Veteran Police Detective Says Re-Fund The Community
The killing of George Floyd has spurred protests across this country and reinvigorated the national debate over policing. Thousands of voices are calling for a change in how policing is done, and having served as a Baltimore City police officer, I believe it is high time that we answer the call. It is urgent that our city’s budget prioritize prevention instead of focusing solely on responses to crime. We need to re-fund the community to solve issues before they escalate and require an armed police response.
When I served as a Baltimore Police Detective, Community Policing Officer, and Patrol Officer, I saw that youth who quit school often got in trouble with the law and stayed in the system into adulthood. We can all agree that it’s better to guide kids onto a positive, healthy path than to expect punishment in the justice system to have a positive result.
For the past five years, I have been working with youth in West Baltimore’s Penn-North community through the Unified Efforts Out of School Time Program. These kids know that budgets reflect priorities, whether it means choosing between paying utility bills and buying groceries or funding an entire city. They have seen how youth programs and rec centers keep their friends out of trouble. Yet they see a lop-sided equation: while a major referendum funding youth programs receives $12 million, Baltimore’s Police Department is allocated half a billion dollars.
The youth are excited to try to rebalance the equation and re-fund their community, rather than expect more police resources to fix everything. In fact, community members have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to build relationships and turn lives around in ways law enforcement cannot. In Washington, DC, the Credible Messengers Program trains formerly incarcerated individuals to mentor youth most likely to commit acts of violence, using techniques including restorative justice and cognitive behavioral therapy. The program is credited with reducing youth recidivism by fifty percent.
My policing experience also taught me that to be effective, law enforcement requires a high degree of trust from the citizens we take an oath to protect. I remember going into local hardware stores in my uniform to ask for garbage bags, gloves, and brooms so we could clean up the block. I saw the importance of this kind of effort firsthand when I was investigating serious crimes as a detective. Where police lacked strong local bonds, witnesses and even victims were less likely to step forward and talk to us. In order to solve crimes, we had to cash in on a bank of trust.
Unfortunately, people are losing trust in police, partly because we have been saddled with handling societal issues we never expected to deal with. We are expected to stop people using drugs, solve mental health crises, and end homelessness. By filling our patrol cars and jails with people who do not pose a significant public safety threat, we have diminished public trust in law enforcement. Arresting these individuals also increases the likelihood of a violent confrontation with police.
To help restore this trust, our city needs to hand social issues off to experts outside law enforcement. As a detective, I worked with top law enforcement experts on federal narcotics taskforces. We took people off the street temporarily, but it never stopped the supply of drugs, and it created new job openings and started turf wars among drug sellers. Baltimore needs to end the War on Drugs and fund the experts who can treat the root causes of problematic drug use in order to change a lifetime of outcomes.
When an urgent conflict does occur that does not require an armed response, unarmed first responders trained in crisis intervention are a better option than police. One such program has been working for twenty years in Eugene, Oregon. The CAHOOTS team, made up of EMTs and crisis intervention specialists, has taken over 20 percent of 911 calls by handling most mental health crises.
For decades, our nation has been passing the buck on society’s ills to the police. This approach overburdens police and causes community distrust that makes us less effective. We must focus instead on investing in community resources and trained experts who are equipped to treat social issues and to prevent crime before it occurs. This approach will free officers to address the most serious crimes and help restore our relationships with the communities we serve. It’s time to show the kids in Penn North where our priorities lie.
Detective Debbie Ramsey (Ret.) served for 12 years with the Baltimore City Police Department. She 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.