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What does co-production of public safety look like?

March 9, 2017

Author: Natalie Aflalo

Community-police relations have been an important element of Everyday Democracy’s work since the release of our guide Protecting Communities, Serving the Public in 2000. Our coaching has helped bring diverse people together to build trust and share power, all while utilizing a racial equity lens.

Our December 2016 national convening, The Moment is Now: Democracy That Works for All, featured a panel on the challenges and opportunities surrounding community-police relations. Tracie Keesee, Deputy Commissioner of Training for the New York City Police Department, moderated the conversation. Panelists included Michele Holt-Shannon of Everyday Democracy Anchor Partner New Hampshire Listens, Moises Nuñez of Great School Partnership, Matthew Sagacity Walker of Everyday Democracy, and Kei Williams of Black Lives Matter.

Speakers grappled with defining the elements of authentic community-police relationships, and envisioning a model of policing that works for all parties.

As police officer, social activist, and social scientist, Keesee called on police officers and departments to realize that they need to invite new partners to the table.

“We had what we thought were authentic partnerships, but it turns out they were transactional,” she said. Calling the same partners year after year for finite tasks meant that trust and reciprocity were missing. And they weren’t inclusive – conversations about young people were happening, but young people weren’t invited to be part of the dialogue.

While more difficult to achieve, truly authentic partnerships will benefit both communities and police, she added. “You can no longer carry the burden on your own. You need everyone at the table.”

Watch a clip from Keesee's opening remarks:

One of the key takeaways from the panel was that in order to solve issues of policing in our communities, power needs to be analyzed, and it needs to be shared.

Panelists agreed that police hold too much power relative to everyday people. Matthew Sagacity Walker, Community Assistance Associate at Everyday Democracy, put it bluntly: “Police officers can slam me on…my face and still walk away the next day.”

Panelists expressed a need for officers to evaluate their power in relation to those they police, particularly in regard to race. Walker said “The police [should] know that yes, [there’s] a reason why [you’re] sitting at your city line pulling over black and brown folks.” Racism is central to the historical origins of policing and to current policing practices, and police and policing as an institution need to recognize the impact of structural racism on our nation and in our communities.

Moises Nuñez, Senior Associate with Great Schools Partnership, posed the question: What if police were not allowed to kill people?

“In education, it’s very explicit: You cannot put your hands on a child,” he said. This leads to educators developing other skills and ways to de-escalate a situation. For police, where deadly violence is an acceptable option, he added, “What is your incentive to continue to build your toolkit?” 

He pointed out that policing in America has developed based on systems and resources that have not been examined or analyzed. “We pay a lot of attention to where the materials come from when we build bridges,” he said. “When we transfer that to people who bring guns into our neighborhood, we don’t use the same logic."

The system, he added, is not broken beyond repair. But it may be broken to the point where, after it’s fixed, “It may not look like the think you broke in the first place.” 

Michele Holt-Shannon, Co-Executive Director of New Hampshire Listens, has organized numerous community-police dialogues. She identified self-knowledge, power analysis, and a willingness to be imperfect as key elements to success.

“It’s about re-thinking ‘how did this partnership come together, is it really a partnership yet, are we moving from transactional to authentic,’ and being able to analyze that every step of the way,” she said. People also need to be aware of their own background, she said, and “not avoid the tough stuff.”

The panel consensus was that a power shift – to communities and to people of color – is crucial in order to improve public safety.

Keesee offered her vision of a community-police partnership with a fairer balance of power. She envisions a “co-production of public safety” in which community and police both have a voice in defining what they want their policing to look like. Her model involves accountability on all sides so that somebody who steals from a shop, for example, might have to do community service rather than go to jail.

Watch a clip of Williams and Nunez sharing their perspectives on reform:

Kei Williams, Lead Organizer for the NYC chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM), specified that the power shift they envision requires a shifting of resources. This idea is crystallized in the BLM adage “divest from policing, invest in communities.”

To Williams, divesting from police means not rewarding officers for hyper-policing. They referenced the pay raise awarded to the officer who murdered Eric Garner, and NYPD budget increases in the midst of “a spike in…stop-and-frisk [and] ‘broken windows’ [policing].”

Williams said we can invest in communities by having “the folks who live in…communities…serve those communities.” That way, officers will be familiar with and invested in the place and the people who live there. “And then,” Williams said, “it’s actual engagement with those who are within the community, actually getting down to those on the ground and speaking to folks who live [where officers] serve.”

As police killings of unarmed African Americans have become front-page news, a greater part of the American public has started paying attention to a reality long familiar to people of color, to LGBTQ folk, to the poor, and to all people living on the margins. As Keesee said, “We know what the problems are – we don’t need to analyze this any further. What we need is action.”

Watch all the video clips from the panel discussion.

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