How to Talk About Public Safety

How to Talk About Public Safety

It’s not an either/or proposition. 


As we approach the midterm elections, “defund the police” has become a zombie political slogan that just won’t die—thanks to Republican midterm candidates determined to keep it alive as an attack on Democrats, and Democrats who feel compelled to refute it on its own terms. Even President Biden, when he took the stage this summer to inoculate his party against soft-on-crime attacks, fell into the same trap, saying, “It’s based on a simple notion: When it comes to public safety in this nation, the answer is not ‘defund the police.’ It’s ‘fund the police.’”

Politicians like neat slogans. I know; I served in elected office for a decade. But reducing the public safety debate to this binary does us no favors. This is not a simple choice between two opposite poles—there is a spectrum on which we have a wealth of options. And those options feel increasingly absent as our national conversation about public safety devolves into a fund/defund, either/or proposition. It’s the tone of headline after headline, debate after debate.

It’s reductionist, misleading, and it has to stop.

Following the murder of George Floyd, my organization convened a group of legal and criminal justice experts for a two-year study of alternatives for improving public safety that would not stop at the doorstep of the “fund-defund” debate. The result was All Safe: Transforming Public Safety, a comprehensive analysis, concluding that to both end police violence and make citizens safer overall, we should concentrate on four key areas, “the four ‘R’s”: Restructure, Hold Responsible, Remove, and Recruit.

In a nutshell, these proposals can be summarized as restructuring public safety departments to shift more duties to unarmed responders; creating meaningful ways to hold officers accountable for bad behavior; instituting effective mechanisms for removing officers who are violent or abusive; and changing recruiting practices to identify good candidates who truly want to serve the community while weeding out bullies and dangerous people. All of these steps can reduce instances of police violence; they also increase effective crime-fighting, among other things keeping armed responders available for the crises where they are required by removing them from the situations where they are not.

None of these options is a simple matter of more or less money. As a former mayor of a small city, I can say that at a basic level, getting more money is good; cities and public safety systems need more money. But we also need a higher standard. We need creative thinking that goes beyond putting more cops on the beat or even what some cities have already done very successfully: standing up a cohort of unarmed responders to handle 911 calls for mental health crises. The classic example of this, Eugene, Ore.’s CAHOOTS program, is 33 years old. The program responds to thousands of calls and saves the city millions of dollars every year. It should be replicated everywhere. And that should be the floor, not the ceiling, when it comes to what we are willing to do.

The good news is that many of these changes can be implemented by local governments. When I was mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., our city council voted to replace our traditional police department with a public safety department made up of armed and unarmed responders. We didn’t have to wait for the federal government to step in or to pass the long-overdue George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. However, the federal government can help.

The Biden administration can emulate the Obama administration, which used the promise of federal funding as a way to incentivize a race to the top among local governments. After Obama created his Task Force on 21st-Century Policing, federal money went to cities that demonstrated willingness to innovate. For example, the Justice Department awarded $23 million in 2015 to cities that volunteered to start a pilot program in body-worn cameras for their police forces. Three cities, Phoenix, Milwaukee and Miami, agreed to collaborate with a research institute to study the pros and cons of body-worn cameras in more depth.

This model of promoting innovation and assessing the impacts is one that should be replicated. The Biden administration should be deploying funds as a reward to forward-thinking departments with fresh ideas about technologies and policies and then test those approaches—not indiscriminately funding for the hiring of more and more numerous armed personnel.

Congress has a role too. The police funding bills that squeaked by in the House in September were both better and worse than they could have been. Better, because a provision to throw more money at putting more police on the streets came out, while money to train mental health professionals and for basic accountability stayed in. Worse, because the accountability provisions could have been much stronger—and once again, the problem of qualified immunity was not addressed. Until we end qualified immunity, which shields officers accused of some of the most egregious violence, there will be police officers who hurt or kill victims and never bear the costs. This is one of the key recommendations in the All Safe study.

Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, the public conversation around the House bill was dragged back into the familiar fund/defund territory. Politicians want to show midterm voters that they reject the “defund the police” slogan, and in doing so they buy into the false-choice narrative that impedes serious policy-making. Cue the cynics. This can’t be how we make these decisions, or talk about these issues.

In order to make us all safer from harm—whether it’s harm inflicted by crime or by police officers who are supposed to protect us—we have to first change the way we think and talk about what’s possible. We need to change the public discourse to open ourselves up to new ways of thinking about age-old problems. In my work, I am fortunate to be an organizer in a network of hundreds of young elected officials nationwide, the vast majority under the age of 30. These young public servants are infinitely curious and open-minded and passionate about new ways to think about public safety. They are my hope for the future.

These two things are both true: Communities deserve to be safe from crime, while over-policing and police violence are scourges we must end. Neither excludes the other, and solutions span a wide range of possibilities.It is a failure of imagination to reduce this question to fund-or-defund, while the tragic loss of life continues.

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