The police have a monopoly problem and, as a result, we have a crime problem. Lacking a competitor with the infrastructure or experience in responding to harm, police departments offer a “take it or leave it” approach towards protection. New York City, frustrated with a lack of reform, leaned into the “leave it” option for the past year, and the void has created a safety issue. In both following requests and to prove a point that they are the only game in town, the NYPD has spent less time responding to conflict in the city, and crime has simultaneously risen. Elected officials, fielding calls of panic and frustration from the public, have responded with capitulation. Leaning into the adage that something is better than nothing, city leaders shrug their shoulders in shame and have increased the budget of the New York City Police Department once again.
Our country has long danced this waltz with monopolies. The United States Postal Service told us that if we did not like how long it took to deliver packages, we could drive down to Aunt Kathy’s house and drop it off ourselves. FedEx, aided by advancements in technology, entered the market and left USPS on its deathbed. The public school system has been the sole proprietor of American education. In the last decade, charter schools have crept into their market share, putting pressure on failing public schools to produce results for consumers or risk losing business. As we seek a competitor to the status quo in policing, important questions emerge. What would a “charter school” police department look like? How do we ensure it does not become the private prison model? What do we do in the meantime?
A New Police Option.
Change activists have tried to shift proactive policing (crime prevention) away from the “scared straight” model. Using force and presence to scare community members into not committing crimes does not work. Reducing crime relies, among other things, on citizens having access, feeling empowered/affirmed, and supporting their various needs. In the current reform model, these goals all exist in different ecosystems. Social workers do not interface with summer youth programs who do not interface with community watch groups who certainly do not work with nor speak to the police themselves. We need an “Avengers” plot to policing, not “Gangs of New York.” Merging various proactive programs into a single wing of this new police department competitor feels like a natural place to start.
The current focus for reactive reform (responding to crime) has been two-fold; equity in force/patrolling and generally arresting fewer people. A “charter school” police department model should embrace the former and push further on the latter. Reactive policing should deemphasize crimes/confrontations against the state (hopping turnstiles, car registration infractions, busted tail lights) but should not ignore human-to-human harm. Our penal system is deeply flawed, but a policing ideology that ignores a community member tagging graffiti on a storefront does nothing to help the offender, the community, or the victim. In this framework, the offender has no opportunity to recognize the impact of their actions, nor does it address their unmet need. The store owner internalizes that their rights are not important. The community suffers as a whole from a lack of dialogue and reconciliation between the two parties. The focus then for reactionary policing must humanely and equitably investigate, apprehend, and follow up with those who have caused harm to other community members, deemphasize crimes against the state, and stay in consistent communication and partnership with the proactive portion of the department.
How do we make sure this does not turn into private prisons?
The fundamental flaw with private prisons is that their existence is not to provide a public good but to save taxpayers money. One solution to ensure non-replication could be to place a cap minimum on communities “shopping” for a police department. Each community would pay the amount equal to what they currently spend on policing, with the number increasing for inflation each year after. A full heel-turn towards the charter school model could also work. Donors are chomping at the bit to enter into the new frontier of policing. All indications point towards money and resources being a non-issue should these new alternatives become non-profits. Beyond money, however, is the reality that police departments lack broad goals. Celebrating excellent policing is often low violent crime and high rates of clearance. Holding these two objectives as ultimate success inevitably increases rates of wrongfully apprehended citizens to solve cases quickly. It also results in a large portion of poor persons behind bars for minor offenses in a sycophant attempt to cast a wide net over possible future “serious criminals.” Communities must shift their expectations of what policing looks like to hold competitors vying to serve and protect them accountable. Community satisfaction rates, response times, the proportionality of arrest rates by income and race, transparency in confrontations, and community employment opportunities are all objectives that police departments should hold in addition to our previous expectations.
What do we do in the meantime?
Competitors following this or a similar model will not spring up overnight. Continuing to hold current police departments accountable to equitable reactive practices while also recognizing that dealing with person-to-person harm is paramount. Pushing districts to integrate police with proactive community organizations will help streamline support for communities. Even when these “charter school” competitors are ready, it is essential to remember the learning curve involved in any new enterprise. Police, schools, and post offices have had centuries to hone their craft and have a long rope to make mistakes. Being resistant to hitting the panic button and simply reverting to the way we have always done things is critical for genuine change in our approach to crime and community support.