Marching Forward: A Vision for Transformation in American Policing and Public Safety
I grew up on 28th and Lake Street in the heart of Minneapolis’ Third Precinct. I also grew up with a stepfather who when drunk would take out life’s frustrations by throwing anything in his path across rooms and through windows. Kids with raging fathers want someone — anyone — to intervene. Unfortunately, my circle of uncles, neighbors, and family friends were all afraid to step in. But the cops of the Third Precinct — they weren’t afraid. On more than one occasion, their pounding on the front door was the difference between blood and peace. Maybe their authority intimidated my stepfather. Maybe he feared an arrest. It didn’t matter to me at that age. Just knowing the police were minutes away helped me to sleep at night.
But on May 28th, 2020, I was jolted from my sleep. That morning, my son sent me a text saying he had never woken up so sad. Four police officers from the Third Precinct had murdered a man named George Floyd.
Just days later, the Third Precinct burned to the ground. The four officers were charged. And the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the police.
What do we do next?
This transformation of policing will be the biggest civil rights issue of our time. And it will become clear how intricately tied “public safety” is to health, education, human services, community development and other social and economic sectors as we envision how to create public safety that works for all of us. For me, transformation of public safety is both personal and professional. As an Afro-Latino man I look forward to the day when I won’t grieve the loss of yet another Black life at the hands of police. I also honor the safety I knew as a child because of the police. And as a leadership and strategy expert who works with communities and police chiefs to reform and re-imagine the future of public safety, I have insight into the opportunities and challenges this new era will bring.
Many people are asking where we start. How about with a couple of truths we must hold in our heads and our hearts?
The first truth: Cops spend approximately 80 percent of their time helping vulnerable people who are in tough situations at pivotal moments. From checking on a mother with children who wants to feel safe, to helping an elderly person with dementia find his way home, to diverting a teen engaging in risky behaviors like cutting school or flirting with petty crimes, to staging an intervention with a citizen suffering a dangerous mental health breakdown, most policing involves providing service to vulnerable people in the community. The balance of a police officer’s time, approximately 20 percent, is spent responding to an incident where some form of force or citizen detainment may be needed. And the vast majority of police officers work a lifetime in policing and retire without ever firing a bullet. These were the cops I counted on as a child. I knew I needed them then, and today it remains true that I never want anyone in a situation like I was in to face it alone.
But there is a second, ugly truth. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, more than 1,000 people are killed by police each year — and that’s just the documented cases. The majority of these killings are of white people, but down the line, from stop and frisk to detainment to murder, Black people in America are suffering disproportionately at the hands of police. It’s as true in Minneapolis as anywhere in our nation. Just last week, The New York Times shared data showing that Minneapolis cops use force on Black people seven times more often than they do on whites. Minnesotans are marching not because Officer Chauvin’s execution of George Floyd was a departure from the norm, but because Black people in Minneapolis have been disproportionately disrespected, harmed, and killed by police for generations. As an adult with a wider lens on the world, I know that no one should experience police brutality or be killed unjustly by police. And I’m sick and tired of knowing young Black and Brown kids live life fearing the police, unable to freely play, to learn, to thrive.
These truths churn in me. What I know is we must do three things simultaneously: end police brutality, protect vulnerable people, and create the future of public safety. For the past decade, these ideas have driven my research and learning programs for leaders in policing as well as health and human services. In this work, I ask every day: what does it mean and look like to commit full tilt to the transformation of public safety?
As we try to answer this question, there are three central realities we can harness to mobilize for change.
First, the legitimacy of policing is on the verge of collapse in many major cities. Every time someone is disrespected or harmed at the hands of police anywhere, trust in policing erodes everywhere. Rebuilding this legitimacy, the most vital currency an organization can have, must be the foundation of change in all of our cities’ policing. Definitionally, legitimacy means an organization is performing according to law and established values, practices, and rules, and it’s a long-term indicator of whether or not an organization is upholding the mission and mandate society has given it. Day-to-day, legitimacy also captures how much people trust and engage with an organization. One way to think about this is to walk it backwards. The legitimacy of an organization stems from the value it brings to constituents, stakeholders, and society. That value depends on the outcomes the organization produces, and the outcomes in turn are contingent on the services the organization provides. Walk it back even more, and you’ll see that the form of services delivered relies on the organization’s capacity (i.e., the governance, structures, systems, processes, and human capital mix that composes an organizational model). At the last step, you’ll find that it’s up to “we the people” to work with police to design a strategy to ensure that capacity.
Second, we’re all aware of the unyielding demand for transformation. Your city may not disband the police, but change is likely coming. The powerful chant of, “No justice, no peace!” from citizens in all fifty states reflects the urgency of their calls for change. The less-told story is that progressive chiefs want innovation and change as well. For the past five years, I’ve asked chiefs attending the Public Safety Summit I annually convene at Harvard University how they see their “operating environment” shifting. 73 percent of the leaders say they are under either significant or extreme pressure to innovate and improve policing services, and 89 percent rank the importance of growing capacity in policing as “critical.” Many of these chiefs are disrupting the status quo and forging a new path for policing. The turnaround of the Camden and Seattle Police Departments are cases in point.
Yet the third reality is that police can’t transform on their own. That’s why change hasn’t come fast enough, and why city councils across the nation may soon intervene. Police chiefs acknowledge this gap in capacity. When I’ve asked the chiefs attending the summit how prepared their organizations are for innovation, 91 percent fall in a “moderately” to “not prepared” range. Minneapolis exemplifies this dilemma: Chief Medaria Arradondo has piloted new collaborations between policing and human services, revamped policies and training programs, and started to chip away at long-standing cultural barriers to change. While Arradondo is the type of innovative chief a city like Minneapolis needs, he has run headfirst into the thick wall of obstruction built over generations by policing culture and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis (the union). To accelerate change in policing, we need communities more than ever to stand up, create a vision for the future, and work with progressive chiefs to effect change.
The burnt skeleton of the Third Precinct is an apt symbol to raise the question nationwide of what we must do next to create this vision. As in Minneapolis, many people are calling for abolishing or disbanding police. Others are advocating for defunding the police. And a quiet but powerful bloc of people don’t want change at all. This mix of perspectives has left us in a rapidly evolving and uncertain landscape.
We can cut through some of this uncertainty by demystifying these terms and options. Think of it like a spectrum. On the far right of the spectrum is “do nothing.” But that doesn’t live up to the promise of our nation for equality and equity. On the far left is “abolish police.” But that fails to address the valid concern of how we protect people as we develop a new and secure system of public safety today. Somewhere center left on this spectrum is “defunding,” which means we move resources upstream to solve community challenges before they manifest as downstream problems for police. It’s important to note here that policymakers and the public have up to now, explicitly and complicitly chosen to deal with people experiencing poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health challenges by criminalizing them. We have “funded” police to round these vulnerable people up downstream and lock them away. We’ve baked this into our budgets, and every major city in the country spends more on policing than on services such as health, housing, and workforce development. We simply can’t do this anymore. It’s ineffective, inefficient, inhumane, and generally insane (one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results).
On this spectrum, we can make the conversation about “defunding” more nuanced by considering how we redesign our approaches to community challenges and the degree to which we move traditional policing resources to social and human services that address the root causes of community safety challenges. And in this context, it may make more sense to use a term like “optimizing” resources. The question expands to: What is the optimal mix of services to achieve better public safety outcomes? What level of funding and resources do we move from traditional policing to community-based social and human services? What is an optimal ratio of civilian to sworn responders in the community? And when those funds or people or activities are moved, do the social and human services organizations taking responsibility have the capacity to produce better outcomes? It is essential here that we see around corners and understand that to the degree we defund police and move resources to other forms of organizations, we will also have to prepare those new organizations to succeed and hold them accountable as we do with policing. Social and human services organizations will suddenly need to work 24/7 to respond to urgent needs. They will need dispatch systems and vehicles and equipment. Social workers and community responders will increasingly find themselves in dangerous situations, and they will need conflict resolution, de-escalation, and use-of-force training. They will need information and data systems that can track their community contacts and be accountable for racial and gender equity in outcomes. And communities will need new measures of what success looks like. Optimizing this balance will make or break these new public safety models. Lastly, real thought, creativity, and planning will be needed to ensure these community responders don’t warp into a shadow, quasi-police force, and community confidence will need to be built into these new forms of response — people need to feel these changes will keep them safe.
Fortunately, progressive chiefs and human services executives in Seattle, Los Angeles, Tucson, and Montgomery County, just to name a few, have already made progress ironing out some of these complicated details. These collaborative relationships identify and treat people who regularly interface with police and human services to get them the treatment and services they need without harming them in the process. Such partnerships are demonstrating positive outcomes for individuals and organizations: police are reducing use-of-force rates, recidivism is dropping, and interventions are proving cost-effective. Remarkably these holistic policing innovations reflect the kind of reimagined public safety programs policing abolitionists are calling for at this very time. Yet we rarely see these stories highlighted in the media. It is therefore imperative for police, researchers, and community members who know about these initiatives to share “what works” — even if the specific approach will continue to evolve. Simply put, we must disseminate best practices as a guide for future reform.
In addition to these innovative new models of public safety, we must also commit fully — including the public, police chiefs, rank-and-file officers, and police unions — to an explicitly anti-racist public safety approach. Doing so may be the only way to end the structural violence against African Americans built into American policing from its inception. Historian Ibram X. Kendi, in his groundbreaking book How To Be An Antiracist, argues that calls for better intentions and even “better people” are vague and do not address and dismantle policies and procedures that systematically target and harm people of color. Our current police organizations (as well as the social services and human services organizations that partner with police) must commit to anti-racist values and a delivering of services that both actively dismantle racist structures, policies, and practices and at the same time honor the sanctity of the lives of our nation’s Black and Brown people. In addition, this means the nation must reframe the purpose of policing. Without a reframing, these changes (new partnerships, policies, practices, and measures) will only become “add ons” and never get us to true equity for African Americans. Police chiefs must understand and acknowledge that a primary goal of American policing was the exploitation of African American labor in conjunction with a refusal to provide civil protections that enable upward mobility. Indeed, as the NPR Throughline podcast recently discussed, a primary purpose of policing was to “keep them in their place.” Policing in America will stop oppressing African Americans and other vulnerable groups only when we “uproot and reroot” our understanding of the purpose of policing for all Americans: to ensure their protection and ability and freedom to thrive. This is a critical lever that will drive and speed up the innovation and change we so desperately need. It is a commitment that recognizes that the end result may be a completely different organization and perhaps culminate in a new era of solutions-oriented and legitimate public safety net.
Harnessing innovation, multi-disciplinary collaboration, and anti-racist practices can transform public safety outcomes and legitimacy, but the implementation of change will take years. While this change unfolds, we must commit now to overarching principles that create the foundation for change.
This new and public commitment focuses on the human rights and social contract for all people in America, which means that it requires that regular citizens engage too. With that imperative in mind, I’ve developed Ten Principles of Legitimate Public Safety (see the infographic below for specific questions to pose and measures) that citizens can use as a checklist to hold the officials and city councils in our communities accountable for change. These principles were grounded in insights from the Health and Human Services and Public Safety summits at Harvard University, and inspired by my work on the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.
Anyone interested in transforming policing and public safety can use these principles to ground change efforts in a new social contract that upholds and elevates the human and civil rights of all people. The principles and corresponding questions they spur can be used to lobby police chiefs and human services officials for change, to evaluate existing programs and policies, to develop new collaborations, and to envision practices that radically alter and improve the pace and sustainability of transformation in policing.
Ten Principles of Legitimate Public Safety:
- Human Rights Dedicated: Public safety must strive to ensure the natural and legal rights of all humans in accordance with global principles on the sanctity of life. Police within this mission are guardians of the social structures and systems that promote equity and the legal rules and processes that mitigate harm.
- Civil Rights Centered: The social contract of America is based on national rights to life, liberty, and property. Public safety should therefore be centered on upholding principles of equity, enforcing equal protection, and ensuring due process under the law for all people.
- Community Led: The outcome goals of public safety must reflect the human rights, civil rights, and social equity needs as determined by the people. In turn, the structures, systems, and processes of public safety should be co-created with the community being served.
- Force Limited: Public safety often involves responding to people or institutions resisting, infringing, or blocking another person’s human and civil rights. The policies and forms of use-of-force for these incidents should be co-designed with and monitored by the community to uphold the sanctity of life for all people.
- Root Cause Focused: To meet human rights, civil rights, and equity goals, public safety must work to address the root causes of community challenges. At the local level, multi-disciplinary and cross-sector collaboration with community-based organizations should be paramount.
- Digitally Designed: Proactive response to community human rights and equity needs is dependent on situational awareness and insight from real-time information. Modern public safety services should leverage advances in digital technologies to increase transparency and collaborate with the community.
- Transparently Structured: Trust in public safety is driven by openness, inclusivity, and co-creation of solutions with the community. Legitimate public safety organizations must have full transparency for rules, regulations, processes and actions, as well as transparency in measures of public safety results and community outcomes.
- Diversity Mobilized: To effectively respond to community needs and build trust, public safety should embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices. This representation should focus not only on recruiting marginalized and underrepresented groups, but also on improving organizational culture.
- Professionally Advanced: Meeting the demands of the future will increasingly require professionalization and specialization in public safety. This modernization should include increasing civilian roles in operations and instilling a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.
- Wellness Oriented: As a professional organization in high-stress environments, officer health, safety, and wellness are critical to serving communities productively. A modern public safety organization should have formal systems in place to monitor, assess, and foster officer wellness.
While implementation of the principles is a major step forward, I’ll warn you that it’s not enough. We must also mobilize federal, state, and local governments to create law and policy that support accountability, humane policing practices, and system-level change. Researchers and policing experts wrote an incisive article for The Atlantic detailing critical changes needed in law and policy at all levels of government, and I’ll reinforce three that are especially important. First, the United States needs a national database cataloging all use-of-force incidents. At the moment, participation in this kind of data collection is almost entirely voluntary for chiefs, which means, as The Atlantic article points out, we have no way of determining how frequently police officers use and misuse force. Second, we need to modernize “qualified immunity.” According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School, “qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right.” Qualified immunity in policing can result in officers receiving undue deference; it is also connected to the idea that officers can commit acts that are “lawful but awful.” Third, we need changes to law and policy and national standards surrounding use of force in general. An excellent example came last week when Minneapolis banned police from using chokeholds and strangleholds, but this is just a small step. Communities and police departments across the country must follow suit.
Lastly, we the people must dig deep to find the courage needed to move forward with the requisite levels of innovation and change. This is not easy work, as police are made up of members of our society and it will require us to dismantle institutions and systems that have been hardwired into our psyches and communities for more than 400 years. The noted poet and activist James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” George Floyd’s death was tragic, but the public outcry and protests in its aftermath have created an opportunity to face the nation’s broken ideologies, institutions, and systems. Let’s make the most of this opportunity by mustering the courage to meet the next step in this movement.
Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie conducts research, teaches, and advises on how leaders can create exceptional environments for organizational innovation and transformation. Based at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University, Antonio is faculty lead for multiple learning programs including the annual Public Safety Summit, and was a member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.