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April 6, 2021

“Public safety” requires more than law enforcement

Stock Photo
By The Rev. Rob Banse
Delaplane

There is a devastating theme repeating itself daily in the life of our nation. The trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, the massacre of innocent people in Atlanta and Boulder, and the brutal attack on two Capitol police officers all make it quite clear: Keeping the peace in our communities while protecting the safety and wellbeing of both citizens and members of law enforcement who serve to protect and defend them is not working.

Obviously, we are not all in agreement about how to best go about ensuring the rule of law. Some of us believe that possessing guns for personal defense is the best means to do so. Others of us are now rallying around the theme of “defunding the police,” which I take to mean reducing the presence of law enforcement, especially in communities where people experience the police as being more of a real threat as opposed to a source of protection.

While these perspectives need to be thoroughly reviewed and debated, that is not the intent of this letter. Instead, I want to argue that we live in a diverse and complex society and the reality is that a unilateral response does not fit all circumstances.

Many calls that our police departments receive involve members of our communities who are struggling with psychotic episodes and/or other forms of mental illness. Do we really expect our front-line officers to be fully trained to handle such circumstances? Frankly, more is required in many of these situations than immediately pulling out handcuffs or drawing a gun.

Likewise, life in Warrenton or Culpeper is not the same as life in Detroit. We are one nation comprised of a multitude of communities, each with unique cultural characteristics and dynamics. Again, it is unfair to expect our police departments to have to do all the hard work of keeping the peace in these varied contexts. That work requires the full expertise resident within that entire community.

There are already communities around the country working on this. In Denver, Colorado, they are making good use of the STAR program (Support Team Assisted Response). These teams include trained mental health care workers and paramedics who respond to calls in order to ensure that people get the appropriate attention they deserve rather than automatically ending up in the back of a squad car or in a jail cell.

In an excellent series of articles entitled “Reimagine Safety,” the editorial board of The Washington Post reports on other communities working in creative ways to expand their practice of public safety that do not depend upon their police departments alone. The editors write, “We should think about public safety the way we think about public health. No one would suggest that hospitals alone can keep a population healthy, no matter how well run they might be. A healthy community needs neighborhood clinics, health education, parks, environments free of toxins, government policies that protect public health during health emergencies, and so much more. Health isn’t just about hospitals; public safety isn’t just about police.”

In short, we now need to focus on a larger vision when it comes to the public safety of all our citizens. This will require the ongoing work of our police departments, but we need to better support them by providing other resources that will assist them in making sure that all residents of our community are fully defended and protected.
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