George Floyd’s death this spring, at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, sparked massive protests across the nation for meaningful police reforms to address police brutality toward Black individuals—which has been well-documented in recent years.
Key calls-to-action during these protests have included “defunding” the police and implementing a specific set of reforms called #8CantWait. When you dig into the details, these reforms aren’t particularly radical and Washtenaw County is ahead of the curve in implementing them.
“Defund the police”
Contrary to common opinion, defund the police is not a call to abolish law enforcement, but rather to reallocate a portion of police budgets to other social service agencies—those that are better able to prevent criminal behavior through education, employment, mental health, substance use treatment, housing, and other social programs.
National data shows that 9 out of 10 police calls are nonviolent incidents. Although there is no guarantee that a situation cannot turn violent on its own, many police are trained in force tactics and worst-case scenarios that do not match their typical civilian interactions.
By shifting funding to social service providers, police response teams can include social workers, mental health professionals, and specially trained officers that are more equipped to de-escalate tensions or provide assistance to individuals experiencing crisis, including those who are simply in need of a safe place to sleep. Interdisciplinary response teams like these also reduce the likelihood that people in need of assistance will have an encounter with police that could lead to their injury or incarceration.
Public Safety and Mental Health Millage
In Washtenaw County, voters approved a voluntary tax to address criminal justice diversion and behavioral health services. The tax, known as the Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, produces approximately $15 million per year and has already been used for a broad range of efforts related to public safety and better ways of policing.
For instance, the millage funded new mental health crisis training for all corrections officers, teaching them how to respond to individuals who may have behavioral health needs and do not require heavy use of force or jail. It has also helped establish an interdisciplinary crisis intervention team, trained to respond to larger scale crisis events involving people with serious mental health and substance use disorder needs.
Furthermore, the Community Engagement division of the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) hosts a number of engagement, outreach and education programs, designed to create trust and support between police and communities long before a crisis or negative event occurs. These non-traditional approaches to policing work in partnership to address systemic problems, create community-based solutions, and prevent negative interactions between police and the community members they serve.
Another commonly advocated police reform is #8CANTWAIT, sponsored by Campaign Zero, a project aimed at ending police violence. The campaign is based around eight research-based policies and procedures designed to reduce harm and bring immediate change to police departments:
- Banning strangleholds and chokeholds: Choke or strangle holds result in the unnecessary death or serious injury of civilians. Both chokeholds and all other neck restraints must be banned in all cases.
- Requiring de-escalation: Communicating with subjects, maintaining distance between subjects and officers, and other techniques eliminate the need to use force. Officers are required to de-escalate situations, wherever possible.
- Requiring verbal warning: Officers are required to give a verbal warning in all situations before shooting.
- Exhausting all other means: Offers are required to exhaust all other alternatives, including non-force and less lethal force options, prior to resorting to deadly force.
- The duty to intervene: Officers are required to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers; they are required to report these incidents immediately to a supervisor.
- Banning shooting at moving vehicles: Officers are banned from shooting at moving vehicles in all cases, which is regarded as a particularly dangerous and ineffective tactic.
- Requiring use of a force continuum: Departments establish a force continuum that restricts the most severe types of force to the most extreme situations and creates clear policy restrictions on the use of each police weapon and tactic.
- Requiring comprehensive reporting: Officers are required to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against civilians. Comprehensive reporting includes requiring officers to report whenever they point a firearm at someone, in addition to all other types of force.
The #8CANTWAIT campaign is considered a quick, inexpensive, and relatively easy to implement program for enacting basic police reforms. Based on a large, correlational study of cities’ force policies and civilian killings by police, Campaign Zero claims that these eight policies can decrease police violence by 72 percent.
Some note, however, that while these eight policies are statistically associated with lower levels of killings, they can’t guarantee complete success. There is concern that communities will adopt the policies, but not enforce them. And there is concern that many cities have had several of these policies in place when Black suspects were killed by police using the supposedly banned policy. Nevertheless, many see the program as a harm reduction approach that should be adopted while also pursuing larger reforms.
WCSO has used some of the practices from #8CANTWAIT for as long as ten years and has had all eight policies in place for over a year. They recently released a memorandum that describes how the department complies with policies and highlighted where they appear in the county’s Subject Control/Use of Force Manual. Washtenaw County Sheriff, Jerry Clayton, has also been featured on national news shows discussing these policies and advocating for police reform.
21st century policing
21st Century Policing is a collection of strategies and best practices, designed to help law enforcement agencies promote effective crime reduction while protecting officers and building community trust. The strategies were developed from President Barack Obama’s 2014 task force who developed a report outlining the key pillars of community policing with corresponding action items and recommendations for communities to initiate change.
Sheriff Clayton recently created new opportunities for county residents to participate in local police reform through WCSO’s own 21st Century Policing efforts. They include:
- 21st Century Policing Compliance Commission. WCSO will convene a new community-based, collaborative commission—including community members, non-profit stakeholders, community mental health and public health partners, faith leaders, education leaders, and Sheriff's Office staff. The commission will work collaboratively with WCSO to achieve full compliance with all of the local police agency recommendations in President Obama's 21st Century Policing Task Force.
- Police Reform Academy. WCSO will co-facilitate a learning series, in partnership with Washtenaw My Brother’s Keeper, aimed at deconstructing the most pressing areas of police reform—such as training, use of force, hiring, promotions, discipline, leadership, culture, policies, engagement, and more. The initial cohorts will include Black men and elected officials who will inform the curriculum of future series.
- Hiring Committee. WCSO will add community members to their hiring committee, representing a diverse group of county residents who can lend community perspectives to the panel.
By Gregory Powers and Erica Matti