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Let’s Rethink Calling the Cops

May 6, 2021, 8:00 AM

When Derek Chauvin was convicted in what felt like the trial of an entire nation, much of the world sighed in relief. Closing arguments were almost anticlimactic in their Midwestern plainspokenness.

Due to Covid-19, the courtroom was closed to the public save a few reporters and a single Floyd family member. One had to stand outside the courtroom—really, in any living room— to hear the collective sound of exhalation.

What should have been a foregone conclusion, unfortunately, was not. Multiple videos depicted a slow-roll murder of an unarmed man, handcuffed, prone on the pavement, and begging for his life as onlookers implored Chauvin to stop.

Yet there were good reasons to doubt a conviction: Their names are Eric Garner; Tamir Rice; Breonna Taylor; Terrence Crutcher; Philando Castile; Michael Brown; Daniel Prude and thousands of other Black people unjustly killed by police.

Cellphone video has forced the nation to reckon with what African Americans have long understood to be the fatal risk of encountering the police while Black. What it took to get a conviction in this case is sobering—not just a cellphone video, but an independent prosecution supervised by a Black attorney general, incriminating testimony from Chauvin’s chief of police and supervising commander, and millions marching in protests for months.

If this is what it takes to bring a police officer to account, one can forgive Black Americans for feeling pessimistic about Chauvin’s conviction as a watershed moment.

What’s Wrong With Policing

The Chauvin case was symbolic of what’s wrong with policing—an institution born in slave patrols, steeped in racism and masculinity threat, its officers determined to show Black and Brown people who’s boss. This instinct of racial social control was evident when Chauvin immediately defended Floyd’s killing to an onlooker, saying, “We gotta control this guy because he’s a sizable guy.”

It was evident in the 2016 killing of Terrence Crutcher who an officer declared “looks like a bad dude” from a helicopter flying above. Racial social control is what compels police to pepper-spray an army lieutenant or drag a 66-year-old woman by the hair when they don’t stop immediately for a police cruiser.

While a conviction of a single officer won’t fix what ails law enforcement, this case does sharpen and magnify what accountability demands. Congress is considering reforms to lower the standard of criminal intent for police killings, mandate body cameras and implicit bias training, require record keeping on use-of-force incidents, and limit officer immunity from private lawsuits for acts of brutality.

Measures like these may make police think twice before escalating conflicts and routine harassment. But none of these on their own will make police see Black people as human beings deserving of respect and care, instead of targets of subjugation. Rather than expect transformation from an institution that’s proved resistant to reform, we must transform how we think about public safety.

Transforming Public Safety Without Armed Police

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, fewer than 5% of the roughly 10 million arrests by police each year involve serious violent crime. Rather than rely on armed police for routine traffic enforcement, behavioral health crises, or minor crimes of poverty like the one that led to George Floyd’s death, we should deploy trained social workers, medics, and mental health specialists to respond to crises caused by substance abuse, mental illness, and homelessness.

Portland has done exactly that for 32 years through a program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) that’s replicating in cities across America. Portland’s is the first and longest-standing 911 alternative policing model.

Racial justice organizations such as PolicyLink and the Center for Policing Equity are helping cities including Oakland, Calif., and Ithaca, N.Y. reimagine their public safety functions. Ithaca city leaders recently voted to replace their police department with a civilian-led agency that would include unarmed first responders trained to de-escalate the kinds of incidents that too often end in tragedy.

We also need to follow the lead of states like Oregon, whose voters recently approved a ballot initiative to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, with justice system cost savings put toward addiction treatment and public health services.

Civil rights leaders have long argued that a punitive drug war produces an outsize number of racist arrests. The Drug Policy Alliance and CUNY Graduate Center found that between 2010 and 2019 police in New York City arrested eight times as many Black and Latinx people than Whites for marijuana, despite data showing similar rates of use and sale across racial and ethnic populations.

For these reasons, the Movement for Black Lives and other activists are calling to divest from police as the singular path to public safety, for example, by repealing the 1994 crime bill, which annually funnels millions in federal subsidies to local law enforcement, and reinvesting those monies in violence-interruption, behavioral health treatment and anti-poverty programs, better schools, parks, and economic development; all of which contribute to safety and wellness in affluent neighborhoods.

Against an endless roster of police killings, these demands aren’t radical—they are deeply practical suggestions for reducing the harm of policing and reducing crime.

Call the cops? As the teenage clerk whose alert about a suspicious $20 bill led his manager to call the police on George Floyd said through tears last week, he wishes that they just hadn’t.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Tanya Coke directs the Ford Foundation’s Gender, Racial and Ethnic Justice team, focusing on issues of policing, mass incarceration, immigration, and reproductive justice. She is a former criminal defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society and Distinguished Lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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