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A SURGE IN VIOLENT CRIME IN MAJOR CITIES across the U.S. has effectively ended the “defund the police” movement that sprung up after George Floyd was killed two years ago. A recent national poll by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that just 31 percent of Americans now support transferring funds from state and local police departments to community social services, a seven-point drop from a year ago. Meanwhile, with crime a hot-button issue in the upcoming midterm elections, moderate Democrats are more likely to call for additional money for law enforcement than for diverting it—among them, President Joe Biden, who is advocating for a $30 billion increase in law enforcement spending to “fund our police and give them all the tools they need.”
While the politically disastrous rallying cry to “defund the police” may be dead, though, that doesn’t mean all reform efforts have been abandoned. Far from it. Over the past two years, legislators and activists across the country have been testing out a bevy of new approaches to law enforcement aimed at enhancing public safety and making policing more effective, efficient and transparent. The result: Dozens of cities and towns in both red and blue states have become active laboratories for intriguing experiments that shift some non-emergency 911 calls away from armed police responses; supplement police work with ongoing social work and mental health outreach; and focus efforts on preventing violence before police intervention is necessary.
“There’s now a broad conviction that creating public safety and addressing violence should no longer be considered purely or even primarily a police and criminal justice matter,” says criminologist David Kennedy, founder of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College in New York. “People don’t know how to make that happen, especially in the near term, but there’s been a real shift in the center of gravity on that issue.”
The success of these initiatives varies, or can be hard to discern. But even in places where clear problems resulted—like in Burlington, Vermont, where big cuts in police funding prompted a large number of cops to quit the force—the desire for new approaches remains strong.
“To the degree that ‘defund the police’ meant what it said, that we should be taking funds away from the police, I believe it was a wrong turn in our longstanding efforts to do the critical work of reforming policing,” says Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who has had to offer bonuses to retain and attract officers to the force. “That doesn’t mean we stop trying to do better. Everyone knows police have to do better.”
Here’s a look at some of the important law enforcement innovations and experiments happening across the country and what they may mean for the future of policing.
Denver’s Shining STAR
Three days after the Floyd murder, the first of the Mile High City’s STAR vans hit the streets. The program had been in the works for a while but the the timing of the launch was fortuitous, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen tells Newsweek, because it gave local leaders an answer to rising anger in the streets over police handling of nonviolent disturbances.
The conceit of STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) is exactly what many reform activists proposed as the centerpiece of the defund-the-police movement: Non-emergency personnel trained in mental health and social work are sent out as first responders on low-level trespassing, vagrancy or public disturbance calls instead of armed officers. Typically, 911 operators decide whether to send a STAR van or armed law enforcement to a scene.
Since its inception, some 3,000 calls to 911 have been offloaded from the police, and none resulted in the need to call a cop to make an arrest. The STAR team engages the troubled subject not with threat of arrest but with the expertise necessary to de-escalate the situation and the community connections to get the person needed help.
Part of the reason why STAR has been uncontroversial is that it is paid for primarily from a dedicated tax approved by 70 percent of Denver voters in 2018, leaving the Denver police budget untouched. The budget for the program has grown from just over $200,000 in 2020 to $3.9 million in the city’s 2022 budget.
What STAR isn’t, Pazen makes clear, is a replacement for the police or a way to reduce crime. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. STAR gets “better outcomes for individuals who are in crisis, but in no way, shape or form is this crime prevention or crime reduction. [Even] if I had 1,000 STAR vans, it wouldn’t reduce my shootings, my homicides, my robberies, my burglaries, my car break-ins.”
Still, STAR is already becoming an integral part of the city’s public safety efforts, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says. “Programs like STAR are force-multipliers,” the mayor noted at a press conference earlier this year. “The more we can respond to emergencies with an unarmed social worker, the more we can free up police officers to go after the drug dealers, gun sellers. We are going to continue to scale up these efforts.”
Denver is putting money where the mayor’s mouth is. In February, the City Council unanimously approved an additional $1.4 million for the STAR program’s continued expansion. Meanwhile, other cities have followed Denver’s lead, with similar programs similar to STAR now operating in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Social Workers on the Force in Kentucky
It’s no surprise that big, liberal cities like Denver and San Francisco are trying out such ideas. Perhaps less expected: Versions appearing in places like Alexandria, Kentucky, a conservative suburb of Cincinnati with just 10,000 residents.
“In general, the idea that we don’t need armed police to respond to mental health crises is becoming uncontroversial across the country, even in places that are not hotbeds of liberalism,” says Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing and a sociology professor at Brooklyn College in New York.
In 2016, the Alexandria Police Department became the first in the Bluegrass State to hire a staff social worker. Mike Ward, then the police chief, tells Newsweek he was at a training session about “community policing” that taught officers how to minister to a range of social problems only tangentially related to public safety. “I kept asking myself why we were doing that. I’m not a social worker. I’m a cop. I have been trained to react and protect,” he says. “Community policing in many ways has failed in that we have, for years, tried to make social workers out of police officers. It doesn’t work.”
Within months, he persuaded the Alexandria City Council to hire an actual social worker to follow up with people that the police encounter who need services and help more than they need a night in the county jail. Clad in a polo shirt and showing up in a nondescript Ford sedan, they are unarmed “second responders”—they have a panic button to push for backup if the situation gets hairy—whose intervention is more welcome by subjects than a call from a weapon-toting member of the police.
The result: A significant drop in repeat 911 calls and about 15 percent fewer people going to jail, Ward says. Now there are two staff social workers, whom Ward calls “the busiest people in the department.”
“There’s now a broad conviction that creating public safety should no longer be considered purely a police matter.”
Ward says it wasn’t easy at first to get buy-in from rank-and-file cops. One of the most vocal early opponents was Lucas Cooper, who succeeded Ward as chief and has turned into a fullthroated supporter spreading the word about the program’s success to other departments. Since then, both the Kentucky State Police and Jeffersontown, a Louisville suburb, have hired social workers, too.
“The first time I realized that the program was going to be successful was when I witnessed the oldest, crustiest police officer I had get a call one day, and as he started toward the door to his cruiser, he stopped, poked his head into the social worker’s office and said, ‘Can you come with me, I think I’m going to need you on this call,’” Ward says. “The officers were seeing firsthand the value of the social worker as a member of the police department.”
Five Days Without Cops in Brooklyn
Six months after the Floyd murder, the New York Police Department’s 73rd Precinct agreed to a radical idea: They withdrew all police for 10 hours a day on five chilly December days from a two-block area in Brooklyn with one of the city’s most dense public housing projects and a reputation as a hotbed of violence.
In place of beat cops, who remained on alert nearby, teams of social workers and trained crisis mitigation volunteers—many ex-convicts and recovered addicts from the area—kept watch and chatted up the residents while community groups set up tents providing information and consultations about education, job and housing opportunities, available mental health services and more.
The results were impressive: zero 911 calls with the singular exception of a bus driver who accidentally hit the wrong button and triggered an emergency call. The NYPD’s 73rd Precinct, led by a deputy inspector who grew up in the area and supported the experiment, declared the effort a “huge success” in a tweet, suggesting this would “set a tone for the future as we embrace reform and reimagin[e] public safety.”
Since that first experiment, there have been four similar five-day programs in other sections of the 73rd Precinct. The results have been similar—no notable violence. But plans for expansion to 10 other precincts in Brooklyn and the Bronx never happened, largely because of a shift in appetite for reform that accompanied a subsequent sharp uptick in violent crime in the Big Apple. Then last November, New York City elected a new mayor, Eric Adams, a former Brooklyn cop strongly opposed to anything even vaguely suggestive of replacing police.
Still, experts who study the “violence interruption” model see the Brownsville approach, if not as a permanent solution, then at least useful in a different way. “It’s an example of something that you could do in a moment of crisis rather than saying, ‘Oh, my God, there’s an uptick in shootings, we should put a cop on every street corner’ like that’s the only possible emergency strategy,” says Vitale, the Brooklyn College sociologist. “But you can’t do this every day, 365 days a year.”
Vitale points to other violence-interrupter models such as Cure Violence, a Chicago-based program that trains people who live in areas of high crime to intervene before verbal disagreements turn physical. Cure Violence trainees, who are already at work in New York City, began operating in four areas of St. Louis in late 2020 with impressive results: Homicides fell 26 percent across the city in a year when violent crime surged across the U.S.
“The idea that we don’t need armed police to respond to mental health crises is becoming uncontroversial across the country.”
Burlington Defunds, Then Retreats
No place in America took the “Defund the Police” slogan as literally as Burlington, Vermont, a town of about 42,000 residents best known politically for its one-time mayor, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Within weeks of the Floyd murder in 2020, the City Council, over the objections of Mayor Weinberger and the police chief, passed an ordinance to slash the police force from a cap of 105 down to, at most, 74 sworn officers by a combination of attrition and removing armed cops from public schools.
The savings has been funneled into hiring of a fleet of “community service officers” and “community support liaisons,” positions that function similarly to the social workers responding to calls in Denver and Alexandria. It is also funding social programs to help minority-owned businesses, provide more citizen oversight of police misconduct investigations and even paying for a study to examine the prospects of paying reparations for slavery.
Yet rather than reduce the department slowly over time, the measure had an unintended and unwelcome effect: It prompted Burlington police to resign in droves. And the force has been scrambling ever since.
In September of 2020, the council voted unanimously to use COVID relief money to provide $10,000 retention bonuses for police and a $15,000 sign-on bonus for new recruits who stay on the job for 22 months. But even that didn’t stem the tide. By December 2021, just 64 active-duty cops remained, leaving swaths of the town unpatrolled and increasing 911 response times. “The exit interviews have been pretty clear that it was about a lack of support in a political sense,” Acting Police Chief Jon Murad told NBC News in December.
Councilor Jack Hanson, who co-authored the defund ordinance, admits the department shrank “quicker than we expected” before the alternative plans could be implemented. Whether that’s led to a spike in crime is up for debate. Mayor Weinberger tells Newsweek the cuts have resulted in a rise in burglaries and vehicle thefts. The number of gunfire incidents hit a record 14 for the year in 2021, which sounds low but for the fact that the average in Burlington each year is two.
“I don’t want to overstate it, it’s not that I think we’ve become some dystopian city,” the mayor says. “But we are a place where I’m much more frequently hearing people feeling unsafe in the downtown area.”
Perception may not be reality, though. An ACLU analysis—which Weinberger rejects as inaccurate—showed an 18 percent drop in “police incidents” in the first eight months of 2021 versus 2020. Violent crime did rise in that span by about 5.5 percent, but in raw numbers that amounted to just 20 additional incidents.
Still, Burlington is now emblematic, at very least, of a need to take more care in implementing new ideas. Weinberger, who views himself as a progressive, is frustrated that his city’s experience is now Exhibit A for conservatives looking to mock the police reform movement writ large—especially since the city was, before this, a leader in trying new approaches to law enforcement. Its police force was among the first in New England to wear body cameras, for instance, and created a domestic violence prevention position focused on deterrence and a community affairs team that, working with foot patrols, worked to address crime without increasing arrests and incarceration.
“For years before George Floyd’s murder, we’ve known that good policing is labor intensive and requires more resources, not less,” Weinberger says. “One of the sad ironies of the defund-the-police period is, in many ways this movement has set back those efforts. Our pace of adopting reforms has dramatically slowed. We are much less able to pursue that vision of policing, as a weakened department today, than we were in May of 2020.”
Hanson, however, insists the jury is still out. The council has not increased the sworn officer count cap, and the other plans are coming together. “We’re still figuring this out,” he says. “We’re advancing on racial justice and also, I think, transitioning to a better system of public safety.”
Big and Little Ideas, Everywhere
In Maryland, the legislature authorized investigations into police misconduct not by a department’s internal affairs but by a unit of the state attorney general. Colorado recently ended “qualified immunity” for police officers, which in most places shields members of the force from personal liability for on-the-job misconduct. Oakland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, have all ended programs that stationed armed police in schools. Pennsylvania, with the support of the state’s police union, now has a “bad cop” registry, a database of officers who have been disciplined or fired elsewhere in the state, that law enforcement must consult before hiring anyone. Several cities, from Dallas to Ann Arbor, Michigan, are adding social workers to assist sworn police on a variety of calls.
“What is happening all over the place is new investments in exactly the kinds of programs” that reformers have been advocating for since Floyd’s death, Vitale says.
Other observers are less confident about the prospects for continued reform, given the recent rise in crime nationwide and resulting shift in political winds when it comes to public safety. Adding to the challenge for reform advocates is the difficulty of quantifying the results, because the causes of crime trends are complicated and influenced by many factors, including, most recently, the pandemic.
“My main concern is that [politicians] don’t care about the details, they just want to have a good sound bite,” says Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “They’ll say things about these programs which are very supportive, but if we don’t back it up with solid evidence, [they] will turn on it and decide it’s not worth it. You can’t survive with rhetoric and advocacy.”
At the very least, experts say, reform advocates need better rhetoric, starting with the slogan. Given the direction the movement is headed—adding resources that help law enforcement defuse situations that could turn violent—perhaps “re-fund the police” would better serve the goal.
▸ Steve Friess is a newsweek contributor based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. ■