By Bruce Brown
In his 2002 book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell noted that ideas, trends and behaviors spread like wildfire after reaching a critical threshold of acceptance.
It is clear that our nation has reached a positive tipping point on police reform since the brutal murder of George Floyd.
In a Washington Post Schar School poll released on June 9, 69% of Americans said that the Floyd killing signals a systemic problem in law enforcement with just 29% saying it’s an isolated incident. The Post noted that the data pointed to a massive change in public sentiment from 2014, when only 43% thought the police killings of Michael White in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in New York City, were wrong.
Even more promising, the June poll found 81% of Americans said police need to make changes to address the unequal treatment of Black people.
This seismic shift in public opinion requires prompt action on criminal justice reform, including the institution of distinct standards on when police officers may use force, explicit consequences for officers whose interventions are excessive, and disciplining officers who act with racial bias.
Backed by strong support from the public, our next step should not be “defunding,” which is confusing and does not reflect the objectives of many anti-police activists. Nor does it lead us to a more just criminal justice system.
We need police officers to maintain public safety. Currently many departments are over-funded because they are asked to fulfill many roles that can be better tended by other government agencies and nonprofits.
Law enforcement agencies across the nation have been asked to take the lead on a host of social problems that detract from their core mission. In the same way that educators are being asked to take on the role of parents, police officers often must step into situations that would be better handled by professional social workers.
What we need is more police departments to embrace a broader approach that is treatment-oriented, particularly regarding mental health. Reallocating resources so that police are not the lead on mental illness and substance abuse crises is a good first step. Too often, the presence of police automatically increases the tension for people with mental health issues. Add a gun to the situation and the seeds of disaster are sown.
According to the Washington Post “Fatal Force” database, Americans with mental illnesses make up nearly 25% of those killed by police, and a cumulative list shows that, since the 1970s, 115 police officers have been killed by people with untreated mental illnesses.
Having mental health professionals as the only first responders in such cases is not realistic, nor is it safe. However, having them be part of the police response and allowing them to take the lead when appropriate will increase positive outcomes.
The nation has much to learn in this regard from Summit County and Longmont here in Colorado, communities that are leading the way to progressive public safety solutions.
The Longmont Police Department in Boulder Valley provides referrals to local agencies that can provide housing vouchers and mental health counseling for homeless citizens. Summit County, famous for its old-town mining relics and Breckenridge’s peaks, has “Crisis Intervention Teams” where 911 dispatchers can send skilled mental health providers with the police to begin diagnosis and treatment on the scene, reducing arrest and incarceration.
What is the best way to reallocate police funding to make us all safer? Clearly it will take federal and local governments, working together, to distribute resources to maximize public safety as they protect public health. For large metropolitan police departments moving funds to other departments for mental health and substance abuse interventions makes the most sense.
Keep in mind that around 50% of police departments in the United States have fewer than 10 officers, and most of those serve communities with a population under 10,000. Many of those departments operate on limited budgets, so federal and state governments will need to provide funding to integrate social services into police response.
To make informed funding decisions, Congress should appoint a federal commission to identify the gaps and highlight good practices. Local governments should do the same and convene multiple public forums and town hall meetings to make sure that citizens have a voice. If the governments’ efforts are sincere, then the public participation will be constructive.
During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, “Don’t waste a good crisis,” which is wise advice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed. With support for police reform over 80%, now is the time for the United States to make changes that will ensure public safety and protect the rights of all citizens.
The opportunity for police reform has never been bigger, and we should seize it.
Bruce Brown since 2013 has been the district attorney for the 5th Judicial District, consisting of Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties. Email: [email protected]