Reality of policing lurks behind ideology claims

Both the Recorder and Reporter featured debate on the policing review committees established by the Montague town meeting. Jon wrote an op-ed in reply, published last week.

In his op-ed “Ideology Masks Reality of Policing in Montague,” Jeff Singleton chides Deborah Frenkel and Maddox Sprengel for being dissatisfied with the final reports of the policing review committees, of which they were members. Sadly, we have every reason to be dissatisfied with the outcome of these committees, not because of confounding “ideology” but because they misinterpreted the basic critiques that motivated a policing review in the first place.

The central issue is not what most people think of the police, but what effect policing has on the people who actually have to deal with them. Given how much effort and public resources the police put into polishing their public image, and given the great personal risks that people take on if they speak out publicly against the police, the only people who are likely to know what harms the police actually cause are people who are subject to enforcement, or people who are close to them.

The people who get the most unwanted contact with police are people without housing, people living in poverty, people who are neurodivergent, and people of color. Some individuals from these groups have positive opinions of the police, but that reveals nothing about larger patterns of oppression caused by policing.

The most relevant perspectives on these issues come from people who have been harmed by policing, and their perspectives are the hardest to get. Gross power imbalances mean that folks who have suffered harms are often afraid to share their experiences publicly, and it is in fact dangerous for them to do so. A casual, amateur survey will never suffice and will likely do more harm than good. That does not mean that we can never know anything about policing.

Here’s what we know beyond a doubt, based on decades of study by the most impacted communities. Policing does not prevent crime or conflicts or personal crises–they show up after the fact and file a report. Police spend a tiny fraction of their time responding to reports of crime (read the police logs for yourself–on average it’s 1-4% of their time). Police spend huge amounts of time responding to emergency calls that have nothing to do with crime at all, unnecessarily exposing countless people to the criminal legal system and all the harms that can come as a consequence. In the rare case that the police stop an act of harm or violence, they simply shunt it into the world’s largest criminal legal system–a set of violent, punishing institutions that only compound harm.

All the talk about police de-escalation practices misses the fact that the mere presence of police is an escalation for people who have good reason to fear them. This is true even when a co-responder clinician is present, especially since people are rightly afraid of being involuntarily committed to a psych ward or getting referred to the Department of Children and Families.

Police killings of Black people mark the flashpoints that lead to large-scale protest, but Black Lives Matter as a movement is about much more than police use of force. The movement is fundamentally about valuing people as people, which goes beyond merely not killing them. It requires reducing harm in all its forms and building new institutions that really take care of people. (See the “Movement for Black Lives policy platform” if you haven’t yet.)

We need new institutions for community safety because reforms to the police do not work. None of the proposed oversight, training, or relationship-building reforms on offer are new or promising in any way. Minneapolis had already implemented most of these measures, even as far back as the 1920s, and yet that did nothing to save George Floyd.

The quickest, most effective way to reduce the harm policing causes is to reduce people’s contact with police. One way to do that is by building alternative programs to deal with emergencies.

How could we respond to emergencies in a way that’s actually caring, that respects people’s basic rights and freedoms, but also successfully resolves the emergency? One compelling example is CAHOOTS, a peer-led crisis response program running for 32 years in two cities in Oregon. Their civilian crisis workers get people the care they need in a manner they can trust, rejecting coercive and punitive approaches in favor of meeting basic needs and offering trauma-informed, person-centered care. They are highly successful and beloved in their communities.

In their service area, CAHOOTS handles 20% of 911 calls, although the Center for American Progress estimates they could easily handle 38% if they had proper funding and support. (Another large share of 911 calls are merely procedural or paperwork issues which could be handled by a non-sworn city employee–for example, filing reports for auto insurance claims.)

In personal correspondence with me, Ariel Elan of the policing review committee said she concluded CAHOOTS would be too expensive, that Montague’s finances could not afford both a police department and a program like CAHOOTS.

It is true that police departments are notoriously expensive. However, there is money available from the federal stimulus as well as the state of Massachusetts earmarked for starting up new CAHOOTS-like programs. We have organizations in Franklin County that are internationally recognized leaders in peer support work who could help build a new program, but they are too often overlooked in favor of big bureaucratic providers like CSO (who provide the clinician for the new police co-responder program). We also have a growing region-wide movement for building up life-affirming programs that offer real safety to everyone.

If it’s hard to imagine Montague implementing a new program alone, that’s no excuse to give up and keep cycling people through probation, jail, coercive treatment programs, houselessness, unemployment, personal crisis. Let’s talk across towns about how to build capacity together.