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  • Northern Illinois DSA

We Need To Redefine Our Definition Of Public Safety

As the deaths of George Floyd, Adam Toledo, Daunte Wright, and countless other victims of police brutality continue to be discussed in the national spotlight, the impact of deadly police force has made itself known in our very own community. As we wait for more details on the multiple recent officer involved shootings that took place in Rockford - and heal from the ones that have previously occurred - we have to ask ourselves how we got here. When state sanctioned violence becomes the norm, under any circumstance, a deeper introspection of our humanity and our values is required. We have to examine our system of policing in America, and Northern Illinois for that matter, and ask ourselves if we think that it is actively making our communities stronger and safer.

As cities in our region continue to grapple with the fallout of seemingly endless onslaught of misconduct and death at the hands of police, one has to stop and wonder if there is another solution. In 2021, Rockford city leaders will dedicate a huge chunk of the $118.4 million public safety budget to our police department (not even factoring in the potential cost of misconduct settlements). That’s over 40% of the city’s operating budget for 2021, and not a dissimilar ratio of spending compared to larger cities like Chicago. Despite this, our crime rates will likely continue to stay high, racist over-policing of minorities continues to have a pernicious effect, and trust between police officers and the community remains fractured beyond repair. In order to understand how we got here, both nationally and locally, we have to recognize that policing in America was initially built around the central tenants of force and control, not the healing and restoration required to uplift people in need and address their material conditions. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Politicians have marched in the streets and chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and yet officers still continue to shoot and kill nearly 1000 people a year on average. And while some elected officials, and even some police chiefs, recognize or are even open to so-called “reforms,” the ones that we’ve put in place have done very little to solve our problems or change the culture of policing in America. Assigning “independent bodies” of police officers to police their own allegations of misconduct, as seen locally with the creation of the Winnebago-Boone County Integrity Task Force, presents an inherently clear conflict of interest. Implementing body cameras has not resulted in changed behavior or fewer civil rights violations at the hands of police officers. Alternative methods of reform such as creating civilian review boards with the power to investigate, discipline, fire, arrest, and prosecute police officers guilty of misconduct as well as the efforts to end qualified immunity, a legal principle that shields individual officers from being held personally liable in civil suits over misconduct, could be a good step in the right direction in the interim but are not nearly enough. What we need now more than ever is collective action to rethink and change our definition of what “public safety” really is.

We can no longer think of public safety as increased officer presence in certain neighborhoods, or the militarization of police equipment, or increased training on how to properly put a suspect into a chokehold. We’ve tried these tactics and we’ve seen the harmful results in our communities. What we need to do is think of public safety as the effort to holistically address the root causes of crime: poverty, underfunded education, economic disinvestment, housing insecurity, and a lack of healthcare, to name just a few. We’ve legislated the marginalization of people from all different walks of life based on their race or socio-economic status or their zip code. We’ve then entrusted the police to address the problems of decay wrought on by years of social and economic austerity. Policing and incarceration have become, as abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore states, “a catchall solution to social problems.” While doing this we’ve ignored the reality that policing was not created to solve these problems in the first place. Modern police officers have been assigned an impossible task, and we've bankrupted our communities in the process.

What we need now more than ever is honesty, transparency, and a reimagining of how we want our cities to fundamentally function. More importantly, we need to get in touch with our morality. People are needlessly dying, and we need to recognize that the problems facing us now are not just randomly happening or the result of “a few bad apples.” It’s a system that was created by design. Much like the problems, the solutions need to be intentional. Simply put, instead of solving our problems with handcuffs and cages, we need to re-establish how we fund our communities with the resources to help them thrive. By addressing the root causes of violence, we can meaningfully build towards a Northern Illinois that provides prosperity and dignity for all.

The movement to address these root causes does not need to be viewed as radical. “Defunding the police” or a turn towards outright police abolition - two concepts that have been brought to the forefront the past year- do not equate to anarchy in the streets. While they might seem like abstract, out of reach concepts, these are merely practical means of addressing the circumstances that force people to operate on the margins and increase the likelihood that they interact with policing or mass incarceration. What “defund” movements actually represent is a fundamental shift in the processes that we employ to address societal problems. Just “policing” things away is not a viable solution - we’ve tried it, and we desperately need to try something different. Rather than using punitive measures to react to crime after the fact, we should be focused on establishing restorative structures of holding people accountable for their actions while also creating the fundamental conditions that reduce the occurrence of crisis and need for police involvement in the first place. We must work to build a word where prisons and policing systems are obsolete.

Practically speaking, we must make concerted efforts to establish and invest in alternative safety programs (not just pilot programs) to avoid sending armed police into certain emergencies that aren’t the result of immediate physical danger. For example, instead of sending armed officers to the scene of a domestic situation involving someone dealing with a mental health issue, homelessness, or drug addiction, utilize trained professionals and social workers who can work independently from the police to de-escalate situations without resorting to violence or needless incarceration. Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, which fields thousands of 911 calls every year that don’t require police intervention, does exactly that. Similarly, Berkley, California’s BerkDOT team was recently established to carry out routine traffic enforcement stops without escalations into violence, which we’ve seen recently has resulted in the deaths of countless individuals at the hands of police. Simultaneously, as we shift responsibilities and funding out of the hands of police departments, we must focus on shifting resources into the hands of publicly run governmental agencies or independent neighborhood groups specialized in the ability to meet peoples’ most basic everyday material, health, and educational needs. For example, the city of Austin has recently been working to reallocate money from the local police department into a program that would provide permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

Ultimately, the process required to build this better, healthier version of the world is right in front of us and within reach. It won’t be an easy process, but it’s a complete reimagining of our world for the better. It’s long past time for us to take the bloated police budgets that have plagued our cities and put that money to good use creating the conditions that allow people to thrive. Real “safety,” “justice,” and “freedom” comes from investing in services and infrastructure that improve the quality of people’s lives: good paying jobs, dignified housing that’s affordable, healthcare, childcare, elder care, mental healthcare, education, transit, food security, and free time for culture and community. After all, aren’t these things that we all want? Aren’t these things we all want for our loved ones? These are not radical concepts.

To think otherwise - or to maintain the status quo - is what is truly radical.

(Learn more about DSA's support for the 8 To Abolition campaign here)

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