To Downsize Bloated, Too-Powerful Police, Look at These Examples
Communities around the world have shifted to a lighter policing model to reduce tensions and curb violence.
Across the United States, the debate over the future of policing is gathering steam. In the wake of deadly police violence and massive protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, law enforcement agencies are banning so-called neck restraints, as well as increasing oversight of police departments and setting up task forces to propose further reforms. Calls for defunding and even abolishing the police have gained substantial momentum. Some proposals are more radical than others, leading to worries that hasty cuts and declining police morale could yield perverse effects such as rising criminality, especially in the most vulnerable communities.
Most reformers believe that a lighter policing model could make cities safer. Reducing the size and influence of police forces is a legitimate priority: The United States spends twice as much on police, courts, and prisons than on welfare payments such as temporary assistance, food stamps, and supplemental social security. The country also has more police officers per capita than Australia, Britain, or Canada, despite the fact that there is no evidence that larger police forces reduce crime rates. These bloated police numbers are starting to change, albeit very slowly: In Austin, Texas, and Camden, New Jersey, the police were defunded, dismantled, and rebuilt. In Minneapolis, the city council has moved to defund the largely white police force and establish a department of community safety and violence prevention instead. Cities such as Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, and Portland have also committed to significant cuts to police budgets and re-routing education and social services to poorer, marginalized communities.
Another reason campaigners want to reform—and, in some cases, to disband—police is to limit the potential for their excessive use of force, especially against minorities and other vulnerable groups. Police officers in the United States kill between 60 and 100 times more people than their counterparts in Australia or Britain. Only in Brazil, India, the Philippines, and Syria do police kill civilians at a higher rate. One reason is that American police are often put in situations they are ill-suited to handle, in which unnecessary escalation into violent abuse abounds. According to a 2015 report, roughly 50 million people in the United States come into contact with police every year. About half of them are pulled over while driving, while 9 million more call police for incidents that do not qualify as a crime. At least 1 in 4 Americans killed in a fatal police encounter suffers from untreated mental illness.
As a consequence, one of the most popular proposals of the debate over reducing the size and discretionary powers of police forces is to divert responsibilities and funds to social services and other non-police responders. The goal is to lower the likelihood of violent escalation and deploy more appropriate expertise than officers trained for law enforcement—an idea with deep roots. But while it sounds promising in principle, doing this in a country like the United States—with roughly 18,000 federal, state, county, and municipal police departments—is trickier in practice.
Law enforcement agencies in the United States and around the world have been experimenting with ways to limit the potential confrontation between officers and mentally ill people for years. They have done so in one of three ways: providing mental health training to officers (often as part of specialized crisis intervention teams); fielding co-response approaches with mental health and social service professionals; or passing on interventions to non-police responders.
Limiting police involvement in nonessential scenarios is an especially effective tactic. In the United States, armed police are often involved in road safety incidents, where simple encounters can lead to unnecessary escalation. In Britain, on the other hand, unarmed traffic police and uniformed community support officers can issue citations and have the power to carry out road checks, confiscate alcohol in designated areas, and even make arrests. Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and South Africa also rely on community safety professionals—unarmed personnel that do not have formal policing powers but perform youth outreach, conflict mediation, and neighborhood patrols. While there are still few evaluations of their impact, we do know that their deployment can help improve perceptions of security, bolster social cohesion, and provide local training and employment for residents.
One of the best-documented programs using non-police responders to reduce crime and violence was established in Scotland, which a United Nations report in 2005 declared the most violent country in the developed world. Facing soaring rates of serious crime, the police in Strathclyde, a region in southwest Scotland, set up a violence reduction unit that year before extending the program to other parts of Scotland in 2006. Inspired by successful gun violence reduction efforts in Boston during the mid-1990s, the program focused initially on Glasgow. The program treated violent behavior like a contagious disease and focused on interrupting transmission. Medical and health professionals traveled to schools to explain the risks and consequences of knife fights. Former offenders were offered work in cafes and doubled as mentors. Community outreach programs emphasized building trust. The program is credited with halving homicidal violence in a decade.
Countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have also adopted an array of community-oriented self-policing models. These experiences are particularly instructive for the United States, with its history of racial bias in policing, because they were explicitly introduced to reverse a long legacy of repressive policing of minority indigenous communities, often a result of racial discrimination. In Australia, the Julalikari Night Patrol and the Nyoongar Patrol are widely known examples among hundreds of such self-policing operations. Although these patrols do not exert formal policing powers, they are empowered by community councils and sanctioned by elders. Preliminary reviews suggest these activities have led to higher levels of police accountability and less adversarial police-community relations, though more evaluation is needed.
Another widely reported non-police approach was recently adopted by Stockholm. Since 2015, the Swedish capital has tested the use of a mental health ambulance as part of its psychiatric emergency response team. The first of its kind, this specialized unit includes two nurses and a paramedic and is frequently deployed instead of police to respond to people at risk of psychotic episodes and suicide. Its focus is to ensure access to high-quality care and to avoid the escalation that often accompanies police calls. While still in its infancy, the initiative has handled over 1,250 cases a year—an average of more than four requests a day—and is credited with having a positive effect on de-escalating delicate emergencies. Variations of the program are being explored in other Swedish cities and regions such as Gothenburg, Jonkoping, and Skane.
The United States, too, has a trove of experience with non-police approaches for municipalities from which to learn. These include programs such as Cure Violence, launched in Chicago in 1995 and now operating in over 25 cities including Baltimore (where it is known as Safe Streets), Phoenix (Truce) and Pittsburgh (One Vision One Life). These programs train, pay, and deploy so-called “interrupters” who use intervention techniques borrowed from cognitive behavioral therapy to nip disputes in the bud before they turn bloody. Cure Violence recruits locals with credibility in their communities—many of them shooting victims and former gang members or prison inmates—to disrupt transmission of violent behavior, prevent its future spread, and change local norms. By building positive relationships in high-risk communities, these interventions can potentially reduce tensions before they require police intervention. The results of these interventions are mixed but promising, including a reduction in gun violence.
Another much-cited program is HomeBoy Industries. First established in Los Angeles by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, the program has offered alternatives to gang violence in inner cities since 1988. Specific “clients” such as problematic youths are assigned case managers and, after formulating a plan, are provided with job training, free social services, and access to education or other skills development. Qualitative evaluations suggest that participation is associated with decreased involvement in criminality and declines in associated risk factors such as alcoholism, drug abuse, anger management issues, and mental health conditions.
Another non-police approach already deployed in the United States is Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Street, or Cahoots, founded in Oregon in 1989. The program prioritizes non-criminal cases including disputes in danger of escalation, homelessness, and mental illness. The program is connected to the city’s 911 dispatch system but responds without involving the police. In recent years, the initiative has been expanded across Oregon as well as to Colorado, Indiana, New York, and the state of Washington.
The current push in the United States to shift more responsibilities to non-police responders is understandable and justified. Yet the enthusiasm for testing new programs should be tempered with caution: Such measures can take time to implement, are potentially costly, and need to be rigorously and regularly evaluated to ensure they achieve their desired outcomes. They can and should be tested—with a view to scaling up what works and discarding what does not. What experience around the world has shown is that police brutality and excessive violence is by no means inevitable. On the contrary: With the right combination of measures, it is eminently preventable.