Exploring Alternatives to Policing with Robert Weisberg and Michelle Portillo
Professor Robert Weisberg and Michelle Portillo, JD ’21

Are America’s police stretched too thin, too often called in to situations that they are ill prepared to deal with? That is one of the most provocative questions that has arisen in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and one that has divided scholars and politicians alike. It raises issues about the consequences of and alternatives to policing, as well as the appropriate reach of the criminal justice system. A Stanford Law School Policy Lab recently tackled this dilemma, and Robert Weisberg, the Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, along with Michelle Portillo, JD ’21, discussed their findings on SLS’s Sirius radio program with co-hosts Joseph Bankman, the Ralph M. Parsons Professor of Law and Business, and Richard Ford, the George E. Osborne Professor of Law.

Rich Ford: Are the police doing too much?

Robert Weisberg: Yes. The national conversation has included strong calls for what might be described as a radical defunding. But much of the conversation has really turned to the issue of getting the police to do less.

Police carry with them the imagery of the military, and they sow a kind of distrust in not only the police, but in government generally, by being present where they perhaps don’t need to be. Also, much of the violence that occurs in encounters between civilians and the police occurs because the police are present. Even if the civilian is technically at fault, if the police hadn’t been there, the situation might never have escalated.

Joe Bankman: A lot of what the police do is help us deal with the mentally ill, and people who are acting in a disordered way. What are the alternatives to having the police there?

Michelle Portillo: About 10 percent of all 911 calls relate to mental health emergencies. And these calls are accounting for about a quarter of all police fatal shootings. This is tragic and completely unnecessary.

The police officers we spoke with suggest redirecting these calls through 911 dispatch to a mental health first responder who has keen insight and professional experience helping individuals experiencing psychological distress. This would be much more appropriate and could de-escalate a situation that would otherwise be escalated by a police officer in uniform.

JB: Is it safe for social workers and mental health professionals, instead of police with guns, to respond in these situations?

MP: Mental health responders are already in existence, and one program has operated for over 30 years. Their records show that it’s actually quite rare for these individuals to be armed. And they have partnered with the police and fire departments so that they can call on them when those instances arise. It’s a misconception to think that these people are dangerous.

RF: Another issue you address is police responding to problems involving homeless populations. What did you discover in that area?

RW: A major part of the problem with the homeless is that there are arguably gratuitous—some would say unconstitutional—criminal laws that are unique to that situation. Many of us know the tragic history of loitering laws and their unfair application. Many were held unconstitutional, but there are still a lot of criminal laws out there that look like loitering laws, which provide a reason—you might say an excuse—for the police to come in and say, “We’re enforcing the criminal laws.”

JB: My sense is that these sweeps of the homeless are often caused by people saying, “We want our neighborhood back.” Who do you send in to give them their neighborhood back? Or do you just tell them we can’t do it? Who is the substitute for the cop?

MP: Government-provided temporary housing is one option. We found that individuals just want to build community, but they don’t want the regulations that come with a lot of government programs, like strict curfews. The services that the unhoused community was most responsive to were those projects that elevated their autonomy. We need to enhance those services.

RW: These are political issues, and maybe we should leave it to the real world of politics to work them out. It’s politically plausible—if difficult—to tell the people who are complaining about what they might call the nuisance overflow from an unhoused population, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any authority to do what you want us to do.” Or conversely, “You’re not stating a right or a cause of action that we have any responsibility to act on.”

RF: What about traffic stops?

RW: There’s much that could be done in terms of traffic enforcement that doesn’t require the police. There are things that civilian officers can do, and we all know about technical regulatory methods, like red light cameras and license plate readers. The thing about traffic stops is that they can become quite volatile, both parties get quite scared. Also, they are an opportunity for the police to run information on the driver and discover the driver’s whole criminal history, which creates a very scary incentive to stop more people in order to enjoy the gratuitous opportunity to bust them for other things. And police departments are making money off the fees and fines that they collect.

JB: What about the racial impact of policing?

MP: Unfortunately, it has become very apparent that there are inherent racist problems permeating our society. And, as a result, we need to re-envision what the police do and how they serve our society in a way that equalizes all of us—that makes all of us, no matter the color of our skin, or our background, feel safe and secure and protected by police officers. That is not currently happening. But what we do see throughout the United States—from Denver, to Eugene, Oregon, to Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—are programs that are implementing alternatives to traditional policing and that are a message of hope. There are solutions, and there are ways to turn these things around.

This Q&A was edited from an interview for Stanford Legal on SiriusXM.