Why Do We Need This Many Police?

Syracuse needs a new idea of public safety—a new paradigm that sends healthcare and social workers to deal with health and social issues. A new paradigm that significantly reduces the number of interactions that police officers have with the public and significantly reduces the number of police officers employed by City Hall.

New ideas threaten those who benefit from the broken status quo, and so a lot of people have responded to this new idea by saying that it’s impractical—that Syracuse needs 400+ police officers and that those officers need to be involved in every traffic stop, overdose, housing failure, and mental health crisis in the City.

Here’s PBA president Jeff Piedmonte giving a version of the argument:

“One of the things they bring up is have mental health people to respond to calls, which would be great,” said Piedmonte. “But, if a mental health person goes to help somebody and then they pull a gun or knife on them, what are they supposed to do?”

Let’s not be coy about what he’s saying. A healthcare worker would have many options to deal with this potential but not obviously common situation. They could de-escalate, they could flee, they could call and request assistance from an armed officer.

What a healthcare worker could not do—and what Jeff Piedmonte is suggesting a police officer would do—is shoot the patient. That’s the final answer you’ll get from people who think Syracuse needs enough armed officers to respond to every 911 call, who think that public safety needs to be in the hands of police officers rather than social workers—cops can kill.

And just think about what it means if that’s what defines police. It means that police officers are themselves a threat to every single person with whom they interact. Jeff Piedmonte created a hypothetical situation with almost no detail, just that there’s a mentally ill person and a healthcare professional, and his first thought was ‘might have to shoot them.’ I was in boy scouts, and a police officer came to talk to the troop—he told us that he was always looking out for the threat of an attack, constantly evaluating how he would fight back, and he explained exactly how he would have used the furniture in the room to incapacitate us children.

There may be a place for that kind of neurosis, but it isn’t in an organization in charge of public safety. When armed men roam City streets thinking that every person they encounter might be a threat, that makes Syracuse less safe. It’s what led SPD officer Chris Buske to beat Shaolin Moore in the street—Buske imagined that Moore might have had a weapon that didn’t exist. He imagined that because he was afraid of Syracuse and the people who live in it. That fear warped his understanding of reality and so he reacted to Moore’s black skin exactly the way that Jeff Piedmonte says he should have—with unjustified violence.

After decades of police abuse, people are in the streets asking if there isn’t a better way to secure public safety in Syracuse. That’s a threat to the SPD, to their privileged positions of power and their paychecks padded with fraudulent overtime, so you can bet that Jeff Piedmonte is going to come up with some reason that Syracuse really does need the SPD, as it is currently constituted, to keep the City safe.

But really listen to what he’s arguing, take seriously what he’s saying. He’s not saying that SPD would be better than healthcare professionals at caring for a mentally ill person, or that SPD would be better than social workers at finding shelter for an unhoused person. He’s saying that police officers are the only municipal employees who will shoot people.

If that’s not an argument to defund the police, I don’t know what is.