OPINION: Another way of looking at 'defund the police'
There's been a lot of "talk" in the past year about policing in this country. With the number of high-profile cases of confrontations between police officers and people of color (mostly black) that have ended with deadly force. And with the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin, it is only appropriate that the public-at-large question how police do their job.
When we witness the heavy hand of police, it's no wonder that people are asking the question: "What's going on in police departments across our nation?"
It's no wonder that some have gone as far as to assert the remedy to the status quo is to defund police. And while that remedy seems extreme, these critics are on to something.
Unfortunately, I believe language has gotten in the way of understanding what many critics really mean to say. "Defunding" police becomes a non-starter for those of us who relish living in communities where we feel safe because of the presence of public safety officers. But re-imagining where tax dollars go in the interests of safe and healthy communities may mean cutting (i.e., defunding) police budgets and funding other services that more appropriately address reality.
When police departments use officers in unjustified and inappropriate ways no wonder the public calls for scrutiny. There are too many bad examples of police used in situations that have more to do with minor traffic infractions, loitering, trespassing or public intoxication than menacing criminal behavior; and end badly. The latest case from Alameda, California, should break your heart. Reportedly, in what police termed a "scuffle," a young, drunkenly incoherent Latino — please, say his name, Mario Gonzalez — talking to himself in a park was subdued, pinned to the ground by officers and died minutes later.
But, we have examples even closer to home. Just this week, I witnessed an encounter that left me incensed. Returning home from Hillsboro on Highway 8 near Fifth Avenue, I pulled over to let a Hillsboro police vehicle speed by to an "emergency." Reaching the stoplight near WinCo and Pioneer Cemetery, the scene seemed surreal. Parked roadside was a Hillsboro fire vehicle; parked inside the cemetery were five (5) Hillsboro police vehicles with a half-dozen officers surrounding an unarmed, undernourished, underdressed (naked torso), young (homeless?) man, looking terrorized, with hands high in the air and a backpack behind him on the ground.
I can only imagine why fire personnel and police were called to the scene. Was that a dead body laying in the cemetery? Perhaps that's how some passerby reported it to 9-1-1. Who knows? Alas, then it might make sense that fire rescue and police were called to the scene. A dead body? Do we have a crime? Or maybe it was reported for what it was: another "homeless problem" wandering through the cemetery.
But imagine the terror felt by that young man, aroused from a drunken stupor or his daydreams or his sleep — surrounded by a half-dozen armed officers. For all we know, he's just another "statistic" looking for a place to sleep or pass the time. And chances are he's dealing with mental illness or drug addiction.
But really? Five squad cars to deal with this situation? Do Hillsboro police have no other crime to fight in their fair city?
And what are the chances of things going haywire when one suddenly feels cornered and threatened by overwhelming police force? Adrenaline flows, fight or flight kicks in, unintended consequences happen. Another George Floyd or Mario Gonzalez?
A hundred miles down the road, in Eugene, where I used to live, the city has had the imagination to find more appropriate solutions than paying police to harass people whose crime is living on the street or tripping out in the park. It's called CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets. Trained staff know how to deal with "social" problems so that they don't escalate into "criminal" problems. People with an array of issues are not assaulted by police or hauled into the criminal justice system. Every effort is made to address the crisis without police intervention, whether it's dealing with a drug-crazed frenzy or a case of schizophrenia.
In too many cases nationwide, we've seen police called to intervene in situations that have little to do with real criminal behavior and everything to do with overpowering or harassing people in psychotic crisis, sweeping the homeless off the street and into the woods or killing people for minor traffic violations or allegedly passing a fake $20 bill. They make our streets no safer from crime.
That's why "defunding" police is the right thing to do, if you can get past the language barrier and realize it doesn't mean "dismantling" police departments. What it means is diverting funds from solutions that don't work to solutions that do.
Timothy Rake is a former educator, freelance translator and returned Peace Corps volunteer. He lives in Forest Grove.
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