But for this to work at scale, organizations like these need support at all levels—municipal, state, and federal. State resources devoted to supporting armed-force responders potentially could support unarmed civilian workers trained in crisis-mental-health response or neighborhood problem-solvers tasked with addressing physical blight. Cities currently rely on armed first responders to attend to a multitude of tasks that they are neither trained nor suited for. This can and should change. And in the longer term, we need to think much more deeply about the provision of other public goods such as solid public education, housing, and health care. It is crucial to understand that all of these functions are basic aspects of the state’s “police power” to provide for its citizens’ welfare.
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Once the country has an improved idea about what policing is for, then begins the process of developing evidence-informed policies and practices to carry out that vision. Policing as it exists has been largely shaped by improvisation. Police executives and government leaders engage in a recurrent pattern of reacting to immediate perceived crises and public panics with quick fixes guided by guesses and intuitions, many of which are found to be erroneous at best and counterproductive at worst. These unproven solutions cannot substitute for careful analysis and testing of a variety of strategies for addressing core issues in policing. Rapidly deploying a faulty idea only looks like it is solving a problem.
To figure out what can work and how to move forward, leaders will need national data about what the police are actually doing in the communities in which they work. For example, the U.S. has no national statistics about the rate of police shootings in different departments, the circumstances under which they occur, or the actions the police take to investigate officers and, when needed, hold them to account. Formulating effective policies in the absence of basic information is hard. Creating a national database about the police is a necessary beginning to evidence-informed policing, which is clearly so needed in this time of repetitive crises.
Even more important, knowing what police do day to day can help leaders identify what nonpolice actors potentially can do—and may already do—to manage issues within their own communities. Community organizations, for example, can do a great deal both to manage problems within neighborhoods and to promote community vitality. How much capacity do they have now? And what might they be able to do if given even more resources?
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This is a vision for long-term change, for it will require time to make the kind of shift we are describing here. The hope is that policing becomes one component of public safety and vitality, that communities can aspire to something more than just harm reduction via crime control. This new focus should include state support for activities that may not be called “policing,” but that every citizen of this country deserves.