Voters should demand more than ‘law and order’

On Nov. 6, voters across the nation will head to the polls to choose candidates for office at the federal, state, and local level who they feel most represent their values and priorities.

For many voters, one of these priorities is public safety. Traditional notions of public safety are dominated by “tough on crime” and “law and order”-style policies—largely enforced by police departments nationwide. But our current reliance on police to deal with all of society’s problems does not make us safer. Instead, it pushes millions of people into the justice system and exacerbates poverty and racial inequality. Further, it makes the jobs of officers both difficult and frustrating, given that they do not have the resources, skills, and training needed to solve many of the problems they encounter.

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Rather than looking to candidates who espouse these failed policy views, voters this year should look for candidates who support additional training and resources for officers beyond enforcement, as well as the allocation of resources outside of the justice system for individuals in need of assistance.

The term “public safety”—used broadly by candidates, activists, experts and ordinary civilians alike — is typically synonymous with low crime rates, few public order offenses—such as disorderly conduct, drug and prostitution crimes — and an overall feeling of safety among local residents. Yet not everyone agrees on how to achieve these public safety goals. For decades, local governments have relied on police departments to maintain a “law and order” approach, and officers have become the default response to crime — large and small — as well as other issues that are not criminal in nature. In fact, over 240 million calls are placed to 911 systems nationwide each year, the vast majority of which are unrelated to emergencies or crimes in progress.

Part of this problem is the fact that people often have nowhere else to turn when faced with various crises. Police officers, as a result, have become the first responders to nearly all of society’s ailments — including family and mental health crises, conflicts in schools, and “quality of life” offenses such as public intoxication and panhandling.

Even when the underlying problem is minor or not criminal in nature — for example if someone is having a mental health crisis — police officers often respond using the tool that is most familiar to them: enforcement. Often, it’s the only tool — other than doing nothing — available. This leads nationwide to almost 10 million arrests annually, primarily for low-level, non-serious offenses, contributing to millions of jail admissions each year.

This enforcement takes an especially heavy toll on poor communities and communities of color — who are typically more likely to be party to 911 calls — and for whom even a single day in jail can have lasting consequences, including the loss of an individual’s job, home and children. What’s more, studies have shown that even small stints in jail can make an individual more susceptible to return to crime and incarceration in the future, making our communities less stable and less safe.

Our over reliance on police enforcement for these types of situations puts an unnecessary strain on police resources, prevents officers from fighting serious crime, and hinders their ability to build positive relationships with the communities they serve. It also exposes countless individuals to avoidable criminal justice system contacts.

This approach is inefficient and ineffective. We must develop a better understanding of the types of situations that warrant a police response and those that don’t. Further, we should be investing not only in the development of alternatives to enforcement for police officers but also in the availability in alternative service options, especially for individuals with mental health and substance use issues.

Voters in jurisdictions that are holding local elections — namely for mayor, city council, sheriff, and district attorney — should pay close attention to the criminal justice and public safety policies being put forward by candidates for those offices. Relying on the status quo responses of police enforcement and incarceration to all of society’s problems is not a viable solution.

At the Vera Institute of Justice, we are actively working with police departments across the country to develop alternatives to enforcement. One of these initiatives includes our partnership with local police departments in Tucson, Ariz., and Camden, N.J., to conduct an extensive analysis of their 911 call data and develop a suite of alternative responses for dispatched officers.

Communities across the country should be pushing for similar conversations among their elected leaders and local police and social services officials. Only by embracing the need for alternatives to police enforcement — and holding our leaders accountable for reform — can we truly make our communities safer and more equitable.

Neusteter is policing program director at the Vera Institute of Justice.