A Brief Re-Thinking of Public Safety Policy

A Brief Re-Thinking of Public Safety Policy

Problem Definition, Assessment, and Description

The debate over how best to approach and carry out equitable public safety has endured since before the founding of the United States of America.  While safety is a fundamental human need, a simple scan of the social horizon reveals that safety is not an automatic guarantee for all people, especially for those whose racial identity isn’t white (Kahn, 2020).  The history of inequities related to non-white residents stretches back for centuries but became especially illuminated over the course of 2020 as Black Lives Matter protests against the murder-by-police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others drew continuous media and social attention that has yet to abate.  More than ever, dialogue and debate has overwhelmed the airwaves as options ranging from a complete abolishment of the police to doubling down on the amount of money municipalities should invest in so-called “Blue Lives” -- and a gradient rainbow of options in between.  Clearly, this indicates that change is needed in policies related to how policing -- and, even more broadly, public safety -- should be carried out (Subramanian et al., 2020). 

While this issue can, at times, feel starkly black and white -- or, literally, Black versus White -- it is also highly complex and nuanced (Obasogie and Newman, 2019).  Even when narrowing the focus of how to identify the issue at hand, there is considerable spillage.  The question of public safety isn’t merely the way police are trained, mentored, or held accountable -- it is also how their employers view the community being served as well as what other social or political factors are at play (Obasogie and Newman, 2019).  In other words, the police themselves are but one aspect of public safety.  Who hired them and what population they serve are also critical pieces of the puzzle.  Without finding a way to strike a balance on all sides, lopsided and likely unjust policing will persist. 

Available Knowledge and Barriers

Research on policing and public safety is vast but still there is little consensus and many unanswered questions.  While it is known, for instance, that the majority of police officers are white males, it is also the case that white male police officers are assigned different shifts and territories than non-white and/or female officers (Ba, 2021). Understanding how and why officers are designated for their assignments is one critical element.  Playing into that is ensuring a diverse police force that includes non-white and non-male officers. 

The manner in which officers are trained is critical, too.  In Ohio, for instance, there is no standardized police curriculum, outside of a general outline created by the Attorney General’s office, which creates a lack of consistency in officer training (Ohio Attorney General, 2021).  While there is some general agreement on the importance of racial bias training, its emphasis remains low.  Instead, as Stoughton (2014) reports, “officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized” (para. 4) and that it’s “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” (para. 5).

While there are many more areas in which the police themselves fall into areas of deficiency, there is simply not enough focus on who is fanning the flames of bias and other issues: their employers or other dominant social forces.  Be that the municipality, private institution, state, or country, the lacking application of Critical Race Theory and other social metrics that provide a framework to understand the impacts of diversity, power structures, and related systemic inequities perpetuates the cycle of harm.  Community members, too, are caught up in the web of gas-lighting and dog-whistle vernacular that upends common decency and justice, creating even deeper divides between officers who have sworn to “protect and serve” and the population who may be at odds with them (Weier, 2014).  All of this goes to say that one of the biggest barriers in advancing towards a resolution is the sheer complexity of the issue itself.  Working to reform policies around policing and public safety isn’t necessarily one-size-fits-all nor is finding solutions to a la carte aspects of the related issues a path to a total resolution of the issues.  A multi-pronged and many-layered approach is likely needed.

Existing Efforts and Alternative Solutions

There is ample evidence that simple standardization of police training that includes mentorships and social sciences education has made huge impacts on the way public safety is carried out in other countries (Burke 2020; Haberfield, 2016).  Domestically, Eugene, Oregon’s organization CAHOOTS -- Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets -- began in 1989, making it a notable positive example of policing re-imagined with teams comprised of a medic and a trained mental health worker being dispatched by police for non-violent calls (Vermeer et al., 2020).  Alternatively, the San Antonio Police Department requires its cadets to do forty hours of crisis intervention training (significantly eclipsing the national average of six hours of such training) and has an entire specialized unit who respond to mental health crisis-related calls (Calahan, 2020).  While these efforts are highly interesting to examine on their own, they still lack the broader focus on a more community-based response to public safety.  Without accountability on all fronts, a truly impactful policy may never materialize.

Choosing a Course of Action

In order to select criteria en route to a successful intervention, a clarity must be established.  Utilizing an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) framework with the application of a Critical Race Theory (CRT) lens would allow for both internal and external inventory assessment, highlighting existing strengths while also drawing attention to areas that may be more lacking or overlooked (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993; Ortiz and Janey, 2010).  The universal likely outcome is a hybrid model of public safety that would require a strong focus on implicit bias and most efficient use of existing resources.  In other words, the incorporation of tools like mediation and sustained dialogue, the involvement of mental health professionals, and governmental/institutional support for re-imagining public safety must work in tandem with the police to create equitable and just public safety policy reform.

Strategy to Evaluate Results of Policy Change

Evaluation efforts for something as complex as this should be a combination of quantitative and qualitative data.  While “how safe an area is” can seemingly be assessed simply by looking at so-called “crime stats,” factors like racism, poverty, and more can skew both the data and the perception.  That’s not to say such information shouldn’t be gathered or considered but, rather, that the addition of qualitative data will add dimension to the  policy’s degree of effectiveness.  In fact, pre- and post-surveys, interviews, and other modes of data collection could shape the policy formation by drawing attention to existing areas of community strength or potential.

Organizations Active in Policy Area and Available Resources

There are a multitude of organizations focused on police and public safety reform, such as national groups like the Fraternal Order of Police and Black Lives Matter as well as grassroots, hyper-local groups like Safer Heights in Cleveland Heights.  Between the massive scope and urgency of this moment, the possibility to take actual steps forward in resolving the historically complex and often toxic relationship between the police themselves, the definition of true public safety, and the communities being served feels more possible than ever.  The literature on the subject is robust and exciting.  While a genuinely fresh approach to public safety policy feels tiny and new-born, the awareness that so many brilliant minds are committed to this issue breathes life into what is possible if only the box of band-aids is left on the shelf and a true path to healing can commence.

 

References

Ba, B. A., Knox, D., Mummolo, J., & Rivera, R. (2021). The role of officer race and gender in police-civilian interactions in Chicago. Science, 371(6530), 696-702.

Burke, L. (2020). Lessons from Northern Ireland: Policing, Polarization, and Moving Forward. German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Calahan, R. (2020). How the San Antonio Police are rethinking mental health.  Texas Observer.  Retrieved from https://www.texasobserver.org/ernie-and-joe-san-antonio-police-mental-health/

Haberfeld, M. (2016). Comparative Policing Revisited: The Struggle toward Democracy in the 21st Century. Hum. Rts., 42, 18.

Kahn, J. (2018). OBSCURING POWER. In Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong About the Struggle for Racial Justice (pp. 129-152). NEW YORK: Columbia University Press.

Kretzmann, J., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building communities from the inside out: Centre for Urban Affairs and Policy Research. Neighborhood Innovations Network.

Obasogie, O., & Newman, Z. (2019). CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION WITHOUT JUDGES: POLICE VIOLENCE, EXCESSIVE FORCE, AND REMAKING THE FOURTH AMENDMENT. Virginia Law Review, 105(2), 425-448.

Ohio Attorney General (2020). How to become a peace officer in Ohio. Retrieved from https://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/How-to-Become-a-Peace-Officer-in-Ohio

Ortiz, L., & Jani, J. (2010). Critical race theory: A transformational model for teaching diversity. Journal of Social Work Education, 46, 175-195.

Subramanian, R., Eisen, L. B., Merkl, T., Arzy, L., Stroud, H., King, T., ... & Nahra, A. A Federal Agenda for Criminal Justice Reform.

Vermeer, M. J., Woods, D., & Jackson, B. A. (2020). Would law enforcement leaders support defunding the police? Probably - if communities ask police to solve fewer problems. RAND Corporation 2020.

Weier, S. (2014). Consider Afro-Pessimism. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 59(3), 419-433.
 
 
 
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Written in pursuit of my Master of Science in Social Administration at Case Western Reserve University

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