How These Cities Are Breaking Up the Work of Police Departments
As the country reassesses its relationship with law enforcement, Ithaca, New York; Berkeley and Oakland, California; and Austin, Texas, are defunding, replacing, or reducing the scope of their police departments.
Eoin Higgins May 26, 2021
The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers a year ago this week sparked a nationwide movement against racism and police abuse. But alongside the explosion of protests came the mainstreaming of policies like defunding the police and redistributing those monies to other local initiatives that will take a more holistic approach to public safety—in effect, rethinking the function of American law enforcement.
“There is no other industry in this field to the degree that law enforcement and policing and incarceration—mass incarceration—has failed in this country that we will continue to … throw millions and millions of dollars at,” Oakland anti-police violence activist Cat Brooks told The Appeal, adding that “what we need to be doing is investing on the front end, getting to the gun before the bullet flies.”
Phillip Abita Goff, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, said the current opportunity to effect real change in American policing is unique. To have two major mass movements against police brutality and racism in less than a decade—the Floyd protests last year and the Black Lives Matter movement that arose in the latter years of President Barack Obama’s administration—is an aberration in American politics.
“It is rare in the country’s history that we do this work around policing more frequently than once every 30 years,” Goff said.
“The systems that we’ve got right now in some ways are fundamentally incapable of delivering safety in the ways that we need to think about,” Goff added. “And the most important element of this is the sort of fundamental thing I think we’re not going back on is, oftentimes, what we need is not better policing but less of it.”
To that end, communities around the country are actively working to disaggregate the functions of their police departments. By hiring unarmed public safety officers, removing police from traffic stops and mental health crises, and repurposing police department funds, cities like Ithaca, New York; Berkeley and Oakland, California; and Austin, Texas, are changing the way public safety works.
Ithaca’s mayor made headlines in February when he proposed replacing the city’s police force with armed and unarmed public safety officers. On March 31, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the proposal; the county government approved a similar, but not identical, plan on the same day. Both bills were based on findings from “Reimagining Public Safety,” a white paper put together by local officials and members of the Center for Policing Equity.
The plan is to replace the city’s police department with a Public Safety Department that will prioritize deescalation and harness crisis management solutions when facing violent incidents. Taking the institution and training of police out of the equation is central to the effort, though the language of the bill says the employment of currently serving officers “shall continue uninterrupted by such a restructuring, retaining their positions and rank in the Ithaca Police Department.”
Goff, who was involved in putting the plan together, told The Appeal that the policy was made after “a process of literally listening to the community” and assessing what did and didn’t work for public safety.
“They ended up with a proposal that literally dissolved the police department,” Goff said.
Not everyone in the local movement is on board. Cornell historian Russell Rickford, an organizer in the Ithaca community and member of the Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition, downplayed the changes as insufficient and propagandistic. He told The Appeal that the plans to restructure the police—instead of actually defunding and replacing them—don’t really deliver on their promises of change and that “genuinely anti-racist forces locally are deeply skeptical of this effort.”
Rickford singled out the proposed repainting and redesign of Ithaca’s SWAT truck. The city police department and sheriff’s office said the new look would be “representative of what the mobile command truck is primarily used for.” Rickford said the move was a sign that the proposal is an attempt to “hijack the defunding demand through a process of rebranding that will not fundamentally reduce the size and scope of policing.”
Reducing the size and scope of policing is the goal of reform efforts in Berkeley, where the city has voted to decouple police from routine traffic stops. It’s a policy that has gained in popularity, especially after a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright after a traffic stop in April.
City Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who championed the reform, told The Appeal that the decision to move forward with the policy was spurred by the demands of protesters around the country last year. Making traffic stops a priority to remove from the police’s domain was an easy decision, he said.
“We know that traffic stops are the single most common interaction Americans have with law enforcement,” said Rigel. “The data shows us how the practice of pretextual stops has disparate impacts for Black people, and time and time again we have seen these situations escalate into violence and even death.”
Now, Berkeley police officers will no longer be able to pull drivers over solely for minor traffic violations.
Goff, who with the Center for Policing Equity worked on the traffic stop model for Berkeley, told The Appeal that his group created a report for the city in 2018 that broke down the racial disparities in police stops. Even after controlling for other factors, the group found that the disparities were high: Black motorists were 6.5 times more likely to be stopped than white motorists. The study’s results were ultimately published, over the objections of law enforcement.
“Let’s say you’re four times more likely to get force used on you by law enforcement if you’re Black than if you’re white,” said Goff. “So what portion of that 4-to-1 study is because of what police do and what portion of that is because of poverty or segregation or a lack of good mental health resources, terrible public public health?”
In Austin, the City Council voted to defund its police department last August. As The Appeal has reported, the Texas city is putting that money into housing and mental health services, as well as other initiatives. Austin has also decoupled the force from 911 services and forensic science and created two independent city units, the Emergency Communications Department and the Forensic Science Department. And more is coming, Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar told The Appeal.
“In the coming weeks, our City Council will invest in new family violence shelter beds for the first time in decades,” Casar said on May 4. “We’re getting that done with funds from the police budget.”
But the effort exemplifies one of the major conflicts between those writing policy and those advocating for radical change. Austin’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force gave recommendations on April 20 that included urging city government to not move forward with a cadet class until racist elements of the department’s training curriculum were dealt with. The city proceeded with the cadets anyway, a move that local activist Alicia Torres, a member of the task force, sees as counter to the goal of reform.
“What was evident in the task force work was that the city of Austin was more interested in rushing through the process of ‘reimagining’ rather than doing the real work and having the commitment and discipline to allow the necessary time to truly reimagine public safety without it being centered in policing,” Torres said.
Not every community leader is dissatisfied with the extent of political change. Brooks, the activist who is also the executive director of California anti-state violence group Justice Teams Network, was one of Oakland’s earliest advocates for defunding the police and reinvesting the money into public services. She told The Appeal that activists in the city have been fighting to take money from the department for years.
Although activists are disappointed with the city’s proposed budget because it fails to cut police funding, they have had success with their own Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which is made up of city officials and appointees. The task force issued its recommendations on March 1. One of the proposals that the city plans to implement will involve diverting some 911 calls to community responders rather than police. It’s a simple move that will be piloted in East Oakland later this year and could be expanded citywide if successful. This particular recommendation owes a debt to similar programs in Eugene, Oregon, and Newark, New Jersey, where municipalities have developed police-free solutions to community and mental health calls rather than continued reinvestment in police.
Oakland’s reform movement was born out of city residents’ “utter frustration and disgust with how violent the Oakland Police Department was,” said Brooks.
“Since the 1970s in the war on drugs, law enforcement has become the answer to every single social issue,” Brooks said. “They shouldn’t be responding to mental health. They shouldn’t be responding to substance abuse issues. They shouldn’t be responding to interpersonal violence. They shouldn’t be responding to neighborly disputes. They shouldn’t be doing traffic stops.”
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