The Divide: Do we expect too much from law enforcement?

The Divide: Do we expect too much from law enforcement?

A recurring theme has been bouncing around over the past two weeks – Do we expect too much from our police and sheriffs’ departments? Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple brought this up at the Albany Community Policing Advisory Committee’s forum on “The Opioid Epidemic” last week. Author Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, discussed this when speaking about his book The End of Policing at Oakwood Community Center in Troy (see Luke Stoddard Nathan’s recent story in The Alt).

And it continues to come up whenever there is a mass shooting incident, such as the recent tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While there are some differences in these three examples, one item is a constant: the ever-growing divide between the funding needed for social programs to combat issues like addiction and drug overdose deaths and gun violence, and the willingness of our elected officials to provide the necessary funds.

During his presentation before a large group of concerned citizens at the Washington Avenue Branch of the Albany Public Library, Sheriff Apple noted that more than half of Albany County jail’s inmates are there for drug and/or drug-associated crimes. Apple pointed out that officers today are expected to be social workers, mental health professionals, and addiction care case workers. Apple gave an overview of the programs the jail offers to those incarcerated for drug and drug-associated crimes.  He said the most successful program is the Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (SHARP), which was established a few years ago to help heroin addicts lead a clean and healthy life.

Apple further emphasized that the recidivism rate for SHARP participants is only 15 percent, while the overall recidivism rate is around 42 percent. But, while the program has been shown to be successful, getting elected officials to provide the funds to expand the program has been fruitless. Apple also reiterated an oft heard lament, that jails are not mental health facilities and that federal and state government leaders need to spend the money necessary to not only educate the public to the dangers of opioid abuse, but to fund the needed treatment facilities to help those already addicted recover from their addiction. The opioid crisis cannot be solved by “arresting ourselves” out of the problem. Thousands of more in-patient beds and longer stays in recovery facilities are needed if we are going to win this battle, Apple said.

Alex Vitale, as reported by Luke Stoddard Nathan, went even further than Sheriff Apple to explain how police departments are not the answer to curing societal ills. The police can’t build affordable housing, offer jobs, dispense mental health and provide addiction treatment. Yet, communities are relying more and more on local law enforcement agencies to solve these issues. Vitale stated that our current policies have created “horrible poverty” that “then use policing to manage the consequences of their conditions.” In addition to his book, Vitale pointed to a 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy, et al, “Freedom to Thrive – Reimagining Safety & Security in Our Communities” that argues that spending for police far outpaces expenditures for vital community resources.

“Freedom to Thrive” compared public funding for policing and incarceration to that of monies for social safety net programs in twelve jurisdictions. As you guessed, expenditures for law enforcement far outpaced spending on social programs. The report suggests that, “[t]he choice to resource punitive systems instead of stabilizing and nourishing ones does not make communities safer. Instead…a living wage, access to holistic health services and treatment, educational opportunity, and stable housing are far more successful in reducing crime than police or prisons.” The way to change the current funding priorities, according to the report, is for local governments to implement “participatory budgeting.” This is a system where communities decide where they want their tax dollars to go. It consists of four phases: brainstorming ideas; developing proposals; voting on the proposals; and funding the winning projects. The report emphasizes that for participatory budgeting to be truly equitable, it must be centered around the marginalized communities that are disproportionately overrepresented in the criminal justice system.    

The tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, caused me to look back at some of the gun violence-related articles and television newscasts written and aired in the early 2000s about firearm violence in Albany. Many of these stories were reported during the time I had proposed legislation in the Common Council establishing a task force on gun violence for the city of Albany. The legislation, after a few years, did pass and the task force met monthly during the years 2007 and 2008. I also reviewed the final report and recommendations the task force issued in November 2008. What struck me when looking back more than 10 years ago, and what I was reading now about mass shootings, was the familiar theme that firearm-related violence is a societal problem and that law enforcement cannot solve it on its own.

The task force came up with 16 recommendations that included reducing aggressive behavior in schools, hospital-based violence prevention programs, outreach programs to “high-risk” clients, and expanding gang prevention programming. The report also cited the need for strengthening families through social interventions. Many of these recommendations sound very familiar to the solutions being proposed in today’s discussions on how to stop the ever-increasing instances of school shootings. The gun violence task force also noted that recommendations on tracking weapons used in gun crimes and other firearm-related issues cannot be solved on the local level, but are national issues and need to be dealt with by the federal government.

Ten years ago, sounding the theme now being expressed by Sheriff Apple, Alex Vitale, and the “Freedom to Thrive” report, then Albany Police Chief and gun violence task force member James Tuffey said, “We have to look at the bigger issue, which is the societal breakdown…That is bigger than the task force. It is something… the country needs to address.”

Those words are as true today as they were in 2008. We need to look at the issues of opioid addiction and school shootings holistically. We need to stop expecting law enforcement to solve these larger issues. As Sheriff Apple said, it’s well past time for elected officials to stop being “all talk, no funds” and to put the money where their mouths are.

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