Photo by Martha Spall
Photo by Martha Spall

Activists are calling for police departments to be rebuilt from the ground up. We break down how and why.

MICHIGAN — Following the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd and subsequent protests throughout June, police reforms have been introduced, suggested and adopted across the state. 

While training and defunding are common points of discussion, activists told The ‘Gander about the more transformative idea of rebuilding the police from the ground up. 

Transformation isn’t an unprecedented idea. In fact, Minneapolis is already engaging in a sweeping plan to restructure policing from the ground up in response to Floyd’s death. 

“We acknowledge that the current system is not reformable — that we would like to end the current policing system as we know it,” Minneapolis city council member Alondra Cano told CNN.

READ MORE: Decreased Militarization, Decreased Violence: What Defunding the Police Would Mean for Michigan

In interviews with activists about police reforms, that sentiment was repeatedly echoed. 

How to Transform Police into Crisis Counselors

Defunding the police is not always referring to radical transformation or dismantling law enforcement agencies across the state. As The ‘Gander reported, much of the military equipment police departments have is procured at almost no cost already, and while reducing budgets does discourage the buildup of firepower, the police as they currently exist are not foundationally disrupted. 

The real power in defunding the police, Minneapolis Public Radio notes, comes from diverting that money into social response programs better equipped to address noncriminal situations, which the presence of police often escalate. KARE reports, though, that those social response programs can dramatically downscale existing police forces. 

“In a perfect world, if it were up to me?” said Shannon Sykes-Nehring, an anti-racism facilitator with Truth and Titus. “We’d be starting all over with a separate form of community policing. But I know that’s a dream that’s not quite ready to be realized.”

Sykes-Nehring told The ‘Gander she is especially interested in establishing accountability between those serving the community and the community they’re serving. More than just the kind of citizen’s review board present in Kalamazoo, she wants a board truly empowered to oversee police with the authority to create actual change.

“[Transforming] the police force means scrapping everything and starting over,” she said. “And allowing communities to lead the ways in which they choose to start over and grow that system from the ground up.”

Flint’s Nayyirah Shariff similarly called for accountability to people outside the department when speaking to The ‘Gander. She called for the creation of an ombudsman’s office and statewide review board to deal with complaints against officers through channels not within their departments. 

Shariff said that police reforms were akin to “blowing on a wound,” especially without actions like banning tear gas (which is a chemical weapon prohibited in war but still part of the arsenal of local law enforcement). She also is calling for regular, routine anti-bias training, and isn’t even sure law enforcement officers should be called police.

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“Maybe they’re ‘trauma crisis counselors,’ don’t even call them police,” she suggested.

That sentiment was echoed by Alisa Parker, activist and co-founder of Michigan-based ANP Consulting.

“In a perfect world, if I had to say what is the system that I would envision, it wouldn’t be what we see the modern police state is today,” Parker told The ‘Gander. “It would be morphed into a guardian system, where protecting and serving is really what this body would be doing.”

That title, guardian, is as much a mission statement as a change in nomenclature to Parker. It raises questions that are fundamental to a total restructuring like the activists agree police departments need.  

“How do we create systems, how do we create something different that really creates a body of folks who will truly protect and serve, who will truly be guardians of our communities in a really positive way?”

From those three Michiganders to those seeking transformation in Minneapolis, activists are saying they recognize there would need to be some form of policing and that there would be instances where situations would necessitate a law enforcement response. But they also argued that too often, that response happens in situations where it is not needed and is ultimately harmful. 

For instance, a 2016 Florida incident saw an officer shoot a social worker and defend his action by saying he meant to shoot the autistic man the social worker was assisting. He was charged and acquitted for the shooting.

A similar case in August 2019 happened when an off-duty police officer killed a mentally ill man after a minor altercation in California. Also in 2019, a police officer stationed at a high school dragged a young Black girl down the stairs and fired a Taser at her after she refused to put her phone away in class. 

Policing disproportionately manifests as violence toward Black people, with the Los Angeles Times reporting being shot by police has become a leading cause of death for young Black men in America. And it has been that way from the beginning. 

Modern Policing Built on a Rotted Slavery-Era Foundation

Friday is Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when slavery finally ended in Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after it was formally abolished by the Emancipation Proclaimation. 

That holiday has everything to do with the need to fundamentally transform policing 155 years later, argued Parker.

“It’s no surprise to many of us in the Black community that relations between police and communities of color are tense,” she said. “They weren’t founded as an organization to protect and serve, they were founded as an organization to capture.”

Parker was talking about slave patrols. The National Law Enforcement Museum (NLEM) explains that one of the original forms of law enforcement in the 1700 and 1800s was the policing and capturing of slaves. 

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“After the Civil War, Southern police departments often carried over aspects of the patrols. These included systematic surveillance, the enforcement of curfews, and even notions of who could become a police officer,” Chelsea Hansen wrote for NLEM. “Though law enforcement looks very different today, the profession developed from practices implemented in the colonies.”

And though some people of color did join Southern police departments after the Civil War, Hansen noted that those instances were not without resistance. Meanwhile the slave patrols also evolved into extralegal terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, she said. 

For Sykes-Nehring, that origin makes the current form of the police totally unreformable. 

“I don’t believe you can reform that,” she said. “When the foundation is slave patrols, there is no reform that would be adequate enough to change it enough for it to then be safe for Black folks. There just isn’t.”

While Michigan grapples with the politics of reforming and defunding police, the truth for these activists is that more is needed to really resolve the problems at the heart of America’s law enforcement system.