Although mass demonstrations against police violence against citizens have subsided, we should not follow the historical pattern or forgetting about police abuses once they fade from the news.  

Otherwise, in a few weeks, or a few months, we will be replaying everything for the umpteenth time.  

Police use of excessive force or police killing someone is recorded on cell phones. The video goes viral. Those most offended by the egregious actions of police are once again in the streets and calling for defunding and abolishing police departments. Government officials toss word salads while promising “reform.” And once again, little to nothing changes because the public lacked the determination to continue demanding and working for meaningful change.

Our legitimate outrage over police brutality and murders inclines us to focus all of our ire on the police. In many ways, this is unfair to our police officers. Police are not the root of the problem. They are a symptom of a problem that has existed from the inception of our nation. In some ways, they also are victims of the problem.

In many respects, we have given our police forces impossible tasks to accomplish, and we have inadequately prepared and trained them for the duties that will consume much/most of their time.  

Over the past 40 years, with “austerity” and neo-liberal governance, the social “safety net” has been shredded. Budgets for social services have been shredded. Social services have been reduced, and some have been abolished. The issues these agencies once were responsible for addressing have spilled into the streets to become the responsibilities of police. Tragedies ensue.

Today, our police are burdened with social services responsibilities from dealing with the homeless, the mentally ill, people suffering mental crises, people under the influence of alcohol and drugs, to patrolling the halls of our schools. Should it be the responsibility of the police to address, manage and solve our social ills? No. This should not and cannot be the responsibility of the police. We need to unburden them of these responsibilities.

Our police officers are not social workers, and they should not be charged with social workers’ responsibilities. Much, perhaps even most of the work police officers do today falls more in the area of social work than police work. In some instances, police are needed in addition to a social worker. In most of these instances where police are called today, a trained social worker would be much more appropriate; and there would be a much less likelihood of events escalating out of control and someone dying.

So, yes, we need to dismantle the police. We need to increase our social welfare spending to provide services for people who otherwise could become a problem for the police; a problem they are ill trained and ill equipped to handle. Let our police be law enforcement officers.  

We need police to help prevent crime, to solve crimes, to apprehend criminals, to protect society from those who would do us harm. We need them to control and regulate traffic to minimize harm to the public by people who otherwise would drive too fast, or recklessly, or while intoxicated or high on drugs. We also need police for crowd control, to keep people and property safe whether it be jubilant fans celebrating a national sports title, or people in the streets trying to make their voices heard by demonstrating for causes in which they believe. These primarily should be limits of police responsibilities.

There probably are times when a police officer should accompany a social worker to the scene of some incident. But we need to distinguish between potentially violent situations and non-violent situations where a police presence actually could escalate the situation. Certainly police should be at a scene where someone who is having a mental crisis has barricaded himself in a building and has firearms.  

However, who is better equipped to defuse this situation and resolve it without anyone, police included, being harmed? Police officers who have little to no training in assisting someone in a mental crisis? Or a trained mental health professional whose job is to work with people in mental crisis? Yes, police should be there; but the mental health worker should be the one in charge. The police take charge only if all other efforts have failed and the situation escalates to violence—not violence initiated by police, but by the person in crisis. This should hold even if that person has hostages and is threatening to harm them.

Most importantly, we need to de-militarize the police. Let’s remember the historic purposes of police in the U.S. Those were to hunt down and return or kill escaped slaves, to attack workers striking for decent wages and safe working conditions, and generally to control, suppress and oppress the under classes; minorities in particular.

Militarization of police has been evolving for over a century. It gained speed after Congress passed the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act, and again with passage of the 1981 Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act. Police now receive military armaments and weaponry from the U.S. military, along with training on U.S. military bases. All of this needs to be terminated 

Additionally, many combat veterans join police forces after leaving military service. They bring with them the military mindset they acquired in training and in combat. That mindset can become infectious when coupled with the general militarization of police. Consequently, we see military terminology, weaponry and tactics in all of our large and mid-sized city police departments. We hear police references to “combat zone” and “war zone” in referring to certain urban neighborhoods. Residents of those neighborhoods are regarded by the police more as an enemy rather than as civilians whose rights should be protected by police just as the rights of (predominately) white citizens are protected in more affluent urban areas.

When police bring military training, tactics and mindsets into neighborhoods, it is understandable residents of those neighborhoods come to see the police as an occupying power. Citizens who never have seen this or experienced it themselves have great difficulty understanding the relationship existing between police and residents of “occupied territories.” Perhaps ironically (and perhaps understandably) when residents see police geared up an armed almost identical to our forces in Afghanistan, a militarized police presence is more likely to induce violence than to prevent violence as resentments, even hatred, on both sides builds.

Relatedly, militarized police are much more likely to escalate situations than to deescalate them. The first “tool” in their “toolbox” is more likely to be use of force than deescalation; use of deadly force rather than the minimum force needed to end a confrontation. As at least one police officer has said, “That’s what we do.” (J. Bentley, “Mission Creep: The Danger of Blurring Police Blue with Soldier Green.” Huffington Post, 7 Sep. 2016) 

Consequently, yes, we need to dismantle our police so they can become our police. They need to be relieved of the social work responsibilities that have been dumped on them over the past 40 plus years. They need to be demilitarized. This does not mean we should disarm police. We do not want our police to be outgunned by criminal elements within our society. But their routine patrol weaponry should not include military weaponry such as M-4 assault rifles, which now is the standard assault rifle in the U.S. Army.

Relieving police of social work responsibilities and demilitarizing the police will make their jobs much easier, less stressful, and probably safer. However, these changes are not the answer to the policing problems we have in the U.S. today. They are only part of the answer. We need to understand, one piece at a time, all of the steps we must take to transform police departments into departments that more closely resemble the ideal of what police should be in our nation. We have been unfair to our police, and this must end.  We have a lot of truly good officers. They need our support even as we are angered by the abuses we see police committing. We also need their help; as of yet, we are not seeing enough of that.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a police officer pointing a hand cannon at protesters who have been detained pending arrest on South Washington Street, in Minneapolis, on May 31, 2020. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP)

Editor’s Note: The above commentary is part of a series of guest columns on Policing in the United States by writer and academic Samuel Freeman. Part One was titled: ‘Son, The Black Man Never Has Been Given a Fair Chance.’ Click here to read it. Part Two was titled: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Click here to read it. Part Three was titled: Defund and Dismantle the Police? Click here to read it. Part Four was titled: “Officer Friendly” – Myth or Possible Reality? Click here to read it.

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