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Durham Mayor Pro Tempore On Defunding The Police In Her City


After almost two weeks of protests to demand justice for George Floyd and to oppose police violence more broadly, an idea is gaining traction among activists and officials that was once dismissed as outlandish - to defund the police. But what exactly does that mean? We're joined now by an official who's trying to rethink what public safety could look like in her city. That's Jillian Johnson, the mayor pro tem of Durham, N.C.

Mayor pro tem Johnson, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

JILLIAN JOHNSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: We're seeing this conversation being had in city councils in New York and Los Angeles. So we're starting to hear this a lot, and not just with sort of street activists but also people who have elected positions. So how did you first start thinking about this issue in this way? What kind of got you on this path?

JOHNSON: Sure. So my - I'm an organizer by training and background and have worked a lot with the issues around policing, around incarceration. And so coming into office, I was really interested in thinking about ways that we could transform policing in our community, focus on community safety and figure out ways that we can build for a safer community and a healthier community without always relying on policing.

MARTIN: So when you talk about defund, are you talking about just scrapping the police department entirely? Or what do you have in mind when you say that?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think that there are certainly some people who want to completely get rid of police departments and start from scratch with something new. It's difficult to go immediately from what we have now to nothing because we've told our residents for years and years that whenever anything goes wrong, the answer is to call the police.

So I really think about it as building up alternative systems for providing community safety and transferring the resources that we have invested into policing into those systems so that our communities are always being taken care of.

MARTIN: I do understand from reading about you and your work that the department in Durham has embraced certain reforms in recent years - implementing body cams, for example, requiring a written consent for search. Part of the reason I raise that is that there are those who would argue what we really need here is reform, not a radical restructuring - that if more departments actually did the kinds of things that Durham has done, then you wouldn't need to rethink the whole thing. What would you say about that?

JOHNSON: I think that the reforms that we've made in Durham have been really substantial and very important, and our police department has been very receptive to them. Our new police chief has been an advocate of reform.

I think, though, ultimately, this is a system that was not created or designed to serve communities, especially black communities. Our best chance for building a safety solution that puts people first, that puts communities first, that takes care of people rather than criminalizes, incarcerates and punishes them is by shifting resources that we use for policing into other systems, alternative systems, alternative institutions rather than the institutions that we know are also causing us harm.

MARTIN: I know that when we were speaking before, you talked about the fact that, do armed police really need to respond to a mental health crisis, for example? Can you give us a sense of what a different, less police-forward response to public safety could look like?

JOHNSON: Sure, absolutely on police do not need to respond to the majority of mental health crises. And in most cities, in Durham, this is certainly true. A significant number of our calls for police are actually these sort of crisis calls - you know, mental health calls or calls that really just need someone to de-escalate a situation. And so sending an armed police officer into that situation can actually escalate the conflict.

Moving resources into that sort of crisis response team is definitely a goal that I have for my community. There's lots of work that police officers do that in my opinion does not require someone to be armed and authorized to use deadly force. I think that there are a lot of jobs, a lot of social work that we have assigned to police departments just for lack of alternative systems. And I think it's past time that we start building up those systems so that we have institutions in place that don't expose people to the risk of violence, that don't expose people to the risk of incarceration.

MARTIN: Just in the years that I've been covering this, I've just observed that when you talk about these issues, sometimes it is just evokes this furious reaction, even if raising the idea of directing resources elsewhere or having a response to public safety that isn't so police-centric. Has that been your experience? And why do you think that is?

JOHNSON: That has definitely been my experience. It's just one of those hot-button political issues that gets people really caught up in tense emotions. I think, like, the reason it evokes such a strong reaction is that it really forces people to deal with some of the roots of our country that we don't like to look at - the fact that police were established as a white supremacist institution, that they were created to police black people and protect white property.

There's a lot of history there that I think people don't know, don't want to know, don't want to look at, don't want to accept. You know, a lot of folks just aren't ready to deal with how damaging this institution is, how dangerous it is for people of color. White folks are taught to trust the police, that the police are their friend, that the police are there to help them. And black folks largely are not taught that.

And it's a very significant disconnect, I think. You know, people kind of exist in two different worlds with regards to how they think about policing. Those ideas and those feelings are just really deep-rooted. And when they're challenged, it causes a lot of anger, a lot of emotional angst for people.

MARTIN: Jillian Johnson is mayor pro tem in Durham, N.C.

Madam Mayor pro tem, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll talk again.

JOHNSON: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.


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