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NEVADA CITY, Calif. August 28, 2020 – I’m a local mother of a two-year-old and a former Nevada County youth librarian. What I saw from local law enforcement during the attack of protesters on August 9th made clear that the police did their jobs: protecting white supremacy. And I saw, clearer than ever, the need to defund the police and fund transformative solutions. The continued body count of Black, indigenous, and people of color at the hands of the police is still rising everyday.
There are many recent similar examples of this: you can see police standing aside in recent videos from Wisconsin, as young white men with guns stalk protesters, and Proud Boys in Portland given free access to violence by police. Historically, police evolved from slave patrols. Police have been part of enforcing Jim Crow, segregation, and the failed war on drugs. Their militarization has been expensive and deadly, while not making our communities any safer. Of course, individual police may very well be good people. However, the issue is that their goal is to punish and enforce laws that are applied unevenly in our unfair society.
Nationally, 10.3 million arrests are made every year, and only a fraction – about 5% – have anything to do with actual public safety (ie murder, rape), while the rest – 95%! – are for things like marijuana possession, traffic violations, and other nonviolent offenses.
When I was a librarian, we would see people experiencing crises who needed help. They came to the library because they had nowhere else to go. When they needed help, we had few choices. The County’s Behavioral Health department couldn’t afford to send a social worker to respond and assist those in need. But the police could afford to send an officer, leading to arrests. We would then see the same people back at the library– not rehabilitated, but right back where they started, sometimes minus the ability to access job opportunities or voting.
What would it look like for someone to come support them who could connect them to the resources they need and help them thrive in our community instead of punishing them? George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, and countless others would be alive if their “needs” hadn’t been met by police – if you can count walking down the street, sleeping in bed, trying to buy something at the store, or driving as needing anything.
Police are called to handle mental health crises, school discipline issues, traffic problems, verbal disputes, customer complaints, and more. What police are trained to do is respond with force and punish with threats of court and jail or prison. It shouldn’t be surprising to us that people who are trained to respond with violence commit violence.
Alternatives to police that already exist struggle to meet the needs of the community, while police are getting most of the budget. Locally, Nevada City Police get 45.3% of Nevada City’s budget. Countywide, the full budget for Public Assistance (including the Department of Behavioral Health) got 16% of the budget; “Public Protection” received over a third of the entire budget.
In light of the recent fires, I do need to clarify that a desire to shift money away from law enforcement does not mean a defunding of emergency services. It means decoupling emergency services from policing and punishment. I am incredibly grateful to all emergency response workers and believe that we can do better to create safe communities for all of us, including those workers. We can all agree that we want to live in safe communities. We want our children to be happy. We want our neighbors to succeed. We want to have access to housing, nourishing food, and fulfilling jobs that pay a living wage.
But not everyone feels safe in our country and in our community. August 9th’s intimidation is one prime example, and the testimonies of Black, indigenous, and people of color in our community continue to reveal that our county is not safe for all. Though police investigation led to one arrest, that person is already out on bail. If they are charged, they will have a short prison sentence, and upon release are likely to be more radicalized and able to portray themselves as a victim. There is no justice available in our current justice system. We can imagine new ways of changing harmful behavior and getting our needs met when someone harms us.
Safety won’t be created overnight. White supremacy in other aspects of our system won’t disappear with the defunding of police. Reform, task forces, oversight committees have been shown not work in the long term. There are countless studies that show that policing doesn’t create safety and reform doesn’t have lasting effects.
Many real solutions to safety have been tested elsewhere with promising results. Transformative justice, harm reduction, housing and food security, job training, and youth programs are just a few of them. Trauma-informed care, crisis warmlines, and mental health resources embedded in schools can be enriched and built upon. We can come up with many more, and the resources are already there – we just need to divest them from police.