The smoke has dissipated, though the sights of burned out and graffiti-laden buildings are reminders of that nocturnal rage. The streets, once littered from battle with rubber bullets and water bottles, have become a bit less burdensome for residents to clean each morning. But the protests remain large. George Floyd has been laid to rest, and all four police officers responsible for his murder have been arrested. Yet the rage over the handling of the unrest has morphed into Defund the Police, a related, yet independent movement functioning alongside Black Lives Matter.
The once-crowded streets we enjoyed before the pandemic shutdown subsequently filled with protesters in formation, battle lines drawn against police. Some reported being pepper-sprayed at close range, while others lost eyes to aimless rubber bullets. Still others were beaten with batons and cursed at for existing in a free space. Hundreds have been maimed by the equipment that their tax dollars paid for. We saw fences around the White House, police in riot gear restricting movement and imposing curfews, while tear gas seeped into the rooms of sleeping children, uninvolved in the war taking place outside. There has to be a better way.
In a study reported by The Washington Post, the United States spends roughly double on law and order policing than on public assistance. These funds for current policing and public order strategies could be reallocated to more specialized teams. Not only would it reduce deaths during police encounters but also change the way we approach our safety and help our spending deficit.
“Defund the Police” sounds like a frightening dystopia wherein law and order cease to exist. It does little to encourage reasonable citizens to support reforms. Since messaging is so imperative in our fractured political landscape, a reframing is in order. “Specialize the Police” is more appropriate.
Police are responsible for competence in too many situations. They must be professional animal handlers, crisis counselors, mechanics, detectives, social workers, post-mortem care specialists, expert marksman, sprinters, community pillars, stunt car drivers, emergency medical technicians, and unbiased on top of it all. We are putting our officers under a tremendous amount of stress and asking them to do jobs they are not adequately trained for. We would not call a plumber for a gas leak or a brain surgeon for a spider bite. Problems require different skills, knowledge, tools and approaches, and it is in our favor to seek the right helper.
Under a specialized renewal of the system, every existing officer could still have a position. The renewed police force would be broken down into sub-teams: armed forces, de-escalation, highway patrol, crime investigation and fraud.
The armed forces, most identical to what we have today, would now be the highest-level officers. They would be exhaustively vetted. This team would be responsible for completing arrest warrants and remain on standby for emergency response. They would be available as backup to respond to any of the other teams if force is needed, and they would be the only officers allowed to carry a firearm.
Domestic disputes, rapes, sexual assaults, drug overdoses, suicide attempts and child endangerment calls would be addressed by a de-escalation team, comprising counselors, social workers, crisis management and medical specialists.
Speeding, accidents and reckless drivers would be handled by highway patrol, responsible for issuing tickets.
Murders, kidnappings, disappearances and other physical crime scenes would be investigated by detectives and forensic scientists.
A special unit, in conjunction with the Better Business Bureau and the state Attorney General’s Office, would respond to all calls of fraud, theft and burglary, and would solely focus on asset recovery.
Riots and protests could be handled by the National Guard, and only using non-aggressive tactics. Tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, batons, and any other projectile, weapon or chemical used against citizens would be outlawed.
We need to recognize that policing and incarceration are nothing more than Band-Aids for the gushing wounds of our societal problems, like poverty, addiction, broken families and lack of mental and physical health services. We cannot dehumanize human error and tribulations. We must prepare to address those who need specialized attention in compassionate ways, by utilizing only the appropriate tools and qualified experts. In this new world we are entering, people can be flawed, but never our institutions.