Editor’s Note: Phillip Atiba Goff is co-founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Policing Equity and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
“I can’t breathe.” George Floyd’s dying words echo around the world in part because we have heard them before. Eric Garner also said them as he was being choked to death by the police in 2014. Garner once worked for New York City Parks and Recreation department, planting trees that cleaned the city’s air.
Now, he, Floyd and countless other black people whose lives were unjustly extinguished are inspiring an unprecedented push to transform policing in America, including calls to “defund the police,” as the rallying cry goes.
Equitable policing, including science-based measures to reduce violence while increasing accountability of officers, can make us safer. At the same time, this is not just a policing issue. Stories that end with the deaths of black people at the hands of the police start long before an officer cuffs a man’s hands or knocks on a woman’s door. Our solutions need to start there, too.
After Floyd’s killing, some black people feel a pain and rage that doesn’t seem to fit in our bodies. That’s because it doesn’t fit into our lifetimes.
We are witnessing the unpaid debt owed to black communities after generations of white supremacy and neglect coming due. Slavery and Jim Crow were the principal. Interest compounded in the form of legal discrimination, targeted disinvestment and a fantastical faith in “trickle-down” economics.
Now, we starve the most vulnerable of services that could actually help. We eliminate social services and job training. We defund treatment for substance abuse and watch affordable housing vanish. Then we send law enforcement – the institution that was historically charged with enforcing our explicitly racist laws, from slavery to sundown towns – to deal with the aftermath.
There is no quick fix, and pretending that there might be insults the memory of every life extinguished off camera and every neighborhood forgotten behind a redline. We need a holistic reimagining of public safety that gives us tools beyond coercion, detention and force. That will require massive public investment envisioned by many of those calling to defund the police.
Imagine what these magical places – pure fantasy, according to some detractors – might look like. Residents with substance abuse problems would receive treatment, not stun guns. People with nowhere to live would receive housing, not harassment. And health care professionals, not police, would be the first line of defense against pandemics like Covid-19. Law enforcement would play a vital, but more limited role.
These places are not fantasy, however. They already exist, often mere miles from the neighborhoods where tragic stories like George Floyd’s begin. The common phrase we use for them: The Suburbs. In bedroom communities and commuter towns around the country, we have been doing for generations exactly what the defund movement is demanding for black communities now.
While public safety infrastructure is lacking across the United States, affluent families – who are more likely to be white and live in the suburbs – can effectively buy it with private wealth. They might have the means to send a teen with a drug addiction to a treatment center or arrange tutoring for a student at risk of dropping out. A young adult with no income might have a larger network through which to find work, and a safe home to return to if they stumble.
Statistics – and common sense – tell us that when communities have the tools to alter the trajectories of these stories before police get involved, violence and death at the hands of law enforcement becomes far less likely.
In Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, black residents are six times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police. That’s less about whether or not police in Milwaukee hate black people, and more about the fact that police are the only public safety option available.
People – especially the police themselves – want to live in communities where no one has to call the police. Every police chief I know would welcome a reorientation toward the work they do best and away from covering for a slew of unaddressed crises.
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The gravity of our collective refusal to invest equitably across communities pulls individual stories toward state-sponsored violence. To write different endings, we need a national commitment to paying our debt in full and building the kind of holistic public safety system currently available only through private wealth. A commitment to planting trees in communities where concrete dominates.
That, in turn, would allow police departments to do far less, even as they work toward a new way of policing better aligned with the values of the communities they serve. It will not be quick or easy. But, eventually, it might allow us to truly breathe free.