The tension between marginalized communities and law enforcement officers has existed since the establishment of police forces. We acknowledge that the systematically racist and white supremacist issues regarding police forces are complex and therefore can’t be tackled all at once. The essay excerpt below focuses on restorative practices within the current criminal legal system, based on research and interview conclusions from the Alliance’s internship on Law Enforcement and the Justice System, rather than the exploration of defunding the police.
If asked what police do, the general public will probably respond that they believe police officers spend their days fighting, stopping, preventing, and solving crime. However, this is not actually the case. Rather, “police sociologists report that only about 10% of the average police officer’s time is devoted to criminal matters of any kind.” Most of their time is spent dealing with “infractions of various administrative codes and regulations: all those rules about how and where one can eat, drink, smoke, sell, sit, walk, and drive.” Therefore David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, calls police officers bureaucrats with weapons. Rather than fight crime, they often bring physical force and fear into communities, particularly communities of color as well as other vulnerable and marginalized groups (i.e. LGBTQIA+ and Indigenous folks). Therefore we must first dismantle the myth that police are there for safety and question who and what they are keeping safe, namely white folks and white property.
After unpacking the myth that only with the presence of police can we remain safe, we must ask ourselves, how can we ensure safety in our neighborhoods? We believe that keeping a community safe is not and should not be the responsibility of the police, as it has been historically; rather, it requires the collaboration and teamwork of citizens. In order to effectively do so, individuals within a community need open, consistent, and honest communication with one another. We often have no hesitation to call the police on neighbors or other folks in our areas if we witness what we believe to be an unlawful activity. It is easier to pass off alleged law offenders to police rather than sitting down with them to keep them accountable and communicate and/or reiterate shared, community guidelines and expectations.
Establishing community relations with one another requires communication. Communication is difficult if there are no sorts of structures in place that allow community members to express their expectations and hold one another accountable for community violations. Therefore we propose the model of restorative justice, as we strongly and deeply believe that community safety can be manifested through it. The Centre for Justice and Reconciliation defines restorative justice as, “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior” that involves the participation of all stakeholders in a cooperative process that can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities. As Laura Mirsky, then Advancement & Relations Manager at the International Institute for Restorative Practices, explained that the goal of restorative justice is to show offenders that actions have personal consequences and hopefully to send the offender back into society with a different perspective and as a better citizen. Without restorative justice, Mirsky points out that the conflict is taken away from the community and given to the state. But with restorative justice, everyone who’s been affected by a negative action can gather and do something together to solve it as a unified group.
For instance, restorative justice was able to change the lives of six young boys who were between the ages of 10 and 13 years old. On a dare, these boys broke into a giant chemical processing plant but were caught. Rather than simply being put into the criminal legal system, these boys each had the chance to “face the consequences of their choices, to discuss the ways they would do things differently in the future, and to share anything from their home or personal lives that might have influenced their decision to break into the plant that night.” As a facilitator, Longmont Community Justice Partnership met with the boys, representatives from the boys’ families, and those from the chemical plant to create contracts for restitution. This restitution took form as one hundred hours of sweat equity in the same plant the group broke into, plus alcohol awareness classes and an agreement to write a story about what they’d learned for the local newspaper. Unlike traditional punishments and consequences, restorative justice requires offenders to take personal responsibility and accountability for their actions.
So often we have found ourselves wondering time and time again, how to reform, better educate, and change the police system. However, we think there is great hope and substantial evidence that restorative justice will limit if not entirely erase the need for police, keep folks personally accountable for their everyday actions, and have them feel supported by their communities. Restorative practices have often been criticized as being too “soft” and “easy going” for law offenders; however, folks who actually practice it will express how much more difficult, yet rewarding, working with your own community members actually is. Therefore we encourage readers to take the time to reflect and dream of a better future without the need for police, a future that is replaced with neighbors and common folks who can make their communities safe, independent, and collaborative.
Emily Kim is a recent graduate of Lafayette College where she studied Government & Law and Anthropology & Sociology to prepare her for a career committed to social justice advocacy. The above essay is drawn from a report she created as part of her Law Enforcement and the Justice System internship with Alliance in the summer of 2017.