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Defund the Police or Invest in Human Capital? A New Framework for Community Safety

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Linda-Marie Sundstrom and Mark Kling
January 12, 2020

In May 2020, the fatal arrest of George Floyd caused a nationwide response that included a vocal movement to, “Defund the Police.” However, there are variations of what individuals and groups mean by that phrase. Some groups advocate for the complete elimination of police departments. Others advocate for redistributing funds away from law enforcement and towards increased social services such as mental health, substance abuse, healthcare and homeless services. What we do know is there is, “No one size fits all,” approach to community challenges.

Many would agree that communities need a law enforcement presence to respond to dangerous situations. It is important to keep law enforcement personnel in communities that encounter danger and protect citizens from terrorist attacks and school shootings. It is also important for law enforcement to prevent drunk drivers from endangering innocent families on the road, among many other life and death situations. This is what communities expect of their police officers.

But those assessing law enforcement might agree that the police cannot be all things to all people all the time. Is there a new framework that police departments can explore that leverages multi-agency funding and expertise to better serve communities? The City of Rialto Police Department, in Southern California, has always been forward-thinking in their policing philosophy. They were first to conduct an in-depth study on the use of body-worn cameras for officers, and one of the early adopters of the technology. Once again, the City of Rialto is exploring new avenues for providing comprehensive services to the community while strengthening its police force, all with community support. This approach could demonstrate the need to keep current police funding, while allocating precious dollars toward needed community services.

Police Partnering with County Mental Health

The City of Rialto Police Department has developed an effective framework to serve the community by partnering with the County of San Bernardino Behavioral Health. Currently, there are two Behavioral Health Specialists funded by the County assigned full-time to the Rialto Police Department. Rialto Police provide office space within the police facility. When officers respond to potential mental health calls they assess the involved person for safety, then summon the Behavioral Health Specialists for assistance. The behavioral health professionals provide services, while officers take a supportive role instead of enforcement. Oftentimes officers are available to leave and handle other emergency services. The use of behavioral health professionals, instead of police officers, has benefited the community by providing more in-depth, specialized mental health services.

This unique public-to-public partnership provides a vital resource for law enforcement to effectively provide mental health services. The mental health professionals and law enforcement officers are cross-trained in techniques that leverage the expertise of each agency. This is encompassed in a humanistic approach that accomplishes improved services for in-field mental health needs.

Police Partnering with Social Work (SWAG)

With the growing homeless problem in Southern California, officers were limited in their ability to provide the depth of services the homeless population needed. Officers often share a brochure or other resources, but some members of the homeless population require more in-depth services. Further, once a homeless individual receives a brochure, there is no mechanism available for the person to actually receive those services. Rialto Police Department received County of San Bernardino grant funding to partner with a local nonprofit offering a new level of outreach and services. The nonprofit, Social Work Action Group (SWAG), provides two teams (available seven days a week), to the Rialto Police Department. Each team is staffed with experienced outreach workers who link clients with existing services to overcome barriers to housing, substance abuse and counseling services. In the past, police officers would respond and take enforcement action only, which often times resulted in citations and fines. However, the root cause of homelessness was not addressed. Currently, officers respond to homeless calls, along with SWAG who provides in-depth services. The relationship between Rialto Police and SWAG was the brainchild of Community Outreach Cpl. Dwuan Rice, an eight-year veteran of the police department. According to Rice, many of the people who are homeless need more than just a brochure of resources. They need someone from SWAG that leads them step-by-step through the process, drives them to appointments, makes phone calls, etc. SWAG builds rapport and then completes the follow-up that law enforcement is unable to do. As a last resort, enforcement action may be taken.

Framework

To achieve the goals of the Defund the Police movement, solutions may involve removing silos around agencies, nonprofits and businesses. Rather than focusing on what “not” to fund, cities may consider working across jurisdictions, and building police response with dedicated access to mental health and social services. The best approach, in many community issues, still focuses on community-oriented policing that is evidence-based and built on continuous improvement. It is common knowledge among law enforcement professionals that officers in any region already know what would best serve their community as a whole. However, gaining the necessary support from elected officials and members of the community, as well as allocating funding is vital to successful innovative policing and safety.


Authors:
Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President. She worked for two decades in local government, and has taught in Masters of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades. She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email:[email protected]

Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

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