All people want to feel safe in their homes, communities, and places of work. Historically, we have charged the police with the function of safeguarding public security; but today, American policing is at a difficult crossroads. Longstanding fractured relationships between police and many communities—particularly communities of color—and an overreliance on punitive enforcement, especially for minor transgressions, has resulted in a recurring adversarial dynamic. And the problem is viewed from extremely different, and sometimes conflicted, perspectives.

For some Americans, the roots of policing, in particular the role of police in enforcing laws and policies that criminalized people of color, continue to shape their perceptions and interactions with law enforcement today. Other marginalized and vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, behavioral health disorders, homeless people, LGBTQI people, and immigrants fear and distrust the police. They feel that the police response to their communities has often translated to a sense of feeling over-policed and, yet simultaneously, under-protected. Moreover, recent highly-publicized incidents involving what many regard as inappropriate use-of-force have further eroded public trust in law enforcement.

Others, particularly members of law enforcement, feel that police officers—whose jobs, by nature, put them at risk—do not receive the support they need. Indeed, high-profile killings of police have signaled to many that police are under siege.

Police are asked and expected to respond to a broad range of issues: addressing family disputes, mental health crises, and even blocked driveways. Yet, they often have few, if any, tools available to respond to these needs beyond enforcement, which current organizational practices, professional culture, and other external demands prioritize and even, incentivize. Additionally, many municipalities have become reliant upon enforcement as a revenue source. This further complicates community-police relations and puts pressure on the police to apply enforcement even when these activities may not address the underlying issues or situations to which they are responding and other, less punitive means may be just as effective or even more so.

We believe that many of the challenges currently facing police and communities can be remedied by making American policing less reliant on punitive enforcement. While much of the demand for police activity is driven by service calls from the community, many of our nation’s leading officers know well that the majority of their duties require problem solving and customer service and, along with community members, are hungry for alternatives to enforcement. They know that punitive enforcement is frequently applied in circumstances that do not involve serious crimes:

  • Consistently, over the past several decades, fewer than 5% of arrests were for violent crimes.
  • Over one million arrests are made each year for drug possession alone, about 600,000 of which are for possession of marijuana.
  • And millions of additional tickets, summonses, and stops are issued for other low-level wrongdoings.

This overreliance on enforcement, especially for minor transgressions, has resulted in a recurring adversarial dynamic that fans the flames of deeply rooted acrimony toward police in certain communities already experiencing enduring problems of poverty, high crime rates, and limited access to social services. And damaged police community relations make it more difficult for police to execute their most critical responsibility: to respond to violent crime and protect public safety. In those communities where distrust in police is high, people are less likely to report a crime or offer witness testimony, which impedes effective policing.

In order to encourage policing that is responsive to the needs of communities and does not further alienate them, the culture of policing and the criminal justice system at large must fundamentally shift from one that incentivizes and defaults to enforcement, to one that delivers and rewards public safety through community engagement and satisfaction. Our task is to reimagine the role of police in our communities. Choosing the best path at this crossroads in American policing will require a collaborative effort that includes law enforcement and other justice practitioners, community members, policymakers, and experts.