Are we truly considering alternatives to policing?
Detroit police respond to a call, May 2023. | AP

At the end of last year, in the wake of the police murder of Porter Burks, Detroit City Councillor Gabriela Santiago-Romero announced that the city, along with Detroit Police Chief James White, would be working toward a non-police response program. The majority of mental health calls (between 50 and 60%) are considered non-violent, leading many to conclude that a mental health care provider or social worker should be addressing them instead of armed cops.

Other cities such as Denver, Portland, San Francisco, and Durham, N.C. have already implemented such programs—some have already shown decreases in crime.

The announcement of Detroit’s effort came in tandem with another: Detroit police would receive a $10,000 pay raise to retain officers, who tend to leave to the suburbs for less demanding work and higher salaries. The news of this raise was received with mixed emotions.

The last few years have seen a sharp increase in policing alternatives across the country, and activists in communities that desire them have been hosting public panels and discussions to familiarize people with what it truly means to have an alternative, let alone why it is so necessary.

The fact that such conversations are so common would point to some sort of progress in combatting police violence, but are real alternatives truly being considered? What does it mean to have a non-police response for so-called non-violent mental health calls? How does mental health truly play into this?

During a recent panel, Lloyd Simpson of Detroit Will Breathe—a political movement aiming to end systemic racism in Detroit—argued that “police power is going to resist any reform, be it liberal or radical…that limits their power to do their job.”

He also added: “If you understand what the job of the police is, they actually do it very, very well…they protect…a racialized propertied hierarchy and working-class Black people are at the bottom of that, and they will always be at the bottom of that under racialized capitalism. So, when we talk about legitimate alternatives to policing, anything that does not limit the power of police or draw on the resources that they used to perpetuate this racialized social and economic order is not a legitimate alternative to policing and you should be questioning that.”

Not everyone agrees, of course, and many are still wary of defunding, let alone abolishing, the police in their communities. A point that comes up again and again in Detroit is that police do not respond when residents call. Part of the blame is put on “not enough resources,” and despite having the largest budget of any city department, there are plenty of residents who hold out hope that cops will respond when they get the money they allegedly need.

There has been a lot of work to study police violence, the role of systemic racism, the frequency of domestic and sexual assault by cops, power dynamics that favor a class-based system, etc. Much of this work is no longer just sitting on the fringe of leftist political groups or cited in radical blog posts but is now being brought to the mainstream for public consumption.

Have we been considering the whole picture though? Do we actually know what we are demanding from our representatives, and are we truly challenging police power?

There are two aspects that deserve more attention and time in public conversation: mental health and employment.

Cops destigmatizing mental health

This past April, U.S. Capitol Officer Harry Dunn, who was on site during the January 6th insurrection, spoke at the American Association of Suicidology’s 56th annual conference, AAS23. He spoke about his struggles with PTSD and being at the Capitol that day; he talked about suicide and how difficult it is for cops to breach the topic of mental health.

Speaking to a packed room populated mostly with mental health professionals, he asked questions like, “Who do the police go to when we need the police?” and made some problematic statements, like, ”We need to be more proficient in mental health…as proficient as we are with our firearms.”

The problem with Dunn’s question, though, is the irony within it: Mental health crises are still very much a matter of the police and that is the problem with which we began.

Dunn also added: “We have all these [mental health] services, and no one is taking advantage of them.”

Dunn misses the much larger problem of these mental health services that, allegedly, no one is using: Mental health care is expensive and can be prohibitively so. Many people lack the time and money to engage with these services, and we also have a major shortage of mental healthcare workers. On top of this, mental health care varies in quality drastically, and people lose much of their time finding the right doctor, medicine, or changes in their lifestyle that help with coping with these health concerns.

Dunn’s implicit argument is that the problem is, above all else, stigma, and that cops are in the same mental health crisis mess that the rest of us are. How is it that cops can use the same arguments for destigmatizing mental health that we do when it is they who respond to us in force when during our own crises?

The short answer is that it makes police seem human, fallible, and prone to accidents: Mental health becomes the great equalizer during this crisis of violence which is being treated with force and repression.

Putting aside the limits of destigmatizing efforts, what needs to be considered is how non-police response programs intervene in police violence—which is just as much a case of a mental health crisis as any other.

These response programs need to respond to any mental health call. Bringing someone to the scene who is armed always exacerbates the situation and a “non-violent” crisis deserves no extra privilege over a “violent” one. Furthermore, police violence, murder, and power are mental illnesses, and non-police response programs need to reflect that in their protocols. This means that the mental health professionals in these programs need to also respond to “non-violent” police activity.

Police employment and job security

When Detroit police officers were awarded their $10,000 raise, many residents and activists felt betrayed—especially those who have been demanding more money be put toward housing and generational wealth. It seemed like another victory for the police unions.

However, it is all too easy to dismiss this as such. What is easily overlooked here is how police employment actually favors an alternative to policing.

Considering employment generally, it is important to note that, if police departments—or any public sector job—work the same way as any other company does, then losing employees is more costly than retaining those already employed. Thus, a lack of officer retention is in part responsible for their already bloated budget. Does this not mean that, to a degree, employment and officer retention are actually working in our favor at the moment? Perhaps, but it is certainly not enough.

The next critical eye needs to be turned toward police unions.

Often dismissed as “not actually unions” or as not part of the general workers’ rights movement, police unions have incredibly strong lobbying power and are able to spend millions on shoring up political backing to shoot down reforms, let alone anything more. These unions have helped in allowing police to determine when and where they are allowed to use violence, often excessively so, and in restricting civilian oversight. The unions are also good at protecting officers from punitive measures.

Many activists discount police unions as perversions of union power, often arguing that they conflict with workers’ unions. It is clear that they are not at all the same; however, it is just as true that police unions have the precise supplemental power that all workers’ unions need: Political protections. It is important to read police unions not simply as a perverted use of unionizing but precisely as what unions can be and, in this case, very much are.

Demanding more of our own unions can help reimagine them, not for the sake of suppressing crimes like sexual or racist violence, or murder, but other extralegal means, such as shutting down a workplace that is ecologically destructive, or refusing to continue working after a public-private partnership has been agreed on at the top.

The old ideas of unions are not simply in need of updating; it is precisely the old ideas of union protections that have led to how police unions continue to protect violent officers.

Lastly, we need to reconsider the idea of job security.

We have a way of celebrating job security regardless of what it looks like, sometimes at the expense of other forms of security. For example, Wayne State University professor Barrett Watten, having allegedly committed numerous acts of sexual harassment and assault toward students, was only banned from teaching but remained an employee of the school—which apparently decided to favor tenure over students’ and coworkers’ safety. Thus, job security cannot be above scrutiny, let alone the protection of others.

If we consider job security for police, we have a bit of a paradox which needs some further analysis. First of all, removing or firing a police officer after a murder or case of brutality is dangerous for many reasons, notably that the cop in question can easily relocate and join a different department or become a rent-a-cop for a company. Incarceration alone is also a problematic resolution. These do not act as solutions so much as attempts to repress the problem.

On the other hand, though, we need to consider our safety as a function of the age-old conundrum that police have had since day one: How does one tell who a murderer is by looking at them? For the police, this is difficult. For us, however, we can see the uniform.

Police power in crisis

Major media outlets cover these topics all the time now. “Defund the police” and “abolish the police” are laughed at on the air or treated as terrorist rhetoric that taints anyone who might get too close to them. On top of this, police department budgets continue to inflate without bounds, and we can expect excess military weaponry to continue falling into cops’ laps. It’s a devastatingly depressing scenario.

However, this is not stability—this is a crisis of power.

So, that leaves us with some projects to work on. If we are going to replace cops with mental health professionals, “mental health” needs to be reimagined. If police are to retain their jobs, then we need to see the overlap between job security and abolition: Someone has to go down with the ship; we will just be there to ensure that it doesn’t miss the iceberg.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

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Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.