I had a positive encounter with police, and I still think they need to be defunded
I was arrested when I was 13.
I don’t have any clear memories of Intake. Most of the time I spent in jail, and what happened after, is a blur. I think they took a mug shot, my fingerprints, and made me change into some Juvie version of scrubs. Mostly I remember lots of white walls and high-security doors, zero windows, and the sterile boredom of being in an ER waiting room. It was definitely dehumanizing. I was there for a few hours, maybe overnight.
My mom and I had a huge argument — not uncommon when I was that age — but this time it came to blows. I vaguely remember this fight being about me not wanting her to rearrange the furniture in my bedroom. I don’t know who hit who first, but I hit her and she hit me. When I wouldn’t calm down, she threatened to call the police. I refused, thinking this was obviously a bluff. Who calls the police on their teenage straight-A student daughter?
The cops arrived, and I was inconsolable. I had no idea what was going to happen to me. I only remember two things from the ride in the back of that police car: (1) the song “True Colors” was playing on the radio, and (2) when I asked the officer why my mom wasn’t also being arrested because she’d hit me, too, he said “it’s legal for parents to hit their kids, that’s discipline. But it’s not legal for kids to hit their parents.”
I’ve never felt so powerless.
I was given the option to plead guilty. If I did so, I would be sent through the Diversion program, rather than being taken to trial. Diversion is a restorative justice avenue for juvenile offenders who are deemed unlikely to recommit. I was told that by following the mandates of the Community Accountability Board who reviewed my case, my record would be expunged on my 18th birthday. (I wonder if those records are still lurking out there, somewhere in a forgotten filing cabinet.)
I took the deal.
When I met with the Community Accountability Board (CAB), I suspect they were a bit shocked to see a rather nerdy, white(ish) girl in front of them. I wasn’t who they usually encountered (I can say this with some certainty as I later became a CAB volunteer myself). They assigned me to meet with a social worker once a week for a few months, and maybe a small amount of community service.
If you take one thing from my story, I want it to be this: WE NEED SOCIAL WORKERS. We need Restorative Justice. We need people to be seen as human beings in need of help, and methods to get them that help. To be seen as human beings who can change, who can grow, who can learn from our mistakes. Who can come out of our struggles with anger, or mental illness, or difficult family situations, with more emotional intelligence than we went in.
Getting counseling from the social worker changed my life. Honestly, I really needed it. The anger I felt towards my mother was leaking outwards, and if I hadn’t learned how to manage it, I’m sure I would be in a very different place than I am today. I wish I could remember my social worker’s name, or anything else about her. I would like to thank her for everything she did for me (including lending me Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, now one of my all-time favorite books.)
I know I had exceptional privilege in this encounter. What if I’d been a Black or Brown teenager instead?
First, my mother would not have called the police. Instead, I would have gotten “The Talk” at a much younger age. Black and Brown families live in fear of the police, and it’s no surprise as to why. Calling the cops to resolve a family dispute is a measure of extreme last resort, and all too often results in the troubled family-member’s death.
And if she hadn’t made the call, I wouldn’t have gotten the therapy I needed. How many kids are out there feeling angry and powerless, with no tools to contend with their rage? Without a sympathetic Board to give them access to free social services, but rather a pipeline into the hostile system of mass incarceration? At that point in time, I doubt my family could have afforded to send me to therapy. Millions of Americans are in the same boat today.
As I look back on it, my encounter with the “Criminal Justice System” was ultimately positive. The result was that I got much-needed counseling. But did I need to be arrested for that to happen? Did I need to plead guilty to a crime that I feel — to this day — shouldn’t have been a crime at all? No, I don’t think so. Instead, I see a world where my behavior would be recognized as a cry for help, and where my parents would be able to access that help as easily as they dialed 911.
We are having a moment right now in the United States. We are in a vital conversation about what to do about the problems of police brutality and the prison industrial complex. On the streets, we’re shouting “DEFUND THE POLICE” and “ABOLISH PRISONS” and “ACAB.” More “level-headed” (read: white, privileged) people are having debates about how to slowly, gently ask the police nicely to please stop murdering people. They are thinking the world would be too dangerous if we abolish prisons. They’re thinking, “what about all the rapists and murders????”
To those who fret about rapists and murderers who wouldn’t be caught by a defunded police force, here are some important statistics about US policing: 40% of murders are unsolved (53% are unsolved when the victim is Black). 66% of rapes are unsolved. 87% of burglaries are unsolved. We employ a hyper-militarized, effectively immune, violent police force with dismal success rates. Plus, a significant portion of the people in prison today are there for low-level, non-violent offenses. And many sit in jail, not charged with any crime, literally waiting years for sentencing because they can’t make bail. (END CASH BAIL IMMEDIATELY.)
I want to emphasize that criminals are people. We play tricks with language that allow us to forget the humanity of others. Please, cut that right the fuck out. I was a person when I committed that crime. A kid! A teenager with too many hormones and a mother who did not know how to hear “no” from her daughter.
Most crimes are committed by people in socio-economically disadvantaged populations (read: Black and Brown folx) because poverty breeds crime, not any ‘inherent criminality’ of humans. In fact, it’s proven scientifically that recidivism rates are directly tied to living in communities with “concentrated disadvantage.” Using the money we save from sending tanks to police departments to play War, we can reduce the effects of poverty on these communities.
When we say “defund the police,” we want those funds to go instead to social services. We want to replace prisons with rehabilitation centers where people in crisis come out healthier. Where people can learn new ways to be, that they can bring back into their communities, thereby making those communities gentler, safer, kinder. We want to increase funding to public schools, to health care, to affordable housing. To actually repair those broken windows.
- Scene on Radio podcast, esp. Season 2 “Seeing White” and Season 4 “The Land that Never Has Been Yet”. If you only have time for one episode, make it S2E2: How Race Was Made
- Ear Hustle podcast documenting “the daily realities of life inside prison shared by those living it, and stories from the outside, post-incarceration”
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- Rachel Cargle: academic, lecturer and excellent IG follow
- These episodes from the Ezra Klein podcast: “A former prosecutor’s case for prison abolition”, “Why the coronavirus is so deadly for black America”, and “Why Ta-Nehisi Coates is hopeful”
- The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates