What should po­lice do?

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY PETER CUN­NING­HAM Peter Cun­ning­ham is a con­sul­tant in Chicago work­ing with Chicago CRED to re­duce gun vi­o­lence.

Ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple stud­ies and data that is openly avail­able on many po­lice de­part­ment web­sites, po­lice spend about 4% of their time on vi­o­lent crime. The rest of their time is spent on non-crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties, non­vi­o­lent crime, med­i­cal emer­gen­cies and pa­per­work.

To­day, po­lice deal with home­less­ness, mental health and do­mes­tic abuse. They pa­trol pub­lic schools, evict peo­ple be­hind in their rent, and pull over driv­ers for bro­ken tail­lights. They en­force mis­de­meanors like smok­ing mar­i­juana, and vaguely de­fined crimes like “disor­derly con­duct.” Some po­lice write a lot of tick­ets for jay­walk­ing.

What they don’t spend nearly enough time do­ing — at least here in Chicago — is pre­vent­ing, in­ves­ti­gat­ing and clear­ing vi­o­lent crimes like mur­der, rape and armed rob­bery. That’s not en­tirely the fault of po­lice, how­ever. In truth, it’s mostly our fault. We keep ask­ing po­lice to do all of these other things.

Amidst calls to de­fund po­lice and shift re­sources else­where, the foun­da­tional ques­tion we should be ask­ing is, what should po­lice do and, by ex­ten­sion, what should po­lice not do? This con­ver­sa­tion is long over­due, and po­lice, more than any­one, should wel­come the dis­cus­sion, be­cause they bear the bur­den of our fail­ures.

In a report last April, New York Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Barry Fried­man ex­plored the is­sue of po­lice func­tions and con­cluded, “Too much of what we treat through the crim­i­nal law and agen­cies of law en­force­ment are re­ally prob­lems of pub­lic health and so­cial wel­fare.”

A U.S. Con­fer­ence of May­ors Work­ing Group on Po­lice Re­form and Racial Jus­tice that in­cludes Chicago Mayor Lori Light­foot put the is­sue front and cen­ter by ask­ing, “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.”

The USCM Group’s “State­ment of Prin­ci­ples” fur­ther says, “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.”

The is­sue is es­pe­cially timely here in Chicago where gun vi­o­lence is surg­ing and lo­cal po­lice con­tinue to do what they have al­ways done, which is to ded­i­cate more and more po­lice re­sources to the prob­lem. To­day, on a per-capita ba­sis, Chicago has twice the num­ber of po­lice as Los An­ge­les and yet we have three times as much gun vi­o­lence.

Chicago had 1,200 ex­tra po­lice on duty over the July 4th weekend and we still had 79 shoot­ings and 15 fa­tal­i­ties. De­spite ex­tended po­lice shifts and can­celled va­ca­tions, the last two months have been the most vi­o­lent in the city’s his­tory. Right now, Chicago is on track to ex­ceed the num­ber of mur­ders in 2016, which was the high­est in 20 years.

Now, CPD is plan­ning to re­de­ploy a spe­cial­ized unit — an ap­proach that has been tried be­fore and aban­doned for var­i­ous rea­sons, in­clud­ing mis­con­duct and cor­rup­tion. Chicago’s new po­lice chief David Brown in­sists the unit will be more com­mu­nity-ori­ented, but the core tac­tic re­mains the same: flood high-crime zones with blue uni­forms, de­spite lit­tle ev­i­dence that more man­power works.

There are al­ter­na­tives. A hand­ful of dis­tricts have launched pi­lot pro­grams to shift some re­spon­si­bil­i­ties away from po­lice, in­clud­ing Dal­las, Texas; Sali­nas, Cal­i­for­nia; and Eu­gene, Ore­gon. Whether any of these ap­proaches can work at scale is yet to be seen be­cause, as Yale Law School Pro­fes­sor Mon­ica Bell points out in a piece fo­cused on the pol­icy “co­nun­drum” of de­mand­ing both jus­tice and safety, no one has re­ally tried it.

Even the much-vaunted Cam­den, New Jersey, po­lice re­form story, in which the mu­nic­i­pal po­lice force merged with the county, re­duced ar­rests and saw crime drop, is a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than some re­form ad­vo­cates have por­trayed.

Here in Chicago, lo­cal vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion groups have in­vested tens of mil­lions of dol­lars since 2016 on out­reach pro­grams, be­hav­ioral ther­apy, life coaches and fi­nan­cial sup­port for young peo­ple. In some com­mu­ni­ties where vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion pro­grams are es­pe­cially ac­tive, like Rose­land-Pull­man, gun vi­o­lence is far be­low the city rate, ac­cord­ing to a city data­base. In oth­ers, like En­gle­wood and Austin, re­sults are more mixed, though again, none of these pro­grams are nearly at scale and none are enough on their own.

Nev­er­the­less, the sta­tus quo is not work­ing and with peo­ple dy­ing ev­ery day, Chicago can’t keep do­ing the same thing over and over. The vic­tims of over­polic­ing are not only young men of color, but it’s also the po­lice them­selves who are in­creas­ingly de­mor­al­ized. A rash of re­cent po­lice sui­cides in Chicago, in­clud­ing a deputy com­man­der, is a trou­bling trend that has now prompted a call for more mental health sup­port.

If Chicago re­ally wants to re­duce in­car­cer­a­tion, re­build trust with the com­mu­ni­ties, make neigh­bor­hoods safer, and sup­port a pro­fes­sion that has re­sisted most ef­forts to re­form, we need to re­think the role of po­lice and free them up from non-crim­i­nal work to fo­cus more on vi­o­lent crime.

It be­gins by an­swer­ing one sim­ple ques­tion: What should po­lice do?

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