Every day all across the United States police kill civilians. Some of these civilians are completely innocent and unarmed, some of them are engaged in petty crimes and some are mentally ill. A small minority of those killed by police are engaged in violent crimes where lethal force can be considered justified.
People of color are especially susceptible to police violence. The LGBTQI community is another highly vulnerable population, along with Muslims, undocumented immigrants, sex workers and any other minority. Many victims of police violence fit into several of those subsets simultaneously, we refer to this as intersectionality.
Understand what government is.
The U.S. Government and by extension state governments are institutional violence. A group of people, elected (allegedly) by 51% make laws which are enforced by coercive force (threat of violence) or physical violence. Our government and indeed our society loves to extoll the virtues of democracy, but the truth is that democracy is what has allowed the oppression of minorities. People with guns will steal your property, put you in a cage or take your life if you disobey the 51%.
There is a conflation that arises out of this system that when the government commits acts of violence they are not only legal but morally justified. Many philosophers over the millennia have debunked this notion. Frederic Bastiat did so very succinctly in “The Law.”
If we are all free and equal by nature of our humanity and natural rights; If I as an individual do not have to right to control you, then how do I have to right to empower an “elected representative” to control you? This is probably the most important question one can consider in any discussion of government.
When you call the police you are summoning the force of government. Government agents are going to show up and use the one tool they have to resolve conflict, coercive force. Without fail, no matter how much “de-escalation training” police receive; the use of coercive force ALWAYS escalates conflict. It is illogical and impossible to use violence to achieve peace. History has proven this empirically.
So how can we keep our communities safe without relying on systems of institutional violence?
The answer is both simple in theory and complex in application. I will offer some practical ways to avoid calling police, but it will require a paradigm shift in the way we think about how society should be organized. It will require us as individuals to become pro-active in how we interact with our communities. It is very easy to dial 911 and make an issue someone else’s problem, it requires a lot more effort to be part of the solution to the many conflicts that will arise in any community.
Build your community
It is very easy to remain anonymous in a large city. It’s almost as if we have been socially engineered to wall ourselves off from each other even as we live so close together. Most situations can be resolved without much effort or the use of police.
Studies have shown that stronger, more intimate communities are not only safer when conflict arises, but the accountability that comes with relationships helps prevents some violence from ever occurring. Closer community bonds lead to greater trust, more mutual aid and support systems for those in need which necessarily reduces violence and crime.
Get to know your neighbors. Talk to them, build rapport with them. The more people you connect with the safer you will all be. This is especially important if you have recently moved to a new area. You may not be aware of all of the good, bad or neutral actors in the community. The most responsible thing is to ask the community how they would prefer to deal with these issues. This is crucially important if you are white moving into a mixed or minority area.
In the digital age it is very easy to use social media tools like Facebook (or more privacy centric platforms) MEWE or the NextDoor app to form Neighborhood groups to quickly disseminate information and stay in contact. Don’t forget to engage with your neighbors IRL (In Real Life) on a personal level as well. There is no substitute for looking someone in the eye and having a conversation when it comes to building rapport and trust.
Don’t let all of your interactions with neighbors occur when there is a conflict. Plan fun community events as well. Meet & Greets, BBQ’s, neighborhood clean up parties and other events can go a long way to build community in a very organic way.
It’s 2 am and your upstairs neighbor is having a party with loud music. Before calling police, put on some clothes, knock on their door and politely ask them to lower the music, most times neighbors will be respectful enough to compromise. If they aren’t willing to compromise then consider the fact that its ok for them to have a party and sometimes we make compromises out of respect for those who wont respect our wishes or demands. You don’t have the right to complete silence when you live in a building or even if sound travels from one house to the next. I don’t think I need to go into detail about how a person (of color) might be harmed if you call police so you can have a good night sleep.
What about for issues where safety is more of a concern? Recently the NYPD shot a mentally ill man in Brooklyn who was waving a pipe around seemingly like it was a gun. The discussion here is not whether the police were justified in shooting him, the more important question is: what could people that were frightened have done instead of calling police?
Sometimes being a good neighbor means having the courage to intervene yourself even if it means putting yourself in physical danger.
Is it worth it to you to risk your own safety to potentially save the life of a mentally ill person, or a person they seem to be threatening? A person or group committed to non-violent resolution could carefully approach the man and try to talk to him about his behavior, and more importantly warn him about how the community and police might respond to it. If you must call someone when dealing with people suffering from mental health issues, it is always better to call for an ambulance. EMTs are trained to give patients medical care, while police are trained to physically restrain people.
Other serious issues where people usually see no other alternative than to call police are domestic violence, assaults, sexual assaults, child abuse or elder abuse. In situations like these help is always better coming from family, friends and neighbors. People who have a vested interest in the safety of the victims can understand the complexity that most times accompany these situations, and are better equipped to resolve these issues without violence.
Police and other government agencies are arms length and do not have relationships with the victims or persons doing harm. They cannot fully understand the context of the violence, they can only respond to it with more force that escalates the confusion and violence.
Even police officers who are truly committed to helping, have limited tool sets dictated by dispassionate, one size fits all protocols that are rarely appropriate even if not violent or coercive.
One technique is to reach out to someone before a situation escalates to the point where it becomes an emergency. I have seen many stories of parents calling the police on their own children for behavioral issues, only to have the police show up and murder the teens. If you need help disciplining your child, have an abusive spouse, or are even just having relationship issues with a spouse or parent reach out for help when the problematic behaviors begin, don’t wait until you are at your wits end and want to “scare them straight.”
Tenants and landlords also seem to have a habit of calling police on each other. There is the perception that if police reports are filed they can be used as evidence in court. The problem with this perception is that police are subject to their own beliefs and prejudices. Many, if not most times, you may not get a fair, impartial or even factual police report. The police may take a side and it might not be yours or the side of “right.”
What better way to help your community peacefully resolve disputes than getting trained to handle them. There are many free training programs to learn how to use empathy to mediate disputes. First responder training can help you with medical emergencies. There are training programs to help you learn how to care for the mentally ill. CPR and self defense classes are also great skills to have to build stronger more self reliant communities that will reduce the need for police interventions. Once you have the training you can share those skills by training others in your community.
My last recommendation is the book “Non-Violent Communication” by Marshal Rosenberg. This is a practical blueprint for how empathy and commitment to nonviolence can profoundly transform our personal lives and communities.
Personal and community sovereignty is an incremental process that requires empathy, education and action. We aren’t going to eliminate the need for police over night, but by being more conscious and taking action to make our communities safer we will inspire and educate others to do the same. A peaceful world is not an impossible utopian ideal, it is a real option we can all work towards rather than just hoping for it, and it starts with you. Today. Making the conscious decision to refrain from employing violence in your every day life.
If you are in a situation where you feel you absolutely must call police try to use these tips to ensure safe interactions.
- When calling in response to a mental health issue, tell 911 it is a MEDICAL EMERGENCY and ask for an Ambulance.
- Gather your local cop watchers/ and or community members to film interactions with police.
- Meet the police and/or first responders and guide them to help intervene in the situation safely. Be calm when dealing with police so they do not view you as a threat.