by Casey J. Bastian
More than a year after the killing of George Floyd, an explosion of protests led to an emphasis being placed on changing the way we police our communities. “The systems we’ve got right now in some ways are fundamentally incapable of delivering safety in the ways that we need to think about…. [O]ftentimes, what we need is not better policing but less of it,” says Phillip Abita Goff, the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity.
Goff is speaking about what he sees as a current, unique opportunity to effect real change in policing in America. In an interview with The Appeal from earlier this year, Goff added, “It is rare in the country’s history that we do this work around policing more frequently than once every thirty years.”
To accomplish these goals, communities around the nation are taking a holistic approach to public safety. Some of our larger cities are leading the way by redefining the police department’s function in our society. Ithaca, New York; Berkeley and Oakland in California; and, Austin, Texas, are taking the most prolific first steps. This includes hiring public safety officers who will be unarmed, discontinuing the use of police officers in mental health emergencies, and reallocating police department funds.
Berkeley’s goal was to initially reduce the size and scope of policing by decoupling police from traffic enforcement. Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson said that making it a priority to remove police from traffic stops was an easy decision. On March 31, the Ithaca City Council and the county government both passed bills that would see the city police officers replaced with armed and unarmed public safety officers.
Both of these bills were based on findings from a white paper titled “Reimagining Public Safety,” by the Center for Policing Equity.
The hope is that instituting a Public Safety Department will prioritize de-escalation of violent situations and harness crisis management solutions instead of responding with unnecessary force. Goff helped create the plan and said the new policies were based on assessing what does and doesn’t work for public safety—a “process of literally listening to the community.”
The Appeal also interviewed Cornell historian Russell Rickford, an organizer with Ithaca’s Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition, who questioned if the plans were merely “propagandistic.” In particular, he highlighted a plan to repaint Ithaca’s SWAT truck.
While a statement from local law enforcement said the new design of the truck would be “representative of what the mobile command truck is primarily used for,” Rickford says local activists view it as an effort to “hijack the defunding demand through a process of rebranding that will not fundamentally reduce the size and scope of policing.”
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