The Commonplace #6

I find sympathy with calls for re-assessing the way we do policing in this country and in our communities.  But I began wondering what alternatives exist and whether some of these are even practical or feasible.  I caught myself mid-thought.   

Feasibility and practicality are important, yes.   But they are not primary.  They can be detrimental when we let them into our thinking prematurely. Sometimes we employ these concerns as way-too-early filter to dismiss the difficult, the creative, and the possible.   

Feasibility and practicality concerns may arise from questions or less informed judgments.   Questions like, “how much does this cost?” or judgments like “this sounds crazy, it will never work.”   We need to regularly practice the art of asking better questions, and of withholding judgment.  Consider questions such as, “What would this look like?” or “Where has this been tried?” 

And, as I discovered, there are workable options to police for non-violent calls, these options return cost-savings to local governments, and are even being tried now in a select few places around the country:  

  • In this time, it is becoming ever more crucial to imagine different and better ways – to police, to lead, to govern, to learn, and more.    Writing for Vox, Ezra Klein imagines what a truly nonviolent state and community might look like.  What, he asks, if we shaped a world where nonviolence was the norm and the standard, an ethic that we both demanded and cultivated?   But, “to conceive of that world requires a fuller appreciation of nonviolence than most of us have been given”.   
  • This brand of imagining is not simply nice, but starkly necessary.    Klein shares part of a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Coates says, “The people who are called on to be nonviolent are the people with the ability to do the least amount of damage, whereas, we don’t call upon those who have the most power and actually can do the most damage.”
  • A more non-violent America, as Klein describes, would be a place where we did not account for a quarter of the world’s imprisoned population or be seven times more likely to be murdered than residents of other higher income nations.  Klein points out that our governments at all levels invest a tremendous amount of resources in acquiring instruments of violence and training officers and agents in the use of violence.  He asks what if we replaced that with an equal amount of time, attention, and investment in the use of nonviolence? 
  • This program in Eugene, Oregon may be one model for developing a different way to respond to nonviolent calls and incidents, which comprise the large majority of calls to police departments nationwide.  The program in Eugene diverts such calls to a trained response team that includes a a medical professional and a mental health worker.   In 2017, the program handled 17% of the police department’s calls, saving the city over $8 million per year.
  • The responders drive a van with a dove on the side, wear casual clothes rather than police uniforms, and carry no weapons.  They are highly skilled – with over 500 hours of training in medical care, conflict resolution and crisis counseling.  Less than 1% of their responses require police assistance.   
  • Similar programs have emerged in other cities, including Denver, where the STAR team began fielding calls in 2020.   However, the program, despite being much discussed and long planned, was only able to secure six months of pilot funding.   Klein’s argument comes to mind – what if we put an equal amount of resources to these types of programs, as we do more traditional policing? 
  • I stumbled on an unfamiliar scholarly periodical, The International Journal of World Peace. Their June 2018 edition includes contributors exploring the idea of “positive peace.”  Positive peace is not simply the absence of violence but the presence of conditions that allow people to flourish and thrive – communities where basic needs are met and people can pursue health, livelihood, social connection, and aspirations.