What it means is something like restructuring, reorganizing, even reconstructing. Clearly, deep change is needed. Any time an individual believes he can, with impunity, murder another while cell phone cameras record an agonizing strangulation, it’s clear that person and the organization he represents are out of control. That’s what happened on May 25th of this year when Derek Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police held his knee on the neck of a prone George Floyd until he died lying in the grit of a city street. Bystanders repeatedly beseeched Chauvin to stop. Chauvin, hand-in-pocket, looked directly at them. Unmoved he continued his murderous pursuit until George Floyd died a cruel and senseless death.
Now, we’ve seen. Now, we know. And now, after weeks of protests spanning the country and, indeed, the globe in the midst of the chaos already brought by an unprecedented pandemic, we’re called upon to act. Turning “police departments” into broad-based “departments of public safety,” staffed not only by law enforcement but also medical, mental health, and social work personnel makes sense.
Less than a month after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Rayshard Brooks fell asleep in his car in the drive-through lane of a Wendy’s. After an initial encounter during which both Brooks and the officers sent to check on him spoke calmly, they attempted to handcuff him and, when he ran away, shot him dead. Had unarmed medical or mental health personnel, not police, been sent to the scene, Brooks would likely be alive today. We need a broader view of what constitutes public safety.
This will become even more important as we struggle through the pandemic and its aftermath.. The medical and mental health effects of prolonged isolation, job loss, economic devastation, and as yet unknown health issues to be experienced by coronavirus survivors will demand a multi-faceted response to public health and safety far beyond what a traditional police response can provide. Leadership for this will have to come from local governments. Perhaps this will be the proverbial silver lining.