(Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash)
Let’s start with the obvious. We all want to be safe, in our homes, on the street, in schools, wherever we are. But many of us feel or believe we are not safe.
The Black Lives Matter movement has exposed the extent to which our neighbors are not safe walking, driving, jogging, in school, or even in their own homes. 1,000 people each year are killed by police. Millions are subjected to arrests for trivial behaviors.
All of these problems are linked to a pervasive and persistent racism and inequality that infect our society. We spend billions of dollars every year on private security employees beyond our tens of billions of dollars on police. We have imprisoned or jailed 2.4 million of our neighbors and arrest an additional 11 million people per year.
When we discuss safety we have to begin by identifying who is not safe. People struggling with the essentials to survive are not safe. For them just plain surviving is primary. They want safety but the very potential of achieving safety is way beyond them. For our country, the richest country in the world, and the richest country in the history of the world, we need to look at how many people are so consumed with survival that safety is but a dream.
- People living below the official federal poverty level are not safe. About 30 million of our neighbors, including one in four children under six live every day with exposure to the lifelong harm of poverty.
- People living with food insecurity — chronic hunger — are not safe. 37 million people, one person in 10 of our neighbors live with hunger that affects their health, their ability to learn, their performance at work and their energy to participate in their communities.
- More than 3 million Americans are homeless They are not safe. If we add those living in substandard, actually dangerous and unhealthy housing about 20 million of our neighbors are not safe.
- Abused or neglect of children continues to grow. Most of this group are neglected (78.3%) and nearly all of them live in poverty. They are not safe.
- People of color are 5 times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. They are not safe.
- Every day more than 200,000 of our neighbors are held in jails simply because they do not have the money to pay for their release until trial. They are part of a revolving door involving 11 million of our neighbors who were arrested every year. They are not safe.
- The plague of gun violence threatens the safety of many of our communities. We cannot ignore the more than 30,000 suicides each year committed using guns or the more than 10,000 accidental shootings. No one is safe.
- Toxic chemicals and air pollution are far more common in low-income neighborhoods, especially low-income communities of color. In fact, communities of color face higher exposure to bad air even when they are not low income. With these exposures come higher levels of illness. These illnesses not only kill and incapacitate individuals but also tear at the fabric of communities. They are not safe.
Our system of punishment/justice has a clear belief that punishment, close surveillance, arrests, cash bail, jails and prisons make us safer. But there is a pretty strong consensus that punishment or the threat of punishment do not deter criminal behavior.
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For deterrence to exist there would have to be a widespread understanding that criminal behavior will be detected and the person will be arrested. However, a substantial percentage of crime is never even reported because crime victims don’t have faith in the system. Of reported crimes, many are never solved. Police spend the overwhelming part of their time interviewing people who have been the victims of crimes and writing reports. When arrests are made, police and prosecutors offer deals — less incarceration for a guilty plea — so that 95% of trials are plea bargained.
Despite our comfort, our policing and prosecutions do not make us safe.
At times policymakers believed that criminal behavior was caused by race, ethnicity or even the shape of one’s head. Therefore we imprisoned people to assure safety of the greater community.
At times we have believed that punishment was required or justified by Scripture.
At times policymakers have believed that the weakness of some communities, not exclusion or inequality, caused crime which required punishment.
At times policymakers have believed that punishment is a deterrent to crime.
All of these turn out to simply not stand up to scrutiny and consideration of evidence. But each of these errors controlled public policy for decades (and some still do).
Our current system does little to promote safety but creates extraordinary harm and inequality. Inequality, exclusion, punishment and mass incarceration prevent improving safety, building community and achieving justice. We can fundamentally change our current punishment system to a system of fairness and justice for all — crime victims, crime perpetrators and the general public.
Let me suggest some immediate steps we can take in Philadelphia to set a new course for building safe communities.
From a good government point of view it is important to establish a zero-based budgeting approach to the Police Department. This means that every budget cycle you start with questioning whether the tasks being accomplished are the right tasks and if so how to do them in an efficient manner. With regard to the police there are a set of tasks that are better handled by other types of services. There are other tasks that they just don’t do very well. And, there are tasks that are just the wrong things to do.
- Mental health calls would be better handled by a special corps of mental health professionals working in the Health Department. They would be unarmed. Their training would be very specific in responding to and sometimes preventing mental health emergencies and getting people through them safely. They would also have the power to ask for police support if that were necessary and to keep the police away from an incident if that would escalate the tension. Systems like this exist in the United Kingdom and in Oregon among other places. Given that mental health calls account for between 20% and 30% of all 911 calls, creating a new civilian, professional mental health corps would transfer substantial revenue from the Police to an expanded service in the Health Department.
- Moving the Traffic Division from the Police to the Streets Department would also benefit the City and the budget. People who direct traffic do not need to be armed. Their training should be different and probably their pay scale while still being City civil service would allow some savings in the budget. Again this would move a significant number of people out of the Police Department and into other City civil service jobs. It would also allow us to change the incredibly wasteful policy of police sitting in their vehicles all day babysitting a construction site that obstructs traffic. There would be savings not only in personnel but also some in vehicles. The Streets Department could also maintain the traffic obstacle LED signage but shift responsibility to contractors to pick up the signs, transport them to the site of construction, maintain them and return them.
- Removing police officers from schools and investing in social service workers to minimize conflicts in schools has been widely discussed and should be done. We do not want children arrested when alternatives exist.
- Engagement with homeless camps is not a police function. Police sweeps of these encampments result in substantial, probably illegal, destruction of property of people who are homeless. It also escalates situations when our real goal is to help people who are homeless find a safe place which often will include necessary health care and treatment. Moving this service to the City Office of Homeless Services will focus our attention on how to help end homelessness.
- We can also minimize misdemeanor arrests. Situations that can be handled by a ticket or summons should not be escalated into arrests with resulting harm to individuals, crowding of courts and lots of police overtime. Building a list of categories of encounters that should not result in arrest will better serve our community and help us focus on community building and moving funds into a community based social service system.
All of these efforts can be implemented in the next several months. They require City Council action, agreement with Mayor Jim Kenney, and educational campaigns so that communities support these changes. But they are all achievable and they begin to reshape the Police Department into a properly sized public service. They are a start which also creates time and momentum to engage the more difficult issues.-30-
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