A sign protests lethal responses to mental health emergencies.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest to demand justice for Daniel Prude, on September 3, 2020 in New York City.

(Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

Taking Action for Public-Safety Alternatives to Policing

Having people who are uniquely trained and qualified to respond in moments of trauma or mental health struggles could mean drastically better care, support, and outcomes.

Imagine someone you love, your sibling, partner, parent, or child, has been struggling with mental illness recently, a reality for more than 1 in 5 people in the U.S. You’ve been offering support however you can, helping them find the right resources, doctors, medications, or treatment, saving up to help them afford it.

One day, they have a particularly difficult episode, and you’re afraid they might hurt themselves or even another person. You try to de-escalate, but it’s more than you can handle, and you realize you need help to ensure everyone’s safety. You decide you have to call 911, but you hesitate, especially if you’re Black, knowing police could just as easily hurt your loved one as help them, but knowing there’s no one else to call for support. You call and tell the operator everything, emphasizing that it’s a mental health crisis, saying everything you can think of to prevent police from responding with force. But when police arrive, they still perceive your loved one as a threat and make the choice to kill them rather than help them. The person you love, who just needed help, is gone, and you’re left forever wondering if there was something else you could have done instead of calling the police.

This is the reality for the families of Takar Smith, Marcus-David Peters, Tanisha Anderson, Miles Hall, Walter Wallace Jr., Eudes Pierre, Jada Johnson, Christian Glass, Ricardo Muñoz, Angelo Quinto, and thousands of others in the U.S. left with guilt, grief, and anger because police should not be the responders for a mental health crisis.

We are building toward a system of public safety that treats us with care and humanity, and we are doing so with a clear mandate from our people.

Ten years ago, the Movement for Black Lives formed around the imperative to address the violence policing imposes on the Black community. We’ve felt the pain of that first scenario, some personally and all as a community, and we’ve committed ourselves to fighting for liberation from being forced to experience that pain ever again.

As we enter our 10th year doing this work, we decided it was time to hear from Black people collectively across the country to determine what our people need from this movement next in our fight for liberation. We found some important and powerful answers. The comprehensive report Perspectives on Community Safety from Black America, in partnership with GenForward, surveyed a broad sample of Black people across lines of gender, generation, region, and partisanship in the U.S. on their experiences with policing and their views on alternatives for public safety and mass incarceration.

This survey showed strong, clear support among Black Americans for divesting from traditional policing in their communities and investing in public-safety alternatives, especially those that would center de-escalation, mental health support, and solutions that do not rely on incarceration.

  • 67% of Black Americans support reinvesting part of their community’s police budgets toward crucial areas such as healthcare, education, and housing, while 55% support reallocating entire police budgets toward such investments.
  • 86% of Black people support creating a new agency of first responders who specialize in de-escalating violence and providing mental health support and other social services that would take over these responsibilities from police.
  • 78% support a process whereby city officials promote public safety by investing in solutions that do not rely on incarceration. 82% of respondents support increased federal funding for states to develop crisis-response systems that do not rely on incarceration.
  • Half of respondents admitted to fearing calling the police in crisis and emergency situations, yet 55% would still turn to them for help.

The reality of that contradiction, paired with the overwhelming support for alternatives, called us to action and inspired The People’s Response Campaign. Through our new campaign, we’re shifting the narrative on what keeps us safe. In partnership with 20 Black-led organizations across the country, we’re centering public safety as a public health issue, advocating for non-police response to mental health emergencies, and engaging with the 2024 elections, especially on the local and state levels to prioritize ballot initiatives and candidates who support non-police, non-carceral public-safety solutions. Our fellows will work together to build Black political power at all levels and get us closer to a more safe and free future.

Think back to what you pictured earlier in this piece, but instead imagine that when your loved one experienced that crisis, you didn’t hesitate to call for help because you knew that your community had a mental health first-responders team, highly trained in de-escalation and support, who come instead of police. They even know your loved one from past interactions; they’re a familiar and trusted face that puts you and your loved one more at ease; you know they can help you both through this. They help soothe your loved one, discuss next steps with both of you, and come up with a plan to get them the support they need. They connect your loved one to accessible and quality care and resources to get them to the right medical facility. Your loved one’s difficult episode was just a moment in their life instead of the end of their life.

The People’s Response Campaign’s goal is to make that vision a reality. On a local level, we’re turning our data into action as our fellows campaign hard for resolutions in their cities in support of a non-police community wellness first-response system. Having people who are uniquely trained and qualified to respond in moments of trauma or mental health struggles could mean drastically better care, support, and outcomes. It will definitely mean fewer people in those moments of crisis will be killed by police when they need help.

On the federal level, we’re advocating hard for the People’s Response Act (PRA) alongside its champion, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). The PRA, directly inspired by M4BL’s BREATHE Act, emphasizes an inclusive, holistic, and health-centered approach to public safety by creating a public-safety agency within the Department of Human Health and Services—because our communities know first-hand what experts have found for decades: Public safety is a matter of public health. The PRA would fund programs for non-carceral first responders, trauma-informed healing, restorative justice, survivor services, harm-reduction-based treatment for mental health and substance abuse, and so much more. Our fellows spent just one day lobbying on the hill and already gained five new co-sponsors for the bill.

Lastly, our campaign will focus on activating voters for the 2024 elections. Major decisions are being made to take away our right to vote, to protest, to make decisions for our own bodies, especially at the state and local level. We’re pushing for public conversations and candidates that will enshrine our rights and advance progress toward liberation while also fighting off the emboldened white supremacist right wing.

The truth is that Black people in America desperately want to feel safe in our communities. Policing is the only option for public safety we’ve ever really been offered, so we’ve been taught to think the solution must be more policing. But we’ve tried more policing. Police have massive budgets, act with impunity, are given military equipment, and still we don’t feel any safer. In fact, the threat of the police against the people feels more palpable than it has in years as they attack college students protesting genocide, invest in new military technology to surveil us, and build cop cities across the country to train for urban warfare. That’s why when people are presented with real, viable solutions for public safety that don’t involve policing and instead address the root issues that create unsafe conditions, Black people eagerly support them.

We are building toward a system of public safety that treats us with care and humanity, and we are doing so with a clear mandate from our people. Safety that does not come at the expense of our freedom, our health, or our lives, the kind of true safety found in solutions that meet our needs and prioritize our humanity above all else. This year, we are answering the call from our people; it’s time to make way for a new system of public safety.

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