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A Community Safety Program for Everyone

June 14, 2020

Dear Constituent:

This newsletter was supposed to be about the economy. I have received dozens of thoughtful constituent responses to my questions about your personal definition of "the economy" and the characteristics of a successful economy versus one that doesn't work. And I was planning to present some of those ideas back to you and continue the discussion today.

However, that will have to wait because the national and local spotlight is now on policing. As a member of the City Council, I'd like to use this newsletter to create a space for everyone to share your feelings about the current practices of the Columbia Police Department (CPD) and our future vision for community safety. In recent days, I have received almost a thousand emails, mostly from young residents of Columbia, demanding police reform and/or "defunding."

We need a community safety program that keeps everyone safe. Black and brown residents of Columbia, those living on low incomes, and other marginalized groups do not feel safe, do not trust CPD to keep them safe, and feel threatened by the officers who have been hired with taxpayer dollars to keep them safe. As we know from recent events in communities across the country, these are perfectly rational fears.

Police Reform: "Use of Force" Policies

Many of you have highlighted the #8CANTWAIT Campaign.

Of the hundred largest cities in the U.S., only San Francisco and Tucson have enacted all eight of the following "use of force" policies, all of which appear to be completely reasonable and thoroughly necessary:

  • Completely ban all chokehold and strangling by officers.
  • Require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means before resorting to deadly force.
  • Require comprehensive reporting when officers use force or threaten to use force against civilians.
  • Implement a duty to intervene and stop fellow officers when excessive force is being used, immediately reporting the violating officer to a supervisor.
  • Require de-escalation of situations when possible.
  • Develop a Force Continuum that limits the types of force and/or weapons used to respond to resistance.
  • Require officers to give a verbal warning before shooting at a civilian.
  • Restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles.

Last week, Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones issued a comprehensive response, providing details of CPD's existing policies in each of these areas. I plan to study Chief Jones' statement and work with Council colleagues to ensure we are fully implementing all eight policies. Because Columbia is not one of the hundred largest cities in the U.S., our policies have not been analyzed by the campaign.

The #8CANTWAIT Campaign does not claim that these (or any other) changes in written policy will solve the problem of police brutality, but it is an important step in the right direction. Historically, police reform efforts have been largely ineffective unless a cultural shift also occurs, and more substantial steps may be necessary.

"Police Defunding:" Reimagining Community Safety

Many of you have called for "police defunding" and this slogan refers to a range of strategies from eliminating police departments as promoted by the #8toAbolition Campaign, to redirecting public funds away from enforcement and into supportive services, to an expansion of community-oriented policing.

Community policing has been the goal for local advocates and City Council members since the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence issued its Report and Recommendations in 2014. We now have a Police Chief who spearheaded the original Community Outreach Unit, who is actively reforming training and deployment practices, and who engages with the public on all policy decisions. But, as Chief Jones himself told City Council last week, "progress is much slower" than he would like, and many of the recommendations in the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence Report have still not been implemented. As we respond to the present moment, a key question is whether to continue the transition to community policing, redirect funds away from law enforcement to community services, or some combination of those approaches?

The City of Columbia spends about $25 million annually on policing and less than $2 million on social and human services. In my view, these budget numbers do not reflect the values of this community, and many of the problems we ask police officers to respond to are far more appropriate for mental health therapists, substance abuse counselors, and housing agencies. Not only are those professionals better trained and equipped to solve the problems, they are less likely to escalate situations into violent conflicts. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask whether we should use the budget process to increase funding for supportive services in disadvantaged communities and relieve CPD of the burden of responding to situations in which an armed police officer is the wrong answer.

As an example of what this might look like, the Eugene, OR Police Department has collaborated for many years with the White Bird Clinic to implement a successful program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS). By diverting 24,000 calls for emergency assistance to the CAHOOTS program every year, the City saves an estimated $15 million and achieves better outcomes. As an example of the effectiveness of the program, police backup is needed in fewer than 1% of the diverted calls.

CAHOOTS approaches violence as a public health issue and integrates many of the MTFCV Recommendations into a comprehensive community-oriented policing program. Please let me know whether you support this type of strategy or have other suggestions for creating a community safety program in Columbia that keeps everyone safe.

Constituent Conversations

If you would like to discuss the issue of community safety further, please join me and other constituents this afternoon (2-4pm) for Constituent Conversations Online. Here are the videoconference/dial-in links:

Zoom Meeting or phone 1-312-626-6799, Meeting ID: 993-6023-1538

Upcoming dates are always available at my web site.

Cheers, Ian