The death of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked protests in cities across the United States and pressure to “defund” the police. But many public officials and reformers oppose reducing the number of officers or police resourcing. Rather than view police funding as a monolith, a new report by Stanford Law School faculty and students proposes disaggregating the jobs police perform and spinning off particular functions to other agencies. The report, “Safety Beyond Policing: Promoting Care Over Criminalization,” shows that questions around policing, and expanding the presence of police officers into sensitive areas such as schools and mental health interventions, have been with us for decades—with promising alternatives tested in locations around the country.
Students in the policy practicum Selective De-Policing: Operationalizing Concrete Reforms, aided by a unique partnership with the African American Mayors Association (AAMA), began their research in September 2020. Their report, published in April, details some of the most successful attempts at “selective de-policing” and offers recommendations for alternatives to armed police interventions that have shown encouraging results—both in terms of public safety and savings for city budgets. The practicum was co-taught by Stanford Law professors Ralph Richard Banks, (BA ’87/MA ’87), Robert Weisberg, JD ’79, David A. Sklansky, and Debbie Mukamal, Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC) executive director. The report was presented to members of the AAMA and has been shared with local governments and law enforcement agencies in California.
“The idea behind the practicum was to put aside, for the moment, the question of the best overall level of policing, and instead to ask whether there are particular responsibilities that police departments have taken on over time but that might be better handled by other agencies,” says Sklansky, Stanley Morrison Professor of Law and SCJC faculty co-director, who was a federal prosecutor early in his career. “The continuing toll of violence at traffic stops, including the tragic killing of Daunte Wright in Minnesota, underscores the importance of the fundamental questions addressed in this report—questions about what roles the police should be asked to take on in the first place.”
“The students’ work shows that we have asked police to do too much. Paradoxically, the way to improve the work that police do is to ask them to do less—and to engage with experts who are better able to address key issues,” says Banks, Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law and founding faculty director of the Stanford Center for Racial Justice (SCRJ). “These are not new issues but ones that have been with us for a long time. They have assumed heightened salience in the last year, and the work we’ve done in this policy lab is one way to offer ideas to address long-standing issues that we need to address.”
“The notion that civilian leaders, that is to say non-police, including the mayors, want to drastically reduce the presence of police in their local government functions is simply not true,” says Weisberg, Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law, associate dean for curriculum and SCJC faculty co-director. The objective now, he says, is to surface the report’s findings that show that certain changes will not only improve the city’s response to vulnerable communities, but also enhance public safety by freeing up police officers to do certain things they really need to do. “These changes can also create better trust of government and of the police among residents.”
The 12 students enrolled in the practicum examined alternatives to traditional police enforcement in three areas that have been flashpoints in recent encounters between police and racially diverse localities, sometimes with deadly consequences: responses to people in mental health crisis and interactions with unhoused populations, traffic enforcement, and school safety.
Through the AAMA partnership, the practicum team gained access to public officials in cities across the country that ranged in size from Holly Hill, South Carolina, with just over 1,000 residents, to Houston, with 2.3 million. Students spoke with officials who have implemented reforms designed to replace police with civilians trained in key areas such as social work and mental health. In addition to interviews with AAMA mayors and staff, including police officers, they conducted 22 interviews with academics, nonprofit leaders, politicians, agency staff, civil service workers, and a local judge.
Key findings and concrete steps recommended in the report have been found to save money and improve public welfare by moving particular jobs to providers other than police officers.
Despite the polarized response to calls to “defund the police,” a number of communities are exploring solutions that cannot be pigeonholed simply as “more police” or “fewer police,” but focus instead on what the police are asked to do.
“Innovative alternatives to traditional policing are happening right now, and those cities that are trying alternatives are experiencing tremendous cost savings. These reforms are feasible,” says Michelle Portillo, JD ’21, who researched mental health and unhoused population contact with police and alternatives using mental health professionals as first responders.
The report points out that over the past six years, mental health emergencies constituted 10 percent of all 911 calls nationwide, but 25 percent of police-involved shooting deaths. “This makes sense because police are often ill-equipped to provide the help needed by someone in a mental health crisis, and first response by police risks escalation into violence,” Portillo says, noting that the team believes replacing police as the default response with first-responder professional teams will lead to fewer interactions with the police and therefore will likely result in fewer police-involved shootings.
Portillo and her colleagues also discovered that many cities spend millions of dollars on ambulance interventions for people who are unhoused or suffering from mental illness. One program they researched, Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS), started in Eugene, Oregon, in 1989, dispatches teams of unarmed mental health counselors to respond to nonviolent mental health crises, allowing the police to focus on public safety issues. The city estimates that CAHOOTS saves it $8.5 million annually in public safety spending and $14 million for ambulance and emergency room treatment. The program has been replicated across the country.
“Some police are excited about this and would like to redirect their work to those who are most dangerous. They have limited resources and expertise in this area,” says Portillo.
Race, a Common Thread
The three areas focused on in the study share the common thread of racial disparity. “Study after study shows that Black Americans in particular are, in relation to whites, stopped or arrested disproportionately in relation to population and demonstrable crime rate; more likely to be searched; and more likely to be subjected to police force, including deadly force, across a variety of jurisdictions,” the authors write in the report.
Traffic enforcement, with broad legal authority given to police to stop drivers for even minor infractions, has been shown to be a pressure point for police escalation. Statistics—including one in the report that notes nearly half of police stops were of Black drivers—expose the challenges of racial profiling, or what has become known as “driving while Black.”
“The law is such that it’s very hard not to do something while driving that might be cause for a cop to legally stop you,” says Weisberg. “And this can get leveraged into something else.”
The report points to a program recently approved in Berkeley, California, aimed at limiting routine traffic stops by its police department and reassigning traffic enforcement to unarmed civil employees. By limiting opportunities for police stops, the hope is to reduce the risk of escalations too.
The report also points to racial disparities in school safety, with armed police disproportionately present on majority-Black campuses—and Black students three times more likely than their White peers to attend schools with security staff outnumbering mental health professionals. Today, 45 percent of American public schools hire police at a total cost of more than half a billion dollars each year. Over a five-year period, police arrested more than 30,000 children ages 9 and younger. Among the report’s recommendations is to replace police officers with social workers, civilian safety officers who are trained to intervene in and de-escalate conflicts among students. Schenectady City School District in New York implemented such a program and has seen a 40 percent reduction in altercations at their schools.
Concrete Proposals for Change
The report offers concrete examples and proposals—such as adopting more permissive ordinances for homelessness, sending crisis counselors instead of police to mental health emergencies, and implementing less punitive restorative justice practices in schools—that can help local jurisdictions address public health concerns while freeing up valuable law enforcement resources. The policy practicum team plans to present its findings to California lawmakers in the coming months, and, while optimistic, they are clear-eyed.
“The biggest obstacle is institutional inertia and a long-standing pattern of just throwing problems at the police when we don’t have anyone else to deal with them,” says Sklansky.
“How we address mental health issues and our homeless communities raises complicated public policy issues that only become the work of law enforcement because we don’t have other infrastructures in place,” adds Banks. “The report will hopefully prompt people to think of non-law-enforcement alternatives to address some of these challenges.” SL