Tuesday, June 30, 2020

This is what the abolition of the police might look like

Getting rid of the police force, which is now the goal of many of the more radical defunders is probably not going to work. For evidence, you only have to look at the experience of Seattle's "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone" (possibly now called "Capitol Hill Occupied Protest" until they can come up with a better acronym), a specifically un-policed region of the city.
The zone has now seen four shootings amid the supposedly peaceful protesters in just the last ten days. Openly-armed "watchemen" now patrol the area at night, and the whole zone is classified as "not safe for anybody". Not a good advertisement for the cause.
Abolishing the police has never been done, anywhere, to my knowledge, not even in the most progressive reaches of Scandinavia. Even the much touted dismantling of the police force in Camden, New Jersey, in 2012 (ostensibly due to the corruption in the old force, although as a result the city was one of the most violent in the country) was not actually an abolition. Likewise with the Republic of Georgia's police "dismantling" in 2003. Basically, they just dismantled the old police force and then reconstituted a new one (including many of the old officers), with better rules. This is otherwise known as "reform", albeit a radical one. There are definitely lessons that can be learned from this experience, though, and Camden NJ is certainly a much pleasanter place today than it was eight years ago.
People who want to abolish the police say that reforms have never worked in the past, why should we expect them to work now? It's true that minor reforms have only had minor success, and in the meantime other aspects of policing have got worse. But if we think big and look at major reforms - and there is now an appetite and a will for major reforms, I think - there could be major successes.
The author of this abolish-the-police piece says that, "We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing healthcare, housing, education, and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place." While this shows a touching faith in humanity, I think that faith may be misplaced. Call me cynical, but just because housing and healthcare improves, drug dealers, gang members and rapists are not suddenly going to change the habits of a lifetime, and mental health issues are not going to just disappear. And all those noise complaints, parking and traffic citations, drunk and disorderly tickets, etc, will still be there and need dealing with, however many jobs are available.
These ideas sound appealing in the abstract and, when I was younger and more idealistic, I would probably have been right behind them. As I got older, I became more cynical, but also more realistic, I think. Now, I just find that kind of idealism misguided and even annoying. I would love to be proven wrong, but I'm still waiting.
There is, however, one model that might offer some hope. It does not involve abolishing the police, but it does utilize a very different approach to dealing with non-emergency, non-ciminal calls, and particularly those that involve a possible mental health issue. Rather than dispatching police officers to such calls, the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, sends out an unarmed two-person team, consisting of a mental health crisis worker and a paramedic. Between them, they have the skills and experience to deal with mental health issues, homelessness, intoxication, substance abuse, disorientation and dispute resolution. And for 30 years, it has very successfully dealt with calls that elsewhere are normally foisted on poorly-trained police officers, often with tragic results.
The CAHOOTS services are paid for directly out of the city's funds, and are responsible for millions in savings from the police budget. Even the police admit that the CAHOOTS teams are a much better choice, and do a much better job, than the police for certain kinds of call-out. It is the responsibility of the dispatchers to decide which is the appropriate team to send out, much like a triage process in a hospital. The two arms operate separately, but as a partnership, or a "symbiotic relationship", as Eugene's police chief likes to say.
Eugene is a small city of about 160,000, and such a scheme has never been tried on a larger scale, but there is no reason in principle why it could not work. The White Bird Clinic collective of Eugen, out of which the CAHOOTS program grew, is already in talks with some other American cities which are interested in pursuing similar schemes. Maybe something similar could work in Canada too.

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