Opinion We’re making progress on the ‘what’ of reimagining safety. But what about the ‘how’?

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; iStock)
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Phillip Atiba Goff is a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University and co-founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Policing Equity.

At a 2007 Stanford conference on racial bias in policing, a commander from the Denver Police Department put a challenge to me. I had just presented a laboratory study on police officers dehumanizing Black people. She wanted to know: Did I have the courage to try fixing this in the real world?

The subsequent trajectory of my science and activism has largely been a response to Tracie L. Keesee’s challenge that day. In 2008, she and I co-founded the Center for Policing Equity (CPE). Our mission is to figure out the “how” — how to make policing less deadly, racist and omnipresent. How to prevent tragedies like the police shooting of Daunte Wright that happened last weekend.

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Last year, the injustice done to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others sparked one of the largest protest movements in history and a sea change in public opinion. Thanks to the hard work of organizers and activists, we have never had more opportunities to decide what reimagining safety should look like.

But the how is mostly left to localities. Local organizers, elected officials and other leaders are doing the hard work of turning reimagining into blueprints for systems that keep people safe. While federal and state actors play an important role, local efforts will ultimately determine whether we emerge with a more equitable paradigm or repeat the cycle of “hand-wringing, inaction and forgetting” that has followed racial violence for generations.

In the United States, ultimate decision-making about public safety often rests at the local level — often under the radar. Cities like New York, which boast massive police departments and garner national media, are the exception. Most of America’s roughly 18,000 law-enforcement agencies employ 25 or fewer officers, who are often the only public safety resource available in their communities. Which is to say: The “how” of reimagining can quickly get very idiosyncratic.

This type of work — which CPE facilitates through partnerships with local leaders — is scrappy, not soaring. It demands coming to the table in good faith with folks you probably dislike. It demands engaging with real people in real pain, not abstractions. It demands more interest in making progress than making enemies.

Reimagining safety will look different almost everywhere it is tried. That is a good thing. A variety of approaches, paired with robust data collection to measure outcomes, is the lifeblood of good policy, turning promising experiments into scalable solutions.

In 2018, for instance, CPE analyzed data on police stops from the Berkeley, Calif., police department. We found that Black motorists were 6.5 times more likely than White motorists to be stopped, often as a pretext. In February, Berkeley became the country’s first city to officially plan to shift most traffic enforcement from police to unarmed transportation workers. Removing armed officers from routine traffic stops will dramatically reduce the likelihood that they escalate into tragedies like the shootings of Duante Wright and Philando Castile.

On Long Island, our team consulted for a community-led initiative called the LI United to Transform Policing and Community Safety. Their 12-point proposal recommends giving 911 operators the choice to dispatch a team of “clinical professionals” in response to mental health crises. The goal is to prevent deaths like Daniel Prude’s, a mentally ill Black man who died of asphyxiation after being hooded and handcuffed by police.

In March, the city of Ithaca, N.Y., and surrounding Tompkins County, signed off on a little-noticed, but transformative plan that our team helped shape alongside local officials, community leaders and law enforcement. The plan replaces the Ithaca Police Department with a Community Solutions and Public Safety Department led by a non-law-enforcement executive and comprised mostly of unarmed first responders who refer non-criminal complaints to social service agencies. In an extraordinary statement, Ithaca’s police union endorsed the plan that dissolved their own department.

This kind of progress becomes possible when we begin with the values of communities and relentlessly build bridges to the people who can bring their vision to life. The process will produce compromises and failures along with successes. Creating space for it is the only way forward.

The weeds of local policy may seem mundane and, in a moment that calls for transformational change, unsatisfying. But change can be both insufficient and invaluable. A decade ago, police chiefs would tell me that chokehold bans put officers’ lives at risk. Seriously. Last week, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo testified against former officer Derek Chauvin, asserting that had Chauvin followed department policies, George Floyd would still be alive.

While these types of shifts are cold comfort to those in mourning and should never impede longer-term change that communities demand and deserve, they can save lives. There is simply no opting out of the long slog toward justice. There is just taking care of each other along the way. And in the meantime, we take what we can get and keep coming back for the rest.

Eventually, if we have the courage to keep asking “how,” we’ll get closer to a vision worthy of the people whose sacrifice forced us to reimagine in the first place.

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