Is there an alternative to traditional policing?

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Scene from a Peterborough protest. Photo/Ben Conant, Monadnock Transcript Ledger

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As protests against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people at the hands of police continue into the third week nationwide, more activists and protesters are advocating for police defunding and abolition. 

When protesters call for defunding the police, they mean “people who craft city budgets…should be held accountable to explain why they believe that more policing is the answer when we have a demonstrated history of that not being the case,” said Jordan Thompson, an organizer with BLM Nashua and the ACLU in an interview last week. “That instead we are investing in the Black and brown communities in our state, in things like implicit bias training.”

The national Black Lives Matter organization has explicitly called for the defunding of police and investment in communities and social services.

Nick Smith is a philosophy professor at the University of New Hampshire who has written two books on apologies and restorative justice, which focuses on repairing harm caused by crime rather than using punishment and imprisonment.

“Part of the issue here is that we expect police to do so much and to solve so many problems that society has punted to them,” Smith said. “In the U.S. it seems like we expect our police to be part therapist and part combat soldier, and to be ready to shift roles at any moment.”

A child holds a sign during a recent protest in Peterborough. Photo/Ben Conant, Monadnock Transcript Ledger

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. On average, the U.S. incarcerates 698 people per 100,000. While New Hampshire’s incarceration rates are lower than the national average at 373 per 100,000, that is still more than double the rate of our closest international ally, according to data from the Prison Policy Institute. An NHPR data analysis found that Black people in New Hampshire are over 5 times more likely to be in jail than whites.

Other movements like #8ToAbolition, a social media campaign with the goal of spreading awareness about police abolition, have said that reforms like body cameras and chokehold bans are not enough to end police violence in Black communities and that defunding and abolition don’t happen all at once. It lays out an eight-step plan that includes defunding the police, demilitarizing communities, removing police from schools and investing in community resources.

Oregon Community in CAHOOTS with Police

Eugene, Oregon, is one community that has taken a different approach to policing. While the local police department has not been defunded – it still has an annual budget of $60 million per year – a program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) gets $2.1 million in funding from the city and county. It responds to about 20 percent of calls received by the city’s dispatch center. 

Rather than an armed police officer, a trained crisis intervention worker will respond to mental health or non-criminal calls to provide crisis intervention, suicide intervention, or substance use and housing crisis services.

Ebony Morgan, a crisis intervention worker with CAHOOTS, says that out of the 24,000 calls they responded to last year, police backup was called 150 times. In addition to hiring those who are already trained in mental health counseling, they also have an in-house training program for those without the skill set required to do the work. 

New Hampshire State Police Lt. Mo Sampson (left) and Concord Police Deputy Chief John Thomas bow their heads as demonstrators take a knee at the police station on Green Street on Saturday. The crowd chanted for them to take a knee with them, but they chose to bow their heads.

“Rather than pulling from a workforce that already exists, we kind of create our own,” she says.

Morgan added that CAHOOTS’ focus on crisis intervention and crime prevention allows police to focus on issues that they are trained for.

“There are many instances in which we can prevent something whereas, if police had responded, it might have become criminal…we don’t have the power to get you in trouble, we would just like to help you stay out of trouble,” Morgan said.

CAHOOTS, which operates under the White Bird Clinic, has been around for more than 30 years. It began as a 24-hour crisis line working independently of the police, but soon became an important community service, Morgan said. 

“Over time we started developing a relationship with our police department. They found that we were better equipped to handle some of the mental health issues or de-escalation issues that they didn’t have the same training for,” Morgan said.

Numerous investigations have found that about 25 percent of fatal police incidents have involved mentally ill victims. The Treatment Advocacy Center found that the risk of a fatal police encounter is 16 times greater for those with mental illness.

Organizers have acknowledged that police defunding would differ in every community and that the discussion with New Hampshire officials on what it would look like here has been initiated. 

“The idea of having an alternative to police response can be kind of polarizing, but also, we’ve managed to stay open for a really long time and I think that’s a testament to the need for the work that we do in the community,” Morgan said. 

New Hampshire’s Crisis Response

Some New Hampshire cities like Manchester have crisis response programs similar to CAHOOTS.  The Manchester Mental Health Center’s Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCRT) dispatches health care workers for mental health crisis calls alongside a police officer. The program costs about $2.5 million per year.

The Black Lives Matter demonstrators take a knee in front of the Concord Police station on their way to the State House during their rally on Saturday afternoon, June 6, 2020.

“There’s always potential” for a situation to become dangerous, said Chief Carlo Capano of the Manchester PD, “which is why we have the officer there to make sure that everybody’s safe. There’s obviously the potential for that with any type of call, especially when you’re dealing with someone who’s in a crisis situation, you have to take that in consideration.”

Police do not respond to every call received by MCRT. Sometimes, the need is for a crisis responder alone to address the situation, said Rik Cornell, vice president for community relations and a therapist at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester. In the past two years, MCRT responded to 8,146 calls. Out of those, police referred 2,568 people for assessments and police were involved face-to-face 1,147 times, according to data provided by Cornell.

“We’ve had some interactions where [responders] have been hit in one way or another, but I would say in no more than a general mental health setting,” Morgan said, adding that no responders have experienced serious injuries on the job. “The idea is reducing harm to the best degree possible, but it’s difficult to do that entirely, and I think part of us not being armed allows us to respond to things like that in a way that is de-escalating rather than further escalating.”

Unlike CAHOOTS, the Manchester Mobile Crisis Response team answers exclusively to mental health calls, not calls that relate to homelessness, drug use, or other non-violent situations.

“I don’t see that happening here in Manchester,” Capano said. “I know that has a lot to do with the defunding of police, and that would not be something I would ever recommend. Quite frankly, when you speak about defunding, unfortunately the first thing that comes with defunding is training. And that’s the most important thing in the officer’s role, is to be properly trained and to be trained the right way.” 

Capano says additional support like what is available through CAHOOTS is not necessary because Manchester’s officers are already trained in identifying crisis escalation as well as in de-escalation techniques. “First and foremost, the goal is to de-escalate situations,” he said. Additional crisis response training has come from the Manchester Mental Health center.

Rally organizers marches into the State House Plaza with her friends at the Black Lives Matter rally on Saturday. Photo/Geoff Forester, Concord Monitor

Cornell says the mobile response program has been successful in keeping emergency room visits low and preventing the criminalization of mental illness. But community experts need to work together and pool more resources to address and prevent the problems that may lead to criminal behavior, he said, and police are still necessary.

“It would be nice if we had [mobile crisis response] everywhere, but we don’t right now, and all that has to do with money and funding, and it’s not cheap to do that,” Cornell said. “Maybe it’s a question of collating together more teams of people who come from these different backgrounds who can work together…maybe it needs to land on a community team that’s made up of all these people.”

Morgan echoed a similar sentiment. 

“I think that our biggest barrier is that we are only as strong as the resources in our community and we don’t necessarily have enough of those to support everyone. Having more access to shelter options and places where people can get their needs met would be really helpful to the work we do as a whole,” she said.

Training

Capano added that police training can always improve and the MPD’s training division is looking at improving its current curriculum. 

“The Manchester Police Department does cultural diversity training and ethics training, but you can always do a better job at it,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with ever getting more training…that’s why the defunding of policing is contrary to providing police with more training, because training costs money.”

The statewide Police Standards and Training Council is also working to review its cultural dynamics training, and while protesters in New Hampshire have called for more implicit bias training and education for officers, not all abolitionists see more training as a solution to the problem of police brutality.  

Capano issued a letter to the community last week that detailed Manchester PD’s training and policies. Choke holds are not taught to officers and are not authorized under the department’s use of force policy, the letter reads, and officers are trained in de-escalation techniques. 

Wednesday evening, the Manchester PD hosted an open forum on race and policing alongside Mayor Joyce Craig and James McKim, president of the Manchester NAACP.

“We’re going to do our part to work with [Black Lives Matter] and see if we can get some conversation going and we can hear both sides of what’s going on here,” Capano said.


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