Systematic Reformation of Public Safety

Protests across the county have shown that American policing is broken—every single city has local cases of abuse, brutality, and murder to march against, and in every single city police have responded to criticism with military force. The problem isn’t just ‘a few bad apples,’ the problem is a broken institution that replicates the same unacceptable, anti-democratic, racist problems no matter where it’s implemented and no matter who is in charge.

So it’s good to hear that elected officials across America—including those with power in this City—are listening to the protesters. The Mayor is talking about structural reform to combat this systemic problem, and the Governor will withhold state funding from police departments that refuse to “reform themselves.”

But ‘reform’ can mean a lot of different things, and the kind of ‘reform’ that we’ve all seen for years—more training, new technology, revised codes of conduct—are clearly insufficient to meet the demands that protesters are making today.

In Syracuse, protesters have issued the People’s Agenda for Policing: a list of nine demands that could make real change in the SPD—not the kind of weak ‘reform’ that tinkers with the existing system—a system that is hopelessly broken—but a real reformation of the institutions of Public Safety in this community.

Reducing the “oversized role of policing” means taking traffic enforcement out of armed officers’ hands. Traffic enforcement should make our streets safer, but instead racism and the incentive structure of policing serves to make the traffic cop a threat to safety on the street—people don’t get stopped for breaking the law, they get stopped in order to make the department money, or to get a drug bust press release, or to just perform dominance.

Instead, use cameras and unarmed municipal employees—in the mold of crossing guards—to enforce the law without ulterior motives, to remove the inherent bias that comes when a driver tries to ‘argue their way out’ of a ticket, and to avoid unnecessary escalation. When someone runs a red, send them a ticket in the mail. If someone’s tail light is out, let them know and provide a new bulb on the spot.

Reducing the oversized role of policing means sending someone else when people call for help with domestic problems. Armed officers focused on ‘compliance’ and ‘order’ are ill-equipped to mediate these kinds of conflicts, and the predictable result is that they respond inappropriately, escalatorily, and they end up beating a man for no reason and costing City Hall $1.5 million in a police brutality lawsuit.

Instead, send social workers and trauma specialists who can mediate and de-escalate domestic disputes. Send people who have the professional judgment to determine when to attempt reconciliation or when to help a person escape an abusive relationship.

These situations—and so many others like them—do not require a gun. They do not require handcuffs or a taser. When City Hall equips police with those tools—but not the training to actually address the needs of the community—what can we expect but escalation? When the person responding to a minor traffic violation carries a gun and is empowered to take away people’s freedom, it’s no wonder that a disagreement over when to signal a turn ended with the SPD drugging and sexually assaulting Torrence Jackson. It’s shocking, appalling, disgusting, infuriating, but it’s not surprising.

So systemic reformation means fewer police officers whose very presence necessarily implies violence and incarceration, and more municipal employees who are trained and equipped to treat root causes of the problems in the community. It means taking money away from the SPD and using it to pay for staff and programs that support public safety. That’s the kind of reform that can actually deconstruct the present unacceptable system and build a new one that makes the community safe.