Beyond the Headlines, Communities are Working to Replace Police with Actual Public Safety   Treatment Not Trauma advocates hold up a large cardboard sign reading: "Stop defunding our communities — Go Defund CPD." (Photo Credit: Sarah-Ji of Love And Struggle Photos)

Beyond the Headlines, Communities are Working to Replace Police with Actual Public Safety  

As the movement to defund the police has grown more popular, many mainstream headlines have told a different, misleading story. More than a year removed from the summer of 2020, after witnessing an unprecedented uprising of people against the police, most American media seems to have coalesced around a narrative that stokes reactionary fears around public safety. We saw months of coverage that amplified flawed crime statistics and tried to vilify community activists. The New York Post said Minneapolis had a “surge in crime months after voting to defund the police” (failing to mention the city actually increased its police spending, and then did so again), while CNN continued the fear mongering around “violent crime spikes”. Fox News went as far as blaming the Defund movement for a New York murder (even though that city spends billions on the largest department in the country). Figures like Joe Biden and Barack Obama weighed in to oppose the mass movement, and the popular line from the ruling class is that Defund has already ‘failed.’ 

But the truth is, more people than ever are standing up to challenge police violence and working to build a better future. There is a growing awareness that divestment is the most direct way to remove police from our neighborhoods and free up funds to reinvest in real safety. Many news outlets have mentioned our call to divest from police departments, but far too few actually share the corresponding community demands for where to invest that money. Defunding the police gives us an opportunity to fund both proven and experimental solutions around public safety, with an understanding that safety means well-resourced communities. After all, the safest communities do not have more cops, they have more resources. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” Discussion of that ‘presence’ is rarely part of the popular discourse, so let’s share some possible examples.

Abolitionist Policy Solutions In The Midwest

All over this country and beyond, the same communities that have been most surveilled, brutalized, and looted by police are crafting alternatives for a better, safer world. We can look to coordinated, robust campaigns in Chicago and Minneapolis for strong examples of this work.  

In Chicago, community activists have long been working to address the challenge of gun violence, even as police cause more harm. The bloated police department currently spends more than $10 million a year on a program to surveil districts with the largest Black and Latinx populations. The system, called “Shotspotter,” claims to detect the location of gunshots, then alerts police to investigate the scene. However, the technology is deeply flawed and the consequences can be deadly. More than just being a waste of city resources, these deployments are dangerous for Black and brown community members who historically have been killed, tortured, abducted, and terrorized by police. While the current system only expands the power of police to do harm, community members have proposed actual safety solutions. The Black and brown youth of GoodKids MadCity have proposed an alternative calledPeace Book to reduce shootings and implement restorative justice. The Peace Book is a regularly-published book (as well as a website and an app) that provides a resource directory identifying wraparound services with the purpose of reducing youth incarceration. It could also help curate neighborhood-based peace treaties and identify Peace Keepers in each ward who have the experience and relationships required to do violence interruption. 

Another safety proposal that would help people in Chicago is calledTreatment Not Trauma.” With similarities to the CAHOOTS program already working in Eugene, OR or the STAR program in Denver, CO, the legislation would allow a trained social worker to respond to a mental health emergency, instead of sending a cop with a gun who may escalate the situation and endanger the person in crisis. Chicago’s pilot model backed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot still sends police to many of these emergency calls, putting everyone at risk. One social worker summarized the inherent danger of this model: “Would they be able to provide support and resources… or would they need to spend their time de-escalating the police officer they are partnered with?” Alternatively, activists continue to push for a publicly funded mental health crisis response system without police involvement and a robust network of mental health clinics to start rebuilding equitable access to counseling services. By substituting care in place of punishment and threat of violence, we can continue to realize the transformative potential of the Defund movement.

Looking to Minneapolis, many saw the city make headlines in June 2020 when nine city council members vowed to defund and dismantle the police department. That promise was broken however, through a saga in which the proposal was halted by the city’s charter commission, Mayor Jacob Frey continually pushed to increase police spending, and the council members themselves backtracked. This result is the total opposite of the popular narrative around Defund in Minneapolis, and the city remains in dire need of divestment from the police. But where the government has failed them, communities have created and advocated for their own solutions. 

Abolitionists in Minneapolis have been working on their own “alternatives in the making” for a better city and world. These local organizers, researchers, artists, and activists present more solutions from the Defund movement, such as:

    • A hiring freeze for cops coupled with a plan where, as each police officer retires, their salary gets transferred into a new community-led public safety program
    • Addressing homelessness by “building more affordable housing, and resisting gentrification—not by asking police to arrest our way out of the problem”
    • Ending traffic stops, since “no one should have to be harassed or searched by the police just because of their appearance. There are better ways we could handle traffic violations, too. If someone has a broken tail light, for example, a warning in the mail would not only be as effective as a traffic stop, but a safer way to let them know”
    • Rethinking property crime, because “most property crime is driven not by malice, but by desperation. A capitalist economy forces each of us to fend for ourselves with little social support or aid… If we want to reduce property crime, and help heal both perpetrators and victims, we should look to restorative justice rather than police action.”
    • Sex education in schools that includes curricula on consent, bodily autonomy, and healthy relationships can be a preventative measure against gender-based violence

By emphasizing the root causes of harm, these solutions look beyond a punitive approach to invest in prevention, instead.

Defund The Police, Fund Real Public Safety

Even if they don’t make national headlines, communities in Chicago, Minneapolis, and beyond are stepping up with solutions where institutions have failed us. This article highlights only a fraction of the possible ideas for how to replace policing with real public safety measures. Beyond the misleading coverage of this mass movement lies a much more powerful and beautiful truth: we will win a future without police, where everyone has their needs met. This future demands new ways of thinking about how we keep each other safe, and that exciting work continues to happen every day. As Mariame Kaba writes, “We need a million experiments. A bunch will fail. That’s good because we’ll have learned a lot that we can apply to the next ones.” We must defund the police and fund these promising experiments to learn what real safety feels like.