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Last summer, George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police alongside too many other slain Americans ignited an overdue international reconsideration of modern policing. Though any bipartisan attempt at police reform seems to have puttered out on Capitol Hill, an impressive effort to rethink when police are really needed — and what of their stacked caseloads could be better handled by alternative responders — has taken root closer to home at the Harvard Kennedy School.
In a refreshing new initiative, HKS’s Government Performance Lab has partnered with five different cities to help implement alternative responses to non-violent 911 calls. Instead of deploying cops in response to non-violent crises, the goal is to connect residents with unarmed emergency responders skilled in areas such as mental health services and substance use treatment when appropriate. It's a welcome admission of the fact that given the heap of issues we task police with addressing (drug abuse, traffic accidents, child endangerment, embezzlement, emergency medical assistance …), many 911 calls might be better resolved by a social worker rather than a gun.
Harvard’s role in the initiative will be that of a well-resourced collaborator: providing cities with technical assistance, creating training curricula for response teams, designing 911 call decision trees, procuring services, and helping to engage the local community. The cities participating in the program — Durham, N.C., Harris County, Texas, Long Beach, Calif., Philadelphia, Pa., and Phoenix, Ariz — were selected from an applicant pool of 60 on the basis of factors like progress towards implementing alternative 911 responses and potential for impact. Some already have alternative 911 response programs in place; others are looking to get theirs off the ground.
We are thrilled to see Harvard affiliates leveraging their resources and influence to pursue meaningful change at the local level. As prone to aspiring towards leadership as us Harvard students are, the Government Performance Lab’s ethos of creating change through assisting local actors is a great reminder that sometimes, the best thing we can do is lend a hand.
The lab’s efforts hit on two monumental public safety issues. One: that police encounters with Black Americans too often escalate needlessly and culminate in death, and at three times the rate of white people. And two: that our country is in the grips of a devastating mental health crisis — one which disproportionately affects our youth and most vulnerable, and which has only gotten worse amid the national precarity and economic inequity magnified by the global pandemic. Too often, the mentally ill end up thrust into the hands of the criminal justice system, in lieu of a robust social safety net, where their outcomes are often grim. With these crises in the air, the lab’s efforts to minimize police contact where it makes sense to is all the better received.
At a broader level, this project also provides an admirable model for how universities can translate their lofty rhetoric on equity and inclusion into action. We hope to see this community-based model used more often across the University, rightfully building on the work of community activists instead of reinventing the wheel.
We’ve previously argued that the Harvard University Police Department uses its private designation to shield itself from scrutiny while functioning, in practice, like any public police force (discrimination included). Campus police forces are an unfortunate and relatively new invention. And, since 95 percent of HUPD’s caseload deals with property crimes, we believe ours could be replaced by a team of unarmed Securitas guards. In light of the unlikelihood of this occurring, we urge Harvard initiatives studying policing to turn their gaze inwards, and to suggest what alternative 911 responses could look like on our campus, where Black homeless men have been subject to excessive police violence for the sin of trespassing in the Smith Campus Center. A 911 call decision tree based in our own campus ecosystem would be excellent.
We applaud HKS for this enterprising initiative, and hope it can help create successful blueprints for unarmed, alternative 911 response teams nationwide.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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