On June 11th, near twilight, Camara Jackson was in Marcus Garvey Village, a sprawling low-income housing complex in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, checking in with residents and handing out hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves. Jackson is the executive director of Elite Learners, a community anti-violence organization that tries to mediate conflict on the street without the involvement of the police. Jackson was with her team of crisis-management-system, or C.M.S., workers, who also provide counseling and connect people to social services. On the way over, we had passed two police officers sitting on a street bench, whom Jackson called a “steady”—cops who station themselves in the neighborhood to watch goings on, but who do not engage with residents except when there is a problem.
“The fight?” one man said.
“Yeah, we got rid of that cop,” Jackson replied. The officer, who was known to harass Marcus Garvey Village residents, had been captured on film shoving a protester during a Black Lives Matter demonstration, and was then suspended and arrested, partly owing to the effort of New York officials.
“He was out here last night. The asshole. The one that was in the video,” a man in a bright T-shirt said.
“Out here doing what?” Jackson asked.
“He’s a white shirt now,” another man said, referring to the uniform of a commanding officer. “He’s still here doing what he do.”
Jackson handed him her business card. “If you’re out here and there’s a problem, call the number. Just let me know.”
“All right, thank you,” he said. He looked up and then pointed at a police car driving by: “There he is, right there!”
Jackson waited for the car to round the block again, and then flagged it down. She approached the two white cops inside. “I see you again! You remember me?” she said to the officer in the passenger seat. “We’re just out here giving out hand sanitizer and making sure the guys are good, and everything’s all right.” The officer, who looked taken aback, nodded. His partner told Jackson to be safe. “He looked surprised, because he knows we don’t play about the work we do,” Jackson told me, as we walked back to the men to tell them that the cop was not the same one as in the video.
Jackson recognized the officer in the car from an incident the previous Friday night. A group of young black men had been hanging out on a stoop around the corner, when patrol cars began circling the block. “One of the guys called me and said, ‘Miss, plainclothes are coming around, and we’re just on the stoop, and I’m afraid,’ ” Jackson recalled. It was after midnight. She got in her car and drove to the apartment building, where she saw the officers—there were about eight in total—and asked what they were doing. The officers, who had their ticket pads out and were lining up people, told her that it was after curfew, and that they had seen open containers. Jackson saw no open containers; she told the cops that she was from an anti-violence organization, and asked if they could give the men a warning. The officers left without issuing tickets. Jackson believes that having C.M.S. workers, instead of the police, enforce social-distancing rules would be more effective, because they have relationships within neighborhoods. “We’re already fighting a battle between the community and the police—that’s been a constant battle,” Jackson said. “And now you give police more power, and you tell them to control social distancing. You get chaos.”
In the past three years, C.M.S. has contributed to a fifteen-per-cent decline in shootings in the seventeen precincts with the highest levels of violence in the city, according to the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence. Today, more than fifty nonprofits conduct C.M.S. work in twenty-two neighborhoods across New York. Funded by the city, their total budget is $37.4 million, and they employ a hundred and fifty full-time employees and two hundred seasonal ones. In early June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he plans to increase C.M.S. spending by ten million dollars, hire additional workers, and expand programs to Soundview, Jamaica, Crown Heights, Flatbush, and Canarsie.
For the past four years, Elite Learners has been conducting C.M.S. work in Brownsville and East Flatbush. Jackson, a former teacher and college-prep counsellor in her thirties, grew up in Brownsville and founded Elite Learners, in 2016, to “be a support system for young people” in the community. She started out providing educational and mentorship services, and sent violence-prevention mediators to schools to help students navigate difficult people and blocks between school and their homes. From there, Jackson began a hospital-responder program, in which her employees aid victims of violent assault and help them find ways to avoid retaliation and more conflict. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Elite Learners employed twenty-five people.
During the lockdown, city officials classified C.M.S. team members as essential workers so that they could keep operating. “This is the first step to eliminate so many officers on the streets,” Jackson said. “C.M.S. workers are trained, and they know how to navigate difficult situations. They’re respected by people on the street, and they don’t come with typical police strategies.” The group’s annual budget of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars is partly made up of contributions from New York City Council members, the Department of Corrections, the Administration for Children’s Services, and other government agencies. “We do a lot of work with little funding,” Jackson went on. She said many anti-violence groups want to coexist with the police—but with departments that have dramatically scaled back their size and stopped using tactics that undermine community mediation; their work is radically different. “We can’t babysit cops,” Jackson said.
On June 7th, after almost two weeks of nationwide protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis city council announced its support for dismantling the city’s police force. Council members said they wanted to do year-long consultations with residents to identify public-safety strategies that do not involve policing. At the end of that process, they would overhaul the responsibilities of the police, and give many of the duties to community groups and other programs. “There’s been an earthquake in the political landscape,” Alex S. Vitale, the author of “The End of Policing,” told me. In Minneapolis, the police department had been seen as a model for community policing because it had a diverse force, including the city’s first black and female police chiefs. It also trained police in implicit bias and deëscalation, used body cameras, and encouraged officers to intervene when their colleagues were abusive.
Yet an officer still killed Floyd, over an allegedly counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. Over the past five years, police in Minneapolis have used force against black residents at least seven times as often as they have against white ones. “Police reform has been tried in Minneapolis for more than a century,” Tony Williams, a member of the Minneapolis anti-police brutality project MPD150, told me. “We see a cycle of police brutality, police-reform efforts, and stagnation that repeats every three or four years, sometimes sooner than that. It’s become very clear to council members that the police department is not reformable.”
Calls for defunding the police are rooted in prison abolition, which seeks to eliminate mass incarceration. Though activists and officials differ on how much they want forces to be restructured, the ideological goal of defunding is abolishing traditional policing altogether. Advocates want leaders to divest from forces and reinvest in a vision of public safety that includes economic and social security for the most marginalized in society. Local, state, and federal governments spend twice as much on police, prisons, and courts as they do on welfare assistance. The federal government spends eight times as much on defense as it does on education. And, though violent crime in many major cities is at a historic low, the rates of murder, gun violence, and police killings in the United States are still higher than in many countries. Prison abolitionists, such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, have found that mass incarceration does not often slow crime or make places safer.
Activists and officials have begun to look at alternatives. Besides the use of community anti-violence groups, they say that low-level drug violations could be considered a public-health problem, instead of a criminal one, and offenders could be enrolled in treatment programs. Mental-health and social workers could respond to emergency calls involving mentally ill and homeless people, substance abuse and overdoses, and domestic violence. Schools could have additional counsellors and after-school programs. And, even for violent incidents, activists say, police may not be the best solution. They say the collateral damage of policing—abuse, corruption within some units, frequent incarceration—is too high.
Critics of defunding worry that marginalized communities will suffer the most if these alternatives fail to address serious crime. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently said that, under the city’s current contract with police unions, officers with the least seniority would be the first laid off, and the force, which has a long record of abuse, could become even less diverse. “Most of our diversity lies in the junior officers,” Lightfoot said, in an interview with the Times. “So when you’re talking about defunding the police, you’re talking about doing it in a context of a collective-bargaining agreement that requires you to go in reverse seniority, which means you’re getting rid of the younger officers. Which means you’re getting rid of black and brown people.”
In New York, members of the City Council said, on June 12th, that they had identified a billion dollars in cuts to the police department’s six-billion-dollar budget. De Blasio rejected virtually all of their recommendations. “The Mayor proposed a budget that would eviscerate youth services by one-third, while cutting the N.Y.P.D. budget by only one-third of a percentage point,” Ritchie Torres, a council member who represents the Bronx, told me. “As far as the City Council is concerned, this is a non-starter. There needs to be dramatic reductions in the N.Y.P.D. budget to effect a culture shift.” One of those changes, Torres added, would be establishing independent oversight of the force, an action New York’s police union has long resisted.
Several other cities are considering their options. San Francisco will no longer have its police respond to noncriminal matters, such as those related to mental health, homelessness, school discipline, and domestic disputes—unarmed professionals will, instead—and the force will stop using military-grade weapons. Milwaukee has defunded policing in its schools; Portland has also ended school policing. Durham’s city council denied funds to hire new police officers several months ago. Norman, Oklahoma, is taking eight hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars in police salaries and putting it into a community-outreach program. And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he would cut up to a hundred and fifty million from a planned increase in the police budget and put that money into health and education initiatives in minority communities.
On June 12th, a C.M.S. team from the organization Save Our Streets Bed-Stuy set out on a walk, one of three it would take that day, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. They went by “hot spots” where conflict tended to spike in the twenty-six blocks that the team covers. “We’ve been here five years now,” Lawrence Brown, the team supervisor, told me. “The community knows us; I grew up around these people.” As of that day, the area had not had a shooting in a hundred and seventy days, nor a homicide in seven hundred and seventy days. Shadoe Tarver, the associate director at Save Our Streets Bed-Stuy, told me, “Outside of our catchment area, there’s still a lot of work to be done.” Tarver coördinates six outreach workers, many of whom have had brushes with the police and served time in prison, and who are from, or live, in the neighborhood. We walked through Herbert Von King Park, past people sunning themselves on the grass. “The police fight fire with fire. We cannot approach someone who bears arms,” Davonte Dudley, who was wearing black-rimmed glasses and a Chicago Bulls snapback, said. “If you know the person, you can get close enough to them for them to walk away, but we can’t make them put that gun down.” Dudley surveyed the park. “Nine times out of ten, it’s usually a conflict happening between two people that I know. Your credibility carries a lot,” he said. Now twenty-eight, Dudley first got involved with the organization at a time when he was continually getting in trouble; Save Our Streets took him and other young men on cultural outings, helping him avoid fights in the neighborhood.
Beneath the debate over defunding and abolition are more difficult ideas to take apart: about safety, about criminality. Who is being kept safe in the current policing system, and from whom are they being protected? For decades, patrols protected what was once America’s most valuable commodity: enslaved people. The heavily policed status of black people is older than the nation. Slave patrols in the South found and returned enslaved people who had escaped their masters, and beat and terrorized enslaved workers deemed to have violated plantation rules. After the Civil War, Black Codes controlled the movement and behavior of formerly enslaved people; next came segregation and the growth of prisons, which currently take in African-Americans at five times the rate of white people. The effect has been the surveillance and punishment of black Americans, reformers contend, for the comfort of their white neighbors, and of poor Americans for the security of wealthier ones. “The political issue is all of the stereotypes and notions around identity-based criminalization—that are about black people, poor people, people with different health issues, people who are houseless,” Ejeris Dixon, an organizer and political strategist on racial justice, told me. “When we shift from a narrative of crime to one of safety, it creates room for much more humanity, especially for all of us who have always been criminalized.”
Being safe has always required other things—a home, access to food and health care, the ability to earn a living and pay bills. Over the past few decades, anti-violence efforts have spread through the country to aid communities in achieving those things. “These violence-interruption programs can be incredibly important when they are well funded, well run, and lack police interference. They can show tremendously positive results in reducing shootings and homicides,” Vitale said. “We have research that shows that these programs can work, and we need to dramatically expand their usage in all kinds of settings.”
For example, as of 2017, Cure Violence, a mediation program that C.M.S. workers often use, has helped reduce shootings in the South Bronx area where they work by sixty-three per cent, according to a study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In the East New York area, it helped reduce shootings by fifteen per cent. This moment may be the most tricky in recent memory to put in place community-safety programs. Rising rents, gentrification, and the restrictions of the ongoing pandemic have further alienated neighbors, when intervention efforts will require the opposite. “We need to redistribute resources to community-based alternatives to overcriminalization,” Torres, the New York City Council member, said. “And to police accountability and the social safety net.”
The Oakland chapter of the organization, Critical Resistance, which aims to abolish what it calls the prison-industrial complex, started a community initiative in 2013 called the Oakland Power Projects. The group hosts workshops where health workers encourage residents to consider other options than calling the police, such as phoning neighborhood health centers, substance-abuse and mental-health lines, and mobile clinics. It also trains residents in first-response care, so that they can help their neighbors. “Community members were saying that, whenever they have a health emergency, the only thing they have is to call 911, which often leads to police coming and either not helping or making the situation worse, by obstructing medical workers or questioning people,” Mohamed Shehk, Critical Resistance’s media and communications director, told me. “Many black communities, many undocumented communities, many trans communities will not call the cops, because they know they will be criminalized, locked up, deported, or worse if the police show up, so they have practices of addressing situations on their own.” For more than three decades, a mobile response program in Eugene, Oregon, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, has been taking calls for help related to mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. It handles more than twenty per cent of 911 calls in the area.
Republicans and Democrats have approached demands for police defunding warily. President Trump has said that he is “appalled” by calls to defund, and the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic Representative Karen Bass, said that the movement could be used as a “distraction.” Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation to address police brutality and punish police misconduct, but the proposal makes no mention of police budgets. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said that he does not believe that police should be defunded, though he supports investing in community-response programs. Activists are disappointed. “Young people are sick and tired of a two-tiered criminal-justice system that systematically devalues black and brown life,” Torres said. “And the injustice persists no matter who is in power.” On Tuesday, Torres was one of three progressives who won Democratic primaries for House seats in the New York area.
The past four months have unsettled Americans. An unexpected pandemic; a series of incidents of police brutality; protests and calls for police defunding and abolition that have been startlingly sustained and resonant. “It’s not a coincidence that these protests are unfolding in the aftermath of this government’s botched response to the worst pandemic that our generation has ever seen,” Shehk said. The billions of dollars that the country has spent on policing in the past five years, he went on, have helped build forces that, on average, kill a thousand people every year; that spending may also have left the country’s health-care system unprepared to deal with an ongoing crisis. Protesters on the streets and, increasingly, people at home are arguing for a change in priorities.
Race, Policing, and Black Lives Matter Protests
- The death of George Floyd, in context.
- The civil-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson examines the frustration and despair behind the protests.
- Who, David Remnick asks, is the true agitator behind the racial unrest?
- A sociologist examines the so-called pillars of whiteness that prevent white Americans from confronting racism.
- The Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi on what it would mean to defund police departments, and what comes next.
- The quest to transform the United States cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police.