Reforming police to curb shootings

This summer’s spike of gun violence is pushing Louisville toward a record year of deadly shootings. Over 100 people have been killed by a gun in 2020, closing in on the city’s record of 117 in 2016, and we’ve still got four months to go.

As though the coronavirus and racial injustice crises aren’t enough to divide our city, the epidemic of gun violence is amplifying tensions and division. What is causing it? 

Gang battles fought by people who find no other way to succeed in a society that pushes them down? Probably, but probably not entirely. The underlying issues are complex and age-old.

But one clear response to the problem should not be adding police to Louisville’s streets or allowing them to militarize, thereby encouraging them to wage war during every call.

As spoken by poet and activist Hannah L. Drake said: “Police don’t prevent crime. They show up after it happens. Crime prevention starts with funding social programs and creating opportunity.”

For the cynical, All Lives and Blue Lives Matter crowds, every shooting is an opportunity to attack calls to “defund the police.” Oh, so now you want the police to show up? See, this is what happens when you treat our heroes like the enemy.

It is true that “defund the police” is a bad slogan to rally around. It is ambiguous, a bumper sticker phrase that allows more nefarious political actors to undermine profound reform of Louisville’s police.

It does not explain that for those who suffer from police harassment and, worse, those who live closer to the gun violence, simply adding police won’t stop the next shooting. Or the next 100 shootings.

As some on the one side of the defund police have said, the violence doesn’t happen until the police show up. Although I hew closer to Drake’s assessment, it is impossible to ignore legitimacy in that claim. 

Here are examples.

There was no violence at YaYa’s BBQ until the Kentucky National Guard showed up, killing David McAtee; there was no violence in an Atlanta Wendy’s parking lot, until the police showed up, killing Rayshard Brooks; there was no violence when Tamir Rice, a child, was playing in a Cleveland park, or when John Crawford was holding a BB gun for sale in Walmart; nor was there any violence in George Floyd’s car, or Breonna Taylor’s home — until police showed up.

And, nobody was shot or killed in Kenosha, Wisconsin this weekend, until the police showed up and shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times, with his children, 3, 5 and 8, in the car.

Police cannot be the solution to gun violence. That is why some say “defund the police.” Yet, nobody means to defund without funding other social health programs — programs that work.

We need more funding for programs such as Cure Violence, launched in 2017, which approaches gun violence as a public health epidemic. It includes violence interrupter programs, proven to prevent some of the violence.

Unfortunately, state pension cuts forced city budget cuts in 2019, and the Metro Council rejected a small insurance tax, so these programs were defunded.

Instead, Mayor Greg Fischer and Metro Council need to bolster these programs. And — it may be snarky to say but — a good place to start would be with the salaries of the police officers responsible for Breonna Taylor’s death.

Defunding the police also means reforming how the police do their job.

Police should not be asked to do the things they’re currently required to do, such as responding to calls involving mental health or homelessness or vagrancy or minor traffic violations. We need to take those responsibilities away from them: Redirect those funds and resources to professional, trained experts in mental health and social work and advocacy for poor people.

And retrain the police so they do not approach every situation, every call or dispatch and every traffic stop as though they were approaching an armed, hostile enemy.

Then, maybe, just maybe, so many people — read: Black people — wouldn’t be shot so often or at all.