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US: 14 Recommendations for Fundamental Police Reform

Improve Public Safety by Reducing Policing, Investing in Communities

Police officers wait while people experiencing homelessness collect their belongings during a sweep of their encampment under a San Francisco, California freeway, March 1, 2016. © 2016 Ben Margot/AP

(New York, NY) – Local, state, and federal governments in the United States should move beyond superficial changes and fundamentally rethink public safety by reducing the scope of policing, investing in community services, and ensuring abusive officers are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. A detailed description of the pervasive problems with policing is included in the report, along with “14 Recommendations for Police Reform.”

The 29-page report, “A Roadmap for Reimagining Public Safety in the United States: 14 Recommendations on Policing, Community Investment, and Accountability,” proposes shifting investments from policing to social services, affordable housing, schools, community-based healthcare systems – especially mental health and voluntary drug treatment – and local economic development. Redirecting resources from policing to services that effectively address underlying societal problems, along with establishing effective, independent oversight of police, would limit harms by police and improve public safety.

“Police, whose primary tools are authority and force, are tasked with responding to societal problems that they are not equipped to handle, from homelessness to mental health to poverty,” said John Raphling, senior US criminal legal system researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This inevitably leads to unnecessary violent encounters and harms overall safety, particularly in Black and brown communities.”

Police killings, like those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, are only the most dramatic examples of pervasive police violence across the US, Human Rights Watch said. While police kill about 1,100 people each year, a large disproportion of them Black, they also engage in massive applications of lower-level violence, ranging from dog bites and the use of “less lethal” weapons like tasers to aggressive, harassing, and unnecessary stops and searches, also directed disproportionately at Black people. Local, state, and federal laws and policies allow police departments to investigate their own misconduct and remove or restrict accountability mechanisms that might provide some check on this violence.

Police reform efforts should address racial and economic inequities and other societal problems, some caused by policing itself, to be effective. Poverty in the US – stratified along racial lines – and profound disinvestment in social services and community development have contributed to homelessness, untreated mental health conditions, unemployment, lack of quality schooling, and other issues. They have also contributed to higher crime rates in Black and poor neighborhoods.

Particularly since the “tough on crime” approaches and “war on drugs” of the 1970s, governments at all levels have for decades invested in policing, prosecutions, and prisons as their primary tools, rather than investing in addressing these root problems to improve public safety and quality of life. These approaches have left underlying societal problems unresolved, while creating a system of mass incarceration and heavy policing that have had a devastating and disproportionate impact on Black people.

“Police violence, especially toward Black people, ranging from killings to abusive stops and searches, is a major way that structural racism manifests itself in the US,” Raphling said. “Until governments invest in supporting communities rather than criminalizing and controlling them, that violence will not stop.”

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