Alternatives to Policing—The Case for Public Health and Community Development Investments

by Vins
Published: Updated:

By Amber Yang

As outrage sparks over police brutality, systemic racism, and socio-economic inequality, activists are calling to defund police. Despite other calls for anti-bias training, civilian review processes, and policies that prevent police brutality, the “Defund Police” movement sheds a light on the unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years. Cities spend more on policing than on health, housing, arts, parks, community development, workforce development, and civil rights combined. Instead of utilizing police as the primary tool for managing symptoms of socio-economic and race inequality, we must look at rebuilding and empowering our communities to address root causes for real change.

To understand why excessive policing can perpetuate cycles of violence, consider how governments around the world have extended “the discourse of war beyond the context of military hostilities traditionally understood.” In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson announced a War on Poverty as he attempted to lay the foundations for a welfare state. In 1971, President Richard Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one” and declared a War on Drugs. In 2001, President George W. Bush declared a global War on Terror in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In 2020, the War on COVID-19 framing directs our attention not to science and humanitarianism, but towards “division, fear, and security-based force.”

With billions of dollars of military hardware given to American police departments to advance their “war on crime and drugs” agenda, cities and communities have not become safer. In 2016, Baltimore had the second-deadliest year per capita on record with 318 killings. A report that same year from the US Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) engaged in massive discriminatory policing including unnecessary force, unjustified stops, and disproportionate targeting of African-Americans. In 2017, officers in the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force were indicted on federal racketeering charges for massive abuses of power.

While some have labeled Black Lives Matter protesters as violent looters, much of the violence comes from police themselves, including agent provocateurs who instigate violence, and police tactics to suppress and defame demonstrations with rubber bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades—even with children present. Police have also targeted journalists covering the protests.

In an interview published by Truthout, sociologist Alex Vitale, coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, said: “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.”

When officers are trained to cultivate a “warrior” mindset such as above, this fuels unnecessary killings of people falsely considered a threat, such as 12-year-old Tamir Rice—killed for holding a toy gun in an Ohio park. As a former police officer shared in an article for YES! Magazine:

“When police come into every situation imagining it may be their last, they treat those they encounter with fear and hostility and attempt to control them rather than communicate with them—and are much quicker to use force at the slightest provocation or even uncertainty.”

How Do We Define “Safety”?

When we reflect on our dependence of police to provide safety, we must consider: How do we define “safety”? Whom do we feel threatened by and why?

Police in cities arrest more people for drug offenses than for other crimes, with possession—rather than manufacture or sales—accounting for the vast majority of cases. Jailing people for using drugs reinforces stigma, drives people in need of help into the shadows, and fails to address root causes, which are often associated with mental health challenges and socio-economic needs. A 2017 UN report stated that “mental health policies and services are in crisis—not a crisis of chemical imbalances, but of power imbalances,” in which “decision-making is controlled by biomedical gatekeepers whose outdated methods perpetuate stigma and discrimination.”

Instead of providing more comprehensive mental health and drug abuse services, we pour money into law enforcement, criminalize challenging behavior, and train police on how to kill fewer people in these interactions. As sociologist Alex Vitale says, people with mental illnesses are seen “not as victims of the neoliberal restructuring of public health services but as a dangerous source of disorder to be controlled through intensive and aggressive policing.” (See, for example, this story about police working with the community to help drug addicts instead of jailing them).

Community Investments Build Community Strength

We need public health interventions and strategic community investments to build community strength from the ground up. There are proven models for addressing socio-economic problems without relying primarily on police:

  • The Oakland Power Projects aims to “reject police and policing as the default response to harm and to highlight or create alternatives that actually work by identifying current harms, amplifying existing resources, and developing new practices that do not rely on policing solutions.” In the Project’s “Know Your Options” workshops, community street medics and health care workers of all backgrounds build skills and knowledge around preventative care, emergency skills, and mental health and de-escalation tactics.
  • Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) is a mobile crisis intervention service in Eugene, Oregon that shares a central dispatch with the Eugene Police Department (EPD) and is funded by the City of Eugene’s public safety services. Every day from 11am and 3am, the CAHOOTS van provides free first-response services—including non-emergency medical care, basic first aid, mental crisis intervention, counseling, mediation, transportation, case assessment, referral and advocacy. CAHOOTS workers estimate that they save EPD over $4.5 million annually and save more than $1 million more in medical expenses.
  • Restorative justice is a harm-reduction approach that developed out of indigenous peacemaking practices and is proven to be highly effective in school settings. It uses cooperative processes to hold people who have done harm accountable and to support them in the transformation of their own behavior—often with the direct involvement of people whom harm was done to. Turning school discipline over to police invariably results in more suspensions, expulsions, and arrests directed at high-needs youth. Real alternatives are restorative justice programs that involve meaningful community service, trauma-informed wellness strategies, and conflict resolution circles. Along with that, we need more counselors, social workers, and afterschool programs. 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—adults from the community with a history of street involvement help address neighborhood violence by providing trauma counseling and street mediation, and by steering youth into pro-social activities.
  • The 414LIFE is a similar effort that uses the “Cure Violence”model to take a public health approach to gun violence. This strategy has been used in 25 cities and was the subject of an acclaimed documentary. “Violence functions like the flu. From the public health standpoint, you want to inoculate somebody to prevent the spread,” said 414LIFE member and trauma psychologist Terri deRoon-Cassini.

Justice Reinvestment

“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,” Vitale asserted. A growing number of local activists in Minneapolis like Reclaim the BlockBlack Visions Collective and MPD 150 are demanding Mayor Jacob Frey to defund the police by $45m and shift those resources into “community-led health and safety strategies.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti just announced that the city would identify $250 million in cuts in its police department, which has an annual budget of $1.6 billion.

Following these efforts, cities could establish those funds to provide employment, invest in affordable housing and schools, and increase access to social services that help people get their basic needs met. Investing in community land trusts and cooperatives also help create housing equity by decentralizing housing development and ownership. In 2019, 117 rights groups released Vision for Justice: 2020 and Beyond—an expanded, holistic framework to transform the US criminal-legal system by prioritizing “upfront investments in noncarceral programs and social services.” 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.

Vitale expressed another way to reinvest funds in an interview published by The Intercept: “We know there are neighborhoods where problematic behavior is highly concentrated, and local and state officials spend millions of dollars to police and incarcerate people. What if those communities kept some percentage of people who get arrested in the community and tried to develop strategies for resolving their problems, and in return, the community got the money that would have been spent incarcerating them?”

Empowering and resourcing our communities to resolve situations and conflicts on their own help repair the social fabric frayed by division, diminished human and civil rights, and centralization of power—with minimal or no police intervention. As Vitale eloquently states, the very nature of policing and the law is to “be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo.” We need real alternatives to systemically address the root causes and solutions of violence and inequality, while also actively working to build a shared narrative of collaboration, community empowerment, mutual compassion, and human goodness.

Amber Yang (she/her) is a restorative justice specialist and wellness coordinator in a Northern California school district, where she works to disrupt the school to prison pipeline through restorative harm circles, community building circles, and youth-led community projects. She is an advocate for trauma-informed schools practicing courageous conversations in the classroom and designing systems based on inclusion and belonging. She regularly teaches youth mental health education, mindfulness, compassion, meditation, and nonviolent communication. With Project Censored, she has written numerous stories and co-created a journalism model, Constructive Journalism and the Mindful Media Movement, highlighting solutions, community empowerment, positive storytelling, possibility, and the common good. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree at Sonoma State University in Organizational Change and Development.