Talk of defunding police departments and reallocating those funds to community services has existed for decades in activist circles, but entered popular discourse only a few weeks ago amid nationwide protests against the police killings of unarmed Black Americans.
We may not have had a high-profile police killing in Teton County but we can, and must, talk about the problems traditional law enforcement poses to our community and what we can do to solve them.
Teton County is home to myriad, layered social issues for which there is no easy fix. A February 2020 study of town and county human services showed that affordable housing, mental health and substance abuse issues are our top-priority problems. A 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment also indicated that Teton County lags behind the rest of Wyoming in those areas.
Because of those studies, we know that there are connections between poverty, housing, mental health, substance abuse and community well-being. Now we must also acknowledge that law enforcement has an intimate relationship with all of these areas.
Law enforcement may not be directly causing those problems, but it is also not fixing them, and in some cases it exacerbates them. A landmark 1970s experiment in traditional policing told us that random patrol does not reduce crime rates. Police procedure does not prevent crime before it happens; it reacts to crime that has already occurred.
When police enter situations with vulnerable populations, those populations statistically become less safe. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports that of the deaths due to lethal force at the hands of an officer between 2009 and 2012, 22% of cases were mental health-related, and 14% involved intimate partner violence.
Many of our problems could be ameliorated with more funding allocated to organizations whose job is to do just that, and away from the police, who studies have shown can cause more harm in the situations in which they insert themselves. Much of this funding is tied up in our town and county public safety budgets, both of which receive disproportionate shares of their respective general funds.
It is unclear if the town or county have ever done an in-depth audit of law enforcement’s effectiveness. If our community is truly committed to abiding by the results of human services and health studies, we must also do an in-depth law enforcement review. This is an essential part of the conversation that has until now been overlooked.
In a 2019 law enforcement list of calls for service in the county, the most common type was traffic stops, with 9,839 incidents. When compared with the next most common calls — citizen assists at 3,377 incidents and 911 hang-ups at 3,104 — we see that our local law enforcement spends triple the amount of time pulling people over than on other most common tasks.
Opponents of defunding say they fear violent crime if officer numbers are cut. In 2019 violent crime like assault, battery, burglary, domestic violence and sexual assault, among other things, made up about 0.65% of the calls local law enforcement responded to.
Generations of pro-police media like “copaganda” news stories, Hollywood films, and police procedural TV shows have fooled the nation into thinking we live in an alternate reality in which hordes of villains are eagerly awaiting police budget cuts so they can commence the bloodbath.
We need to push that alternate reality from our minds and instead focus on the reality in which we live and the ways in which we can effect positive changes that don’t involve law enforcement’s reactionary and dangerous approach.
Imagine if, in Teton County, instead of two concurrent law enforcement bodies we had only one that could handle calls related to criminal activity and another body of unarmed, non-officer responders with extensive mental health and medical training to handle everything else. Wouldn’t that be a more effective way to connect individuals with the resources they need, rather than delaying aid by enacting punitive measures?
Imagine if, instead of arresting and carting intoxicated individuals to jail, we invested in a safe space for these individuals to sober up and spend the night, or a late-night bus service. Wouldn’t that save us money in jail expenses, hours police spend filling out arrest paperwork, and judges, court security and public defenders at later dates?
The above examples are just some of the countless ways we can creatively restructure our budget and our resources to improve health outcomes, quality of life and safety for our community.
Other areas of the country have enacted changes like those to extremely positive effects. A wide body of research on defunding exists, and there are plenty of reasons to try it in Teton County. We just need to start the conversation.