During my career as a police officer, I responded to numerous calls for service that made me question why a police officer was the appropriate resource assigned to respond and intervene. I was expected to be a medic, a counselor, a mediator and a street lawyer, among many other things.
The unfortunate truth is that people call the police when they don’t know who else to call. As noble as it may be for our front-line officers to try and fulfill all of society’s needs, it isn’t practical or appropriate. Before we become divided about the controversial efforts to defund the Minneapolis Police Department, let’s delve into what the effort could actually look like in practice.
Defunding the police should be referred to as refunding the community. It is not intended to be an overnight process. Reallocating resources, rethinking criminal-justice structures, and more accurately defining the role of a police officer, while differentiating it from the numerous other critical support roles in the community, is an opportunity to develop a sustainable model for both public safety and social support.
As our community continues the discussion about defunding the police, here are three important questions we must ask ourselves in order to both redefine the role of a police officer and identify resources better suited to address community concerns that fall outside the purview of the police.
First, what role do we want police officers to play in our day-to-day lives? This is a question of balancing resources. What services are indispensable? What police functions could be done more efficiently? Could we capitalize on technology to assist in gathering crime data, freeing up officers to focus on community engagement, abandoning an outdated “broken windows” theory of policing?
Second, and more broadly, we must consider what responsibility police officers have to provide public safety. There are certainly times when we need police officers to ensure safety and security. What does that look like for each community? Do the police officers who respond to a neighbor dispute need to be the same police officers who respond to an active-shooter situation? Could we specialize small groups of officers with very limited and well-defined authority to use force? How can we visually and psychologically differentiate between officers serving in a safety and security function, and those serving in a community-support function?
Third, for each function we remove from police authority, we must identify a suitable replacement. In a world of limited resources, smart and strategic investment is crucial. Some agencies have taken important first steps. In St. Paul, the Police Department engaged in a pilot program teaming up social workers and patrol officers to respond to calls in teams. The St. Cloud Police Department has started positioning community outposts in high-crime areas. These types of community police reform strategies could be taken a step further to build community-support structures that provided needed access to independent resources.
It’s worth noting these three questions are not independent of one another. For instance, traffic enforcement is a major focus of many police agencies. It serves a public-safety purpose, but also is the most frequent type of police-citizen contact. There is overlap, but recognizing and identifying what role we want police officers to fulfill, and what role is necessary, is an important first step in developing novel police practices.
Finally, aside from reconstructing the policing machine, we cannot discount the good police officers in our community. These officers are uniquely aware of the intricacies of the communities they serve. There must be partnership with police departments because, at least initially, police officers will continue to be the default eyes and ears of our communities. Long-term changes will be incremental and take a generation or more to fully take hold. A strong partnership with good cops, coupled with access to additional and diverse resources, will help facilitate the transition.
Peter Butte, of Forest Lake, is a criminal prosecutor and former Minnesota police officer.