Published July 1st, 2020 at 6:00 AM
There’s very little room for nuance in a hashtag. #defundpolice is no exception.
But there is much to ponder once people get past the easy misconception that defunding means abolishing a police force overnight.
Put simply, the defunding movement aims to reallocate police funds that are spent on military style equipment and more armed officers on the street in favor of public goods and services that directly benefit communities.
Advocates argue that this would shift the role of police from a reactionary force that responds to many situations for which they are not properly trained, to a proactive community support role that prevents crime being committed in the first place.
Reactions to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police have spurred a spirited nationwide debate about police funding. Most notably, the Minneapolis City Council has voted to disband the police department in favor of community led public safety programs.
This has prompted Kansas City activists to examine the Kansas City Police Department budget, which amounts to $273 million for this fiscal year, or 16% of Kansas City’s budget.
Ideas about how defunding can be enacted become more tangible when you realize that the concept is already being experimented with in select departments around the nation.
In fact, Kansas City already is one of those police departments.
During Kansas City PBS’ coverage of the mayoral race in 2019, our reporters highlighted an effort made by KCPD in partnership with the non-profit, Giving The Basics. This partnership allowed bi-monthly pop-up stations in high crime areas where officers and social workers provided basic supplies for free such as toiletries and groceries.
Officer Vito Mazzara, who has since taken over implementation of the program, says they have seen a “drastic decrease in violent crimes in those areas,” even as violent crime has surged citywide this year.
In addition to the pop-up events, a social worker like Trena Miller is stationed within precincts to connect callers with services for their specific needs.
“Every day we’re here, we’re in the car with an officer,” Miller says. “At East zone we run constantly from the minute we get here until the minute we go home…There are days where it feels like you’ve gone a hundred miles an hour with your hair on fire.”
KCPD secured a three-year, $640,000 grant from The Hall Family Foundation, plus an additional $470,000 from the city, to employ six social workers. And the program seems to be working.
“A lot of people are asking for social services help now, so we’re able to link more people with long-term services,” says Miller. “People that have been homeless have been able to obtain stable and safe housing.
“Just changing perception in the community on how law enforcement works, that’s been a huge observation I’ve made.”
Prior to being embedded at East Patrol, Miller had been working in case management, responding to social services calls in the Northland on her own.
“The calls that I did were very similar to what I currently do now, but we did them completely on our own. We went into homes, unaccompanied with anybody, just by ourselves.” Miller says. “Now, it’s just that partnership between law enforcement and social services. It’s not that I feel more safe.
“Some of the calls that they go on are not necessarily a law enforcement call,” Miller says. “Community members may feel more at ease with talking to someone that’s just a social services person instead of law enforcement.”
Another community partnership exists with professionals specializing in mental health care.
As illustrated in the 2014 documentary “Lost Minds,” Swope Health Services’ community mental health liaisons (CMHLs) and Crisis Intervention Trained (CIT) officers were able to work closely to address a growing mental health crisis. Their focus is to direct individuals with mental health issues towards services to decrease their interactions with officers and jail time.
As of 2014, more than 60% of callers visited by CMHLs had been successfully engaged in services.
The visits allowed by this partnership took two forms: 1) Follow-up visits with previous callers identified as having possible mental health issues and 2) Responses to real time calls, known as “calls for service.” Each of these require an escort by a CIT-trained officer to be sure the crisis situation is not immediately dangerous.
The week-long course to become CIT certified remains voluntary for officers to attend.
“It has proved helpful, in my experience, to have a mental health professional on the scene when a person is suffering from mental health issues.” says Cheryl Reed, the CMHL at Swope Health Services focusing on helping people in the urban core.
“We can assess if hospitalization is needed, talk to the client and give supportive counsel, provide crisis intervention and give information on engaging in services etc…”
In 2014, Swope Health’s budget was used to pay off-duty officers to escort Reed to follow-up calls. But since the documentary first aired, KCPD has established a CIT squad of five officers who respond solely to mental health calls.
This has alleviated the need for Swope to dedicate its own budget to pay officers, but has reduced Reed’s hands-on involvement.
The follow-up visits have decreased from twice a week to once a week. Real-time calls to service are only scheduled for twice a month. Before COVID-19, Reed was also responsible for attending court as a CMHL three days out of the week.
“There is never really sufficient time spent, but I am only one person,” Reed says. “If it were a perfect world the calls for service would be done daily.”
Reed is one of four CMHLs in the Kansas City and Jackson County area. Only 32 CMHLs are deployed statewide in Missouri.
Redirecting some of the current KCPD budget toward such pre-existing programs could appease some local activists like the ones at a Black Lives Matter rally centered around defunding.
“The lack of resources for mental health contributes to our community’s disparities,” says Cecil Watree, founder of the KC Black Mental Health Initiative.
“The reason why the Kansas City Black Mental Health Initiative supports defunding the police is that defunding the police allows resources to promote the advancement and the paradigm shift necessary for radical change.”
Pausing for cheers from the crowd, Watree concludes: “We, as black mental health professionals, are the mental medics of this war. We need resources and support to help our people. Those resources come from downtown.”
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