Riveted by the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd by grinding his knee into the Black man’s neck, some social justice and Black Lives Matter advocates have renewed their call to “defund the police.” We can all agree, George Floyd’s death was horrific, as have been that of hundreds of other unarmed African Americans in police custody. The need to permanently halt police violence, especially against people of color, is incontrovertible.
Perceiving the problem as primarily a policing matter, however, is a false narrative, augmented by a narrow lens. Even if every city slashed its police department’s budget, the challenge wouldn’t be resolved. It’s far more complex, extending beyond blue walls.
This moment and the future demand a broader, more radical strategy. Every city government should install, without delay, the comprehensive public safety system I am proposing.
Decades ago, the U.S. surgeon general and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control urged that community violence be treated as a public health emergency. Elected leaders and others didn’t fully comprehend the meaning or requirements for responding to that entreaty. Consequently, they simply auditioned or rotated policies laced with public health catchall jargon; their efforts were largely ineffective.
As the city manager for Richmond, Va., in the 1980s, I responded to the CDC’s call, engaging the expertise of Dr. Carl Bell, founder of the Southside Mental Health Council. Based in Chicago, Ill., he was the leading Black professional in that community’s violence as public health movement.
At one point, he was even examining whether White supremacy was an extreme form of mental illness. He educated me and my staff about how public health, mental health and trauma often converged, fueling family and community violence. While I appreciated the enduring commitment necessary to arrest the problem, regrettably, I became distracted, leaving the mission far from complete.
Abandonment is a luxury we can no longer afford. It’s time to get serious. This is my 911 call.
The Comprehensive Public Safety System (CPSS) Approach
Expansive in its scope, the comprehensive public safety system (CPSS) I propose would finely knit together municipal resources like physical and mental health care, schools, social and community services, police and law enforcement. These elements would constitute a single proactive delivery unit.
This could be achieved by purposefully restructuring several institutions, many of them infected by racism, that have insufficiently responded to the needs of communities of color as well as poor and working-class neighborhoods. No longer would they operate in silos, as they do now.
We know this reformation is decades overdue. Even before Floyd’s brutal murder, the killing of Breonna Taylor and a traumatic pandemic that has highlighted the inequities of the nation’s health care system, the police-centered model of public safety was irreparably broken. Its historical antecedents were slave statutes, the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, intentionally promulgated to control Black bodies and to suppress Black voices.
The CPSS would lay waste to that scheme. Instead, it would install a holistic, pre-emptive organism that would steadily stream massive assistance and resources to individuals, families and communities to prevent violence by uprooting its various causes. It also would act as a solid bulwark, protecting citizens against predatory practices and programs that could erode neighborhood stability.
The Comprehensive Public Safety System (CPSS) Is Like A “Tumor Board”
What I am advocating is analogous to a “tumor board.” That may be a foreign concept for many people; it was for me until 2010.
That year, I was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer. At the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, the doctors and other professionals created a tumor board. It included not just my oncologist, but a nutritionist, psychologist and physical therapist. Together, they designed a customized treatment and recovery plan for me, imagining the services I would need pre- and post-surgery.
They understood my survival didn’t simply depend on one physician, but on everyone working attentively and aggressively in tandem as one system of care. That I am here today is proof of the efficacy of that model.
Think of my body as a neighborhood and the tumor board as the comprehensive public safety system. I should mention that my own voice and input were integral and valuable to the process, as would be the panoply of community voices, particularly those of Black and Brown citizens.
The CPSS would dramatically and significantly downsize the role of city police departments. The safety of a community cannot be predicated on one government agency acting like a lone ranger, frequently perceived to have super or mythic powers. Often, issues confronting a community or family cannot be resolved by a single encounter — whether it be the police or some government professional. Rather, a well-developed collaborative, interactive plan administered over time is required.
As a national management expert, I know that if we continue to behave as if the police were the principal villain in need of rehabilitation, within five or 10 years we will be right back where we are today. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that the solution requires only a silver dagger in the heart of police departments and policing.
I recently served as co-chairman of the DC Police Reform Commission, which was created in 2020 by the DC Council. On April 1, 2021, our diverse group of residents, public safety experts and other professionals presented 90 recommendations to legislators. Together, our suggestions provide the foundation for a new public safety system.
Cities interested in installing the CPSS could begin by establishing a position that reports directly to the mayor or city manager. That individual would be responsible for implementation, including training a pre-emptive service delivery strike team, developing an early warning signal unique to individuals or neighborhoods and a crisis intervention and restorative justice scheme. An aggressive community education campaign must be launched to explain to citizens how the CPSS works and how it would make their communities safer.
Setting an appropriate financing model is crucial to the CPSS’ success. Simply defunding the police won’t yield sufficient resources. City governments should be prepared to make budgetary investments as the system is established and adjustments are demanded.
There have been plenty of protests over the death of Black people in the custody of police officers. Often, elected officials have pledged to make changes. After things die down, everyone goes back to business as usual. We owe more to the dead and others who were victims of a system that wasn’t holistic or pre-emptive and thus contributed to community violence.
We have no time to waste, lives are at stake.
Co-Chairman of D.C. Police Reform Commission, Robert Bobb is a former emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools, the former city administrator of Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California, and president and CEO of The Robert Bobb Group, LLC, a private/public sector management consulting firm.
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