How Police Reform Can Improve the Plight of the Poor

Imagine cops helping victims of poverty just like they do victims of crime.

Imagine walking into a police station for help as a victim of crime and also getting help as a victim of poverty. Think how policing would change if, under the same roof, assistance were available for the problems of hunger, housing, health, addiction, and joblessness.

This sounds like pure fantasy, especially as unjustified police shootings continue, the country erupts in protests, and white supremacists threaten Black Lives Matter demonstrators with violence that turns deadly. In many Black neighborhoods, the police are seen as the enemy—just another gang, as some residents have said.

But the constructive reform of policing need not be lost in the fog of fury. It needs to be kept as a focused goal whose achievement will take unprecedented cooperation among community activists and law enforcement, including police leadership and officers in the ranks.

The problem has two parts. One is the use of force by cops who are scared or bigoted or poorly trained or all of the above. A great deal of study and thinking has gone into that issue, and lots of sound policies have been proposed, though too rarely adopted, in scattered jurisdictions among the nation’s 18,000 police departments.

The other part has been mostly neglected, however: the clustering of diverse services so that officers can be relieved of onerous tasks for which they have no expertise. It’s a good bet that you won’t be able to find a police officer who loves being called to a “domestic dispute,” where parachuting into a home without context can mean encountering unpredictable, split-second dangers. Nor do cops relish dealing with people suffering from mental illness, who account for a large number of encounters. In short, police are confronted by issues they cannot address, and need tools and training they do not have.

The solutions cannot be reduced to bumper-sticker slogans such as “Defund the Police.” If that implies abolishing the police, it’s a ridiculous prescription for vigilantism in neighborhoods where lawlessness would reign. On the other hand, if it means shifting some funds from policing to social services, it makes sense, especially if that assistance is readily available, and cops can refer people easily.

Police officers interact with many citizens who are in or near poverty, whether to arrest them or protect them. Poverty, for its part, is a constellation of problems that span a universe of hardships that require holistic measures. As some police departments have learned, addressing housing and other factors in the lives of those arrested for drugs, for example, can reduce recidivism. The LEAD (Law Enforcement Assistance Diversion) program, which began in Seattle, enables officers to send low-level drug and prostitution defendants into a web of services, including mental health, housing and drug treatment, instead of the normal criminal justice system. Participants are 58 percent less likely to be rearrested, according to the LEAD National Support Bureau, which is a project of the Public Defenders Association.

LEAD participants in Seattle improved their lives dramatically from before their enrollment, a 2016 evaluation found. They were “89 percent more likely to obtain permanent housing . . . 46 percent more likely to be on the employment continuum (i.e., in vocational training, employed in the legitimate market, retired),” and “33 percent more likely to have income/benefits.” Nearly fifty jurisdictions are either operating or launching the program, a good start but a tiny fraction of what’s necessary.

Americans in or near poverty who present themselves to an agency for one particular problem—at a food bank, say—invariably struggle under a broad burden of other issues. The chain reactions among them are much more extensive than popularly understood. Poor housing, for instance, is a key link to illness, especially childhood asthma, which is higher among families in poverty. Roaches, mold, and dust mites can trigger asthma attacks, which result in kids missing school and parents missing work to take them for treatment. Doctors at the pediatrics department of the Boston Medical Center learned years ago that the treatment was practically futile when the children went back to homes full of antigens, so they began to enlist lawyers to press landlords to improve conditions. The idea has caught on, and now 442 medical-legal partnerships exist in 48 states and the District of Columbia.

Some nonprofits have also established one-stop shopping for multiple services. Bread for the City in Washington, DC, began as a food pantry, established an intake procedure to identify families’ other problems, then added a medical clinic, job readiness instruction, and legal services to help people with housing, immigration, and access to government benefits.

There is a critical need across the country for such gateways through which people can pass into assistance for a range of their hardships. We already have institutions that could be gateways—in normal, Covid-free times. Schools, for example. Teachers see problems such as hunger and poor health but don’t have the tools to help families address them. So schools, with proper funding, would be natural places for counselors and others who could give assistance. Also, public and affordable housing projects, where problems of poverty are legion. Probation offices, where those convicted of crimes are required to make scheduled appearances. And, of course, police departments, which see citizens who are down and out for arrays of reasons that cannot be ignored without consequences for the entire society.

Windows of opportunity open briefly. This is one. It goes without saying that America ought to be great enough to translate the anger, the hurt, the protest into practical reforms.

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David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of seven books, including A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report.