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CHANGING MINDSETS: Shifting from law enforcement to peace officers

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stood a brief moment with peaceful protesters in front of Wilmington’s City Hall last Monday evening. For weeks, in the middle of a global pandemic, citizens in cities around the world have protested violence and racial injustice on American streets. (Did I just write that?) The world is worried civilian deaths, including the killing of disproportionate numbers of black civilians killed by police, will continue to escalate under our birther conspiracist president’s overt racism.

Even a blind man can see America is no longer the world’s shining city on a hill. We’re far from a global “Mayberry,” where Sheriff Andy kept the peace.

As I stood with protesters, a pair of WPD officers sat across from City Hall on bicycles. Two NHC Sheriff cars and two WPD cars grabbed snacks and Gatorade in the parking lot of the convenience store a few blocks away. That was the night’s show of force. The police were calm and chatted with colleagues, on relaxed alert in the event their expertise was needed to defuse a tense situation, or keep the peace, like Sheriff Andy.

A few days later a friend questioned me about the protests. “Are you one of those that blame the police? Do you really want to eliminate or defund law enforcement?”

“I’ll have to think about it,” I said, honestly. He shared his thoughts—views that turned out to be pretty much anti-protest, pro-SWAT team and allowing tanks in every town. Apparently, he’s an “All Lives Matter” kind of guy who has yet to really get in touch with his inner James Baldwin.

I considered his questions for several days. Do I blame the police for the current violence? Do I want to eliminate the police? Do I want to defund the police?

How will blaming the police help (“the police” used as a collective noun, only reflect our values)? In a paranoid post-9/11 nation, ruled by fear, police have been militarized. They’re American snipers on the street, combat-ready to fight global terror. Because we fear any program with the word “social” in it, police are asked to build positive relationships with the community on multiple levels: intervene before gangs get your kids, prevent heroin overdoses, stop the opioid epidemic, and talk your cousin off a ledge and chauffeur him to the psychiatric hospital. It’s Andy Griffith and American sniper all in one well-armed, poorly paid package.

Individual police officers are at fault for brutal crimes they commit—not “the police.” True, the healthy police brotherhood too easily slides into an “I got your back” tribalism that protects the guilty. Still, police racism is America’s racism, and police brutality is America’s brutality. Racism has been institutionalized in America since our founding. America is built upon noble values, and it’s also built on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of men and women of color imported against their will from around the globe.

Defunding the GOP, the NRA, Tucker Carlson, and the current administration might go further toward restoring justice on the streets and in the courtrooms. Defunding the police is also a first step in the right direction. Does Wilmington really need a tank to fight crime? Decreasing bloated budgets that support military-grade toys is a first step to help us reinvest in other community necessities like public health. Do we really want Sheriff Andy talking Cousin Ralph off the ledge, while loaded down with more gadgets on his belt than Batman?

Perhaps we should cut the number of police in half and pay them twice as much. But when I suggest paying teachers a living wage, reforming health care or fighting poverty, my conservative friends shout, “You can’t just throw money at a problem!” I agree.

Paying half as many police twice as much also would require communities to shift responsibilities away from police. It would require we pay a living wage for most jobs (including teachers), plus universal basic health carem with mental health and substance abuse parity, higher education and fair housing.

We would need to find the courage to shift from a “law enforcement” to “peace officer” mindset. We can’t keep dividing the world into perps and probable perps. We see officers as warriors who must be weaponized for battle. The police officers I’ve known lean more toward peace; they primarily want to protect people from harm and promote peace.

In the months leading up to the election, we’ll have time to consider whether we want to weaponize and go full American sniper or move toward a modern racially integrated Mayberry.

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