Make Police Obsolete

The summer of 2020 was the largest protest movement for civil rights and racial justice in a generation. As Americans flooded the streets demanding justice and accountability for police brutality, police departments responded in force. By October 2020, five months into the protests, there were nearly 1000 instances of police brutality recorded.

I was one of those instances, tackled and arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, OR. So was my husband, and hundreds of other non-violent protesters. Less than a year later my nephew’s father was killed by police in my California hometown. Jose Flores was killed by the Yuba-Sutter Regional SWAT Team on April 20—the day Derek Chauvin was convicted for killing George Floyd. He did not pose an immediate threat to his family or police officers; he was alone in a house. Yet soon after a fully equipped SWAT team “subdued” him, he was pronounced dead. Now, his unborn child will never know his father and his young son will grow up without his father. Jose is just one the 530 civilians (as of July 7) killed by police officers in the U.S. this year.

Fast forward to summer 2021: President Biden is calling for the allocation of COVID-19 aid money for more policing and police continue to kill civilians unabated. How did we get here?

Media outlets across the country has been reporting on the rising rates of violent crime in the U.S. Coined a “bloody summer” by some reporters, media continues to draw attention to surging violent crime rates this summer. However, closer examination of the data reveals the U.S. is actually experiencing a historically low and continuously decreasing trend of violent crime. Likewise, other crimes, including larceny, robbery, and rape, have actually gone down during the pandemic. Rates of homicide have spiked but increasing police budgets and police officer presence to inevitably capture and cage suspected violent criminals creates the very conditions that breed violence in the first place. The conditions of incarceration bred shame, isolation, economic deprivation and violence, all of which are primary drivers of violence outside of jails and prisons. After the unprecedented and continuing devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, a short-term change in crime rates should not justify a ballooning of already outrageous police budgets.

Evident in nationwide calls for more policing to combat violence is the pervasive notion that more policing will equal less crime and more safety for Americans. However, that is not the case. In addition to physical violence perpetrated by police officers against Black and brown bodies, constant police presence in these neighborhoods inflicts psychological violence. Public safety is more than just absence of direct, physical violence. In our current system, police officers patrolling neighborhoods have ultimate leeway in their search for bad behavior, which inevitably terrorizes residents mentally and physically. Imagine living in a neighborhood under constant patrol, where police officers are free to stop, search and detain you, your friends and family members for being too loud or acting suspicious, all in the name of public safety. People are afraid of the police.

Amid the acknowledgement that police do not solve most crimes and the continuing of police brutality, how can we satisfy a desire for more community safety across all communities? The solution lies in making police obsolete. Undoubtedly, the stresses wrought by the global pandemic play a factor in national unrest. People have lost their jobs and loved ones. Many people have lost, or are at risk of losing, their homes. Only by addressing the structural causes of violence in our communities and dispatching trained professionals without weapons can we truly make our communities safe. We must invest money into services for mental health, job creation, education, housing, and food security. When civilians call the police, more often than not they are looking for help related to nonviolent offenses and complaints. Less than 1 percent of the time do police respond to a call for help for a violent crime. Yet all-too-often when someone calls for help, they are greeted with militarized police. Trained mental health workers, drug counselors, domestic violence crisis response teams and de-escalation professionals should act as first responders.

Jose’s children, and all the survivors of police brutality, will undoubtedly never feel safe with more officers on the streets. I do not feel safe with more police officers. I worry my husband, who is Mexican, will be targeted by police because he looks out of place in the “white neighborhood” where my mother lives. I worry my husband will be pulled over in a traffic stop and fatally shot by a police officer because he moved too slow or too fast to retrieve his license and registration. This is not public safety.

Kristin Henderson is a researcher and activist whose work focuses on justice, peace, and war.