Public Safety Can’t Be Purchased With Police and Prisons

by Daniel A. Rosen |

When I watched the video of George Floyd’s murder from my prison cell, my first instinct was sheer outrage, like people of conscience everywhere. My second thought: If cameras were as prevalent in prison as on the street, the public might see many more men of color who can’t breathe, uniformed knees on their necks and chokeholds around their throats.

Just like on the street, they’re not always killed – though that happens too – but ‘merely’ viciously assaulted or mistreated. They’re pepper sprayed and body slammed in jails and prisons across the country, every day. And maybe it’ll take people in the streets – former inmates, families of inmates, and complete strangers – demanding change about our addiction to incarceration to change this, too.

Because like George Floyd, those men are someone’s brother, uncle, father, son, or best friend. They’re human beings who matter, often damaged by their environment, by systemic racism and oppression and the circumstances of their lives, and they deserve better. Our over-reliance on the tools of force and violence isn’t making the public safer.

Senator Cory Booker recently described our approach to public safety this way: “We’ve decided as a society, either implicitly or explicitly, to treat poverty, mental illness, and drug addiction with prison, jail, and police. We are putting all our public monies into law enforcement and incarceration, and comparatively very little into treating people humanely – even though it would likely cost far less.”

In the United States today, we have a million police officers and half a million national guard troops. We have over two million jail and prison inmates, and almost 25 percent of those are drug offenders. We have 18,000 police departments, and nine of ten of those are small stations of 25 officers or less. We have over 6,000 jails, prisons, and immigration and youth detention centers. We spend $80-100 billion a year on incarceration alone. 600,000 people a year are released from prison back into communities every year.

We are a big country, but these are staggering numbers. To even the casual observer, it’s clear we’re trying to police, convict, and incarcerate our way out of a whole host of societal problems – poverty, mental illness, and addiction chief among them – but also education, health, and affordable housing crises.

Public safety, the first responsibility of government, can’t just be about policing and prisons. Safety can’t be achieved by force – safe communities have to be physically and mentally healthy, economically viable, and educated. And when one of every three dollars in municipal budgets go to policing, as is typically the case, it’s just not viable to budget fully for those other priorities too.

Fixing this problem starts with narrowing the writ of police on our streets and arresting far less people. People in crisis from mental health or drug addiction need to be dealt with by caring public and health professionals and treated for those problems – not arrested. People caught committing petty property crimes could perform public service and restitution. And a great number of laws need to be changed so that minor transgressions like smoking pot and driving on a suspended license – or debtors crimes like owing money for child support – don’t become gateways to teeming jails. Our jails are now filled with addicts, the mentally ill, and the poor.

There’s nothing safe for the public about overcrowded jails – though virtually every big city in America has one. The petty crimes we’ve charged many arrestees with result in short, plea-bargained sentences and thousands subsequently released every year without jobs, housing, or health care. What’s safe about that?

Instead of defunding our police departments, we need to turn them into well-funded public safety departments, as many others have proposed. These agencies can be staffed with crisis managers who triage calls for assistance to the appropriate type of responders. Mental health, drug counselors, and other types of social services like housing and health care specialists should be at the fingertips of these first-line helpers.

Handcuffs, a squad car, a jail cell and a stack of charges brought by overzealous prosecutors en route to an inevitable plea deal is often the wrong answer – but at the moment that hammer is often the only one we have. So, every defendant begins to look less like a human being, and more like that proverbial nail.

Just as George Floyd must have looked to those police officers that day. In fact, he was many things to many people who held him dear. Father, Brother, Son, Teammate, Mentor. “George Floyd was our shelter,” said one mourner, explaining how the gentle giant protected those around him.

He was also an inmate, for a time. And in my five years behind bars, I’ve known a few men like George, I think: big men whose size gives them an authority they use judiciously to suppress conflict, not create it. They are men who know that real power comes from a different place.

I haven’t heard much about George’s time in prison, or the circumstances that led him there – but it makes me think more of him, not less. He clearly didn’t let it embitter him, or keep him down – he moved to a new city and got a fresh start on his life.

“God always uses unlikely people,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, like “an ordinary brother from the Third Ward.” A bouncer, an ex-con, a man who’d felt the weight of the system before, Floyd helped show us that neither justice nor peace are yet within our grasp.

We have a long way to go before we approach those twin ideals, and many reforms to effect. “Dominating the streets” will not get us there, nor will debates over statues and flags. Those are political distractions meant to solidify electoral wins, not landmarks that help us navigate a more humane path to public safety.

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