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What should police do?

The police spend just 4% of their time on violent crime. The rest of their time is spent on non-criminal activities, non-violent crime, medical emergencies and paperwork.

The police should be preventing, investigating and clearing violent crimes like murder, rape and armed robbery, writes Peter Cunningham. But we keep asking them to do other things.
Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times

According to multiple studies and data that is openly available on many police department websites, police spend about 4% of their time on violent crime. The rest of their time is spent on non-criminal activities, non-violent crime, medical emergencies and paperwork.

Today, police deal with homelessness, mental health and domestic abuse. They patrol public schools, evict people behind in their rent, and pull over drivers for broken taillights. They enforce misdemeanors like smoking marijuana, and vaguely defined crimes like “disorderly conduct.” Some police write a lot of tickets for jaywalking.

What they don’t spend nearly enough time doing — at least here in Chicago — is preventing, investigating and clearing violent crimes like murder, rape and armed robbery. That’s not entirely the fault of police, however. In truth, it’s mostly our fault. We keep asking police to do all of these other things.

Amidst calls to defund police and shift resources elsewhere, the foundational question we should be asking is, what should police do and, by extension, what should police not do? This conversation is long overdue and police, more than anyone, should welcome the discussion, because they bear the burden of our failures.

In a report last April, New York University professor Barry Friedman explored the issue of police functions and concluded, “Too much of what we treat through the criminal law and agencies of law enforcement are really problems of public health and social welfare.”

A U.S. Conference of Mayors Working Group on Police Reform and Racial Justice that includes Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot put the issue front and center by asking, “Who is best equipped to be the first responder in addressing a long list of calls for service?” The reflexive answer cannot be “the police.”

The USCM Group’s “Statement of Principles” further says, “In the absence of appropriate levels of funding for things like mental health care; affordable, high quality health care; accessible housing; healthy food options; good paying jobs; quality and safe education options; and other social services, the police are consistently thrust into a role of addressing these various social issues — a role for which they were not created and for which they will never be properly equipped.”

The issue is especially timely here in Chicago where gun violence is surging and local police continue to do what they have always done, which is to dedicate more and more police resources to the problem. Today, on a per-capita basis, Chicago has twice the number of police as Los Angeles and yet we have three times as much gun violence.

Chicago had 1,200 extra police on duty over the July 4th weekend and we still had 79 shootings and 15 fatalities. Despite extended police shifts and cancelled vacations, the last two months have been the most violent in the city’s history. Right now, Chicago is on track to exceed the number of murders in 2016, which was the highest in 20 years.

Now, CPD is planning to redeploy a specialized unit — an approach that has been tried before and abandoned for various reasons, including misconduct and corruption. Chicago’s new police chief David Brown insists the unit will be more community-oriented, but the core tactic remains the same: flood high-crime zones with blue uniforms, despite little evidence that more manpower works.

There are alternatives. A handful of districts have launched pilot programs to shift some responsibilities away from police, including Dallas, Texas, Salinas, California and Eugene, Oregon. Whether any of these approaches can work at scale is yet to be seen because, as Yale Law School Professor Monica Bell points out in a piece focused on the policy “conundrum” of demanding both justice and safety, no one has really tried it.

Even the much-vaunted Camden, New Jersey police reform story, in which the municipal police force merged with the county, reduced arrests and saw crime drop, is a little more complicated than some reform advocates have portrayed.

Here in Chicago, local violence prevention groups have invested tens of millions of dollars since 2016 on outreach programs, behavioral therapy, life coaches and financial support for young people. In some communities where violence prevention programs are especially active, like Roseland-Pullman, gun violence is far below the city rate, according to a city database. In others, like Englewood and Austin, results are more mixed, though again, none of these programs are nearly at scale and none are enough on their own.

Nevertheless, the status quo is not working and with people dying every day, Chicago can’t keep doing the same thing over and over. The victims of over-policing are not only young men of color, but it’s also the police themselves who are increasingly demoralized. A rash of recent police suicides in Chicago, including a deputy commander, is a troubling trend that has now prompted a call for more mental health support.

If Chicago really wants to reduce incarceration, rebuild trust with the communities, make neighborhoods safer, and support a profession that has resisted most efforts to reform, we need to rethink the role of police and free them up from non-criminal work to focus more on violent crime.

It begins by answering one simple question: what should police do?

Peter Cunningham is a consultant in Chicago working with Chicago CRED to reduce gun violence.

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