People Not Problems

Photo Credit: Luis Cotto via Twitter

The most inspiring rethink of justice systems I’ve seen or heard happens at First Parish in Cambridge.  The Middlesex County Homeless Court is a unique justice intervention where, instead of being simply arrested and punished, people who are experiencing homelessness who end up interacting with law enforcement are questioned about their unique situation and when possible, they are connected to services and support.  You can read about it here.

This got me thinking about the Defund the Police movement in Cambridge and what the opportunity might be for Cambridge.  The movement is really about reallocating resources away from traditional policing toward programs, and other approaches that will decrease the need for police presence.  Sure, Cambridge has done plenty, but the one thing Cambridge has not been able to do is create broad based trust.  Without that trust, the ability to meet any arbitrary criteria means nothing.  What comes to mind is some of what I have witnessed first hand when the police have been asked to deal with incidents at First Parish.  To my knowledge, the existing police protocol requires that when there is a call made to the police, a total of five uniformed (and armed) officers arrive on the scene.  I have arrived at the church to the sight of three cruisers with flashing lights crowded around the side door of the building.  This is completely uncalled for on so many levels.  The people who come to my church (whether for shelter or a meal) are not lethally armed (they are checked), or exceedingly violent and dangerous.  They may be in distress or disoriented.  To protect their confidentiality, I won’t comment on specific incidents but most often I’m sure the people who require police intervention pose the greatest danger to themselves.

Cambridge, Harvard and MIT police have an opportunity in this moment to redirect funds in order to establish a different brand of public safety…

The overall impact of having to interact with armed, military style police creates another level of trauma in the lives of young people and people experiencing homelessness that is not productive and further erodes trust.  But this is true for all of us.  Being confronted with weapons and severe blue uniforms that only slightly disguise body armor as the only presence of public safety, creates an air of lethal threat that is inherently distressing to everyone.  I’m sure this is deliberate; but this is the problem.  Intimidation only provides for limited solutions.  So why are we using a hammer on a screw?

Cambridge, Harvard and MIT police have an opportunity in this moment to redirect funds in order to establish a different brand of public safety that isn’t even called “police” but does something similar to the Homeless Court by providing an intervention before things escalate to the need for “police”.  Although there are already a small portion of CPD officers assigned to this kind of work, what about a well funded, diverse  “Peace Patrol” whose entire purpose was to connect with the community?  The goal would be to provide a stopgap that begins with the premise that people are not problems, but rather that people experience problems.  A Peace Patrol would be an unarmed presence in the community that would be trained in verbal and physical de-escalation, community building and social work and they would have direct connections to resources for people in need. They would be dressed in a less threatening manner and be highly visible in place of beat patrol.  Most importantly, they would have daily relationships with both business owners and people who are unhoused, educators and students.  They would become the most common face of Cambridge Public Safety.  Above all, the most important thing that a Peace Patrol could accomplish is establishing a new trust narrative that does not exist in an environment where five armed officers with cruisers shows up.

Cambridge is unique in the number of police forces that exist within its city limits.  It is also unique in its economic, cultural and age diversity.  Being blessed by people of color in leadership in the police force and city government while having access to some of the most important public health and technical minds in the world adds to the opportunities available.  There is no reason for Cambridge to accept a status quo approach to policing.  All three, the City of Cambridge, Harvard and MIT should consider this approach.  Yes, every city is different, but public safety of any kind should not begin with policing; it must begin with people.  Cambridge can and must do better.


Systems and Silos

MBK Cambridge, #TheMovementContinues – June 7, 2020

Yesterday, I had the great opportunity to hear from some incredible young voices in the fight for Black Lives.  At the protest organized by My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, there were powerful and personal arguments made for a deeper and more systemic approach to dealing with racism that exists even within a liberal bastion like Cambridge, MA.  In the wake of the George Floyd murder, this systemic change is specifically aimed at police and we heard multiple times from speakers and the crowd that even with black leadership and community engagement, trust in police is tenuous at best.  There is difficult work ahead for this city.  Much of the national dialogue among protesters has turned to the clear message of “defunding” the police, and this language is here in Cambridge as well [Cambridge City, MA – Policy Order – POR 2020 #133]. It is no wonder that with a $4.1 million dollar increase to the police budget, residents are challenging where else this money could be spent to actually make real change.

Let me be clear, I understand the complexity of what is being asked.  At the same time, I don’t disagree with defunding police.  Nor do I disagree with police abolition or dismantling.  I think the idea of being “policed” is against every value of a modern, technologically advanced and global democracy.  It is certainly against my spiritual beliefs and my work in ministry.  As I see it, just like Big Brother (the one from the George Orwell novel and not the TV show) “policing” can only result in societal failure:  failures of trust, failures of agency and as we’ve seen all too tragically and all too often, failures of judgment and failures of racial bias.  Why must we be treated with the equivalent of a lethal nanny cam, where we are taught to grow up paranoid and compliant out of a sense of fear for our lives and not out of a sense of connection to the rest of the human race?

The only place that I find myself at odds with the excitingly progressive goals of defunding, abolishing and/or dismantling police is in the means to achieve the end.  And even at that, I think I may ultimately be in agreement with youth who are driving this policy.  It is a simple inversion of the communication.  Instead of focusing in the message on what we don’t want, why not focus on what we do want?   Why get caught up only in “defunding police”, when we could redirect our energies (and finances) toward “funding comprehensive public safety”?  I’ve written about the difference in semantics between “policing”, “criminal justice” and “public safety” before.  What I’m trying to clarify here is that making this shift from the destructive to the constructive, invites us to also redefine public safety as something more broadly, systemically comprehensive and people driven.  This would craft policy that connects law enforcement directly to the ways in which people are asked/forced to live, not as a punishable inevitability but always as a tool to build community safety and relationship.  Through this strategy, there is no ethical need for “policing” in language or in function.

If cities like Cambridge could re imagine their public safety policies with the goal of generating health and security across the broad spectrum of our communities…there would be no need for “policing” as we know it.

Right now, the logical conclusion of our system, specifically for blacks, is lethal “policing” whether that is lethal in terms of ending a life physically or civically through disenfranchisement and restrictions in employment.  It begins with poor birth outcomes, and navigates through underfunded education systems, arrives at poor housing and access to nutrition, and dies young of a lack of access to healthcare.  Combine these with historical trauma, mental health and addiction disparities amplified by racism and we end with “policing” where there is only a cursory, performative or adversarial relationship between law enforcement by government and law engagement by citizens.

If cities like Cambridge could re imagine their public safety policies with the goal of generating health and security across the broad spectrum of our communities, factoring in answers to historical racism and marginalization, there would be no need for “policing” as we know it.  Does this mean there would be an end to crime? No.  Human beings will always be human beings.  Does it mean that there will never be injustice?  No.  But it does mean that instead of being automatically funneled into a system that intentionally feeds on black lives in a vicious and sometimes inescapable cycle, all people are first dealt with in terms of the systems that have not supported their outcomes (including but not exclusive of racism) instead of as solely individual, expendable failures in need of “policing.”

I would argue that the broken and dangerous arrangement of policing black lives that we currently have is actually not a “system” at all, but  a series of 400 year old silos, the last of which is either a cage or a coffin.  Each element that adds up to another dead black person on a street is taken individually and unaccountable to the other elements and the result is a history that has never had to account fully for itself in terms of the connections between racism as health policy, racism as education policy, racism as employment policy or racism as housing policy, and has only just recently re-awoken to the idea of racism as policing policy.

But the solution we are seeking cannot also be a silo.  We have to work with the system like a river that is connected by multiple streams and rivulets.  We cannot defund police so far downstream that this one action is ultimately vulnerable to being breached by future floodwaters of rampant poverty, lack of access to health care, etc. driven by racism as they flow mightily downriver.  We’ve got to work at both ends of the river, way upstream and way down stream simultaneously, to redirect the richness of black lives through generators of prosperity, wholeness and safety ultimately letting them flow freely to the sea.


Cambridge Day Article summarizing the MBK protest in Cambridge, June 7, 2020