By Deputy Chief Wayne Harris (Ret.)
The protests over George Floyd’s killing have sharply divided our nation. As a retired Deputy Chief of Police for the Rochester, NY Police Department, I am convinced that most people agree on far more than they disagree. Most agree that police have too many responsibilities. Most agree that preventing crime is better than responding to it. Most agree that police cannot arrest society’s way out of mental illness, addiction, and homelessness. We should consider funding specialists to handle problems arising out of quality-of-life issues in our communities.
I spent my first twelve years as a patrol officer, and I quickly learned that many arrests are unnecessary and counterproductive. Arresting people for low-level issues, while sometimes necessary, can have an adverse effect on the relationship between a police department and the community it serves as it erodes community trust. Police depend on that trust to find witnesses, solve crime, and protect our community. If we want police to be able to solve the most heinous crimes, we need to minimize unnecessary tasks for police.
The best way to accomplish this is to redefine what calls for service we require police to respond to. Our communities need more mental health professionals, social workers, counselors, and outreach workers. Their programs need more funding, and they need better salaries that reflect the lifesaving work they do every day.
We do not always recognize the public safety impact of social services because it is hard to see the absence of crime — kids staying in school, young adults receiving a mental health diagnosis and staying on their medication. It is easy to see police lights and hear sirens when our other systems have failed.
We send officers to many 911 calls that do not need police response. Calls such as persons experiencing mental health crisis or calls for homelessness are two examples. These are calls for service police are typically sent to that can be handled by individuals specifically trained to address these concerns.
We can lift a significant burden from police by investing in non-police emergency responders. For two decades, the CAHOOTS team of medics and crisis workers in Eugene, Oregon, have been responding to mental health crisis calls instead of police. This has reduced the number of police calls by 20%. Instead of trying to train police to be social workers, Alexandria, Kentucky sends social workers to de-escalate disputes, support crime survivors, and create a pathway to services.
Problems such as gang violence are often effectively addressed by the community itself. Numerous cities employ former gang members who have turned their lives around to guide the highest-risk youth onto a better path. They are arguably the best messengers to reach current gang members. The Advance Peace program has reduced gun violence by over 40 percent, and the Credible Messengers program has cut youth recidivism in half.
Additionally, many schools call law enforcement on students behaving violently or in ways contrary to school policy. Instead, they could be developing restorative justice programs that are proven to change lives by showing students how their actions impact others. Schools should invest in counselors who provide trauma awareness and cognitive behavioral therapy, not police who can only provide an arrest record.
In short, we need to narrow police work to our most important roles and reinvest in community services to address quality-of-life issues. Then, police can give homicide and assault survivors the time and resources they deserve — and we will have the community trust we need to close those cases.
It is time to invest in other professionals who can prevent crime by tackling the root causes of quality of life issues. It is time to restore public trust in police by deploying the entire community in the service of public safety. It is time to heal our neighborhoods.
Deputy Chief Wayne Harris (Ret.) served for 30 years with the Rochester Police Department in New York. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.