by Casey J. Bastian
For many Black Americans, the thought of calling the police for help is not an option. Most won’t request assistance from law enforcement unless there is a truly violent crime occurring. Minor situations are frequently escalated and end with unnecessary police violence and brutality. Far too often, it’s the police who cause long-term damage. Citizens are realizing that one must weigh any potential value in police assistance versus the potential someone might be harmed. A recent Gallup poll reveals that only 19% of responding Black adults maintain “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in police. The poll revealed that trust in the police is falling with white Americans, too. Overall, confidence in the police fell to a 30-year low at around 48%. It’s the first time in decades that the rate fell below 50%.
Misha Viets van Dyk is an organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national organization that saw a “giant wave” of white Americans demanding police accountability in the last year. “As people learn about their own background or the backgrounds of people around them, they see more and more reasons why putting their trust into this institution of policing is one that harms us,” said Dyk.
Jennifer Lewinski, a 44-year-old Black woman from Asbury Park, New Jersey, is a survivor of domestic abuse. Throughout Lewinski’s abusive relationship, calling the cops was a last resort, and she had been very hesitant to ask for help. She explained her perspective like this: “We’re taught that they [police] will help you, but I know from experience, from education, from other people’s experience that I have been gifted, that most often when the police come, there are more problems—not less.”
Lewinski, like far too many women, worry that calling the police might ruin their abuser’s life. “Is he going to go back to jail? Are they going to beat him up? Are they going to shoot him?” These are some of the things she remembers thinking during the relationship. “Even though he’s hurting me, he’s still a person I love and I don’t want him dead. And that’s something you have to think of when you call the cops on Black people: ‘Is what you’re doing, should it be a death sentence?’”
At one point in 2015, the violence seriously escalated. Lewinski had no choice but to call the police. She was being choked and was forced to stab her boyfriend. When the police arrived, it was Lewinski who was arrested and then spent three days in jail. She now has a felony record as a result. If there had been an alternative to calling the police, she says she would have utilized it. Getting arrested and a felony record did nothing to solve the actual problem. The boyfriend needed intervention and counseling for his anger; something the police do not provide and the courts don’t focus on. In an effort to create a safe alternative, Lewinski co-founded Asbury Park Transformative Justice Project. A “community-run safety unit,” staffed by volunteers and social workers, designed to offer de-escalation services. She hopes to offer assistance to the community that traditional law enforcement cannot.
Similar ideas are being considered or implemented by concerned citizens and city governments across the nation. Austin, New York City, Portland, and Anaheim, California, all believe that defunding the police is a viable solution, redirecting a portion of the enormous police budgets to community-based programs instead. “Police do not create safety. Policing is largely reactionary. They come onto the scene after the fact,” said Dr. Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for Movement for Black Lives. Enyia added, “The things that create safety are also the things that create strong individuals, strong families, strong communities. And those things are about investments in education, in economic developments, in housing, in mitigating public health hazards. Those are the things that create safety.” This idea is catching on across America. People feel that calling the police after the fact may not be the best solution to problems that can be solved on an individual, community level.
This includes people like Leah Knox, a 36-year-old woman from Greensboro, North Carolina. When a Latino teenager accidently hit her car, Knox only wanted to exchange insurance information. Knox saw that the teen was already stressed and scared; the cops wouldn’t be helpful. Knox says, “I’m a white, mid-30’s women, lower-middle-class. Most of my run-ins with police haven’t been great, but this past year has really opened my eyes to what other people go through.”
Marie Reimers agrees. Even when an intruder entered the 28-year-old, legal aid attorney’s home, calling the cops was not an option. Instead, Reimers went upstairs and called a friend to pound on her front door. During the break-in, Reimers tweeted, “I do not want the cops at my house.” The intruder turned out to be a local homeless woman who suffers from mental health issues. The women had only rearranged some of Reimers’ furniture. “When I realized that, I was even more thankful that I didn’t call the police.” One can only imagine what might have happened to the homeless women had the cops arrived to find her in the house rearranging furniture, especially in light of the alarming death rate for those suffering from mental health issues when police are involved.
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