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Examples Of Reimagining Police Departments That Show Promise


Since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, many Americans have called for a dramatic rethinking of policing in this country. There have been some incremental changes over the years. Body cameras are now common. Many police use their firearms far less often than they did even 10 years ago.

But the tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets and the family members of those killed or unjustly arrested say it's just too slow. Black and brown people are still being killed, harassed and abused by the police. So what would a transformation of policing look like? We asked three NPR correspondents to look at examples of reforms that have been tried and that show promise. Martin Kaste, Eric Westervelt and Cheryl Corley are with me now.

Hi, everyone.




KING: Cheryl, let's start with you. One argument that we hear in some cities is this - police should stop making arrests, and instead they should issue citations for low-level offenses. Explain where that fits into the movement for reform.

CORLEY: Well, it's really designed in part to reduce some of the violent interactions we've seen between police and people. And the George Floyd case is a prime example. It's also an effort to keep people out of jail and having to come up with money for bail. So instead of an arrest, police will hand out this citation. It's similar to getting a traffic ticket, where a person either pays a fine or has to show up in court at a later date.

All states actually have laws in place that allow citations to be issued for misdemeanors - a handful even for some felonies. But it's really a mixed bag of how often that practice is used. That's been changing, though. Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, a number of cities have urged police to just step back, give people citations instead of making an arrest. And that's all in the effort to cut down on the crowded conditions in jails and to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

This idea, though, has been on the rise before the pandemic, even in smaller communities and in rural areas where jail populations have spiked. Wilson County in North Carolina is one example. It's about an hour outside of Raleigh. And I talked with Dawn Blagrove. She's an attorney and the executive director of a project at the Carolina Justice Policy Center. She says Wilson police have had the discretion to issue citations. But her group, along with others, including the local NAACP, have worked with the police department to make it a more concrete and used policy. So it's been in effect for about a year, and Blagrove says it's really too early to tell what the impact is in specific numbers.

DAWN BLAGROVE: But what we do know is that the people of Wilson feel that since this policy change has been embraced, that they are developing and are feeling a better relationship with law enforcement.

CORLEY: And a lot of this change, Noel, started in 2014 in the aftermath of all the unrest that came with another tragic and fatal encounter. That's when police officer, Darren Wilson, shot 18-year-old Michael Brown to death in Ferguson, Mo.

KING: Of course. Another piece of possible policing transformation could involve the way that police deal with mentally ill people. We know that around 1 in 4 people fatally shot by police are struggling with some sort of mental health issue. Eric, I know that you've been looking into that piece of reform. What did you find out?

WESTERVELT: Well, I found that a small but growing number of cities, Noel, are creating a new model - kind of a new category of first responder called a mental health or a behavioral health first responder. Now, lots of police departments over the years have set up these sort of crisis intervention teams where an officer gets some extra training. But this is really different. This model takes the police out of the equation, out of the call for service, except in very rare situations.

Cities are starting to replicate a program pioneered 30 years ago in Eugene, Ore. It's called the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS. This is a civilian team. It's a certified medic and a trained crisis worker. You know, I talked with Tim Black, the program's operations coordinator. He told me, you know, team members get extensive training and field experience on really - on how to de-escalate and try to get these people into community-based treatment, not jail.

TIM BLACK: To achieve that, you know, we try to use words. You know, we don't carry pepper spray. We don't carry a taser or anything like that. You know, we just talk to folk. We proposed an opportunity to have one less police contact just because that person was having a bad day.

KING: So this is civilians responding to calls. Do police support that?

WESTERVELT: They do because it relieves them, and it's cost-effective. I mean, on a budget of just over $2 million, this civilian team takes some 20% of Eugene's 911 calls. So it's saving money. It's saving police manpower. And also, Noel, this is key - these non-police interventions are keeping people out of emergency rooms and out of county jails. That's a huge savings. And remember, jails have become de facto America's biggest mental health facilities.

KING: Martin, I want to ask you about one of the big issues, which is police accountability. You know, at this point, I think we understand that many Americans believe officer misconduct will stay secret a lot of the time or it is investigated by police who are unlikely to want to turn their colleagues in. What's been changing in the past couple of years on accountability, if anything?

KASTE: Well, this whole topic of civilians' role in all of this, in oversight as well as investigations, has been very contentious since the '60s. The rub, though, has always been this - police officers' fear of being judged by civilians who may not really understand policing, how it works or that they might be politically motivated in the civilian board or they might go along with what the crowd thinks after seeing a viral video and not give the officer a fair shake.

So I talked to Richard Rosenthal about this. He's been involved in these oversight systems for decades in a variety of cities. And he says these systems do have to take those fears of the officers into account.

RICHARD ROSENTHAL: But at the same time, it's very important for the police to understand - and I - as I used to say in Denver, when I have a police officer say, you know, you don't have a right to judge me, and, you know, civilian oversight is not necessary or appropriate, the answer is, well, then you're in the wrong business.

KING: Well, how widespread is civilian oversight in this country now? And do we know that it works?

KASTE: Well, around the time of Ferguson, the national association of these entities counted about 200 members. And now, six, seven years later, it's still about 200. So the number hasn't really changed that much. What's true is that some cities that are under pressure - places like Seattle - have made investigation systems more independent, more professional, and they've increased civilians' role.

But Rosenthal really felt that after Ferguson, he'd see more interest in truly independent civilian-run investigation agencies. And he was surprised when that didn't happen. He thinks that, you know, a lot of cities and police departments kind of just waited things out. And ultimately, you know, there've been some tweaks, but it didn't really catch on.

KING: Interesting, then, to wonder whether this will be a turning point when it comes to civilian oversight. Eric and Cheryl, you've both talked about programs that seem both safer and, evidence would suggest, cheaper. Are they scalable, though? Can they be replicated in other cities? Or are they only working where they're working?

WESTERVELT: I think they are scalable. I mean, when protesters start to chant dismantle, defund the police, I think those who've thought through that are talking about is really finding creative ways for cities to deal with crises, you know, we see on the streets daily - mental health and homelessness.

So Denver, Colo., just launched a version of Eugene's, you know, non-police, you know, mental health team. It's a pilot, but they're taking police out of some 911 calls and responding with a social worker and a paramedic. Oakland, Calif., San Francisco as well and some other cities are exploring as well how they might replicate this.

CORLEY: And I think in the case of issuing citations, instead of making arrests for minor crimes, this - it's really about police departments implementing policies already in place and laws that are already in place. And so it's easily done. It just takes the will and the commitment to make the change.

KASTE: One thing I'd add in all this - this is Martin - is in all of these reform ideas, the fundamental truth of American policing is how decentralized it is. We think there are about 18,000 agencies. We don't even have a precise number. And Richard Rosenthal, when he was talking about this civilian oversight idea - I mean, he says that each oversight board is as different as a fingerprint.

And sometimes that leads to a sense of confusion, a lack of a national standard or even a shared national vocabulary about some of these things kind of diffuses some of this energy. And so a lot of people watching police reform right now wonder if this time around, maybe we can have more of a national standard, more national requirements, make this less voluntary and less local and maybe more national.

KING: Martin Kaste in Seattle, Eric Westervelt in the Bay Area and Cheryl Corley in Chicago, thank you all so much for the reporting.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

KASTE: You're welcome.

CORLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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