Earlier this month, prominent progressive nonprofit People For the American Way released “All Safe: Transforming Public Safety,” a 156 page game plan for how cities can retool their police departments by replacing armed responses to nonviolent crime with civilian employees like social workers.
The document employs the Ithaca Public Safety Model as a blueprint, pulling from the successful reform measures implemented by Svante Myrick, the former mayor of the New York town who now serves as the executive director of People For the American Way.
“As the former mayor of Ithaca, New York, I know that small cities are truly laboratories of democracy in our country,” said Myrick. “In Ithaca, we voted to replace our antique police force with a Department of Public Safety made up of both unarmed and armed responders. We believe wholeheartedly that this will make everyone safer, because so many 911 calls do not require an armed response.”
According to Dr. Niaz Kasravi, founder of the Avalan Institute and one of the architects of the report, the goal of the project is to lay out policy options for officials interested in law enforcement accountability and eliminating police violence. It starts with reducing armed responses to nonviolent crimes and unarmed suspects. Less guns on the scene mean less police shootings, allowing residents to feel safer when contacting authorities for issues like mental health episodes, welfare checks and traffic stops that require a nonviolent touch. And it’s beneficial to the cops as well.
“You’re reducing the stress on police officers who are called to respond to these a large range of issues for which they are not best suited to,” said Kasravi. “Officers are best suited to respond to violence and try to prevent situations that have a tendency to turn into violent situations.”
“This isn’t about reducing the police force, it’ll still have officers,” said Myrick. “They’d be more focused on serious crimes, as opposed to going to less serious calls. They’ll be focused on getting illegal guns off the street, and solving murders and preventing murders before they happen.”
Additionally, the report advises cities to hold police departments accountable through using police union contract negotiations as opportunities to weed out demands that can be exploited for misconduct such as a 2014 Chicago clause that allowed the officer who killed 17-year-old Laquon McDonald to retain his job and fight lawsuits with taxpayer money. The state trio of New Jersey, Rhode Island and Hawaii, along with Washington D.C. openly lack procedures to decertify unfit police officers, while many more impose barriers that make such processes equally as difficult.
Lastly, the report wants police departments to focus on recruiting community-oriented prospects rather than those drawn to violence. Ben Jealous, the president of People For the American Way, said in a recent call that studies show police with authoritarian attitudes are just as dangerous as those with racial biases. And the two often intersect. So more screenings can vet those potential bad apples out and offering more educational opportunities through the department can attract less violent officers. Myrick recalls the number of “unfit” candidates a simple psychological evaluation from the Ithaca Police Department would identify.
“We started using this test, we ended up screening out 75% of people who would otherwise have been hired,” he said. “I’m not even talking about 75% of people who applied—these folks already passed the written test, the physical, the interview, [those were] the three big steps you have to pass just on the surface. If you do that, then boom, you’re hired. We added this extra layer and 75% of them were [now] disqualified.”
But before the Ithaca Public Safety Model makes its way down to the “Big Apple,” Kasravi believes modifications need to be made.
“It’s not a copy paste thing, you have to tailor it to every city’s needs,” she said. “We’re not under the illusion that you can just take what Ithica is doing or what Berkeley is hopefully doing and just implement it across the country. But it provides a roadmap on a framework to work with.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w