Thinking About the Safety of Black Lives Beyond Policing

Ultimately, safety for black communities requires a move away from mass criminalization, and not simply nicer but fewer police.
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After a string of high profile police killings over two-hundred communities across the country erupted in massive protests and sustained acts of civil disobedience. People flooded the streets demanding an end to police brutality and a recognition that black lives matter.

The state response to this growing movement has been anemic. Task forces were formed and body cameras funded, but the conversations in mainstream media and the halls of power have focused exclusively on tweaking policing practices. This moment calls for more. It is time to rethink not only the practices but the purposes of policing in this country.

If the proof is in the pudding the purpose of policing is the control and surveillance of low-income black and brown communities, who are over-policed and under-protected. Police have become fishing nets for mass incarceration. In some towns, such as Ferguson, they are also tax collectors ticketing low income citizens to support bankrupt municipalities. This is not new. The origins of policing are rooted in slave patrols formed to deny those brave enough to challenge white supremacy their freedom. And the role of police as conveyor belts to courthouses and cages was solidified after implementation of the black codes, which provided legal justification for the continued economic exploitation of black bodies.

For those of us who reject racialized control and profiteering as legitimate law enforcement aims and believe that the purpose of police should be to make us safer--we have work to do. If safety is to be the point we must not tweak but rather transform every inch of policing from recruitment to discipline. We must also interrogate the very premise of policing. Policing models in this country -- includingBroken Windows and "Community Policing" -- rely on the criminalization of black bodies and the idea that more police in more places with more guns will make black communities safer (interestingly this is not how affluent white communities are policed). This despite countless studies indicating that educational attainment, access to jobs, stable housing and mental health services are more effective (and less costly) solutions to crime. The stubborn attachment to current models of policing is similar to the NRA's insistence after the massacre at Sandy Hook that the solution to school shootings is to give every teacher a gun.

We have for too long been told that cops have a monopoly on public safety. But when we envision what actually makes us feel safe it is not SWAT teams or police in schools with tasers. Instead we think of our homes, our families, people who can help us when we are sick and soothe us when we are scared. Communities across the country have been having conversations about the reality that cops are not the solution to all community issues. They have started to call for divestment from ever-expanding police forces and investment in systemic changes that we know make us safer. We need to fund more teachers and social workers, not police officers, in our schools. We need doctors, not cops, to deal with drug addiction and mental illness. We need full employment not the criminalization of poverty. We need organized and powerful communities not federal tank giveaways. We need to fund stronger, healthier neighborhoods, not bigger police departments.

Safety Beyond Policing is one innovative example of communities fighting the tide of police militarization and occupation. The campaign is made up of a coalition of community groups from across New York City and was formed in opposition to Commissioner Bratton's proposal to add 1,000 additional officers to the NYPD (which is already the seventh largest standing army in the world). All this despite a steady decrease in crime even during the NYPD's two-week "work stoppage," proving that the Department's resource consuming broken window's philosophy and aggressive policing of low-level offenses does not make us safer. Safety Beyond Policing has proposed a series of alternative ways to use the nearly $100 million requested in 2016 to hire and train the additional officers. These alternatives are evidence-based solutions to crime, which strengthen not imprison communities. They include investments in mental health services, transportation, NYCHA housing and work opportunities for youth. Imagine -- instead of 1,000 new NYPD officers New York City could provide summer jobs to over 300,000 youth. A similar program in Chicago reduced arrests of participants by 43% over the course of more than a year. There is no similar evidence about the efficacy of additional police.

Whatever the purpose and practices of policing should be they must be determined by the communities being policed -- particularly our youth who are most exposed to interpersonal and state violence but rarely included in decisions about the fate of their neighborhoods. Departments must be re-structured by and accountable to the communities they purport to serve. We must create community oversight boards that actually represent communities and can hold officers accountable for misconduct. We must ensure community involvement in setting and enforcing police priorities -- community budgeting should be used for departmental budgets so that community members determine what police spend their time and money on. Communities should be central in creating metrics for police evaluation -- so that officers are not rewarded for more arrests but instead are evaluated on a set of civil rights metrics that reflect community values.

But ultimately safety for black communities requires a move away from mass criminalization and not simply nicer but fewer police. Safety will require community organizing and power building. It will require innovative models of restorative justice and community-based solutions. And it will require investment in our communities, who have too long been victims of police violence, economic deprivation, incarceration, and political isolation.

This post is part of the "Black Future Month" series produced by The Huffington Post and Black Lives Matter for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will look at one of 28 different cultural and political issues affecting Black lives, from education to criminal-justice reform. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #BlackFutureMonth -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.