Millions of people now know what my foremothers in the struggle, women like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, knew decades ago: our criminal legal system requires full reimagination for justice to exist. Let’s begin with policing.
Drawing on the legacy of Black abolitionism and the current anger of the millions sickened by viral Black death, I am working on a policy plan for Athens which will shrink our armed police force by 50% over the next 10 years, replacing them with more specialized, holistic and compassionate forms of community response.
Here are five of the reasons why I’m fighting for this initiative.
1. Send mental health professionals to mental health emergencies
Within the last year, Athens-Clarke County Police Department has shot six people, four fatally. It appears many of those slain were experiencing a mental health crisis. With a properly trained first responder on the scene, the situation might have ended without their death.
By reducing the number of interactions our citizens have with officers armed with deadly weapons, we can significantly reduce the threat of violence within our community. Many of the situations police officers currently respond to are non-violent and can be handled by more appropriate and specialized professionals.
2. Allocate more resources toward community development and mental health
The current Athens budget allocates $75 million toward public safety and the judicial system, while only $16 million goes toward housing, education, wellness and social work combined. The policy proposed would free up an estimated $200,000 to invest in an additional mental health co-responder team by cutting five vacant officer positions this year.
Most crime rates in Athens are falling even with vacant positions on the police force, which leads us to believe our resources could be better spent in efforts which prevent people from falling into the criminal justice system.
People with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other civilians. What is needed is investment in properly trained social workers and mental health professionals. Many municipalities across the U.S. have done this with positive outcomes, including Houston, Los Angeles and Colorado.
3. Engage in restorative justice
Restorative justice invites offenders to experience the effects of their crime with victims and community members, ultimately deliberating how to repair harms through material or emotional reparations. Aside from material and monetary means, the criminal justice system sorely lacks the ability to offer restitution to the emotional harms for victims of crime.
This type of restorative justice requires trained professionals and is not work police officers can properly accomplish, even if they take side courses. We are looking to invest in these means, as we believe we can create more social cohesion which will reduce repeat offenses.
4. Increase feeling of safety within the community
With police brutality well documented across the U.S., many citizens are losing faith in the police's ability to protect them from harm. According to a recent Ipsos poll, only 36% of Black Americans trust the police. Additionally, a CBS poll showed 57% of Americans believe police in most communities treat white people better than Black people.
In the South, modern police forces originated as Slave Patrols where they chased runaway slaves and disciplined those that violated plantation rules. After the Civil War, they shifted to enforcing segregation laws and worked to maintain racial divides. Given the racial discrimination rooted in the history of our police force, it’s entirely appropriate that people of color do not trust our police.
5. Truly “Protect And Serve”
Police departments around the country proclaim they “protect and serve” and display this slogan on their badges and police vehicles. While most people believe these words are defined by an officer's mission to protect citizens and serve the public, the courts have said otherwise.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the government, including police departments, only have a duty to protect people who are “in custody”, not citizens. Officers routinely reject this duty as can be seen with cases like Khalief Browder, Michael Marshall and Bradley Ballard.
We believe the shift of resources from officers which carry lethal weapons and enforce a broken system to social workers, mental health professionals, and restorative justice mediators will truly serve and protect our citizens.