Redefining the Role of Local Police and Public Safety

The current moment calls into question, but also provides a unique opportunity to discuss, the first principles of policing and requires a community conversation on the proper role of police in addressing the needs of residents. Building healthy, safe, and vibrant communities requires many other tools than law enforcement alone. We must reset the compact between police and communities they are sworn to protect. This should begin with a hard but essential dialogue defining the proper role of the police.

We need to ask, “Who is best equipped to be the first responder in addressing a long list of calls for service?”  The reflexive answer cannot be “the police.” When the government has no presence in communities in a healthy and supportive way, the primary governmental actor that people see and identify are the police. In the absence of appropriate levels of funding for things like mental health care; affordable, high quality health care; accessible housing; healthy food options; good paying jobs; quality and safe education options; and other social services, the police are consistently thrust into a role of addressing these various social issues—a role for which they were not created and for which they will never be properly equipped.

We must meet community needs with proper funding and investments and avoid inserting the police into roles in which they must be the primary or only public response. If we ask too much of the police, and not enough of ourselves, our residents will always get too little.

Don’t Defund, Reassess Needs, and Strategically Deploy Resources

We recognize and value the essential role of our police officers who faithfully fulfill their duty to keep us safe. We have asked these officers to protect our communities from crime and violence, and we rely on them to ensure public safety, as to which they  only responders: we are asking them to be first and sometimes the only responder on every scene, even when others may be better trained to respond. Mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, and domestic violence are just a few examples of challenges as to which we, as city leaders, must ensure that we are responding to our residents’ needs in the best way possible.

Our police are vital to crime fighting and public safety, and we need them. Many of our cities are challenged by spikes in criminal activity. We need to keep our communities safe, and we cannot do this if we defund or materially cut the budgets of police departments.

The phrase “defund the police” means different things to different people, but actual defunding is not the path to better public safety and enhanced public trust. But we should be thoughtful about whether to use the police, as opposed to other resources, in a given circumstance. We believe that these are good questions to ask: Are the police the right responders on certain types of calls?  Should they be augmented with other responders?  How can we reinvest in the social services our residents need?

In order to assess the community’s needs, cities and police departments should regularly analyze calls for service to determine who should be the responder in different circumstances. Piloting co-responder models where, for example, the police are partnered with mental health providers on appropriate calls or other social service providers would be an important step.

Cities should assess community needs and allocate resources to the public safety ecosystem in proportion to the elements that are most effective in addressing particular needs. This discussion should not be about “funding” or “defunding” the police but more about what tools are necessary to build healthy, safe, and vibrant communities, and allocating scarce resources accordingly. Local police will always be an important part of the public safety ecosystem, but what this moment has shown is that there are other important elements as well. Thoughtful public safety policy recognizes this reality and provides sufficient funding for all of the elements to be successful in their respective missions.

These reforms should not come at the cost of smart investments in our police departments to provide the staffing, equipment, and training they need to keep our communities safe.

Funding Social Services

We—our city, state, and federal governments—need to bring our spending back in line with our communities’ needs, addressing mental health, housing, health care, education, workforce development, and more. This cannot be solved with city budgets alone, as they are already stretched and may be subject to mandatory balanced budget laws. Sustainable state and federal investment along with corporate and philanthropic support are required if we are to meet these needs.

Assessment of Calls for Service

Allocation of policing resources is an important and continuous exercise. Depending on the size and nature of the city, resource allocation must be driven by many inputs, including historical crime patterns, emerging trends, and long-term investigations, among other factors. One significant driver of how police spend their time is the nature of resident-initiated calls for service. To decide on the appropriate allocation of funds, cities need to assess the facts on the ground. Policing is truly a local endeavor, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensuring that our communities are effectively served.

An important part of the calculus should be an assessment of 911, 311, and other calls for service.[5]  What percentage of calls are for police to respond to violent crimes?  How often are police called for offenses against property?  How often are police asked to assist those experiencing a mental health crisis or in a domestic dispute?  According to a recent analysis of Baltimore, Cincinnati, and San Diego, the amount of time spent on calls for service (as opposed to police-initiated operational missions) for serious violent crime is very small—only about 1%.[6]  Less serious incidents and traffic offenses account for a much larger share of resident-initiated calls for service. In Seattle, 15% of the calls this year have been for officers to respond to traffic accidents and enforcement.[7]  While these numbers likely do not reflect with precision how police officers are spending their time, they are an important data source, and suggest the need for cities to start with a robust assessment of their calls for service along with other data inputs such as crime data to more strategically allocate their public safety resources.

Adopting Co-Responder Models

With all that information in hand, cities can then optimize how best to respond to calls for service. Are there circumstances where the police are not needed, or where they are better suited to be co-responders or secondary responders?

A prime example of how we may re-think the first responder model is found in calls for officers to help those experiencing a mental health crisis.[8]  To be sure, these encounters may involve threats of or actual violence, and we may need police on the scene, but we also need mental health professionals to respond.[9]  Police departments should train their officers in crisis intervention, but we should also consider pairing police with behavioral health professionals to act as co-responders on such calls, although that could cost more in the short term.[10]

Recognizing that domestic violence calls for service can be extremely volatile and sometimes violent, co-responder models may also be appropriate for those calls. In addition to considering whether resources can be allocated within the department to create domestic violence units, departments should consider whether there are other service providers that can provide a better integrated response, supporting victims both in the immediate on-scene response and following-up with victims to ensure that they have been removed from dangerous situations and are getting the support they need.[11]  In some cities, the local YMCA provides advocates who follow up with victims of domestic violence and provide to them counseling and transitional housing.[12]

In addition, our call-takers and dispatchers must be trained to recognize the differences among calls—and what service is really needed. We should provide them with guidance to help identify who is best positioned to respond.[13]  If possible, call-takers and dispatchers should be included in departmental trainings on crisis response.[14]  Not only will these callers get the help they need, but our officers will then be available to respond to pressing law enforcement and public safety needs.

These issues are particularly salient when it comes to crisis intervention and ensuring sanctity of life is the top priority, and we discuss co-responder models in that particular context in the next section dedicated to that principle.

[5]       Jeff Asher and Ben Horowitz, “How Do the Police Actually Spend Their Time?” N.Y. Times (June 19, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/upshot/unrest-police-time-violent-crime.html.
[6]       Id.
[7]       Id.
[8]       See, e.g., Shayla Love, “Police Are the First to Respond to Mental Health Crises. They Shouldn’t Be,” Vice News (June 23, 2020), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3azkeb/police-are-the-first-to-respond-to-mental-health-crises-they-shouldnt-be; Hannah Dreier, “The Worst-Case Scenario,” Washington Post (July 24, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/24/police-huntsville-alabama-mental-health-call/?arc404=true.
[9]       Shayla Love, “Police Are the First to Respond to Mental Health Crises. They Shouldn’t Be,” Vice News (June 23, 2020), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3azkeb/police-are-the-first-to-respond-to-mental-health-crises-they-shouldnt-be.
[10]       See, e.g., Colorado Department of Human Services, “Co-Responder Programs,” https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdhs/co-responder-programs. Avoiding injury or death in response to these calls will ultimately save cities from the burden of costly litigation that not only affects finances but also further erodes the legitimacy of the police.
[11]       Melissa Reuland et al., Police-Community Partnerships to Address Domestic Violence, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-p091-pub.pdf.
[12]       Id.; YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee, “Domestic Violence Services,” https://www.ywcanashville.com/what-we-do/dv-services/.
[13]       Police Executive Research Forum, Guiding Principles on Use of Force (2016), https://www.policeforum.org/assets/guidingprinciples1.pdf.
[14]       Id.