Reimagine Policing to Build Belonging
As people around the world march in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, there’s a clear message: justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others requires making systemic change. While these murders have sparked global awareness, the activism that underlies the protests have deep history. Today, there are hopeful signs emerging. Cities are taking steps to fundamentally remake their approaches to policing, organizations of all sizes and sectors around the world are thankfully taking a stand that Black Lives Matter, and, across the globe, there’s now genuine willingness to reimagine the work of public safety and prioritize the wellbeing of people who have long been targeted and marginalized.
Calls to remake policing are not about giving up on community safety and security. To the contrary, they’re about finding innovative, effective, and equitable approaches to achieve the ends that policing is also supposed to achieve. They’re about building the ethos of belonging into the work of public safety.
This is grounded in an important principle that’s fundamental to questions of belonging: “Restorative Justice.”
While “Retributive Justice” is the eye-for-an-eye approach of making people pay for a crime, the “Restorative Justice” vision seeks to recognize the root causes of inequality and discrimination, and calls on us to be allied in creating change, dealing with the underlying needs and challenges that undermine wellbeing and public safety. This idea of Restorative Justice means investing in a better future for a person or a community, rather than simply seeking to exercise tight control. It’s an ethos that’s been successful in healing wounds of some of the world’s most serious conflicts, including the Genocide in Rwanda. And it’s an ethos that’s increasingly seen as best practice in community safety.
So, what does it look like to apply the vision of Restorative Justice to policing?
1. Reimagine Investments
In country after country, new spending on policing and the criminal legal processes has dramatically outstripped new expenditures in community-based services and support, like mental healthcare and after school programs, that help people build stable and secure communities. Even in countries with national health systems like the UK, there have been cuts to mental health services. The core basis of public safety is the capacity to heal trauma, achieve good livelihoods, and find meaningful connection. Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic and the economic recession, it’s doubly important to ensure that people have resources for mental health, adequate food and rental assistance, that programming for kids continues, and that local business and community centers survive. When governments make meaningful investments in these priorities, people are more apt to feel belonging in a community and to look out for one another, which, in turn, bolsters public safety.
2. Reimagine Policing Functions
Around the world, communities are innovating by empowering teams of trained professionals, including nurses, psychiatrists, and social workers, to respond to volatile situations — as an alternative to armed police presence. In other cases, communities are employing unarmed, well-trained community members, including former offenders, to patrol their own neighborhoods. In Australia, where Aboriginal people have long been subject to systemic racism and police discrimination, there’s a successful longstanding program known as Aboriginal patrols, which are locally-run, consensual with communities, and help keep people safe while minimizing interaction with state police and the criminal justice system. Indigenous people in Canada have spearheaded similar initiatives. In Whitehorse, the local government piloted a 3-year community policing model — where a group of community safety officers are trained in conflict resolution, intergenerational trauma and bylaw interpretation. They are tasked with watching over community members of Kwanlin Dun First Nation and responding to domestic disturbances and other disputes — except they don’t carry guns or lay charges. In Brooklyn, New York, communities have experimented with feminist models of community mediation and intervention, including patrols of local women who work to deal with incidences of harassment, cat-calling and domestic violence.
3. Reimagine Corrections
Amidst the crisis of mass incarceration, this current moment presents an opportunity to bring principles of Restorative Justice into the system of courts and corrections. In many countries, this can start with conversations about decriminalizing some nonviolent crimes for which people of color are disproportionately imprisoned — in spite of similar rates of offense across racial groups.
Looking deeper, there’s also the opportunity to imagine new visions of the corrections system. In the early 1990s, the Native Women’s Association of Canada worked with Correctional Service Canada to design a new alternative to incarceration for individuals from Indigenous communities. The “healing village” was envisioned as a correctional facility that would reflect a new perspective: That a crime is not a failing of any one individual but rather a structural failure to adequately support the individual and their community. At a British Columbia Healing Village, a federal minimum-security institution on a mountainside east of Vancouver, men learn and engage in traditional gardening practices and have meaningful opportunities to study for future careers as well as to find purpose through their own traditions. The approach has yielded significant reductions in recidivism. It’s an ethos of healing the whole person that can be applied to different kinds of corrections systems.
Finally, Restorative Justice means alternatives to conventional courts, including new spaces where communities can come together and mediate between a person who suffered a crime and the accused perpetrator. The objective isn’t to ascertain guilt or innocence or prescribe a punishment, but rather to help empower everyone to work together to ensure that the transgression does not happen again. It’s a model that’s proven effective again and again in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in various countries. Today, it’s being tested as a model for adjudicating disputes in cities around the world.
My colleague Gabrielle Hughes, Director of Research at the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, has written about the power of solidarity that’s awakening. In her article on Indigenous Solidarity with Black Lives Matter, she writes that: “Our activism has shown, time and again, that we are united in the fight to make our communities safe and our societies equitable and just.”
This is a moment for grieving. It’s a moment for imagining possibilities — for rebuilding relationships with ourselves and our communities. It’s ultimately, I believe, a moment for transforming systems.