Police in their traditional role will always be necessary. But it’s time to consider options other than the police for many problems facing society where traditional policing is not needed. It’s time to “restructure” our approach to policing. Adaption is America’s strength, and organizations stuck in the past are left behind (remember Kodak?). Our public safety systems, including our police, also need to adapt and address change.
This is not just a big city issue. In our public services, Montana faces many of the same challenges as other cities and states, including in policing. For example, on a per capita basis Montana is eighth in the country for police-related deaths. There have been great increases in addiction, mental illness, homelessness and inebriation. Yet America and Montana are often addressing these problems with organizational structures built in another time for other problems. Very often that responsibility is placed upon the backs of our police.
How many police reports do we see involving routine traffic stops, public urination, cows on the road, dogs in the park, noisy neighbors, loud music and keggers? Are armed officers necessary on all these complaints? Are the police the best answer to all domestic violence calls? Is this a good use of police time or our tax money?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, violent crime in the United States is radically and sharply down. According to the FBI, violent crime fell 51% between 1993 and 2018. Yet 6 in 10 Americans believe violent crime is up, mostly thanks to TV cop shows and fear-mongering politicians.
Police departments are challenged to find new ways to deal with this myriad of new societal issues. Yet thanks to the 1033 Act, at least $6 billion has gone into police departments around the country to buy military equipment such as night-vision goggles, machine guns, armored vehicles (Bozeman does have its own BearCat armored vehicle), grenade launchers and military aircraft. Police departments in the United States have acquired almost 12,000 bayonets. Bayonets, really? We are doubling down on the past, not facing the future. This militarization of our police makes sense only to military contractors who were provided a new market for their products by an obliging Congress. Life is now imitating TV, rather than the opposite. If you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. We need a different approach.
Violence is not going to disappear, and police in their traditional role will always be necessary. But having armed officers take the lead in so many of these instances is like going into routine surgery and having two or three specialists in the room just in case they are needed. Specialists are always available and called on when necessary and so, too, should be armed officers.
“Defund the police" is a foolish one-liner that panders to a simplistic world view and invites unnecessary political jousting. We are smarter than that. Our changing world requires real changing solutions, not slogans. We just need to not be afraid to ask the hard questions and find the sensible solutions right before us.
Steve Barrett of Bozeman is a retired attorney and former Chair of the Montana Board of Regents. These are his personal views.
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