What can safety without police look like?
This is a moment of contention and restructuring in America. Mass public outcry is exposing the long-buried, problematic foundations of a nation built on human trafficking, commodification and enslavement of people from Africa, and on the genocide and attempted erasure of Indigenous societies. Protesters across the country are tumbling the statues of profiteers and benefactors of those atrocities, and pushing the nation to dismantle its many false narratives and systems of power. This uprising asks for an acknowledgment that the police force, in particular, is a direct extension of a problematic history, which has vilified and punished Black and Brown Americans disproportionately from the beginning. And they are revisualizing the ways in which true safety and equity can emerge.
What will stand in the place of the outmoded, harmful emblems and institutions? What can and should new systems look like? What new programs and justice models can replace the police?
In response to the question “what does an America with defunded police look like to you?” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently wrote in an Instagram story that the answer “doesn’t take a ton of imagination,” because “It looks like a[n American] suburb.” She wrote:
“Affluent white communities already live in a world where they choose to fund youth, health, housing, etc. more than they fund police… When a teenager or preteen does something harmful in a suburb (I say teen [because] this is often where lifelong carceral cycles begin for Black and Brown communities), White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to ‘protect their future,’ like community service or rehab or restorative measures.”
“Why don’t we treat Black and Brown people the same way? Why doesn’t the criminal system care about Black teens’ futures the way they care for White teens’ futures? Why doesn’t the news use Black people’s graduation or family photos in stories the way they do when they cover White people (e.g., Brock Turner) who commit harmful crimes?”
While the idea of defunding the police was long regarded as radical and practically unthinkable in the U.S., where police budgets have been steadily increasing since the mid-1990s, the national and international uprising against systemic racism, murders and brutality inflicted by police has shifted the paradigm. Cities across the nation that had planned to increase their police budgets are now decreasing and reallocating police funding due to the growing public pressure as a result of the protests.
This isn’t the first time people have demanded systemic overhauls or sought to defund and replace the police in this country. For example, law enforcement once operated ambulance systems across the nation until the people demanded trained medical technicians take their place. Now, as the crooked and disjointed systems of social justice are exposed, it is time to look to existing programs, examples and movements that were long ignored or written off as outlandish, to lead the way forward. It is time to look to Black leadership and movements, listen to the voices long silenced or vilified, and bring all the real stakeholders into the conversation to repair and overhaul the existing systems in a concrete way.
As the protests continue to raise public awareness around the inequities and atrocities of the current policing systems, officials around the country have started to respond. Several states and cities have already announced their decisions to defund and dismantle current police systems, to varying degrees. Those areas are looking to models for how to move forward and create systems of safety beyond police—and they’re finding that several organizations and community programs already exist, and have been working for years on replacing over-policing with public health and social services-oriented alternatives.
Redesigning Safety in Minneapolis
A veto-proof majority of city council members in Minneapolis, the city where the current protests were born following the death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 25, pledged at a rally on June 7 to dismantle its police department and replace it with innovative systems of community safety. In recent months, the city has also been cooperating with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights on an ongoing investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).
Minnesota was the first state in the nation to commit to defunding and deconstructing its police force, and Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison says the city is not interested in revamping existing departments or programs within the current police force as that approach has already been tried and largely failed the public. Instead, he says, the city wants to completely rethink its response to emergencies and conflicts.
“I do think that we’re going to be in unchartered territory, and I think that that’s OK,” he says. “We want to rethink what the DNA of public safety should be.”
Ellison points back to the problematic foundations of American policing, which is rooted in slave patrols and Jim Crow-era rules that in effect criminalized Black people and homelessness, union-busting and the suppression of working-class and impoverished Americans.
“We’re looking to really transform how we do emergency response, period,” Ellison says. “The DNA of modern-day policing is around profits and the protection of property. It is also oriented toward apprehending people who don’t have a lot, so that they aren’t making trouble for people who have a lot.”
He says even as the city’s police budgets have grown, the police have not been able to come up with a workable solution to address increased waves of violence in the city.
“I think that that kind of just proves the point that we need a different system,” Ellison adds. The city’s plan is to reorient its community safety programs away from punitive responses and move toward a community health-based response that looks at the underlying issues that lead to violence, and expand supportive services. According to Ellison, the city council is also considering outside examples of social services and public health-based violence prevention strategies.
He says members of the city council have been engaging with existing community groups that have been focused for years on raising awareness of the police department’s shortcomings, and calling for investment in community-led strategies. Ellison says the city council came to its decision to dismantle the police following years of discussion and vocal community outcry, especially from grassroots activist organizations like Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective. Both organizations were instrumental during recent protests in pressuring the city to make changes in its police force, and both have argued in favor of a complete transformation/abolishment of the MPD for years.
Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective co-hosted the rally where the majority of the city council first vowed to disband the police department and, “create a transformative new model for cultivating safety,” as stated in the city council’s official resolution.
Like Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective, the community-based initiative called MPD150—made up of local organizers, activists, artists and researchers—has urged the city to dismantle and restructure the long-violent MPD, in favor of community-oriented programs, for years. The group curates historical data and narratives that illustrate the MPD’s 150-year, largely violent legacy.
The city’s Native American population, which totals about 150,000 residents, has been actively working against police brutality since the 1960s. As a recent Mother Jones article by Delilah Friedler points out:
“A CNN analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Native Americans were slightly more likely than Black people to die at the hands of law enforcement between 1999 and 2015, though the rates are often neck-and-neck—and deeply intertwined.”
In 1968, Indigenous groups in the city launched the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis in response to rampant police brutality, and AIM has since become a national civil rights organization.
Speaking about AIM, Friedler writes:
“From the beginning, members of AIM volunteered to patrol neighborhoods in order to document the Minneapolis Police Department’s rampant violence against Natives, which allegedly included coldblooded murders and rapes.”
The AIM Patrol has been active since then, working within the city and around the country to reduce police violence and provide community support on-the-ground. As Friedler’s article points out, Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective noted the importance of AIM’s efforts to the larger movement in a June press release following the city council’s decision to disband MPD, stating that the current movement is “built alongside the ongoing presence and legacy” of AIM Patrol.
AIM works by “deterring both police and intra-community violence by intervening or simply bearing witness to make accountability possible,” Friedler writes. Women, elders and others who feel unsafe can call on AIM members to escort them, they sometimes offer food and resources to houseless residents of the city and have been discussing ways to help replace cops as first responders during a mental health crisis.
Cure Violence, a program that is currently operating in New York, offers a model that takes a public health approach to violence prevention. Developed by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, Cure Violence approaches crime and violence in the same way health professionals approach the containment of epidemics: by identifying the source of the spread, and interrupting it at the source. The program deploys trained outreach workers to mitigate conflicts on the ground, and violence interrupters who are credible messengers, or trusted members of the communities where they work, to do on-the-ground conflict resolution with members of gangs or people at risk of participating in retaliatory violence.
The program was initially put into place in high crime areas of Chicago under the name CeaseFire. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice released a three-year evaluation of the program reporting significant reductions in crime. The report states near the end, “[T]he evaluation showed that the program made neighborhoods safer. CeaseFire decreased shootings and killings.”
The program has since expanded into several U.S. cities. An independent study in 2012 of a Cure Violence partner program called Safe Streets in Baltimore, which was commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, credited the program with statistically significant violent crime reductions.
New York currently has 25 Cure Violence programs in operation throughout the city. John Jay College of Criminal Justice conducted an in-depth evaluation of two of those programs: Man Up! Inc. in East New York, Brooklyn; and Save Our Streets South Bronx. The evaluation, published in 2017, compared each of the two neighborhoods that had Cure Violence programs to a comparable neighborhood with similar demographics and crime trends, but no Cure Violence program in place.
Sheyla Delgado, deputy director for analytics at John Jay College and a researcher for the Cure Violence evaluation, says the comparisons offer promising evidence in favor of the program’s public health approach to violence reduction. She says what seems to make Cure Violence different from comparable programs that work to reduce violence is that it humanizes all of its participants.
“Cure Violence doesn’t think of people as bad people; [it] think[s] of people as sick and that [the program] can cure them,” she says.
The Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice began its evaluation of Cure Violence in 2012. Researchers visited program sites and interviewed staff about the Cure Violence and collected data about violent incidents in the city from the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the state’s Department of Health. Researchers also conducted annual surveys of young men living in 12 New York neighborhoods, some with and some without Cure Violence programs between 2012 and 2016.
Delgado says the human-oriented approach to the research, as well as the decision to use comparable neighborhoods, make the research approach particularly strong. She says it also helps to paint perhaps a more nuanced picture of how the Cure Violence program actually operates on a human level.
“What we’ve found and published on the effects of Cure Violence has been really positive so far,” she adds. “In the New York City neighborhoods that operate Cure Violence what we’ve seen is that there has been a steeper decline in gun violence and the expression of pro-violence social norms, which we use the survey to measure.”
She says something that stands out to her about the Cure Violence approach is that the program maintains strict anonymity around interactions between workers and community members, which seems to strengthen the credibility of the program in the communities where it is being implemented.
She notes that in more traditional research the go-to method would be to track individuals over time through a program like Cure Violence, but because of the anonymity of the program, this isn’t possible. However, she thinks this is actually a good thing.
“In the name of research we shouldn’t encourage programs like this to violate their core principles to make it easier for us to evaluate their effectiveness,” Delgado says, noting that part of the reason she is interested in research work to assess programs related to violence and safety is that she sees the need for improvement of safety systems in the U.S.
“I do have a desire to really tangibly improve public safety for everybody, not just, for the people with the most political status,” she says. Delgado notes that when it comes to researching crime, there is a significant challenge inherent to the process because much of the data available comes from police departments, and that data can often be flawed.
“When we’re making decisions about the selection of the neighborhoods or the people that are going to be part of our study, what outcomes we are going to track, or which crimes are we going to collect and assemble data for—all of these divisions that we are making at the beginning of a project are very challenging and crucial in actually [creating biases in] your results,” she says. “Over the last eight years, I have been intimately working with NYPD crime data, and I am more convinced than ever today that those records are only a reflection of police activity and what they are mandated to record.”
According to Delgado, NYPD data “does not reflect crime levels in the community or in the city at large.”
“There are so many issues with that information, and still so much information that we don’t have access to,” she says. “It’s very important for me to make it known to the world that police data only reflects police activity. It does not reflect actual public safety in a community.”
Advance Peace, founded in 2009 in California, is another program to take note of, with a similar approach to Cure Violence. Advance Peace “establish[es] responsive community-driven strategies that achieve high-impact outcomes for those caught in the cycle of urban gun violence.”
The Advance Peace program was founded after the police department in Richmond, California, reported in 2009 that fewer than 30 men were responsible for 70 percent of gun crimes there. The program was launched the following year, with the creation of “Peacemaker Fellowship,” which provides young men involved in lethal firearm offenses with “transformational opportunities” through the fellowship.
Community Safety in Newark, New Jersey
Newark, New Jersey, has successfully reduced its overall crime rates over the last six years thanks to a coordinated, citywide effort that brings together the crime interrupter approach of programs like Cure Violence and Advance Peace, with community participation through community-wide supportive services and initiatives that fall under the purview of what is called the Newark Community Street Team (NCST).
The city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, has been working with longtime organizer Aqeela Sherrills to create a three-pronged approach to community-based violence reduction. Sherrills, who was at the helm of the historic peace treaty between the Bloods and the Crips in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1992, is a senior adviser to the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), which works with several states to replace over-incarceration with crime prevention, community health, rehabilitation and crime survivor support programs. He is also co-founder of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ).
The first prong in Newark’s violence reduction model is intervention, which is similar to the “interrupter” strategies used by Cure Violence.
“We have a High-Risk Intervention team that intervenes in individual and group conflicts, both present ones as well as historic ones,” Sherrills says in an interview in June with the Independent Media Institute. “We have a direct relationship to our hospitals. We launched the city’s first hospital-based violence intervention program, where we have outreach workers who are embedded in the hospital so that when individuals are harmed in the community and they go into the hospital to be serviced, we develop a safety plan. You can’t just patch people up and provide them psychosocial services and then send them back into the community. You have to set up a safety plan so that when [someone] is returning home, that conflict has been intervened with and mediated, so that they don’t come back [home] and get shot again, and go right back [to the hospital].”
The second prong is the city’s Safe Passage program, which deploys credible messengers, respected in the communities where they work, to escort kids to and from school.
“In our study with the health department, we discovered that violence is happening in and around schools more often than anywhere [else],” Sherrills says. “Things happen on a school campus on a Friday, and spill [over in] the community on the weekend. On the weekend, conflicts happen in the community, and spill onto the campus on Monday morning. And so, we launched an evidence-based program called Safe Passage… Our staff [consists of] former gang members, ex-convicts, people who are credible messengers in this neighborhood. Ninety-eight percent of our staff [members] are residents of the communities in which they serve. When people see them on the block, it helps to shift the image of these individuals from being predators in their neighborhood, to being the solution-bringers and the problem-solvers. So they’re able to deter conflict and violence from happening.”
The third prong, which Sherrills calls the city’s “theory of change,” centers on supporting victims via improved access victims’ services, including trauma services.
“We’ve been able to access Victims of Crime Act dollars from the state,” Sherrills adds. “We have a full-time victims’ advocate who helps people complete their Victims of Crime application. We connect them with pro-bono legal services from our partners at Rutgers University. We provide them mentoring through a case management model. Nine of our outreach workers also do mentoring through a case-management model.”
The NCST also designed an 800 number that gives residents who are experiencing or witnessing a domestic issue or conflict the option to call on community members to mediate the situation, rather than the police.
“You can call us directly,” Sherrills says. “And we will deploy a community person who is trained in conflict resolution and mediation, who understands trauma-informed practices, to be able to respond to your situation and help you to mediate that situation to a peaceful outcome.”
Sherrills notes that all three programs work together to create a comprehensive safety structure. In addition, the city runs a community policy forum called the Public Safety Round Table in which residents, including elected officials, law enforcement, community-based organizations, and faith-based groups, meet twice a month to hold one another accountable for the services they are meant to provide.
“It’s a holistic approach,” Sherrills further adds. “When we talk about community intervention, some people think interruption [like the police do] is the only aspect of the work that happens. And I’m like, no. We intervene, and then we deal with the retaliation and rumor control, we connect those folks to victim services, and we then connect them to a multitude of other services to support them in their healing.”
Looking to Oregon and CAHOOTS
To varying degrees, several U.S. cities have joined Minneapolis in vowing to defund and rearrange their policing systems into new services-oriented systems. San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have both committed to reallocate all non-violent 911 calls to non-police responders. San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver have all specifically pointed to the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Oregon, as an example of how to successfully direct non-emergency responses, particularly surrounding mental health, away from the police. CAHOOTS staff are not law enforcement officers and do not carry weapons, but instead rely on training and a non-violent conflict resolution approach to crisis situations.
The CAHOOTS program has offered community-based public safety services in the City of Eugene, as well as neighboring Springfield, for 31 years. Launched in 1989 by the Eugene Police Department and the White Bird Clinic as a “community policing” service, the program is a mental health first responder service for crises involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction. Like other emergency services such as the fire department and police, CAHOOTS is a 24/7 crisis intervention program whose workers are dispatched through the Eugene police-fire-ambulance communications center. Dispatch teams each consist of a medic who is either a nurse or an EMT, and a crisis worker with multiple years of experience working in mental health.
The CAHOOTS program’s groundbreaking partnership between police and social services has become a national beacon of how to potentially, and successfully, rethink non-emergency interventions. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2016 estimated 25 to more than 50 percent of fatal encounters with law enforcement involved an individual with a mental illness. CAHOOTS has allowed Eugene to avoid most encounters between police and mentally ill individuals. According to its internal data, police backup was only requested 150 times “out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls” in 2019.
According to its website, CAHOOTS responds to calls and offers supportive services related to, but not limited to, all of the following:
- Crisis counseling
- Suicide prevention, assessment, and intervention
- Conflict resolution and mediation
- Grief and loss
- Substance abuse
- Housing crisis
- First aid and non-emergency medical care
- Resource connection and referrals
- Transportation to services
In addition to offering residents an alternative to calling the cops, the CAHOOTS program saves the city money. The program’s budget is about $2.1 million per year, while the combined annual budgets for the Eugene and Springfield police departments are $90 million. According to CAHOOTS, in 2017 the program’s teams answered “17 percent of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume,” and the program estimates that it “saves the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually.”
Heather Sielicki, the program’s operations coordinator, says the program’s success relies on the fact that it takes a “neighbors helping neighbors approach.”
“People in the community often call and request help from our program because they know we can be trusted to help find a resolution for human need that is not punitive in nature,” she says. “CAHOOTS is less about enforcing the impossible and more about working to find possibilities in difficult circumstances and alleviate the immediate crisis.”
April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.