Why We Need Alternatives to Policing

By Kim Hunter

While Trump et al have been working hard to subvert the call for racial justice when it comes to policing, I had yet another experience that illustrates the need not just for police reform but for something other than people with guns when things get dicey. The other morning, at a park near my house, I saw a woman clawing at herself and crying in the middle of relatively busy road. This seemed like classic drug induced distress.

I approached her cautiously and tried to get her to at least move onto the sidewalk out of the way of traffic. Not surprisingly, she was not very responsive, in fact, not very coherent. Another man approached that seemed to know her. She responded to him, after a fashion, but was still obviously in great distress and in traffic.

I made the mistake of calling 911 in earshot of her. This was wrong for two reasons. First, she wasn’t having a life threatening emergency. Second, and this is only time she became truly coherent, her reaction was to start shouting at me not to call the (expletive deleted) police. “The police are not our friends. They don’t give a (expletive deleted) about us.”

She repeated those two phrases many times in the short time I was there despite the fact that I tried to tell her that I had dropped the call and just needed her to come onto the sidewalk as the man that seemed to know her. All of her distress was now focused on me and what she thought I was trying to do. What was clear from her tone of voice was her sense that I was the one who was out of my mind, committing an obvious and grievous infraction for making the call.

I am still grappling with her indictment as well as the bad judgement to call 911 when there was no life threatening emergency. Having worked for a shelter for homeless teen girls both in the shelter and on the street, I should have known better. I have heard countless variations on the story that drives mostly low income women of color (she was Latina) into her situation.

What I am also still grappling with is the question of why isn’t there someone else to call? Imagine social workers, drug counselors, community workers who could have been dispatched to help her cope? What I also imagine is that if such community workers were institutionalized and expected, a given, the young women’s life experience and therefore her reaction would not have been vehemently negative.

Whatever you think of police, they are not actually trained to do social work or to be drug counselors. They are trained to enforce laws and apprehend criminals. As a function of race, class and the urban landscape, cities are where people with mental illness, drug related and otherwise, wonder about. Most of the time, they don’t endanger themselves or others. But sometimes they wander into traffic on a busy road.

What has been lost in the dog whistle racism of the Trump administration is something at very least implied in the platform of The Movement for Black Lives, that we need to reroute money from traditional policing and to programs that make traditional policing less “necessary.” Public education, for example, is the best “crime prevention” we have. There a many studies such as the one from Center for Community Alternatives and one from the Alliance for Education Excellence.

Education is a good long term solution. But, more immediate support for people in distress that don’t need people with weapons is to have folks that are trained to deal with distress in a humane manner. Before that, we’d have to manifest a general societal agreement that recognizes that we’re all human and those of us who are in distress don’t necessarily need people who carry weapons.