Many cities are rethinking the police, but what are the alternatives?


Investments, institutions and decriminalization all are strategies that can reduce the mandate of police and be more effective in addressing certain “offenses” than the criminal justice solution. This post explores police alternatives for cities, dividing

police patches

Photo by todd kent / Unsplash

Investments, institutions and decriminalization all are strategies that can reduce the mandate of police and be more effective in addressing certain “offenses” than the criminal justice solution. This post explores police alternatives for cities, dividing them into three groups: health, relationships and community patrol.

George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis has led to ongoing protests against police brutality that have included calls for reforms, police abolition and/or new police alternatives. As highlighted in earlier Urban Edge posts, the police mandate covers a huge array of tasks, which include addressing mental health crises, performing first aid, intervening during drug overdoses and managing traffic, along with enforcing criminal laws. Cities have experimented with “alternatives to police” in the past, both in reaction to 2014 protests following high-profile cases of Black Americans dying while in police custody, as well in efforts to allow police to focus on “real police work.”

This blog post is a survey of new “police alternatives” employed across the country. Some of these alternatives already exist in Houston, but not in places you would necessarily look or expect to find them.

First: What is a “police alternative”?

The term is vague. For example, housing the homeless helps reduce crime victimization. Yet public housing or shelter construction are rarely considered an “alternative to police,” even though evidence suggests that this reduces violent crime. Targeted community investments can be “police alternatives.”

Additionally, other patrol and first-responder organizations have mandates that intersect with those of the police. For example, police may respond to 911 calls about loose or stray animals — this is a very common call — but most large U.S. cities have animal control officers. EMTs and firemen, like police, do first-response first-aid work. They may be considered a “police alternative” given that they perform a similar job, but they are not new institutions.

Lastly, decriminalization helps reduce crime. For example, some countries (such as Portugal in 2010) have decriminalized all hard drugs, while providing more social service resources for those suffering from addiction. In this country, the police actively pursue both users and sellers of hard drugs. Rendering these activities legal would place them under the aegis of non-police institutions, such as health and human services. Thus, changing laws and decriminalizing certain behaviors could be thought of as a “police alternative.”

Investments, institutions, decriminalization: certain other non-patrol activities can help reduce the mandate of police. I want to emphasize that not all criminal justice problems — like violence or drug possession — require a criminal justice solution. Violence, disorder and drug abuse can be addressed through means like investments, supplementary patrols or decriminalization.

In fact, the criminal justice solution — like police — may be less effective than these other strategies. New York City’s treatment of subway graffiti provides one example. Through the 1960s and 1970s, aggressive policing of graffiti proved insufficient to thwart the issue. Starting in the mid-1980s, the NYC transit authority changed its policy. When a new subway car (with easily cleanable surfaces) was graffitied, it was quickly removed from service and scrubbed clean within 24 hours. As the transit authority replaced its fleet over a five-year period, graffiti slowly disappeared from cars. For the past 30 or so years, the NYC subway has been essentially graffiti-free. I share this example not to suggest that policing of graffiti ever stopped, but that policing alone proved insufficient to actually remove graffiti. Excess policing in the subways also likely amplified ill-will and anti-police hostilities in NYC’s non-white communites.

To narrow the scope of this post, I will only discuss new alternatives to police patrol within other cities (so, existing institutions like EMTs, fire and animal control will be excluded), and I won’t include examples of problem-oriented police like the subway graffiti example above. I do not want to limit anyone’s imagination when considering “police alternatives,” only narrow the scope in a productive way.

This survey is not comprehensive, only illustrative. I categorize all police alternatives into three groups: Health, Relationships and Community Patrol, and conclude with a special note on 911 and dispatch.

Police alternatives: health

Anyone who has done police ride-alongs will know how frequently officers respond to health emergencies, not only injuries but also mental health and substance abuse crises. The vast majority of patrol police—over 90%, according to one Seattle study—addresses multiple people in mental health crises every month. Typically, the officer is responding to a 911 call where a person may be yelling loudly or acting strangely, actions that seem “off” but do not necessarily warrant an arrest (and rather required targeted treatments long before the event of the 911 call). An officer cannot “treat” these issues like they were a broken bone or open wound, but arrest and “legal violence” remain one of the few special powers that officers have.

Beyond mental health, alcohol and drug abuse — especially the recent opioid crisis — shape patrol work. For example, roughly two-thirds of Seattle police officers were present at an opioid overdose in 2012, which was a relatively “early” stage in the recent crisis. Officers in some cities have recorded more needle-stick injuries on the job. However, law and police may be a barrier to improving public health outcomes. Intravenous-drug users may be hesitant to use harm-reduction services (such as needle exchanges) for fear of arrest. In some jurisdictions (like Austin), officers have refused to use naloxone.

U.S. cities have experimented with new health-focused patrol and emergency dispatch institutions. One of the oldest of these programs is Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, which was established over 30 years ago. Eugene has the largest per-capita homeless population in the U.S. by certain censuses, and has developed innovative approaches to address homelessness, substance abuse and mental health. CAHOOTS officers are unarmed and drive around in marked vans responding to mental health and substance abuse crises. They have a direct number and also operate through the central dispatch system used by police, fire and EMTs.

Oregon seems to be a center for similar health and wellness patrols: Project Respond, in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, employs unarmed, non-sworn officers trained in mental health interventions. Street Response, also in Portland and operated through the city’s fire department, responds to drug and mental health crises, providing interventions and diverting people to programs. Local homeless advocates helped design the program. (Streetroots in Portland has an excellent summary of other similar local programs). Denver runs a similar program called STAR.

While the programs in Denver and Oregon remain the vanguard (and are more established), other cities have adopted or are considering adopting similar programs that put social workers on patrol. Houston itself has had a similar program — the Crisis Intervention Response Team (CIRT) — since 2008. CIRT is a partnership between the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD and the HPD/Harris County Sheriff’s Office. CIRT social workers accompany police officers when responding to situations involving mental health crises. The social worker, trained in de-escalation, has access to health care databases and can use de-escalation tactics that are apt for the mentally ill person’s condition.

Across these and other programs, a few trends emerge. First, many are not actually “public” organizations; rather, they are run by private clinics that contract with local governments (similar to many EMT services).

Secondly, the extent to which these can be called “police alternatives” is controversial. Many still rely on police. Project Respond officers usually are accompanied by police officers. While Project Respond officers may have more in-depth mental health response training, the threat of law enforcement lingers. It is less an “alternative” to police than a “supplement.” The same can be said for CIRT social workers in Houston. A recent Houston Chronicle story cites the low arrest rate of people who make contact with CIRT officers; however, roughly 40% of those who make contact are still involuntarily taken to psychiatric hospitals (presumably with police officer assistance).

Many of these programs explicitly or implicitly address homelessness issues, given how mental health and substance abuse problems often intersect with the ability to secure housing. Homelessness and housing precarity are associated with suicide and substance abuse, a point broached in prior Kinder publications. Within Houston, there are specific police-like organizations that address homelessness. The most notable example would be the Downtown Public Safety Guides, private-sector non-sworn security officers whose salaries are paid by a special tax assessment on downtown properties. While not focused on homelessness per se, their jobs involve connecting downtown’s homeless population with social services.

Police alternatives: relationships

Besides calls involving health emergencies, states and localities have examined alternatives to addressing domestic, family and gender violence. Alternatives here are trickier. When police are called to address a domestic disturbance, they are called explicitly because they possess special powers of violence and arrest. The cops are a last resort: someone needs to come break up the fight. This is different from cases above, in which people call 911 to address health and wellness concerns, not to end a violent situation.

Domestic violence responses make up a very large share of police calls. This issue is more pressing at this moment: COVID-19 lockdown measures have increased gender-based violence and calls to police.

The variety of police alternatives to domestic violence response tends to be proactive, not reactive like special patrols. Organizations across the U.S. have experimented with community restorative justice practices and targeted counseling initiatives. HPD employs a special Family Violence Unit, which includes counselors. These programs have come with both successes and challenges. Because these alternatives are not explicitly patrol-oriented, they will not be analyzed further, but they do warrant further exploration at this specific moment in time.

Besides these interventions, states and cities have established hotlines for domestic violence complaints. Research suggests that having police respond to calls may, in the long term, exacerbate the perpetrator’s violent behavior. Knowing this, these hotlines seek to connect victims with resources outside of the criminal justice system such as emergency shelters or planning services. For example, the SafeLink system in Massachusetts provides services and advice in English and Spanish, 24 hours a day. While various 24-hour hotlines exist in greater Houston, they are not managed by the public sector and are often run by individual shelters.

Some community-based models exist. Rooted in feminist ethos, community groups have banded together to respond to domestic violence in their neighborhoods. One example is the Sista Liberated Ground initiative in Brooklyn. Other lessons come from outside the U.S.. As mentioned in a prior blog post, women-staffed police stations have become the norm across much of Latin America. These stations staff only female officers who are specially trained to address gender-based violence, such as domestic abuse and sexual assault. These stations first began appearing in Brazil in the 1970s. Evaluations of their efficacy are mixed, with evidence pointing to their greater effectiveness in larger cities. Recent activists have pushed for establishing this model in North American cities.

Police alternatives: community patrol

Like “police alternatives,” the term “community patrol” suffers from a certain vagueness. It can refer to neighborhood watch groups in exclusively white areas, which have a troubling history (to put it mildly), or groups within non-white neighborhoods, which suffer disproportionately from violent policing and seek to handle violence and disorder internally.

A major difference between these community groups is the degree to which they complement or replace the police. For this discussion, it may help to divide these different patrols into groups.

First, there are those whose mission is explicitly tied to de-policing and police abolition; they want to replace police. These groups include Oakland APTP, CAT 911 in Los Angeles and the Interrupters in Chicago (the subject of a recent Frontline documentary). These organizations draw inspiration from non-white community safety and self-determination initiatives such as the Oakland Black Panther Party, which sought to “police the police” while providing personal safety services to non-white and Black neighborhoods.

On the other hand, there are community-based patrols that seek not to replace police, but rather to complement their work. This includes traditional neighborhood watch groups and security forces employed by business districts (which are non-sworn but often communicate with central dispatch and respond to non-violent calls within a certain area). Examples of such security forces include Downtown Public Safety Guides and security patrols employed at New Urbanism developments like CityCentre. Across the country, these security officers often serve wealthier areas (which have the means to pay them). In other cities, these not only supplement police work by providing extra “eyes on the street” and answering calls that don’t require a sworn officer; these forces often provide services for integrated camera surveillance systems (such as in Atlanta).

Given how hyper-localized these patrols could be within our hyper-segregated country, many neighborhood patrol groups have the ethno-racial character of their neighborhood. Examples of explicitly ethno-racial police exist in the U.S. The Shomrim, a patrol made up of Haredi Jewish officers who police their communities in New York City, Baltimore and other cities, is an example. In NYC, the Shomrim grew in power and size following a perceived lack of police services: Haredi community members famously stormed a Brooklyn precinct in 1978 demanding that the NYPD provide better services. (Prior to the Minneapolis 3rd police precinct’s destruction, this was probably the last time protestors stormed a major city’s police precinct). The Shomrim are controversial. In New York they have faced charges of aggression toward non-Haredi neighbors, but also are perceived to be useful mediators between the city and the insulated Haredi community. Those looking to implement community-based patrols would do well to study the Shomrim to learn from both their missteps and successes.

Concluding thoughts: 911 and the local trap

One point not considered enough in discussions about alternatives to police patrol is the central role of 911 and dispatch. Dispatchers are the nerve centers of patrol activities. Egon Bittner, a famed criminologist, described the police job as officers routinely addressing “something that ought not to be happening and about which someone had better do something now.” People may call 911 with a cat in the tree, a downed power line or an assault in progress. Dispatchers must turn these requests into legible police problems, and then choose how to strategically deploy officers (and non-police like EMTs and firemen). How dispatchers interpret 911 calls informs how nervous (and violence-ready) police are when they respond to a call. Dispatchers theoretically have the power to not deploy police. Discussions about police alternatives — and crafting alternative patrol institutions to respond to the many public emergencies — should not forget the crucial dispatch communication infrastructure.

Many alternatives to police arise at the local level: neighborhoods start their own patrols, cities or local nonprofits dispatch social workers to address addiction or homelessness, or local feminist organizations start restorative justice circles for domestic violence victims and assaulters. But I want to emphasize how the state and national government should also be a target for reforms.

Municipal police departments are technically creations of the state — not local — government. State laws can help create new statewide institutions with larger budgets. State prosecutors have a tremendous amount of oversight over police. In most OECD countries, it is mostly the state governments (and not cities or towns) that have police departments, an alternative rarely taken seriously in the U.S., despite being common practice in most every other “developed” country.

Additionally, hyper-local volunteer patrols can cross the line into chauvinism and xenophobia, a critique frequently leveled at the Shomrim or suburban neighborhood watch groups. In conclusion, I encourage policing activists and reforms to not fall for the “local trap” when considering alternatives to police, and perhaps look more toward Austin.



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