Foss: What do we want from the police?

Protesters line the barricades outside Troy Police Department on State Street
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Protesters line the barricades outside Troy Police Department on State Street

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

About a year-and-a-half ago, I called the police. 


It was a weekend morning, and my son, not yet 1, was napping in his room. 

From downstairs, I heard angry, animated conversation, then a man’s voice, getting louder and louder. I crept to the stairwell and listened, trying to figure out what was going on. What I heard – an irate man screaming insults, curses and threats at his girlfriend – terrified me. Physical violence seemed like a real possibility. I retreated back into my living room, and dialed 911. 

I don’t like calling the police. 

I’m aware that it can lead to other kinds of trouble – that cops are more likely to use force against people of color, that police encounters with people with untreated mental health issues are more likely to spiral out of control. If a problem is minor – a neighbor setting off fireworks, say – I’m generally willing to ignore it.  

The situation downstairs was impossible to ignore, and it seemed to be escalating. The police arrived quickly, and they were a godsend, hauling away a man with an order of protection against him. As for the woman, she hugged me, tears in her eyes. “Thank you,” she said. 

I’ve been thinking about that morning a lot lately, amid growing calls from activists to “defund the police.” 

I’ve been trying to imagine how I could have handled the situation differently – how I could have resolved it without involving the police, and I can’t do it. Everything I learned in the aftermath vindicated my decision to call the police; if anything, I didn’t call them fast enough. 

The “defund police” movement is more nuanced than its slogan would suggest. 

Most supporters say they want to reduce funding for police budgets and redirect it to other services, such as drug treatment and housing programs, though some are advocating for the more radical position of police abolition.

I agree that American policing needs to be reimagined – I wouldn’t use the word defunded or abolished – and that police are often asked to respond to situations that might be better addressed by social workers or community-based organizations. 

And I’ll admit that seeing the defund-police movement gain traction has caused me to consider what I do want from the police. 

At the top of my list of priorities: solving violent crimes and intervening in violent situations, such as the one that occurred in the apartment downstairs. Just last week, the Schenectady Police Department made an arrest in the homicide of Duane Todman. That’s the kind of thing I like to see. 

So what don’t I want to see? 

The past two weeks have provided plenty of examples. 

In too many cities, local police departments have conducted themselves like occupying armies at a time of unrest and protest. 

The militarization of America’s police forces didn’t occur overnight, but images of officers in riot gear, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds might have brought renewed attention to a trend that police reformers have decried for years.  

As reporter Radley Balko wrote in his excellent 2014 book “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” “How did a country pushed into a revolution by protest and political speech become one where protests are met with flash grenades, pepper spray and platoons of riot teams dressed like Robocops? How did we go from a system in which laws were enforced by the citizens, often with noncoercive methods, to one in which order is preserved by armed government agents too often conditioned to see streets and neighborhoods as battlefields and the citizens they serve as the enemy?” 

The Black Lives Matter demonstrations occurring throughout the country are already changing the status quo. 

In Albany, Mayor Kathy Sheehan on Monday signed a list of reforms that included banning the use of police chokeholds or “knee to neck” restraints on people. That’s great. But the city still needs to address the culture of militarization that has taken root in its department. 

The use of tear gas – a chemical weapon banned in war – to disperse crowds of protestors has been particularly appalling. New legislation at the state level would prohibit the use of tear gas in any situation, and I hope it passes. 

The protests have made it clear that there’s a lot of anger and frustration over policing in America. 

But they haven’t answered the question of what policing in America should look like, or what people want to see from their local police departments. I know what I want to see. What about everybody else?

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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