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Restructuring Policing

June, 8, 2020 [Revised 7/16/2020]

All who are interested in a more just America should be thrilled by the mass mobilization that has formed to protest the killing of George Floyd and the structure of policing that allowed his murder. It is widely recognized that progressive social change almost invariably begins with social movements, and the energy, demographics, and political context of this movement give it enormous promise. Politicians, community leaders, and movement activists have a responsibility to realize that promise by formulating policy demands and movement slogans that concretely move us toward the visions of justice that inspire this movement. The potential for broad and lasting progressive gains afforded by a serious reckoning with the legacies and current realities of racism must not be squandered for want of strategic thought.

Demands that contain concrete proposals are vital components of social activism. The presence of specific policy proposals accounts for much of the success of the 1960s’ civil rights movement. The absence of such proposals severely limited the effects of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But not any proposals and demands will do. They must be both workable and capable of democratic political endorsement.

Thinking about calls to “defund” or “abolish” or “dismantle,” versus “reform” the police is a good place to start discharging the responsibility to formulate concrete proposals and effective demands. While a perfectly just and perfectly healthy society might be able to forgo all policing functions, most people correctly understand that proposals based on the premise that we are or will soon become such a society is utterly utopian. Slogans that suggest we can do without institutions that are empowered to use coercion will be overwhelmingly democratically rejected. And even if they were implemented, they would lead to chaos, vigilantism, freelance violence, increased racism, and social distrust. The movement for social justice, for an end to racism, for less violence, and more genuine democracy would be harmed. Although some of those calling for defunding or abolishing the police want only to redirect some funding or change current personnel, and those who literally want to abolish police departments rarely think we can do without any institutions to perform many policing functions, the call to “abolish” or “defund” suggests to many a world without policing of any kind. Slogans that need too much explaining ill serve their goals.

None of that means a radical re-conception of public safety policies that put the state’s coercive powers into different institutional structures isn’t in order. “Reform” fails to conjure the depth of change needed. Calls for radical change need not be counter-productive utopian demands. Here is just one example of a specific radical proposal which acknowledges the need to retain the government’s monopoly of the legitimate use of force. While it is similar to proposals for multiple types of first responders, it reorganizes rather just narrows policing functions:

Rename all police departments public safety departments and all of their officers public safety officers (PSOs), but hire, train, and give distinct tasks and powers to two different kinds of Public Safety Officers: one type of PSO, call them “Constrainers,” might be armed, and would be trained in how to use the minimal amount of force necessary to control a situation or make an arrest if one is called for. A second type of PSO, call them “Resolvers” would be unarmed and trained in how to defuse stressful situations, deescalate conflict, and direct people to appropriate social service agencies, whether governmental or non-profit NGOs. A PSO Constrainer, or a group of Constrainers, would always be paired with at least one PSO Resolver and under that Resolver’s supervision. The Constrainer(s) could only intervene when the Resolver requested intervention because the Resolver judged that his/her/their “resolving skills,” alone could not adequately manage the situation. Presumably, the admission of the inadequacies of their skills would make requesting Constrainer intervention a last resort on the part of Resolvers. Moreover, Resolvers would be evaluated on their demonstrated ability to minimize Constrainer interventions.

In theory all cops are already supposed to be both Resolvers and Constrainers, but in practice, combining both functions in single persons has too often proven to have poor, and sometimes tragically unjust outcomes. No surprise there. The skillsets needed for Resolvers and Constrainers are quite different, just as are diplomats’ and soldiers’. And if one is given the power to supervise the legitimacy of one’s own use of force, then abuse—intentional or not—is going to become all too common. Police already usually work in pairs. Instead of having two police officers who are both half poorly trained social workers, who in many cases are drawn to the job for the “action” dimension of police work, and half bodyguard/martial arts professionals having to second guess when to apply those skills in minimally harmful ways, let us create teams of distinctive specialists, as we do to deal with most complicated problems. And just as statesmen and stateswomen tell the generals when to act, the Public Safety Resolvers are the ones who should authorize the Public Safety Constrainers’ action.

This is merely a sketch. A worked-out proposal would have to have a bevy of policies and procedures based on our knowledge of typical as well as rare but significant police functions and encounters with the public. Nor is this proposal in lieu of other ideas such as banning chokeholds, empowered civilian review boards, or ending qualified immunity. Finally, it does not speak to how public safety departments’ funding should compare to the funding other social services. Most especially it doesn’t speak to the need to create a more egalitarian society with just and non-racist educational, housing, finance and employment policies. But it is an idea that tries to address our need for policing and our need to make it less brutal and alienating. And to react concretely in a large way to a large opportunity.

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