Calls to defund the police are picking up national momentum from Los Angeles to New York City. The Minneapolis City Council recently voted to abolish its police department. This may seem radical to people who experience police as the protectors of their personal safety or property. But the Black American community has long experienced police as purveyors of violence and intimidation, and as a potential cause of our deaths.
There are many situations where a police presence might cause more harm than good. When you call the police in the US, you should recognize that there is a possibility that they will kill someone—and that this possibility will be three times greater for a Black person than a white person. In eight US states, the rate of police killing Black men is even higher than the national murder rate.
What can we do as individuals to make a difference in this moment, while we are advocating for systemic change?
Solving this problem will require major systemic change and a rethinking of what public safety means, and to whom. One of the most fundamental ways that we can reduce police interactions is to make fewer things criminal. Drug use, drug harms and addiction, for instance, are public health concerns. Decriminalizing drug use, as Portugal did in 2001, would take away the basis for a good deal of police involvement in the lives of people who would be much better served by health information, harm reduction guidance and resources, counseling, treatment available on demand, and therapy. Transformative justice strategies and non-policing models for public safety also deserve urgent consideration.
But what can we do as individuals to make a difference in this moment, while we are advocating for systemic change? We can start shifting the dynamic by adopting alternative practices to calling the police in crisis situations, including those that involve drugs or mental health issues. Here are four ideas to start.
It’s valuable to have CPR training, to know the instructions to help someone choking on food in a restaurant, and to follow the rules to safely evacuate an airplane. Similarly, we can all benefit from training on how to respond to mental health and drug use emergencies. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) helps people become better prepared to assist someone experiencing a mental health or drug-related crisis. The training involves recognizing warning signs and learning to provide helpful intervention.
Almost 4 million people worldwide have attended an MHFA course. A meta-analysis study published in 2014 that reviewed all published evaluation articles on the MHFA Program concluded that the training increases participants’ knowledge of mental health problems, decreases their negative attitudes, and increases supportive behaviors toward individuals with mental health problems.
The MHFA course is available internationally and throughout the US.
Damien Johnson, owner of No Grease Barber School in Charlotte, North Carolina, brought the MHFA training to his business because he saw how often mental health issues impacted his clients. Johnson said, “As men, they don’t readily share these struggles, but when they sit down in a barber chair, it’s a safe place where they feel comfortable telling it all.” The MHFA course is available internationally and throughout the US and will soon be provided in an online format.
Similarly, learning what to do in the event of an overdose is vital. Opioid overdose deaths can be prevented with the timely administering of the antagonist drug naloxone. In 2018, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory supporting the use of naloxone, and said “Knowing how to use naloxone and keeping it within reach can save a life.” Many first responders and police departments have become equipped with the drug and have been trained to use it; however, fear of police might inhibit drug users from calling for help. And naloxone should be administered as quickly as possible.
Learning how to use naloxone is practical emergency preparedness and may reduce the need to involve police, although it is always best practice to seek urgent medical attention in the event of an overdose. Proper use of naloxone requires little training, and in most states people can request it at pharmacies without a prescription.
Ideally, and hopefully someday soon, there would be a readily available alternate emergency number to call in crisis situations, reaching social services responders who can be safer and more effective than police. In the meantime, we can build our own local contact lists to be used in times of crises.
Suicide prevention hotlines, county mental health departments and homelessness services are examples of such resources. Community groups in your area may already have already created a helpful list, such as this one from MPD 150 in Minneapolis. If not, you can take the initiative and draw up your own contact list of health and safety resources. You might share it with members of your community, such as local social media groups, your neighbors, your religious community, or anywhere else you can think of for distribution in your personal network.
“Your pod people may not be your closest people. Your pod people are people that you can rely on and can turn to in times of crisis.”
Another idea is to create a pod map to identify designated people in your life that can call upon for help in times of trouble. “Pod,” is a term coined by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC) to refer to people who would turn to each other for support around violent, harmful and abusive experiences, whether as survivors, bystanders or people who have done harm.
As Mia Mingus from BATJC described, “Your pod people may not be your closest people. Your pod people are people that you can rely on and can turn to in times of crisis, in times of emergency, in times of violence. Sometimes that can be your bestie, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes maybe it’s a coworker that you’re not as close to, but you know if you needed them, they would show up for you.” The approach reflects a shift towards looking to localized, non-law enforcement approaches to community safety, and personalized support systems.
Police are not good at calming mental health crisis situations. In 2015, the Washington Post conducted the first tally of officer-involved shooting deaths involving people with mental illness. It showed that across the US, at least 25 percent of people who were shot and killed by police officers suffered from acute mental illness at the time of their death. In most cases, the police officers who shot them were not responding to reports of a crime. According to the Post, “More often, the police officers were called by relatives, neighbors, or other bystanders worried that a mentally fragile person was behaving erratically… And in many cases, officers responded with tactics that quickly made a volatile situation even more dangerous.”
It is important to think about how bias might play into your perception of risk.
But we’ve also witnessed many incidents of people calling the police on Black people for pretty much anything. A 2017 study of a private message board in a predominantly white neighborhood in Austin, Texas found that residents contacted the police in 60 percent of the “suspicious persons” instances involving Black people, compared to only 10 percent of those involving white people. In an October 2018 HuffPost poll of 1,000 adults, 28 percent of Black respondents reported previously having had the police called on them because of their race or ethnicity, compared with 4 percent for white respondents.
When deciding whether to involve the police, it is important to think about how bias might play into your perception of risk. Are you assuming things about someone because of their race or appearance? If the person were white, or did not appear poor, would police involvement be your first instinct? If someone is behaving erratically, do they really pose enough threat that arrest, detention, and the possibility that the person might die in police custody feel like the only viable solution? If they looked different, would you be more inclined to think that they might be suffering from a medical condition, rather than assuming that they are intoxicated or dangerous? If you are a business owner or employee, or if there is a property offense or theft involved, can you simply report the damages to your insurance company, and/or remove or ban the person? If it is necessary to file a police report, might you consider doing it at the police station, rather than calling police to the scene?
Individual actions combined with collective actions produce social change. There are inspirational examples of communities banding together with a collective commitment to supporting safety through internal systems of accountability, collaboration, transformative justice and reduced dependence upon law enforcement.
These include the “Harm Free Zone” in Durham, North Carolina, and the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective in Brooklyn, New York. There are many innovative and thoughtful community-based solutions put forth in a book released earlier this year called Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement.
“It’s important to say that oppressed communities have been addressing violence without police for generations because of the history of police in our communities,” Ejeris Dixon, editor of Beyond Survival and co-founder of SOS Collective, told Filter. “We just need to go one generation back to find community-based safety systems within Black communities that have been displaced. It’s not like we’re reimagining a whole new way of doing things, but what if we had the resources and could frame it from a liberatory framework?”
One of the nation’s longest-running community-based alternatives to the police is CAHOOTS—Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets—started by The White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon 31 years ago. CAHOOTS is a free, 24/7 community service where, instead of police, a medic and a mental health worker are dispatched for calls such as welfare checks or potential overdoses. As described in a Mother Jones profile, “The CAHOOTS system relies on trauma-informed de-escalation and harm reduction, which reduces calls to police, averts harmful arrest-release-repeat cycles, and prevents violent police encounters.”
In 2017, CAHOOTS answered 17 percent of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume, and according to the White Bird Clinic, the program saved the city, on average, $8.5 million each year from 2014-2017. Less than 1 percent of the 24,000 calls fielded by CAHOOTS last year required police involvement. CAHOOTS has inspired similar programs in other cities, including the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR), Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) and Portland Street Response in Oregon.
We all must change our relationship with the concept of public safety.
Ultimately, we need a redirection of resources and incentives away from punishment and towards human rights, public health and social good. But whether the revolution in policing comes swiftly or develops in stages, it’s not only law enforcement that needs to change.
We all must change our relationship with the concept of public safety. We must rethink what we each of us can do to shift the dynamic away from racism and fear and towards restorative healing, fairness, and a more just society. As Mia Mingus said, “We need the small to be able to fight the big. In this country at least, we need 300-plus million people doing the small things.”