Picture a public safety system where social workers — not armed police officers — respond to 911 calls for substance abuse or mental health emergencies. Most low-level offenses would be resolved outside of court, including driving infractions, which would be handled by unarmed traffic monitors, not police.
The military-style, heavily armed police tactical teams that are more prevalent these days would recede from view, deployed in only the most dangerous scenarios. High-speed pursuits would be relics of action movies. And pretty much any police interaction with the public would be completely captured by cameras on every officer and vehicle.
Such sweeping changes would form the contours of a reimagined policing system, a potential sea change in law enforcement that has gained support in Boston and across the country after the trial and conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd — what many critics see as an indictment of a failed policing system steeped in racism.
A proposed federal law — the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 — would set new national standards for police training and accountability in seeking to “change the culture of law enforcement and empower our communities to reimagine public safety in an equitable and just way,” according to a legislative summary.
That sounds good in theory. But what would it look like in practice?
“We need to reimagine, and I just think it’s really important that humanity has to be at the center of all this,” said Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who was elected two years ago on a pledge to stop prosecuting certain low-level, nonviolent offenses such as drug possession — a strategy that was partially validated in a recent independent study.
“If we can look at public safety starting with public health, we start shifting our mind-set,” she said.
That means police would still respond to emergency incidents, but not in all cases, especially not when safety is not an issue. Boston police would devote more of its time and attention to the city’s many unsolved murders than to misdemeanors. And officers would no longer be involved in schools unless a serious incident occurs. More counselors would be hired in their place.
Police officers would still patrol high crime or problem areas, such as the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where open-air illicit drug use has long been a blight. But they would target drug traffickers, not users. Instead, public health counselors would reach out to those most in need of social services, such as drug abuse treatment or mental health counseling.
Officers would be recognized for how many incidents they helped avert, rather than how many arrests they made.
“It’s not a zero sum game. We can have both of those things, but I don’t think arresting people is always the right answer,” Rollins said. “We have just not done a really good job looking at a societal or community response to a lot of issues here.”
They are not entirely new ideas, and some have been tried before. Communities in Oregon have claimed success in diverting 911 calls for mental health and substance abuse programs to counselors rather than police. Last week, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced it would no longer prosecute street-level prostitution, scaling back a practice that has focused heavily on low-income areas. Those who engage in sex for money, for instance, to feed a drug habit, would be offered social services. But the patrons or operators behind an organized sexual trafficking operation would still be prosecuted.
But many reform advocates are calling for a more complete philosophical overhaul, a cultural shift that views — and more important, trains — police officers as peacekeepers rather than warriors.
“We need to have a complete transformation of our system of criminal justice, particularly our system of policing,” said Will Jawando, who pushed for national police standards as a former associate director of President Barack Obama’s Office of Public Engagement.
“There has to be a dramatic shift, because that’s not happening in most departments,” he said. “This moment provides us opportunity to change the system. It will take years to break that system down. I think we can. We must, it’s the only way.”
The effort includes a rebranding of the Defund the Police strategy and sloganeering that split voters last year, even among those that supported reform, largely because it sent the message that police would no longer exist — a view with little popular support.
In its place, advocates support enforcing laws while abandoning crime-fighting strategies that have affected disenfranchised communities disproportionally, and creating and funding programs that target sources of crime, such as social and economic inequities.
“I think the balance is we need to focus on the most serious crimes, and then make the investments on the social services side,” Jawando said. “You’re not going to fix the social problems like income inequality with just policing, so you have to do both.”
The balancing act could be critical as reform advocates look to sway an engrained law enforcement system cemented by the “tough-on-crime” mentality of the 1990s, including the “broken windows” theory that the aggressive prosecution of even low-level offenses would set a “law and order” culture that could help deter more serious offenses. Other district attorneys in Massachusetts oppose some of Rollins’s proposals, saying a prosecutor’s duty is above all to enforce laws.
Alfred S. Titus, a retired New York Police Department detective and an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he supports a problem-oriented style of policing that relies heavily on social-service programming.
But Titus decried the idea of replacing police officers, saying they play an indispensable role in deterring crime. It was that same “broken windows” strategy, with officers targeting disorderly conduct, vandalism, and street-level robberies that helped make New York City safer in the 1980s and 1990s, said Titus, who spent 23 years in that department.
Police work, he said, has to have an element of deterrence to it; by not enforcing some minor infractions or pursuing suspects in crimes or traffic violations, he said, “we’re going to create a very dangerous world.” .
Titus said the onus is on the system that grooms police and the officers themselves to acknowledge the crying need for change: more thorough training, including sensitivity and anti-bias courses, and better recognition of the needs and demands of a community.
“When it comes to crime fighting, there is no better tool than a trained, proactive police officer. You’re showing the community that we’re not just enforcers of the law, we’re trying to fix the problems that exist,” he said. “Some of the changes are going to be difficult, but they are necessary, and we have to understand that change means the policing we have known for the last couple hundreds of years can no longer exist.”
Larry Calderone, head of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which represents about 1,600 officers, said his union will work with city officials, adding “we have ideas on how to work better” with mental health professionals, school officials, and Boston EMS. The union is in the middle of negotiating a contract with the city, where new police strategies could be hammered out.
“If we could just sit down together like professionals and stop the ‘blame game,’ we could make our city and schools a better place to live and learn,” said Calderone, who has steadfastly defended the work police do amid calls for reform.
In Massachusetts, the Legislature last year passed a landmark police reform bill that requires police to receive enhanced instruction, including training on implicit bias, and to undergo a new statewide certification system that monitors their conduct. In Boston, political leaders have enacted similar reforms, including the establishment of the city’s first independent watchdog office.
Reform advocates say the push for greater accountability has already had an impact. In the past year, police departments across the country have been more willing to release body camera footage of police shootings. Two weeks ago, a police officer in a Minneapolis suburb was swiftly charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing an unarmed man, Daunte Wright, during a traffic stop.
But many noted the incident itself was of a minor level that should not have involved police in the first place. The 20-year-old Wright was pulled over for driving with expired registration tags and the officers then tried to arrest him on a warrant for failing to appear in court.
Several proposed reforms on Beacon Hill would address systemic issues involving types of low-level charges that advocates say effectively punish poverty, not criminal acts.
One would decriminalize the offense of driving with a license that was suspended for financial reasons, such as failure to pay a fine. These too often lead to encounters with police.
“It can be too easy to think of it as a police problem, rather than an institutional issue,” said state Representative Nika C. Elugardo, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain who submitted the proposal. “We’re ready to reimagine, but we have to do that together with a very large microscope, with the details of what’s going on and the nooks and crannies of the law that legalizes abuses. It’s not just punishing abuses but dismantling inequities.”
Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo pointed to similar efforts at the city level to reimagine policing, by changing the culture involved in training, but by also dismantling policies that target certain communities — such as the proposed abolition of a police gang database that stereotypes young Black and brown people.
Arroyo said the conviction of Chauvin in Minneapolis and the national conversation it has sparked could serve as a catalyst for change in Boston during a mayoral race featuring several city councilors who have proposed similar reforms themselves.
They will have a say, he said, in how the city wants to reimagine policing, and what that would include. More officers on the street? More arrests? More social service programs, more counselors?
“When I think about reimagining policing, I think about public safety. It’s redefining what public safety means, that’s the goal,” he said. “More police doesn’t do that, the current method of policing hasn’t done that. Policing doesn’t solve the ills that cause crimes.”