Friday, May 24, 2024

Most Cambridge city councillors are strong supporters of the police department, citing its stated commitment to reform, equity, inclusion and to increasing the diversity of the police force. This support is reflected in the budget, with $65 million in funding this year compared with $3 million for a new planned unarmed-response service. If the goal is reducing police violence, however, this support and the corresponding budgetary priorities are missing a fundamental point.

Police officers are trained to use violence, they follow procedures about when and how to violence and they carry tools such as batons and guns specifically intended to apply violence. Arrests and jail are backed by the threat of violence. We may hope that they will use violence rarely and minimally, but it is a possibility in any interaction involving the police.

Making things worse, whenever police arrive they implicitly introduce the threat of violence. As a result, some people will react badly, for a variety of reasons. I have seen this happen: Someone who was merely having a very bad day until a police officer arrived. He found the police presence extremely stressful, didn’t handle it well and found himself on the precipice of years in prison. Police presence made the situation worse, and therefore much more dangerous.

The potential for police violence can be given a name; let’s call it the violence lottery. The chance of bad outcomes in the violence lottery is driven by two things:

  • The probability of violence in any individual interaction with the police. This is what the council focuses on when members praise the department, when they talk about body cameras and in general when the focus is on the behavior of individual police officers.
  • The sheer number of public interactions with the police. Each additional interaction is another opportunity for things to go wrong.

Unfortunately, the Council has only barely started addressing this second driver, the extent of unnecessary police interactions.

Most tasks handled by the police don’t have violence as a goal: the violence lottery is an unfortunate side effect. Traffic enforcement and responding to crashes do not require a violence lottery. Handling suspicious packages, someone throwing eggs, petty theft, identity fraud, the use of a stolen credit card, downed trees and most of the other entries in the daily police log do not require a violence lottery.

If councillors want to reduce police violence, they must do the hard work of shifting as many tasks as possible away from armed officers. This can be done only with major changes to how the budget is spent. The reduction will not be absolute; we still live in a society in which mass shootings are common, for example. And it doesn’t even have to involve different individuals. Assuming the council is right in its assessment of our police force, many of them would still do well even if the authority and tools for violence were no longer part of their job.

The number of city employees whose job involves violence can and should be far smaller. A violence lottery that invests in equity, inclusion and diversity is still a violence lottery, and will still result in people getting unnecessarily hurt or killed.

Itamar Turner-Trauring, Oxford Street