Reimagining systems: building community wellness

For 9 minutes, the world watched as George Floyd lost his life at the hands of police. Nearly a year later, a jury convicted Derek Chauvin, but accountability for one officer does not provide justice for centuries of systemic harm. Chauvin’s arrest did not stop police from killing 229 Black people in the year following George Floyd’s death. We cannot continue to hear the same story with a different name. The justice we have long yearned for—marched for, died for— requires systemic change.

We must reimagine the systems that fail to keep our communities safe. Instead of criminalizing poverty and dispatching deadly force for every call, we can invest in our communities and learn from alternatives already in place. We can train mental health and de-escalation specialists. And in order to achieve the well-being that brings true safety, we must provide jobs, housing equity, and pollution-free neighborhoods for those who have been left behind for too long.

Community-Focused Alternatives to Police

Eugene, OR

In 1989, the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) project was created as an alternative to police response for non-violent crises. CAHOOTS teams are made up of two medics, do not carry weapons, and use trauma-informed de-escalation and harm reduction techniques. In 2019, CAHOOTS responded to 24,000 calls, only 311 of which required police back-up. Through this reduction in expensive police responses, the program saves the City of Eugene $8.5 million in public safety annually. 

Alternatives to police across the US

The CAHOOTS model has spawned other policing alternatives across the country. Community responders with lived experience in the issues that community members face step in to take over issues such as wellness checks, intoxicated persons, homelessness, mental crises, noise complaints, and trespassing, rather than referring those issues to the police. 

Programs like these have had great success.

  • In Sacramento, California, 70 instances of potential gun violence were interrupted and 220 conflicts were mediated by the credible messengers of Mental Health First, prompting a 14.3% reduction in firearm violence.
  • The STAR program which launched in Denver just days after George Floyd’s death took on 748 calls in its first month, none of which required police intervention or arrests.
  • A program called Man Up! in Brooklyn, New York, divert the potential for police harm and has earned a trusted role within the community. When a group of young people were caught stealing, this program was contacted instead of the police. Man Up! provides support in the community for youth, employment, and emergency care.

Even the police have started to appreciate these programs, as results roll in. As David Franco, a retired officer with 30 years of experience in Chicago explained “Every patrol officer knows that we respond to the same addresses and the same people over and over. Instead of sending an officer to put a Band-Aid on the issue for a day or two, we should send mental health and de-escalation experts, who are actually equipped to find long-term solutions.”

Police forces around the world

Democracies around the world tend to look quite different from the model used in the US. For years, Finland and Norway have gone without a police killing. Between 2013 and 2019, Canada suffered 220 police killings. In that same time period, police in the US killed 7,638 people.

Foreign police forces are far less militarized than the US and are often unarmed. In Japan, officers are trained in alternate methods including martial arts. In Ireland, many officers are not trained in firearms-use at all. Twelve of 16 Pacific Island nations don’t allow their police to carry weapons. In the UK and New Zealand, their police are also unarmed and the police themselves are resistant to becoming armed. 

In making comparisons between the US and other countries, critics often claim that a large degree of gun ownership prevents disarming the police. Iceland, however—the 15th most armed country in the world—has had only one police killing in its entire history. There is a belief within the country that having low inequality and a strong welfare system are key to maintaining a low crime rate.

A New Vision for Community Safety

In the US, Black men are 2½ times more likely to die at the hands of police and twice as likely to be unarmed. In Minneapolis Black people were 9 times more likely to be arrested because of a traffic stop, according to the ACLU. A systematic review of studies on police departments since the 1970s found that increases in police force size do not reduce crime.

What then, creates safety, if the police have consistently been found to cause more harm than good?

According to Dr. Amara Enyia, the policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, “The things that create safety are also the things that create strong individuals, strong families, strong communities. And those things are about investments in education, in economic developments, in housing, in mitigating public health hazards. Those are the things that create safety.” 

We need caring crisis intervention and crime prevention programs, and we must also invest in building healthy communities. Currently the Twin Cities does not meet the conditions necessary for strong and safe communities. The enormous racial inequality gap in Minneapolis means Black families are earning less than half the income of white families; only one quarter of Black families own homes compared to three-quarters of whites; Black people are incarcerated 11 times more often than white people; and graduation rate disparities by race rank Minnesota 50th in the nation.

A Green New Deal would provide housing, jobs, and education as we tackle the climate crisis. In order to create wellbeing and equity—the roots of community safety—we must both remake our criminal justice system and provide jobs and environmental justice for all. Minneapolis is taking steps toward change, but there is so much more to do. We must all participate to repair centuries of injustice. Join us to find out how we can achieve a Green New Deal here in Minneapolis.