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Reimagining Public Safety

Reimagining Public Safety

Uvalde has made it horrifically clear that policing in its current form just isn’t working.

“Police are violence workers,” sociologist Alex Vitale says in a powerful episode of Code Switch. “That’s what distinguishes them from other kinds of government interventions. Once we have that analysis, we should understand that policing should be the tool of absolute last resort. If we can’t figure out any other way to resolve a problem, then we have policing as it exists now.”

Vitale proposes shifting responses to school shootings away from the criminal legal system toward an early warning system run by school counselors, administrators, teachers, and community leaders (you know — people who aren’t meeting the kids for the first and last time). Given that there is zero evidence that more guns in schools make kids safer, this is a logical and necessary shift in resources. Such a community safety program would prevent brutal and unnecessary acts against marginalized children and teens, such as Shakara, a 16-year-old Black teen in South Carolina who was violently [violently] arrested during class for refusing to hand over her cell phone, an adolescent offense that would land any White teen in the Breakfast Club, not as the subject of a viral video for being body slammed.

“That child was in crisis,” Vitale says. “That child had recently lost a parent and was unable to focus on school for obvious reasons. Instead of linking that student to counseling services, mentoring, giving them space to deal with their grief, their behavior was interpreted as aggressive defiance, a disruption of the classroom, and was immediately criminalized with violence.”

The idea that more guns will solve the problems of a gun-violent culture is ludicrous. After the Parkland massacre, teachers around the country armed themselves and increased the rate of accidental shootings in schools. One teacher in California injured three students after firing a gun at the ceiling during a gun safety demonstration (yes, you read that correctly).

“[Decades of] Research shows that school policing is not effective as protecting students,” Vitale continues. “Policing criminalizes youthful behavior that is deemed disorderly, disruptive, things that historically would have been dealt with as disciplinary issues.”

As horrific as these shootings are, they belie the fact that they are extremely rare. School children have a one and 10 million chance of dying in a school shooting. These mass tragedies create panic and rationale to increase funding for a dysfunctional police presence.

The conservative politicalization of school shootings makes crazy ideas seemingly reasonable, like if there was only one door that would prevent attackers from entering the building. The party of supposed freedom is fine with placing children in a quasi-prison with bullet-proof glass and daily shooter drills. Republican legislators are calling for billions to execute these stupid plans against long-term, community-first initiatives that actually curb gun violence.

Patton Oswalt nicely summarized the Republican response to Uvalde:

Vitale shares two alternatives to this deeply misguided over-reliance on policing in schools:

  • Advance Peace model: Expand counseling networks by hiring former gang members or survivors of incarceration to mentor at-risk youth and encourage more pro-social behavior. Youth receive financial incentives for participating. Two studies in Sacramento and Richmond found that gun homicides decreased from 20 to 45% between four and seven years that the program was funded.

“We need to get police out of the drug business, out of the mental health crisis response business, out of schools, out of homeless outreach, out of sex work, out of gang suppression, and put in place interventions that try to lift people up, try to repair communities, try to create greater solidarity in our society,” Vitale says. “We want to build a whole new infrastructure of public safety that’s not rooted in violence and racism”

— AMEN —

Listen to the complete episode from NPR’s Code Switch here. It’s called Rethinking ‘safety’ in the wake of Uvalde



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