ALTERNATIVES TO POLICE SERVICES
Let’s re-imagine a new system.
As public outrage at police brutality grows, a movement to redirect public resources away from traditional policing has taken hold around the country. Now, we take a look at a few of the real-world alternatives to the police services.
MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES
Police are more likely to use lethal force when attending to an emergency call when a person is experiencing psychiatric distress. When an individual calls 911 when experiencing mental distress, what they need is expertise in de-escalation, social and health supports & services. Instead, they are met with multiple armed and uniformed police officers. The police have become the first point of access to mental health support for many under-funded communities.
We have seen both in the United States & Canada, when police are dispatched to interact with Black people in distress, our lives are put at risk. Osaze Osagie in Pennsylvania (2019), Andrew Loku in Toronto (2015), Pamela Turner in Texas (2019), Pierre Coriolan in Montreal (2017), Isaiah Lewis in Oklahoma (2019), Howard Hyde in Halifax (2020), D’Andre Campbell in Brampton (2020) as a small sample of recent examples.
The police service is a dangerous option for people experiencing a mental health crisis—but for many, it’s the only option. By defunding the police, significant resources can be reallocated to create a new community emergency services to support the mental health needs of our vulnerable community members. Teams trained in de-escalation and who root their work in community-informed practices could provide crisis support and care.
One of the services that the police regularly provide are traffic services. But again, here is an area where armed, uniformed police are unnecessary. Where police are engaging in traffic services, their intervention could result in more harm to other vehicles using the road. When a UPS truck was stolen in Florida during the course of a robbery in which no one was harmed, the police prioritized the recovery of the (likely insured) jewelry and capture of the robber over the safety of everyone else using the road. Several police cars engaged in a high speed chase, crashing into other vehicles on the road. Eventually, police exited their vehicles and began an outrageous shooting spree. Multiple innocent bystanders were killed in the process.
Beyond situations like the horrific example above, police are more likely to stop Black people for supposed traffic “infractions,” when no one’s safety is at risk. What are the purpose of these stops? Oftentimes, a mere request to justify a traffic stop from a Black driver can result in the type of escalation that culminates in death, like Sandra Bland. Increasingly, police officers are using tactics like stealth cars that are difficult to identify as police vehicles in order to “catch” drivers by surprise. What is the purpose of this type of strategy? Why is a service that is meant to provide safety and security engaging in “gotcha” surprise tactics and targeting Black people. Why can’t our streets and traffic be managed and directed by civilian services instead of armed officers in uniforms?
If we were to defund the police, we could use our savings toward making our streets safer, and more user friendly, expanding public transportation services and infrastructure for bicycles, pedestrians, and other methods of transportation.
One common refrain in opposition to defunding the police assumes that our society will not be able to effectively respond to violent crime. But we have to remember that police do not prevent violence. In most incidents of violent crime, police are responding to a crime that has already taken place. When this happens, what we need from police is a service that will investigate the crime, and perhaps prevent such crimes from occurring in future.
Policing is ill-equipped to suit these needs. When victims are not the right kinds of victims, police have utterly failed, and at times refused to take the threat seriously. Why would we rely on an institution that has consistently proven that it is rife with systemic anti-Blackness and other forms of discrimination that result in certain communities being deemed unworthy of support? Instead of relying on police, we could rely on investigators from other sectors to carry out investigations. Social workers, sociologists, forensic scientists, doctors, researchers, and other well-trained individuals to fulfill our needs when violent crimes take place.
Police intervention into an ongoing violent crime is rare. But, In the event that intervention is required while a violent crime is ongoing, a service that provides expert specialized rapid response does not need to be connected to an institution of policing that fails in every other respect. Such a specialized service does not require the billions of dollars we waste in ineffective policing from year to year.
Every 6 daysa woman is killed by her partner in Canada.
4 Womenin the United States killed by their partners every day.
20%sexual assaults are reported in the US.
Some skeptics respond to calls to defund the police with concern for people at high risk for gender-based violence. The fear is that society will not be able to protect people against sexual assault and domestic violence. But as a society, we are currently failing to protect people from gender-based violence.
A woman is killed by a partner in Canada every six days. In the United States, four women are killed by their partners every day. In the US, only 20 percent of all sexual assaults are reported. In Canada, less than ten percent of all sexual assaults are reported to police. National statistics bodies do not collect the same sort of data for trans communities, though there is no doubt that trans people are targeted for violence due to transphobia across North America, with Black women comprising the majority of homicide victims.
What this information tells us is that the police barely interact with cases of gender-based violence, and are ineffective at preventing gender-based violence from occurring. By freeing up resources currently allocated to the police, our communities could create new services to prevent gender-based violence if we defund the police.
Police are meant to provide investigation services for us in the event that we experience a theft or burglary or a similar crime. We are inundated with television shows that tell us that police provide expert detective services to bring perpetrators of these kinds of crimes to justice. But these stories are myths and an unjust way to think about the risks that people take when they are living in precarious conditions.
In the United States the clearance rates 2018 for motor-vehicle theft and burglary were less than 15 percent. For theft and property crime, the clearance rates were less than 20 percent. For robbery, the clearance rate was just over 30 percent and for arson, the clearance rate was less than 25 percent.
In 2010 in Canada the clearance rates for theft over $5000 and theft of a motor vehicle were less than 15 percent. For Arson and breaking and entering, the clearance rates were less than 20 percent. For theft under $5000 the clearance rate was about 21 percent.
Importantly, clearance rate does not mean solved cases. Clearance refers to cases in which a charge has been laid—and police departments have been criticized for laying charges simply to get clearance rates up, even when an investigation does not lead to the charge that they ultimately lay.
What this tells us is that police departments are not very good at investigation services. The problem gets worse when the police are investigating victims that are undervalued in our society. The epidemic of missing and murdered Black and Indigenous women and girls and trans people across North America is in part due to the lack of seriousness with which police services attend to these disappearances.
If we were to defund the police, we could create new investigative services where diverse teams of researchers and investigators, with a mix of scientific, public health and sociological expertise are able to attend to our investigative needs without the inherent anti-Blackness with which the police services approach our unsolved cases. Additionally, we could put money into programs attending to the food security and housing security needs of people living in precarity, to reduce the likelihood that desperate people unable to have their basic needs met would resort to the extraordinary step of attempting to meet their needs through theft.
BYLAW ENFORCEMENT, PARKING & MINOR SERVICES
Across North America, police services attend to minor bylaw enforcement, parking, and minor services like serving warrants. There is no reason for police officers to attend to these services. Minor ticketed offenses and serving warrants for arrests and searches can be delivered by civilian services rather than with armed, uniformed officers.
Most bylaws, as well as the fines associated with them, serve to criminalize poverty, and not to keep anybody safe. We can dismantle and overturn ordinances that criminalize people in public space and especially those that criminalize poverty: loitering, fare evasion, sleeping in public, public urination, public intoxication, solicitation (squeeging, pan-handling).
Funding the provision of safe warm places to sleep –that is, meaningfully addressing the housing shortage and homelessness crisis in our cities – offers far more safety than police harassment, ticketing, and criminalization. We can enhance neighborhood safety by providing clean and accessible public toilets, free transit, harm reduction and safe injection sites, “wet” shelters for people who are inebriated, and investing in housing people rather than criminalizing their presence in public space. In most municipal budgets in North America, the police are funded more than all of these quality of life supports combined: we can choose differently.