Adequate mechanisms of police oversight are lacking in many cities—leading to unnecessary incarcerations, excessive police force, racial profiling, and deep corruption. However, the problem with policing is not simply the lack of anti-bias training, civilian review processes, or diversity. The problem is the unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years. Cities spend more on city police than on health, housing, arts, parks, community development, workforce development, and civil rights combined. Instead of police being the primary tool for managing violence, we must look at rebuilding our communities to break the cycle of violence.
To understand why excessive policing can perpetuate cycles of violence, examine the institutional pressures that drive so much of what we see today. Since the 1960s, governments have extended the discourse of war beyond its traditional context. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson announced the “war on poverty” as he attempted to lay the foundations for a welfare state. In 1971, Richard Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one” and declared a “war on drugs.” With each declaration, the presumed “enemy” becomes less visible, with no end in sight.
When our elected officials ask police to wage simultaneous wars on drugs, gangs, disorder, terror and crime, police will often be discourteous and aggressive. They will continue to violate people’s rights and use excessive and militaristic force because that is how wars are waged. It’s also built into the deep history of American policing— a tool for criminalizing people of color. A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is a continuance of the preference for considering actions of “bad” individuals, as opposed to functions and intentions of a system.
We need to look into public health interventions and strategic community investments. Turning school discipline over to police invariably results in more suspensions, expulsions, and arrests directed at our most high-needs youth. Restorative justice programs, counselors, social workers, and wellness and trauma-informed strategies for students and families are real alternatives.
Restorative Response Baltimore helps youth get to the roots of conflicts that might otherwise escalate to violence. Using structured dialogue, communities resolve their problems without the threat of violence and incarceration. Safe Streets Baltimore is utilizing “credible messenger” strategies to reduce neighborhood violence and steer youth into pro-social activities. The program hires adults from the community with a history of street involvement to provide trauma counseling and perform street mediation.
Baltimore city officials are called to undertake a reparations program that channels ten percent of the city’s budget into communities most impacted by formal discrimination including segregation laws and redlining practices. These funds could build affordable housing and schools, provide employment, and give families the social services needed to lead more stable and productive lives. Funds could also go to clean air and water, green spaces, walkable neighborhoods, lively public spaces, vital social institutions, and other avenues for public engagement—basic ingredients for belonging and well-being.
A 2017 UN report called attention to power imbalances (i.e. inequity, lack of access, human rights abuses, social exclusion) as a top reason for the drastic increase in mental illness and chronic stress—which can lead to violence, drug use and crime. Putting the power and money into our communities, not policing, can help communities access the resources they need to solve their own problems, improve well-being, and break the cycle of violence.
Corporate media have extensively covered police brutality and corruption, yet lack a systems perspective on policing and tend to minimize solution-based community approaches.
Alex S. Vitale, “Let’s Build Up Communities Instead of Pouring Funds into Police Oversight,” Truthout, August 26, 2019, https://truthout.org/articles/lets-build-up-communities-instead-of-pouring-funds-into-police-oversight/.
Jamal Rich, “Topic at Coming West Coast Gathering: Imagining a World Without Police,” People’s World, November 4, 2019, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/topic-at-coming-west-coast-gathering-imagining-a-world-without-police/.
Jay Walljasper, “For Healthy Communities, Look Beyond Diet and Exercise,” YES! Magazine, July 19, 2019, https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2019/07/19/health-diet-exercise-communities-inequality/.
Michael Marder, “This Is Not A War: Coronavirus Pandemic Presents Unique Opportunity to Rebuild a Sense of Common Good,” RT, March 29, 2020, https://www.rt.com/op-ed/484247-coronavirus-pandemic-common-good/.
Zenobia Morrill, “Debate Ensues Over Rights-Based Approach to Mental Health,” Mad in America, April 1, 2019, https://www.madinamerica.com/2019/04/debate-ensues-human-rights-mental-health-policy/.
Student Researcher: Amber Yang (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)