Now, a little over two years later, the Minneapolis City Council has a veto-proof majority in favor of disbanding their police department. City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said, “We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. And when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together. We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response.”
During the time I have advocated for disbanding Baltimore’s department and rethinking our approach to public safety, peace building and law enforcement, there hasn’t been very much momentum. This isn’t surprising; Baltimore can be counted on to bask in the status quo for long stretches, before being eventually triggered to action.
In the last week, calls to “abolish” and “defund” the police (long a part of the conversation on racial equity and mass incarceration) have moved to the mainstream. These are confrontational, powerful slogans that many misunderstand as a desire to abandon law enforcement and emergency response entirely; this is not accurate.
Rather, the demand is to end the abuse of power by police (permanently "abolishing" state violence and mass incarceration) and, over time, to reallocate funds from police to community development, social services, and peacekeeping (thus "defunding" police.) This is about re-imagining and redesigning our approach to public safety from the ground up.
The harms caused by police in communities are clear. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have created an urgency for transformation not seen since the 1960′s civil rights movement. We can imagine something better.
Most situations that police officers respond to do not call for the use of force; guns, clubs, black cars, intimidating uniforms, are counterproductive symbols that serve to escalate violence, increase tensions between police and the community, and create a toxic "police" vs. "community" dynamic that has to be actively countered.
Instead, we must design and adopt a peace-building approach that we create for ourselves. We can get this underway right now by creating a social services function within city government, allocating funds that would otherwise go to police.
Second, we can alter state law to allow us to create our own, entirely new law enforcement, public safety and emergency response function that is focused on community health, and discards the symbols and trappings of the failed idea of 20th century “policing.”
Indeed, it is time to throw the word “police” itself on to the scrap heap of failed ideas. The word carries too much sad history, too much emotional reaction and too many cultish symbols and totems of unbalanced power. Once we remove that word from our vocabulary, it becomes much easier to envision a solution.
In management circles, we hear about "design thinking" — a collaborative practice of examining the needs and reality of the people you intend to serve, engaging with them to envision solutions, and then iterating to improve processes and outcomes over time. But our blindness toward outmoded conceptions of "police" and how we think public safety works are prohibiting us from engaging in this kind of approach. We need to remove all such barriers and build solutions with fresh eyes.
How exactly we will navigate from where we are to where we need to be is an open discussion we can all participate in. But the final result must be a public safety function — accountable to city residents, not state government — that promotes peace, attracts social workers who set the tone and create the culture, placing the law enforcement function in deference to that culture. The Maryland General Assembly should immediately transfer the Baltimore police to local control and city officials should immediately initiate a design process to rethink public safety and emergency response.
I am not an extremist or a radical. I am a white, middle-aged software executive with significant privilege, and I approach this problem not from an experience of oppression, but rather a lifetime of study of Baltimore’s torn civic fabric. And I understand organizational design sufficiently to stand firm in the conviction that this is the path we must pursue, and that we have a moral obligation pursue it. The time for talk is past. We must act now to disband the Baltimore Police Department and re-imagine public safety.