It appears big changes are in store for police departments here in Seattle and across America and that should be good for the cops, as well as communities that have suffered from aggressive police tactics.
For too long, too many of the unaddressed social problems in this city, state and country have been dumped on the police. Mental health, drug abuse, homelessness, economic inequality, systemic racism – as a society, we have been content to let the police try to keep the lid on those problems when they boil over, rather than seeking out and paying for more permanent solutions.
Meanwhile, police departments have become militarized and less oriented toward tactics that defuse crisis situations. Some of that is understandable. The criminals are better armed than they used to be and often more organized. Simply to make sure they survive confrontations with armed adversaries, police have been trained to react quickly with lethal force. No time is allowed to determine if an object in someone’s hand is a phone or a gun or if that pistol is a toy or a real threat. Hesitation, experience has shown, can lead to getting yourself killed.
The problem with that sort of vigilance is that, when cops are called to intervene in seemingly minor situations, things can escalate and police training kicks in. Imagine if unarmed safety officers had been available in Atlanta last week to deal with an inebriated man, Rayshard Brooks, who had fallen asleep in his car in the middle of a fast food drive-through lane. They probably would have simply driven the guy home. Brooks would have lived to celebrate another birthday with his daughter, and the cop who shot him – in reaction to Brooks resisting being handcuffed and grabbing the officer’s taser – would not have his career destroyed and his liberty threatened by a murder charge.
Establishing a corps of specialists to deal with mentally disturbed people, quarreling couples, drunks and others skirting the edge of the law seems like a smart idea. That would allow police to deal with more serious crime, the job all agree they should do. Of course, that method would not work perfectly. Those unarmed safety officers would inevitably encounter perilous situations that they would be unable to control. Nevertheless, it seems worth a try. The deaths of men and women of color in ambiguous encounters with police must stop, both for the sake of the citizens who might become victims and for the police who should no longer be expected to manage all our social ills.
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