THE BLOG

Over-Policed and Underserved

04/16/2015 02:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

Contrary to the myth we've been sold that more police, and more jails and prisons, are the best or only way to keep us safe, the real solutions to community safety lie in the things that make for thriving neighborhoods.

We've been shackled for too long by that myth (largely promulgated by police and prison guards' unions), and we're increasingly realizing that the price to be paid is just too high. We are over-policed, and over-incarcerated, but underserved. In safe communities, we see neighbors with good jobs, health insurance, access to drug and mental health treatment if they need it, good schools, parks, public transit, and well-lit sidewalks. Middle and upper-class communities would never trade those things for more policing, let alone put up with the kind of saturated, militarized presence we've imposed on poor people. Of course, I am glad that I could call the police if I needed them. But as my favorite mayor says, police are meant to be guardians of our communities, not warriors within them.

Over the past year, we've seen media coverage of incident after incident involving unarmed men of color, their lives and potential cut short at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect and serve all of us. The work of brave activists and protestors has resulted in intense focus from all levels on the clear need to reform our justice systems. More and more people in our country are waking up to a fact that communities of color and low-income communities have long known -- that something has gone terribly wrong.

Today, activists and policy makers alike are calling for an end to oppressive and racist policing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, advocates met recently with Vanita Gupta, head of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, to forge partnerships for greater police accountability and less violence at the hands of law enforcement. California legislators are addressing police violence as an urgent public safety issue. The President's 21st Century Task Force on Policing outlined an impressive set of recommendations to strengthen trust and collaboration between communities and law enforcement.

There certainly is no shortage of proven reforms we can implement to improve police practices in the more than 18,000 local law enforcement jurisdictions across the country. For example, police departments need mandatory training on racial bias and should adopt policies that outlaw racial profiling. Police should be trained and equipped with safe, non-lethal means of force. It is also common sense to have civilian oversight of police departments and independent investigators to police the police when they injure or kill someone. More body cameras, diversity in hiring, and real consequences when cops break the rules all are right steps forward. These are important though incremental wins.

Real transformation of our justice system will require more than incremental steps. It will require all of us working together over the long haul to make bold change possible. Here are two critical and important calls to action that can help get us there.

First, we must hold local elected and appointed officials accountable for the performance of their police and sheriffs' deputies. Police officers work for the people. They are paid by us to protect and serve, not oppress us or jeopardize our lives. As community members, we can reclaim our police departments by pushing our city leaders to act. We can demand that each mayor and city council produce a real plan for ensuring that their police departments are friends and not foes for every member of their communities. If they fail, we must take them to task and vote them out of office.

A second and even broader reform that must be a core part of the agenda is to undo how we got here in the first place. For decades, our so-called "tough on crime" stance on public safety has saddled us with failed policies that have made us less safe, from the war on drugs in the streets to zero tolerance policies that lead to the suspension and expulsion of far too many children, mostly Black and Latino children, from school. Our out-of-control justice and policing systems have done real damage to our communities, especially communities of color and low-income communities, and to our local, state and federal coffers.

It is time for us to reimagine what it really takes to keep people safe. We can't get safe and healthy communities simply by putting more police at every corner in militarized gear. Yes, law enforcement is important, particularly for countering and solving serious and violent crimes. But safe and healthy communities can prevent crime in the first place with strong schools, more teachers and nurses, and better employment, mental health and treatment services. For far too long, we have neglected one approach for the other, to our detriment. It is time now to find a better way.

The tragic deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Walter Scott in South Carolina and many others in towns and cities across the country have reminded us that the Black and Brown young people shot and killed in our streets by police are not the "other". Instead, they are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and our loved ones. This is true for me as well. More than a decade ago, my former partner was shot and killed by police in San Francisco while suffering from a mental health crisis.

What I believed then is even truer now: We must find the courage to commit to, and demand from our elected officials, the deep criminal justice reforms that will replace over policing and over incarceration with jobs, health care, good schools, mental health and drug treatment, and crime prevention programs. Let's make sure that all of us can live in safe and healthy communities.