Alternatives to Policing
A look at successful programs that already exist as alternatives to police, and which policy changes and actions might restructure the U.S.’s policing and justice systems.
Protesters against police brutality and racism gathered to demand systemic change beginning at the end of May 2020, holding events in all 50 U.S. states and around the world. Impelled by the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, the protests amplify a long-standing call by social justice organizations, Black civil rights leaders like professor Angela Davis and many others for decades: it’s time for alternatives to policing. The movement has called to reform America’s racist and heavily militarized policing systems—and replace them with community-led safety programs and public health initiatives. The movement’s leadership has made it clear that they are calling for more than updates to existing police training programs, or reforms within existing police departments. Rather, they are calling for a rewrite of the response to crime and safety overall. They are calling for cities to reallocate funding away from police and begin the steps to gradually dismantle the policing system altogether, as Eric Levitz wrote in a New York Magazine article in 2020.
The police response to the protests against police brutality in many cities was markedly, and ironically, brutal, as is discussed in detail in an article by Adam Gabbatt in the Guardian. Many videos and reports from recent protests show police using violent force against peaceful protesters. Dounya Zayer spoke with Democracy Now! about the police officer who pushed her to the ground when she was peacefully protesting, which she said resulted in a concussion and a trip to the hospital. By June 2020 in the U.S., just a month into the Black Lives Matter protests, police had already arrested more than 10,000 protesters and repeatedly attacked journalists covering the protests, including Linda Tirado, who was partially blinded after the police shot her with a foam bullet in the eye.
Meanwhile, the protests successfully pushed officials across the country to respond in some tangible ways. Cities, counties, states, and some police precincts across the U.S. started to implement changes, small and large, and the movement has brought the deep-seated problems of the policing systems into the mainstream conversation.
On June 12, 2020, amid the mass protests against police killings, police in Atlanta shot and killed a 27-year-old Black man named Rayshard Brooks. Atlanta police chief Erika Shields immediately fired the officer after the fatal shooting of Brooks, and the officer is now facing murder charges. The autopsy report listed Brooks’ manner of death as a homicide. Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has ordered changes to the police use-of-force policy following the incident. The immediate firing of the officer and response of the mayor—while small steps—both speak to the work of the protests. In the past, many police killings of Black men and boys have gone undisciplined or resulted in a period of paid leave or slight demotion of the officers responsible. Following the death of Brooks, protesters filled the streets of Atlanta to demand more far-reaching justice and systemic changes.
The protests began to push public dialogue to question long-held assumptions about what the safety of the future can look like. The U.S. is starting to reckon with its systemic racism in an unprecedented way. In 2020, Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh declared racism a public health crisis. Because of the protests, several U.S. cities have also started to defund their police programs and reallocate those funds for other public services.
Following public pressure after the wrongful police killing of Breonna Taylor, in which police stormed the house of the 26-year-old medical worker in the middle of the night on March 13 and shot her to death. Soon after, Louisville passed Breonna’s Law to ban no-knock police warrants in the city. After years of public pressure and legal battle, in August 2022 the U.S. Department of Justice charged the officers responsible for Taylor’s death with conspiracy, and on August 24, one officer involved plead guilty to falsifying the search warrant police obtained to raid Taylor’s home.
There was some concern among protest organizers that changes enacted following the BLM uprising could be short-lived, and eventually lead back to the same old cycles of oppression and inequity. Alicia Garza, the principal of Black Futures Lab, the director of strategy and partnerships for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a co-founder of the women’s activist group Supermajority, said in a New York Times Q&A discussion in 2020 that “political will over the long term” will be necessary in order for real change.
“I think there is a danger now that when protests start to die down, which they always do, when the blue-ribbon panel is dismantled, which it always is, Black communities won’t necessarily be in a more powerful place than where we started,” she said in the New York Times interview. “The country has to deeply invest in the ability of Black communities to shape the laws that govern us.”
Which policy changes and actions can actually restructure the U.S.’s policing and justice systems? Here are a few of the concrete changes that leading organizers are calling for, with the potential to shift how policing, safety, and justice systems operate in the future.
Reallocate police funds into community-based programs
Many police budgets in the U.S. are disproportionately bloated when compared with other tax-supported social services. The nationwide trend since the 1960s “war on crime” has been to gradually increase police budgets, while schools, welfare programs and other public services have encountered widespread budget cuts. As the original Black Lives Matter protests that began in Ferguson in 2014 brought to light, police in this country—even in smaller precincts—are heavily militarized. Angela Davis pointed this out in an interview in 2020, in which she discussed how America’s “police departments are the most dramatic expression of structural racism.”
Calls by BLM organizers to defund the police make it clear that defunding is just the first in a multistep movement to dismantle policing as we know it. But it’s an important starting point, as it has the capability to free up needed resources for community-based social services and public health services.
Several cities—some of them for the first time—began in 2020 to take that first step and reduce their police budgets, to varying degrees. For example, in Austin, the city council on June 11, 2020 voted to reinvest police funds and restrict use of force after recent police violence against protesters sent at least 31 people to the hospital. San Francisco’s Mayor London N. Breed also announced a plan on June 11, 2020 under which the city would redirect some of its police funds into organizations that serve communities that have been harmed by systematic racism, and police will no longer respond to non-criminal calls or use military-grade weapons and gear. New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio promised for the first time to cut funding for the NYPD. Portland announced plans to decrease its police budget by $15 million.
Minneapolis, the city where Geroge Floyd was murdered, came closer enacting to the changes protesters called for. In 2020, the Minneapolis City Council vowed to eliminate its current police department and replace it with a new model of community-led safety programs. Community organizers in the city were already implementing programs led by community members that rethink safety, as outlined in a Truthout op-ed by Jae Hyun Shim. However in 2021 voters in the city rejected a proposal to replace the city’s police department with a new Department of Public Safety, an idea that supporters had hoped would bring radical change to policing in the city. The city has also worked with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights on an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department over the last decade. The department, like many in the U.S., has repeatedly failed to hold cops accountable for their violent actions.
Aqeela Sherrills, an organizer who has been working to shift the conversation around safety and violence in America for more than three decades, was at the helm of a groundbreaking peace treaty between the Bloods and the Crips in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1992. While Sherrills is not an advocate of completely getting rid of the police, he has long worked toward reallocating significant portions of police funding into community programs.
The programs he has helped to build offer real-life proof of how community-based safety can be more effective than police in reducing crime. During 2020 protests, for example, the city of Newark kept its police to the sidelines, away from people protesting, and it demilitarized the police by prohibiting riot gear and military-grade attire and weapons. The city deployed its organized and trained community groups (including the Newark Community Street Team, the West Ward Victims Outreach Services, the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, and the mayor’s Brick City Peace Collective) to help keep things safe and civil. As a result, Newark did not experience the reports of police brutality seen in many other American cities, and they had weeks of peaceful protests without looting or serious property damage.
Remove all police from schools; reinvest in counseling and education instead
Many civil rights groups and organizers—including prominent teachers unions in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere—have called for the removal of police from schools. Most programs to bring police into schools were enacted in response to school shootings, and following school shootings across the U.S. between 2021 and 2022, some of the districts that removed their resource officers brought them back. There is a lack of evidence to show that police in schools actually increase safety. There is, however, ample evidence that they make life harder for Black kids, as discussed in a 2020 New York Times article.
Many of the teachers’ groups and civil rights groups that called to remove cops from schools during the BLM protests have been doing so for years. The civil rights groups Advancement Project and the Alliance for Educational Justice released a joint report in 2018 that outlines the reasons removing police from schools is a step to improve school safety. As the report authors note in the introduction, the report “centers the voices of young people from around the country who describe the everyday indignities that they experience at the hands of school police. It also, for the first time, catalogues known assaults of young people by school police officers.”
The report explores the impacts of school police on students of color and Black communities in particular, and notes that in the two decades following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, school discipline has grown increasingly punitive and has failed to increase safety in schools, especially for students of color.
“Safety does not exist when Black and Brown young people are forced to interact with a system of policing that views them as a threat and not as students,” the report authors write. “The report calls for the removal of police from schools and envisions schools where Black and Brown students are afforded the presumption of childhood that they deserve.”
While police budgets have been steadily rising for the last decade across the nation, education budgets have been slashed across the nation. The powerful union United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has come out vocally in favor of the movement to eliminate police in the city’s schools, as the LA Times reports. Cecily Myart-Cruz, the incoming president of UTLA, reportedly told the Times, “We have to dismantle white supremacy. We must… defund the police and bring in the mental health services that our students need.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been outspoken against police programs in schools for years due to the many racial disparities inherent in those programs. The ACLU’s website shows the negative impacts of these programs on Black and Brown students in particular. The website states:
“Though these police are often referred to as ‘school resource officers,’ their legal power and attending actions reveal that this designation only serves to mask that their presence has transformed schools into another site of concentrated policing. Such policing marks the start of the school-to-prison pipeline—the entry point to the criminal justice system for too many kids—and fuels mass incarceration.”
Decriminalize people for surviving
In addition to calling for changes to policing itself, many activists seeking to end the problems associated with police brutality are also advocating for other reforms that decriminalize people for surviving. This means legally decriminalizing sex work, drug use and possession, homelessness, and asylum-seeking immigrants. Organizers are also calling to change the way survivors of violent crimes are often themselves criminalized because of the way the systems are set up.
A report released this year by Nina Luo, a fellow for Data for Progress, details the necessity to decriminalize sex work as a first step toward protecting sex workers, and a “part of effective anti-trafficking policy. … Decriminalization includes amending penal codes and divesting from the criminal legal system (both police and prosecutors).”
Sex work is a relevant and mandatory part of the conversation around race and policing because entire police units, special undercover operations and significant resources are dedicated to policing sex work in the U.S. And, as the report notes, most often people who enter the sex trades do so out of economic desperation, in order to pay for their basic needs. Those sex workers are “often undocumented, women of color and/or young LGBTQ+ people who have little to no access to the justice system.” When these people are criminalized for attempting to survive via sex work, the “‘criminality’ as a result of engaging in sex work entirely discredits them as ‘victims’ when they report rape or violence to police.”
A national poll conducted by Data for Progress, published in January, found that “an outright majority of… [U.S.] voters support decriminalizing sex work.” In the report, Luo explains how criminalizing sex work forces the trade underground, which ultimately endangers sex workers who might have been coerced into the trade, as they themselves could face charges if they speak about their work. The report also explains that sex workers enter the trade for a number of reasons—from choice to circumstance to coercion. And, again, most of them enter because of circumstance.
“Most sex workers trade sex out of circumstance to meet economic needs such as healthcare, housing or childcare,” the report says. “They may experience explicit discrimination in the formal economy because of disability, gender identity or immigration status and rely on sex work to meet basic needs. They may find parts of the sex industry to have low barriers of entry, allowing them to immediately access income for a short period of time in the industry before exiting. They may find that the freelance or independent nature of the work allows them more time flexibility to caretake families or pursue other interests.”
The report concludes with a reminder that criminalization has never effectively ended the sex trade, and that decriminalizing sex work is just a first step toward safety for people who do that work—and it’s the “only legal model that immediately reduces the harms of policing, incarceration, deportation, and criminal records in the lives of sex workers and trafficking survivors.”
As the U.S. reckons with its long-standing racism and policies that enforce systemic inequalities, sex work, and the criminalization of sex workers have to be part of the discussion. As Luo writes:
“Sex work is an issue of controversy because it forces us to reckon with the realities of economic, racial, and gender injustice. People trade sex for many reasons, but most often to meet basic needs, and until this economy affords everyone a home, a living wage job, healthcare, and education, many people will continue to trade sex for survival.”
As with sex work, the criminalization of drugs has been overtly ineffective and problematic. The four decades of the failed and innately racist U.S. war on drugs are a systemic colossus responsible for over-policing, primarily in non-white neighborhoods, and the mass incarceration that has disproportionately locked up Black and Brown people for decades. As the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) wrote in a 2017 report calling for the decriminalization of drug use and possession:
“By any measure and every metric, the U.S. war on drugs—a constellation of laws and policies that seeks to prevent and control the use and sale of drugs primarily through punishment and coercion—has been a colossal failure with tragic results. Indeed, federal and state policies that are designed to be ‘tough’ on people who use and sell drugs have helped over-fill our jails and prisons, permanently branded millions of people as ‘criminals,’ and exacerbated drug-related death, disease, and suffering—all while failing at their stated goal of reducing problematic drug use.”
Drug use is a public health issue, and it should be treated that way, as the DPA and many others have argued for years. Since Portugal, for example, made the groundbreaking decision to decriminalize all drugs in 2001 and turn drug use into a public health issue rather than a criminal one, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Portugal’s opioid crisis, which was once among the worst in the world, quickly stabilized, and problematic drug use dropped significantly over the next several years. Hepatitis and HIV infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates also plummeted.
From the start, the war on drugs has targeted Black people, and other people of color, as author Michelle Alexander details in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In a 2014 interview, with the beginning of state-by-state cannabis legalization, Alexander discussed a trend in the emerging cannabis industry in which white men were getting rich, but many Black men remained in prison—and they still do. Several petitions to free people who are still serving life sentences for minimal cannabis charges have gained steam in recent years.
Homeless people are also criminalized in America for trying to survive. As the National Coalition for the Homeless explains, “The criminalization of homelessness refers to measures that prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces. These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations of these acts.”
In the U.S., more than half a million people are homeless, and protesters are calling for an end of the criminalization of homelessness, and reallocation of police and justice system funding into safe housing programs to help people living on the streets.
And, among the conversations gaining some steam throughout the protests is the call to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Currently, the U.S. is still holding asylum seekers who came to the U.S. hoping to escape dangerous situations, in horrific, overcrowded and illegal detention camps along the U.S.-Mexico border. Children have been separated from their parents, and thousands of them have reportedly been misplaced. Detainees, including children, are living in squalor, treated inhumanely, locked in cages and dying in detention centers. ICE is the policing agency responsible for the operation. Throughout the recent protests, a petition has been circulating to stop reported spraying of ICE detainees with a powerful and toxic disinfectant, which is reportedly a practice being enacted in detention centers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Protests are calling to do away with ICE and decriminalize asylum-seeking immigrants, and all people who come to America looking for work and a better life.
In addition to decriminalizing the above sectors, BLM supporters have called for the release of those currently incarcerated for these crimes. Some have called to take this further and begin to abolish the prison systems along with the police in order to bring about racial justice. The 2016 documentary film “13th” by director Ava DuVernay offers an in-depth breakdown of the racial disparities of prison systems, their ties to slavery and the continued oppression of Black Americans.
As a Reuters article reports, 40 percent of the almost 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. are Black, while just 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. University of Ottawa associate professor of criminology Justin Piché told Reuters in 2020, “Something feels different this time,” in regard to the general response to protesters’ calls for racial justice. “Whether or not that actually translates into police defunding and more gains for prison abolition, that remains to be seen.”
Successful Programs that Already Exist as Alternatives to Police
What can and should new systems of safety look like? What new programs and justice models can replace the police?
In response to the question “what does an America with defunded police look like to you?” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a 2020 Instagram story that the answer “doesn’t take a ton of imagination,” because “It looks like a[n American] suburb.” She wrote:
“Affluent white communities already live in a world where they choose to fund youth, health, housing, etc. more than they fund police… When a teenager or preteen does something harmful in a suburb (I say teen [because] this is often where lifelong carceral cycles begin for Black and Brown communities), White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to ‘protect their future,’ like community service or rehab or restorative measures.”
“Why don’t we treat Black and Brown people the same way? Why doesn’t the criminal system care about Black teens’ futures the way they care for White teens’ futures? Why doesn’t the news use Black people’s graduation or family photos in stories the way they do when they cover White people (e.g., Brock Turner) who commit harmful crimes?”
While the idea of defunding the police was long regarded as radical and practically unthinkable in the U.S., programs that offer viable, reasonable alternatives to police already exist. In fact, 2020 was not the first time people fought to defund and replace the police in the U.S. Law enforcement officers used to operate the country’s ambulance systems, until the people demanded trained medical technicians take their place.
As states and cities began to defund and dismantle current police systems in 2020, to varying degrees, officials in those areas were looking to existing models for how to move forward and create systems of safety beyond police. And they found that several organizations and community programs already exist, and have been working for years on replacing over-policing with public health and social services-oriented alternatives.
Redesigning Safety in Minneapolis
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, community groups have been focused for years on raising awareness of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD)’s shortcomings, and calling for investment in community-led strategies. Grassroots activist organizations like Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective, as well as a community-based initiative called MPD150 (made up of local organizers, activists, artists and researchers who curate historical data and narratives that illustrate the MPD’s 150-year, largely violent legacy) have urged the city to dismantle and restructure the MPD, in favor of community-oriented safety programs, for years.
The city’s Native American population, which totals about 150,000 residents, has been actively working against police brutality since the 1960s. They organize and train community members to handle crises and intervene, rather than police. As a recent Mother Jones article by Delilah Friedler points out:
“A CNN analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Native Americans were slightly more likely than Black people to die at the hands of law enforcement between 1999 and 2015, though the rates are often neck-and-neck—and deeply intertwined.”
In 1968, Indigenous groups in the Minneapolis launched the American Indian Movement (AIM) in response to police brutality, and AIM has since become a national civil rights organization.
Speaking about AIM, Friedler writes:
“From the beginning, members of AIM volunteered to patrol neighborhoods in order to document the Minneapolis Police Department’s rampant violence against Natives, which allegedly included coldblooded murders and rapes.”
The AIM Patrol has been active since then, working within the city and around the country to reduce police violence and provide community support on-the-ground. As Friedler’s article points out, Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective noted the importance of AIM’s efforts to the larger movement in a June 2020 press release following the city council’s decision to disband MPD (which has since then, stating that the current movement is “built alongside the ongoing presence and legacy” of AIM Patrol.
AIM works by “deterring both police and intra-community violence by intervening or simply bearing witness to make accountability possible,” Friedler writes. Women, elders and others who feel unsafe can call on AIM members to escort them, they sometimes offer food and resources to houseless residents of the city and have been discussing ways to help replace cops as first responders during a mental health crisis.
Curing Violence in New York
Cure Violence, a program that is currently operating in New York, offers a model that takes a public health approach to violence prevention. Developed by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, Cure Violence approaches crime and violence in the same way health professionals approach the containment of epidemics: by identifying the source of the spread, and interrupting it at the source. The program deploys trained outreach workers to mitigate conflicts on the ground, and violence interrupters who are credible messengers, or trusted members of the communities where they work, to do on-the-ground conflict resolution with members of gangs or people at risk of participating in retaliatory violence.
The program was initially put into place in high crime areas of Chicago under the name CeaseFire. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice released a three-year evaluation of the program reporting significant reductions in crime. The report states near the end, “[T]he evaluation showed that the program made neighborhoods safer. CeaseFire decreased shootings and killings.”
The program has since expanded into several U.S. cities. An independent study in 2012 of a Cure Violence partner program called Safe Streets in Baltimore, which was commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, credited the program with statistically significant violent crime reductions.
New York currently has 25 Cure Violence programs in operation throughout the city. John Jay College of Criminal Justice conducted an in-depth evaluation of two of those programs: Man Up! Inc. in East New York, Brooklyn; and Save Our Streets South Bronx. The evaluation, published in 2017, compared each of the two neighborhoods that had Cure Violence programs to a comparable neighborhood with similar demographics and crime trends, but no Cure Violence program in place.
Sheyla Delgado, deputy director for analytics at John Jay College and a researcher for the Cure Violence evaluation, says the comparisons offer promising evidence in favor of the program’s public health approach to violence reduction. She says what seems to make Cure Violence different from comparable programs that work to reduce violence is that it humanizes all of its participants.
“Cure Violence doesn’t think of people as bad people; [it] think[s] of people as sick and that [the program] can cure them,” she says.
The Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice began its evaluation of Cure Violence in 2012. Researchers visited program sites and interviewed staff about the Cure Violence and collected data about violent incidents in the city from the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the state’s Department of Health. Researchers also conducted annual surveys of young men living in 12 New York neighborhoods, some with and some without Cure Violence programs between 2012 and 2016.
Delgado says the human-oriented approach to the research, as well as the decision to use comparable neighborhoods, make the research approach particularly strong. She says it also helps to paint perhaps a more nuanced picture of how the Cure Violence program actually operates on a human level.
“What we’ve found and published on the effects of Cure Violence has been really positive so far,” she adds. “In the New York City neighborhoods that operate Cure Violence what we’ve seen is that there has been a steeper decline in gun violence and the expression of pro-violence social norms, which we use the survey to measure.”
She says something that stands out to her about the Cure Violence approach is that the program maintains strict anonymity around interactions between workers and community members, which seems to strengthen the credibility of the program in the communities where it is being implemented.
She notes that in more traditional research the go-to method would be to track individuals over time through a program like Cure Violence, but because of the anonymity of the program, this isn’t possible. However, she thinks this is actually a good thing.
“In the name of research we shouldn’t encourage programs like this to violate their core principles to make it easier for us to evaluate their effectiveness,” Delgado says, noting that part of the reason she is interested in research work to assess programs related to violence and safety is that she sees the need for improvement of safety systems in the U.S.
“I do have a desire to really tangibly improve public safety for everybody, not just, for the people with the most political status,” she says. Delgado notes that when it comes to researching crime, there is a significant challenge inherent to the process because much of the data available comes from police departments, and that data can often be flawed.
“When we’re making decisions about the selection of the neighborhoods or the people that are going to be part of our study, what outcomes we are going to track, or which crimes are we going to collect and assemble data for—all of these divisions that we are making at the beginning of a project are very challenging and crucial in actually [creating biases in] your results,” she says. “Over the last eight years, I have been intimately working with NYPD crime data, and I am more convinced than ever today that those records are only a reflection of police activity and what they are mandated to record.”
According to Delgado, NYPD data “does not reflect crime levels in the community or in the city at large.”
“There are so many issues with that information, and still so much information that we don’t have access to,” she says. “It’s very important for me to make it known to the world that police data only reflects police activity. It does not reflect actual public safety in a community.”
Advance Peace, founded in 2009 in California, is another program to take note of, with a similar approach to Cure Violence. Advance Peace “establish[es] responsive community-driven strategies that achieve high-impact outcomes for those caught in the cycle of urban gun violence.”
The Advance Peace program was founded after the police department in Richmond, California, reported in 2009 that fewer than 30 men were responsible for 70 percent of gun crimes there. The program was launched the following year, with the creation of “Peacemaker Fellowship,” which provides young men involved in lethal firearm offenses with “transformational opportunities” through the fellowship.
Community Safety in Newark, New Jersey
Newark, New Jersey, has successfully reduced its overall crime rates over the last six years thanks to a coordinated, citywide effort that brings together the crime interrupter approach of programs like Cure Violence and Advance Peace, with community participation through community-wide supportive services and initiatives that fall under the purview of what is called the Newark Community Street Team (NCST).
The city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, has been working with longtime organizer Aqeela Sherrills to create a three-pronged approach to community-based violence reduction. Sherrills, who was at the helm of the historic peace treaty between the Bloods and the Crips in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1992, is a senior adviser to the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), which works with several states to replace over-incarceration with crime prevention, community health, rehabilitation and crime survivor support programs. He is also co-founder of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ).
The first prong in Newark’s violence reduction model is intervention, which is similar to the “interrupter” strategies used by Cure Violence.
“We have a High-Risk Intervention team that intervenes in individual and group conflicts, both present ones as well as historic ones,” Sherrills says in an interview in June with the Independent Media Institute. “We have a direct relationship to our hospitals. We launched the city’s first hospital-based violence intervention program, where we have outreach workers who are embedded in the hospital so that when individuals are harmed in the community and they go into the hospital to be serviced, we develop a safety plan. You can’t just patch people up and provide them psychosocial services and then send them back into the community. You have to set up a safety plan so that when [someone] is returning home, that conflict has been intervened with and mediated, so that they don’t come back [home] and get shot again, and go right back [to the hospital].”
The second prong is the city’s Safe Passage program, which deploys credible messengers, respected in the communities where they work, to escort kids to and from school.
“In our study with the health department, we discovered that violence is happening in and around schools more often than anywhere [else],” Sherrills says. “Things happen on a school campus on a Friday, and spill [over in] the community on the weekend. On the weekend, conflicts happen in the community, and spill onto the campus on Monday morning. And so, we launched an evidence-based program called Safe Passage… Our staff [consists of] former gang members, ex-convicts, people who are credible messengers in this neighborhood. Ninety-eight percent of our staff [members] are residents of the communities in which they serve. When people see them on the block, it helps to shift the image of these individuals from being predators in their neighborhood, to being the solution-bringers and the problem-solvers. So they’re able to deter conflict and violence from happening.”
The third prong, which Sherrills calls the city’s “theory of change,” centers on supporting victims via improved access victims’ services, including trauma services.
“We’ve been able to access Victims of Crime Act dollars from the state,” Sherrills adds. “We have a full-time victims’ advocate who helps people complete their Victims of Crime application. We connect them with pro-bono legal services from our partners at Rutgers University. We provide them mentoring through a case management model. Nine of our outreach workers also do mentoring through a case-management model.”
The NCST also designed an 800 number that gives residents who are experiencing or witnessing a domestic issue or conflict the option to call on community members to mediate the situation, rather than the police.
“You can call us directly,” Sherrills says. “And we will deploy a community person who is trained in conflict resolution and mediation, who understands trauma-informed practices, to be able to respond to your situation and help you to mediate that situation to a peaceful outcome.”
Sherrills notes that all three programs work together to create a comprehensive safety structure. In addition, the city runs a community policy forum called the Public Safety Round Table in which residents, including elected officials, law enforcement, community-based organizations, and faith-based groups, meet twice a month to hold one another accountable for the services they are meant to provide.
“It’s a holistic approach,” Sherrills further adds. “When we talk about community intervention, some people think interruption [like the police do] is the only aspect of the work that happens. And I’m like, no. We intervene, and then we deal with the retaliation and rumor control, we connect those folks to victim services, and we then connect them to a multitude of other services to support them in their healing.”
Looking to Oregon and CAHOOTS
To varying degrees, several U.S. cities joined Minneapolis in vowing to reform and rearrange their policing systems into new services-oriented systems. San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have both committed to reallocate all non-violent 911 calls to non-police responders. San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver have all specifically pointed to the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene, Oregon, as an example of how to successfully direct non-emergency responses, particularly surrounding mental health, away from the police. CAHOOTS staff are not law enforcement officers and do not carry weapons, but instead rely on training and a non-violent conflict resolution approach to crisis situations.
The CAHOOTS program has offered community-based public safety services in the City of Eugene, as well as neighboring Springfield, for 31 years. Launched in 1989 by the Eugene Police Department and the White Bird Clinic as a “community policing” service, the program is a mental health first responder service for crises involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction. Like other emergency services such as the fire department and police, CAHOOTS is a 24/7 crisis intervention program whose workers are dispatched through the Eugene police-fire-ambulance communications center. Dispatch teams each consist of a medic who is either a nurse or an EMT, and a crisis worker with multiple years of experience working in mental health.
The CAHOOTS program’s groundbreaking partnership between police and social services has become a national beacon of how to potentially, and successfully, rethink non-emergency interventions. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2016 estimated 25 to more than 50 percent of fatal encounters with law enforcement involved an individual with a mental illness. CAHOOTS has allowed Eugene to avoid most encounters between police and mentally ill individuals. According to its internal data, police backup was only requested 150 times “out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls” in 2019.
According to its website, CAHOOTS responds to calls and offers supportive services related to, but not limited to, all of the following:
- Crisis counseling
- Suicide prevention, assessment, and intervention
- Conflict resolution and mediation
- Grief and loss
- Substance abuse
- Housing crisis
- First aid and non-emergency medical care
- Resource connection and referrals
- Transportation to services
In addition to offering residents an alternative to calling the cops, the CAHOOTS program saves the city money. The program’s budget is about $2.1 million per year, while the combined annual budgets for the Eugene and Springfield police departments are $90 million. According to CAHOOTS, in 2017 the program’s teams answered “17 percent of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume,” and the program estimates that it “saves the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually.”
Heather Sielicki, the program’s operations coordinator, says the program’s success relies on the fact that it takes a “neighbors helping neighbors approach.”
“People in the community often call and request help from our program because they know we can be trusted to help find a resolution for human need that is not punitive in nature,” she says. “CAHOOTS is less about enforcing the impossible and more about working to find possibilities in difficult circumstances and alleviate the immediate crisis.”
Austin, TX Reallocates Police Funds to House and Support Homeless
In Austin, Texas in 2020, as the already critical homelessness rates were exacerbated by the economic realities of the pandemic, the city began purchasing underutilized hotels and transforming them into housing and supportive services —including mental health services, trauma services and job services—for people experiencing homelessness. To pay for these supportive services, the city will reallocatedollars originally assigned to the police budget, as part of its project to reimagine safety, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and public demand. Funding for operations and services of the hotels comes from Austin Public Health, using a portion of the additional $6.5 million added to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to address homelessness during the city council’s efforts to reimagine public safety.
Homelessness in the U.S., which was on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased in 2020,. Austin was no exception, with an estimated 11 percent increase in homeless people counted in the city and Travis County between 2019 and 2020, according to the point-in-time (PIT) count reported in the Austin American-Statesman. Of Austin’s population of roughly 1 million, an estimated 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night, according to the 2020 PIT count. Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar says this is a number “a community of [more than] a million folks should be able to care [for].”
While shelters provide an important service, oftentimes, they’re just temporarily addressing the issue of homelessness. The plan is for the converted hotels to serve as a more permanent housing solution, to address the real needs of each person they house.
“That’s the way that we can reduce the amount of homelessness in the city, instead of just sort of hiding it, or moving [the homeless population] around while the numbers grow,” Casar says.
“We have never had so many people engage in local government before [the BLM movement],” he says. “There were tens of thousands of people that contacted my office alone. In the weeks of protest over the summer [in 2020], we had hundreds of people testifying at city council meetings, for hours, about the changes that they were calling on us to make. I think that was really important. It shifted all of our perspectives. The community here in Austin is calling on us to be real leaders for our community and for people across the state and across the country. Austin, I think, actually responded to the call to transform police budgets in a way that very few cities across the country did.”
Casar says while cities often have the dollars to make the capital investment in property to house the homeless, the long-term funding for operating those buildings and providing supportive services tends to be the challenge. He says prior to last summer’s BLM movement, which pressured cities across the nation to reallocate police funds into supportive services, one of Austin’s greatest challenges regarding homelessness was related to finding that long-term funding.
“The dollars from the police budget are going to provide the services and operate the hotels,” he says. “No matter how many changes I and some others have tried to make to the budget in years past, we’ve, oftentimes, struggled to make really transformative change because so many dollars get wrapped up in the police budget. This last year, there was finally an opportunity for us to rethink that budget and recognize that we were spending so many dollars on jailing folks experiencing homelessness and policing people experiencing homelessness—but that actually doesn’t reduce homelessness.”