checks that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had repeatedly blocked. In the midst of a prolonged economic and public health crisis, having a “D” or an “R” by your name is no longer enough to secure votes: Voters are demanding that their representatives deliver results

In an evenly-split Senate, Democrats will need perfect unity to pass their agenda without Republican support, since Vice President Kamala Harris will have the power to break ties. But unless they’re staring down the barrel of an attempted coup, Democrats are not a monolith, ranging in ideology from people like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And with Republican politicians torn between fully claiming a mantle of sedition or moderating their platform in a bid to catch up to their own voters, voters who might have previously backed GOP candidates are more persuadable than ever. Facing a ticking clock and the enormous challenge of finding agreement across such a ideologically diverse coalition, identifying the key issues that are popular enough to prioritize on day one is essential for both the Biden administration and Democrats who wish to remain in power after 2022. 

So what should be in that top-priority group? Democrats must find policies that garner such overwhelming support among voters that their broad array of members can stand behind them. These must be things that matter concretely to ordinary Americans—things that people think about during sleepless nights, that they worry about as they cook dinner. These must be things Democrats can run on in key districts and still win. With those two criteria—broadly popular, concretely meaningful ideas—any opposition from Republicans, or even within their own party, would have to be an example of extremist, partisan antics rather than meaningful disagreement. 

Happily, there are a number of initiatives that fit this mold, all of which could bring people together and create what American voters have almost forgotten how to recognize: consensus and progress. 

To begin with, there are the $2,000 stimulus payments which 81 percent of likely voters, including 80 percent of Republicans, support. Nearly two-thirds support repeated payments

But stimulus payments alone aren’t enough to survive a crisis, let alone build an economy in which ordinary families can thrive. Democrats need to tackle raising the minimum wage, and people are ready for them to do so: 68 percent of likely voters, including 59 percent of Republicans, support raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and adjusting it each year to account for national cost of living increases. 

When it comes to creating jobs, 64 percent of likely voters, including 78 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans, support a federal job guarantee program as part of the government’s response to the current economic crisis. Certainly there is ample paid work to be done in driving vaccines and food supplies across the country, helping kids recover from the disruption in their schooling, creating urgently-needed safe housing, and otherwise repairing the damage to American communities sustained during the last four years. 

One such opportunity might be the clean energy sector. Across the political spectrum, Americans want a world in which their children can flourish, particularly if that world spurs economic growth today. With 66 percent of likely voters, including 54 percent of Republicans, supporting the federal government investing in clean energy infrastructure, it is easy to envision how this expenditure could be paired with a federal work initiative. 

Jobs aren’t enough if people aren’t free to take them, though, which is why nearly three-quarters of likely voters, including 67 percent of Republicans, support providing families with refundable tax credits to help cover the cost of childcare, and two-thirds support providing all 3- and 4-year-old children with access to free, high-quality pre-kindergarten. Investing in the economy means investing in families, letting parents work, and letting kids thrive in a post-COVID world. 

For those who have struggled on low incomes, providing simple protections against predatory lending is also a popular policy. A recent poll showed that likely voters also favor ending this financial abuse with interest-rate caps on credit cards and loans, with 65 percent of those surveyed supporting such a measure. 

Beyond the freedom to thrive economically, voters want a new vision of safety for themselves and their loved ones. Most voters, including Republicans, are ready to legalize the sale and use of marijuana, ending the failed war on drugs and reinvesting the tax revenue from marijuana sales in communities most harmed by punitive drug policies. On this front, 62 percent of likely voters, including 60 percent of Republicans, support the MORE Act, which would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level—and which the House of Representatives passed in December in a bipartisan vote. With the Senate now in Democratic hands and such strong support from voters, this is the ideal time to finally pass legislation to undo decades of harm and spur economic growth. 

Even the question of policing, so often thought of as a divisive, hot-button topic by people whose lives are not regularly touched by police, has aspects which are ripe for unified action. One idea is that police are carrying too much; police were never meant to be crisis counselors, providers of mental health first aid, substance use experts, or social workers. The idea that local leaders must create a new type of first responder is broadly attractive: 66 percent of likely voters, including 74 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans, support a federal grant program to support community-based, non-law enforcement emergency and non-emergency response. In places like Colorado and Oregon, non-police emergency responders are already dispatched through 911 to crises that require a different skill sets. As it turns out, mental health workers need assistance from police less than 1 percent of the time.

These are not fringe policies. These are concrete, sensible ideas that the majority of American voters can and do stand behind. 

Calls for unity seem hollow—if not offensive—when they are mere rhetorical reflexes that ask Americans to embrace those who would violently overthrow our democracy. But Americans, and particularly those in the halls of Congress, can and should seek unity with those who use different political labels but are ready to support ideas that would create a real, tangible difference in people’s lives, far removed from the churn of an obsessive news cycle or the tangles of Beltway conversation. If brought to bear now, in this unique window of Democratic power, these ideas will serve as the kind of kept promises that push voters back to the polls two years from now. 

After all, a lesson from Georgia is that you can get people to the ballot box more than every four years. But not without big, exciting ideas, and a willingness to fight for them.

Emily Galvin-Almanza is co-founder and executive director of Partners for Justice, a program focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration. She is also a senior legal analyst at The Appeal and an anchor of “The Appeal Live.” You can follow her on Twitter at @GalvinAlmanza.

Sean McElwee is a co-founder and the executive director of Data for Progress. You can follow him on Twitter at @Sean McElwee.

There Are Too Many Prosecutors On the Bench. Take It From Me, a Prosecutor

Courts must not overrepresent the viewpoints of the most powerful at the expense of the communities they serve.

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg worked as a civil rights attorney before being appointed to the bench.
Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images

There Are Too Many Prosecutors On the Bench. Take It From Me, a Prosecutor

Courts must not overrepresent the viewpoints of the most powerful at the expense of the communities they serve.

I’m a prosecutor. I have spent my career pursuing justice on behalf of the state and promoting public safety in my community. And as a prosecutor, I support the incoming Biden administration’s call for more federal judicial candidates with backgrounds as public defenders and civil rights attorneys.

For some law students, their criminal law class is the first time they see the profound injustices that take place at every level of the criminal legal system. They read cases rife with systemic racism, implicit bias, and classism. When those who went to law school to make the world better ask how they can do good in a system that is so bad, they are almost always told to become prosecutors. Alternatively, they set out to become public defenders then realize that prosecutors are the most powerful players in the criminal legal system. Prosecutors decide whether to bring charges, what charges to bring, and recommend what the punishment should be.

I was one of those students who went to law school to change the world. Originally determined to pursue a career as a public defender, I quickly identified the enormous power prosecutors hold to change the system. After serving as deputy state’s attorney for six years, I sought the position of Chittenden County State’s Attorney in Vermont on a platform to overhaul this system. In that role, I have spent the last four years working to address implicit bias in prosecution; promote alternatives to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration; address mental health and addiction as public health issues; and eliminate cash bail. Being a prosecutor gives me an opportunity to pursue justice and the safety of my community in ways that I could never do as a public defender. 

But there is another reason law students and lawyers are told to become prosecutors: Judges are much more likely to have been prosecutors than public defenders and civil rights attorneys. For every public defender on the federal bench, there are a little more than four former prosecutors. The ratio is seven to one if you compare lawyers who represented the government versus lawyers who represented individuals fighting the government. At the Supreme Court level, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only recent justice who practiced solely as a civil rights attorney. Thurgood Marshall, who retired from the high bench nearly three decades ago, was the last justice with criminal defense experience.

As a progressive prosecutor, I know that not all prosecutors come with a tough-on-crime mentality. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has long been the most progressive member of the Supreme Court, spent the first five years of her law career as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. But no number of prosecutors turned good judges will fix the fact that former prosecutors and the perspective they bring take up more of the bench. 

The lack of professional diversity on the bench has ensured that our courts can disproportionately reflect the viewpoints of the most powerful institutions and individuals in our country. Prosecutors’ jobs often depend on maintaining good relationships with police which means that prosecutors who become judges bring that experience with them. The extent to which a prosecutor turned judge’s prior professional experience impacts their view of the law has grave implications for regulating law enforcement and holding police accountable for misconduct, including the near impossibility of suing police and prosecutors for civil rights violations under the judge-made doctrine of “qualified immunity.”

Public defenders and civil rights attorneys, by the nature of their professions, are required to consider the impact of the law on everyday people. Their jobs require them to understand the circumstances of marginalized groups and ensure that large institutions do not strip them of their most basic rights. They spend their careers representing these everyday people, hearing what led them to possibly engage in criminal behavior and hearing stories of being falsely accused. They also understand mitigating factors that have led to harm to the individual, their families, and their communities, often because of the government’s failure to meet their basic needs. They spend their careers attempting to convince the government that these individuals are also a part of their community and deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity. 

Given the clear imbalance on our federal judiciary, such a resume can serve as an indicator for desired qualities in judges that many public defenders possess. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, reflecting on Justice Marshall’s impact on the court, “His was the ear of a counselor who understood the vulnerabilities of the accused and established safeguards for their protection. … At oral arguments and conference meetings, in opinions and dissents, Justice Marshall imparted not only his legal acumen but also his life experiences.”

A Biden administration should appoint more justices like Marshall and Ginsburg on the bench by committing to nominate more civil rights attorneys, public defenders, and lawyers with an innate understanding of how the deck has been stacked against marginalized people in our country.

Sarah Fair George is the state’s attorney in Chittenden County, Vermont.

As Support For The Death Penalty Plummets, The Trump Administration Embraces Executions

While bans on capital punishment progress at the state level, the federal government is racing to carry out three more executions before President Trump's term end. Ten people have been put to death since July, the first such executions since 2003.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

As Support For The Death Penalty Plummets, The Trump Administration Embraces Executions

While bans on capital punishment progress at the state level, the federal government is racing to carry out three more executions before President Trump's term end. Ten people have been put to death since July, the first such executions since 2003.

Support for the death penalty has reached its lowest level in nearly 50 years. Twenty-two states have abolished capital punishment. Another 12 states have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report for 2020. Yet, at the federal level, the Trump administration has executed 10 people since July with three more scheduled before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. 

Last year, Colorado became the latest state to ban the death penalty. And voters not only elected a president who opposes capital punishment, but in at least nine major counties they elected chief prosecutors who said they would never or rarely seek a death sentence, according to DPIC’s report. 

In Los Angeles County, death penalty opponent George Gascón defeated incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey. During Lacey’s tenure, of the 22 people sentenced to death from Los Angeles County, nearly all are people of color.

Last month, Gascón issued a directive stating his office will never seek a death sentence or execution date, and will not defend existing death sentences. For the more than 200 people already on death row who were sentenced in Los Angeles County, his office, according to the policy, will review each case “with the goal of removing the sentence of death.” The overwhelming majority of people on death row who were sentenced in Los Angeles County are people of color. 

On Monday, 12 chief prosecutors in Virginia sent a letter to legislative leaders calling on them to pass a number of criminal justice reforms, including a ban on the death penalty. A death sentence has not been handed down in Virginia since 2011, according to DPIC

“The death penalty is unjust, racially biased, and ineffective at deterring crime,” the prosecutors wrote. “It is past time for Virginia to end this antiquated practice.”

Opposition to the death penalty was once considered a political liability. In fact, the path to death row for many of those facing execution was paved by Republican and Democratic lawmakers. 

During the 1988 presidential campaign, CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked democratic nominee Michael Dukakis if he would support the death penalty for a person who raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis, a lifelong death penalty opponent, said he would not. Pundits have lambasted his answer, declaring that it effectively ended his presidential run. 

Such scruples would not be an issue for the Democratic party’s next nominee, Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas. 

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton returned to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. More than a decade earlier, Rector, who was Black, shot and killed a white police officer, and then shot himself in the head, effectively lobotomizing himself. At his last meal, Rector told a guard he was saving his pecan pie for later, according to news reports.  

Two years later, then-President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, colloquially known as the 1994 crime bill, which then-Senator Joe Biden championed. Included in the bill was the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which expanded the types of crimes eligible for the death penalty. 

President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice sought and secured death sentences for more than a dozen people. During his lame duck period, Obama commuted the sentences of just two people from death row.

“Their failure to act certainly empowered the Trump administration to carry out these executions,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Federal prosecutors with Obama’s Department of Justice also fought appeals from death row prisoner Lisa Montgomery, who is scheduled to be executed Tuesday.

Thousands of people have signed petitions calling for Montgomery’s sentence to be commuted, and some are advocating for her release from prison. In 2004, Montgomery went to the home of Bobbie Jo Stinnett in Skidmore, Missouri, killed her, and used a knife to remove the fetus from her body. Montgomery, who has been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, was sexually and physically tortured as a child and adult. 

Dustin Higgs is scheduled to be executed three days later. Higgs was prosecuted under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 for the murders of three women in Prince George’s County, Maryland. In the last weeks of Clinton’s presidency, on Jan. 3, 2001, Higgs received nine death sentences. 

The government’s case against Higgs was largely based on the testimony of Victor Gloria, who testified pursuant to a plea agreement. In the early morning hours of Jan. 27, 1996, Tanji Jackson and Higgs got into an argument. As Jackson and her two friends left Higgs’s apartment, she threatened to have them “f—ed up or robbed,” Gloria testified. Higgs put his gun in his coat, and he, Gloria, and Willis Haynes pursued the women, according to Gloria’s testimony. They found them walking on the side of the road. They got into Higgs’s minivan, and Higgs drove them to the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge. There, the women exited the minivan. Gloria testified that Higgs passed the gun to Haynes, who followed them and fired the fatal shots.

Haynes was tried and convicted. The prosecution sought a death sentence, but the district court sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. Higgs then went to trial, was convicted, and sent to death row. Gloria pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact, and was sentenced to 84 months’ imprisonment and three years’ supervised release. 

In 2012, Haynes wrote in a sworn declaration that Higgs did not tell him to shoot the victims. He had previously told authorities that Higgs ordered him to kill the women, according to the Washington Post.  

“Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever,” he wrote in 2012. “So many times since that night I’ve wished that I hadn’t got out of [the vehicle]. The girls got out and I went after them. I wasn’t thinking at all that night. … I shot the girls because I thought they were a serious threat to Dustin’s life. … Maybe I was taking out all the abuse and problems I had been through in my life. I was angry from what I had been through. But that’s no excuse.”

Haynes’s mother physically and emotionally abused him when he was a child, according to the Washington Post. He began drinking when he was 7 and at 11, he tried to kill himself. During his teenage years, he lived in foster homes. 

After Haynes shot the women, he and Higgs dropped off Gloria and got into an argument, Haynes wrote in his declaration. “He was upset that I shot the women,” he wrote. “Dustin screamed at me about it.”

More than a million people have signed a petition to free Higgs, who they say was wrongfully convicted. His son has pleaded for his father’s life to be spared. 

“From a child to adulthood, my father was always there for me to confide in, to laugh with, to cry with, and even get upset with,” he wrote in a letter included in his father’s clemency petition. “He was always there and has been my number one supporter, showed me what love is, and taught me to be a better man. I cannot imagine or think of where I could’ve ended up without the love and encouragement of my father.”

Like many of those on death row, Higgs’s childhood was marred by violence, abuse, and trauma, according to his clemency petition. At school, he struggled with a learning disability. Other students mocked him, calling him ableist epithets. His father was largely absent other than to beat his mother. He hit Higgs when he tried to protect her. 

In 1981, Higgs’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, according to his clemency petition. He stayed by her bed for hours, and brought her food and water. Less than a year after her diagnosis, when he was 10, she died in their home. His father was incarcerated at the time. Soon after, he began wetting the bed, and continued to do so for about the next three years. 

Last month, Higgs, who has asthma, tested positive for COVID-19. The disease has caused severe damage to Higgs’s lungs, according to his attorney Shawn Nolan, chief of the capital habeas unit at the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The government plans to execute Higgs using pentobarbital which, because of his lung damage, may result in his lungs filling with fluid, causing him to experience a drowning sensation, which Nolan compares to waterboarding.

“He does not want to be executed,” said Nolan. “He’s very hopeful that the courts are going to see this for what it is and put a stop to this execution.” 

Cory Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed the day before Higgs, has also tested positive for the disease. (Johnson’s first name is spelled Cory and Corey in court records.) In 1993, he was convicted of seven counts of capital murder and was sentenced to seven death sentences for killings that the prosecution claimed were linked to Johnson’s drug selling activities. According to his attorneys, Johnson is intellectually disabled and, therefore, exempt from execution. Thousands have signed a petition to stop his execution. 

“Corey Johnson had three childhood IQ scores placing him in the range of a person with intellectual disability,” his attorneys wrote to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in a motion filed today, requesting a stay of his execution. “He has significant, well-documented, deficits in virtually every aspect of daily living, including nearly all skills necessary for independent living.”

Momentum is building to end the federal death penalty, buoyed by an improbable ally—Biden, who boasted in 1992 that a crime bill he sponsored does “everything but hang people for jaywalking.” But on last year’s presidential campaign trail, Biden said he would work to pass legislation to abolish the federal death penalty. 

“All indications are that he has learned from history,” Dunham said of Biden. However, he cautioned, “Words are just words until they’re acted on so we have to wait to see what he believes versus what was just rhetoric.”

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What Public Safety Without Police Looks Like

From San Francisco to Philadelphia, cities across the country are creating fully unarmed response teams to address emergencies that used to call for cops.

Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times via Getty.

What Public Safety Without Police Looks Like

From San Francisco to Philadelphia, cities across the country are creating fully unarmed response teams to address emergencies that used to call for cops.

In hindsight, it’s perhaps not surprising that Albuquerque was one of the first major cities last year to announce that it would create an unarmed, civilian team to respond to nonviolent emergencies and mental health crises. The city’s police force has been in disarray for quite some time. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the local U.S. attorney’s office found that the city’s cops routinely beat, use stun guns against, and shoot “people who pose a minimal threat,” and that encounters “between Albuquerque Police officers and persons with mental illness and in crisis too frequently result in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary.” Since then, the city and the federal government have struggled to rein in problem cops and force the department to comply with much-needed reforms.

But, in June, after the police-reform uprising in 2020 that began after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in May, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced that his city would create its own, unarmed Community Safety division, which will be responsible for calls related to “inebriation, homelessness, addiction, and mental health.”

“While many cities are only now waking up to these issues, Albuquerque is well into its police reform process and we decided to tackle these tough questions head on when we took office,” Keller, who’s been mayor since 2017, said in a June press release. “For years, we’ve heard the public calling for a better solution for de-escalation and more officers for community policing, and we have been listening.”

Keller’s announcement was one of the first of many major changes that local city governments made after the Floyd uprising, according to a review by The Appeal. While there has been little movement at the federal level to reconceive American policing in any meaningful way, numerous cities have launched significant “civilian responder” pilot programs that will send behavioral health experts and unarmed assistance—rather than cops—to emergencies.

There are few, if any, metrics to show that training armed cops to deal with mentally ill people reduces use-of-force incidents. To the contrary, according to data compiled by The Washington Post, at least 23 percent of fatal shootings by police since 2015 have involved someone with a mental illness. Other sources estimate the proportion is much higher. And, according to a December 2020 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, police “crisis intervention team training”—that is, the methods by which armed cops are taught to interact with those with mental illness—aren’t working either. The review found some evidence that crisis intervention team-style training results in more people sent to mental health diversionary courts where they’re available.

“There is little evidence in the peer-reviewed literature,” the study states, “that shows CIT’s benefits on objective measures of arrests, officer injury, citizen injury, or use of force.”

Christy Lopez, Georgetown Law professor and co-lead of the school’s Program on Innovative Policing, told The Appeal, “We’ve come to completely over-rely on police as a response to community needs, public safety and community well-being.”

“We just reflexively send them and they are often not at all the best response to the challenge or problem,” she added.

Before 2020, a few cities had already moved away from using gun-toting cops to handle mental health calls. Most notably, since 1989 the city of Eugene, Oregon, has operated its Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program, in which thousands of routine emergency calls are diverted away from cops and toward other behavioral health employees or social workers. Of 24,000 calls to the CAHOOTS program in 2019, only 150 required police backup. Following the success in Eugene, other cities, including Portland and Philadelphia, formed similar crisis response teams.

For decades, Eugene’s program was fairly distinct among U.S. cities, but following the anti-police-brutality uprising of 2020 it serves as a model that can be implemented nationwide. In the last half of 2020, city governments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Albuquerque, St. Petersburg, Florida, and Minneapolis each moved to create a fully unarmed team of healthcare workers for nonviolent emergencies.

On June 11, San Francisco mayor London Breed announced that the city was developing a “systematic response plan to improve direct connection to community-based or City service providers, such as the CAHOOTS model of crisis response.” In August, her office announced that it would create Street Crisis Response teams, which would respond to nonviolent emergencies and help those in the midst of mental health crises. (According to its own data, San Francisco Police Department officers responded to over 50,000 calls related to mental health and well-being checks in 2019.) On Dec. 1, the city’s police union signed off on the plan.

In June, Denver launched its Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program, which had been in development before the Floyd protests began. From June through September, the Denver Post reported, the STAR van responded to mental health calls throughout the city without calling police for backup.

In October, the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-0 to begin looking for outside vendors who could work as unarmed first responders for those in crisis across America’s second-largest city.

“By creating a robust non-armed crisis response model, we are investing in the future of our public safety,” council member Bob Blumenfield said during the vote, according to CNN.

And for five days in early December, New York City took a small step toward ensuring public safety without cops. Police officers withdrew from a two-block section of the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville, Brooklyn, allowing community groups to act as violence interrupters and crisis-management groups to patrol the area instead. City agencies also operated booths along the blocks, distributing information on opportunities for housing, jobs, and education.

In 2020, Brownsville recorded 25 murders and 580 felony assaults. But during the Brownsville Safety Alliance experiment, only one call was made to 911—from a bus driver who accidentally activated a distress signal.

“People are just so fearful of crime and the minute you say ‘take the police away,’ their minds just go to those places,” Lopez, of Georgetown Law, said. “We have to be willing to invest in these programs.”

We’re shifting the conversation from police responding to crises to someone else responding in crisis. How about we try to make it that we have far fewer crises?Christy Lopez, Professor, Georgetown University Law Center

Several other cities across the country announced cuts to their police budgets in 2020, with the intention to reallocate portions of those funds to the community and decrease the demand for police.

In August, the Austin City Council voted to cut $150 million from the city’s police department, or roughly one-third of the department’s budget. About $50 million of that reduction will be reinvested in addressing community needs like substance use care, housing, and food access.

Perhaps most notably, Minneapolis, after significant infighting, voted to divert nearly $8 million from the Minneapolis Police Department in order to fund a new team within the city’s Office of Violence Prevention that would respond to mental health crises and small offenses, such as parking infractions.

While activists have demanded that armed cops be excluded from as many encounters as possible, governments in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois, Omaha, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, and other smaller localities announced plans this year to pair cops with social workers in pilot programs.

Changing who responds to problems is part of the solution to police violence, advocates and organizers say, but many agree that society needs to go further. “We’re shifting the conversation from police responding to crises to someone else responding in crisis,” Lopez said. “How about we try to make it that we have far fewer crises?”