Safety or punishment?

“Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” ~Vice President Biden

If budgets reveal priorities, America’s reveal deeply broken commitments to each other. Absolutely, we should reallocate our budgets (and not just away from militarized police forces), but we also need to recognize how the prioritization of force has deprioritized the things that actually make our communities healthy and safe. We can’t just reallocate: we have to redeem our entire idea of community health and safety.

Policing should not be about punishment and should almost never be about the application of force. We imbue judges with the power to punish. Policing is supposed to be about safety for everyone. Community health. Public safety. Protecting us from criminals. The idea of police brutality as some portion of police too far down some spectrum of acceptable force and just in need of some correction is an utter fallacy. We have so effectively criminalized poverty and blackness and so narrowly defined “us” to mean privileged, wealthy, and most often white then reinforced the bastardization of the function of policing by calling them “law enforcement” and combined that with a terrifying mythology of fear about crime. The language of war gets us in further trouble with a “war on crime,” a “war on drugs,” a “war on poverty” — wars have enemies and are fought with weapons. And so we’ve constructed a militarily armed and trained institution designed to punish blackness. If police are trained and armed such that using their training (in other words doing their jobs) means the application of force and their toolset equals weaponry then police brutality is the norm that we have designed for, and the individual morality of the officers who believe in community safety pushing back against institutional inertia is the only thing keeping the situation from being even worse. Policing reform suggests that the design is basically correct but requires some tweaking around the edges, the restraint of some bad actors, but that the system is fundamentally right. Wrong.

We need to completely redeem the role of policing as safety work so that the entire system is designed to protect, to deescalate conflict, to help support public and community health. The vast majority of public safety officers should be focused on exactly that with a small function focused on the investigation of felony crime and an even smaller armed function to respond to violent crime. That would mean 80% of police focused on, trained in public safety and health, organizing, conflict resolution, and negotiation, unarmed, hired from the communities in which they work; 15% focused on criminal investigation; and only 5% armed and well-trained in the rare tactical use of force in response to violence. (People smarter than me understand the balance of the components with more nuance and clarity like Dream Defenders and the Innovative Policing Program, and the balance will likely vary from municipality to municipality.) There is almost no value to police being equipped and trained in the expression of hard power unless our goal is intimidation and compliance. If they need protection while protecting everyone, then let’s outfit them protectively. But if America wants safe communities, we must design our institutions of safety to create safety.

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