Two experts in Pittsburgh weigh in on how to create new models for public safety. This is an updated version of the story featured in the July 2020 print edition of The Northside Chronicle.
By Jazmine Ramsey
Photo courtesy of Pexels
In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the nationwide protests against police brutality (Pittsburgh has been protesting for four weeks straight), there is a question that has been hanging around the air for quite some time. Can Americans survive without law enforcement and are they better off without it? One solution that has been brought to the table: defund the police.
What does “defund the police” mean exactly? It means to redirect funds from police departments to other government agencies in a local municipality. Activists and academics have been arguing for years that reforming a broken system will not be enough. In order to make the Black and Brown communities feel safer, it may be necessary to abolish the system and start from scratch.
Some supporters want to redirect some of the funds from police departments to other areas, such as school and social services. Others view this as an initial step to disband the police and create a different model of public safety altogether.
Both viewpoints present an idea that can change the way public safety works.
Richard Garland, assistant professor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh, director of the Violence Prevention Initiative in the Center for Health Equity, and an activist, was a supporter of the Black liberation group MOVE. He was incarcerated when police dropped a bomb on MOVE’s rowhouse in West Philadelphia back in 1985. Eleven people died and 250 people were left homeless. Despite this, Garland does not believe defunding the police is the answer.
“Am I a proponent of… looking out for our own community by policing our own community? There’s a certain element in our community that—it’s never gonna do the things that they supposed to do,” Garland said. “So you need to be able to have something in place to be able to keep the community going and there’s no threats and violence. I think the hardest job in America is police and the public school teacher.”
Norman Conti, associate professor of sociology at Duquesne University, has led the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program in Pittsburgh since 2007. He helped start the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice program. The Inside Out program allows university students to take courses in correctional settings with prisoners and encourages both the students and the imprisoned participants to see each other in a different light. For example, students refer to imprisoned participants as “inside students” while the university students are referred to as “outside students.” Changing the labeling allows both groups to see each other as individuals instead of negative stereotypes.
Conti used the teachings of Inside-Out to form Think Tank. Instead of students interacting with prisoners, though, police officers are doing it. “I thought, wouldn’t it be something to take police recruits to do that?” said Conti. “I’ve been studying police since I went to college, but when I went to graduate school, I did a dissertation on police training. I’ve been writing about police training ever since. It was a natural idea to combine the two.”
Like Garland, Conti does not believe disbanding the police is the answer to changing public safety. What keeps neighborhoods safest, he said, is their sense of community, where residents have an attitude of “I don’t just live here, but this is my neighborhood.”
“If people feel that way and that’s shared amongst people in the neighborhood, then you’ll have less crime there to begin with,” said Conti. “What happens is, communities, when they lose that or they never have that, that’s when you get a high crime rate. That’s when you have the police come in and we have the police deal with things.”
Conti continued: “What we ask the police to do is impossible. No one can do it. No matter what happens with the police, you have communities that can come together and deal with their problems and there’s a role in the police for that.” He believes that when people say “defund the police,” what they really mean is to reallocate resources:
“… If the city’s putting 50% of their money into the police fold, what if you took 10% of that and put it into something else and got a better result? People have to make decisions like that all the time in their lives and you definitely have to make decisions like that with cities.”
In an effort to help build a positive relationship between police and minority communities, especially the Black community, Northside Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle and Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess are proposing bills for police reform in the City of Pittsburgh.
Recently, Mayor William Peduto has named the Pittsburgh Community Task Force on Police Reform. The Task Force is made up of people from different backgrounds who will serve as the voices of Pittsburgh’s diverse communities. They will review police policies, police-community relations, and safety in communities. Members of the task force will also offer recommendations and implementation plans to the mayor. While forming the task force is a start, talk of defunding the police still hangs in the air.
If you are interested in joining the movement or seek more information, listed below are some resources and actions you can take:
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all citizens in the United States. The Leadership Conference haes an advocacy toolkit that provides resources and information on how to get involved.
Critical Resistance is a national grassroots organization seeking to end imprisonment, policing, and surveillance. The organization offers information on the difference between defunding and reforming the police.
Pittsburgh, I Can’t Breathe is a Pittsburgh-based activist group that was formed this year. The group fights for Black equality and the end to police brutality. You can join the organization’s social media group to support the cause and find out when the next protests will take place in Pittsburgh.
Reclaim the Block is a Minneapolis organization formed by the city council and community members to redirect funds from the police department to community-led safety initiatives. You can support this organization by donating, signing the petition to defund the police, downloading resources, and reading the digital toolkit.
Black Visions Collective is a Black liberation group in Minnesota that has been heavily involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. The group also intersects with the LGBTQ community. You can follow Black Visions Collective on social media and make donations to the group.
Campaign Zero is a comprehensive policy platform that addresses police violence. The website offers data and research on solutions on how to change the way police serve the communities. To help find more solutions to end nationwide police violence, you can make a donation on their website.