George on Georgia – What Next May Come
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I got tear-gassed a week or so ago. Lightly. More of a glaze than the full soup, really.
Somehow, I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t see any of this coming. If you had told me a year ago that on a Saturday night in May, I would find myself dodging Roman candles while chasing a window-smashing mob up Williams Street with the cops behind me …
Donald Trump is president. Surely no catastrophe is beyond conception now.
Still. Here we are. We remain in the streets amid a pandemic, economic collapse, trade wars and political division unseen since the ‘60s, if not the Civil War. But the glass has been swept up and the National Guard no longer makes downtown Atlanta’s Fairlie-Poplar district look like occupied France.
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That’s the question, isn’t it? What good is done by raging and marching and breaking windows and looting shops and accepting the breaking of windows and looting of shops and confronting cops and soldiers in riot gear and in return surrendering our public honor and respect for democracy in a cloud of indiscriminate pepper spray by arresting journalists and maiming and killing blameless men and women in the street now while risking the deaths of countless more in the predictable expansion of the pandemic? What are these sacrifices worth if nothing of lasting value follows?
Our losses obligate us to find answers. And with that obligation comes a rare moment of political possibility. We can get things done now that wouldn’t have been possible before … all of this … because people are paying attention.
You may be surprised to know that there’s a general consensus in political circles on the left and the right about the need for reform in the criminal justice system. Change has come slowly because it’s too easy for an inattentive public to get snowed by a demagogue who can run a 30-second ad calling someone soft on crime. Even now, folks who make their money by scaring white people are distorting what they can.
It doesn’t help that the left makes it easy.
The political language of “defund the police” is inept. It’s too easy for ideologues to tell people that it means the same thing as “abolish the police.” We are hearing abolish the police in the street. Even now that’s a bridge too far for most Americans.
But when you tell them that you want to shift funding away from uniformed police response and toward mental health treatment or drug rehabilitation, it starts to make more sense. I tell people all the time that crime is near a 50-year-low. Most of the time if they didn’t already know that, they don’t believe me. But they’ll hear it now.
Changing the funding mix on public safety is an entirely noncontroversial idea. The ideas people are talking about are bipartisan — even Republican — ideas.
Take ending civil asset forfeiture as a funding mechanism for police activity, for example. Cops have a financial incentive to target arrests at people who may lose property. The law allows police to keep that property even if no crime was proven. Georgia law enforcement seizes about $27 million a year in assets. It’s insane. The loudest calls for ending it have come from the libertarian right.
Most police — particularly big-city police — spend half of their time managing mental health calls about people with serious, persistent mental illnesses. It is universally understood that the cops are not appropriately equipped or trained to handle street-level schizophrenia. It’s a medical issue. But we pay social workers next to nothing and have limited recovery options to get people off the street.
You can buy a police car for $150,000, or you can cover the cost of 10 permanently supportive housing units, with social services, for a year. Honestly, most street cops I know would take the latter option, because it saves departmental man-hours in the long run, and the mental health calls are brutal on police morale.
Same thing for drug problems. Cops arrest the same people, over and over again, because there aren’t enough free drug rehab programs with convalescent housing attached to them that an indigent street addict can access. Thus, our jails are filled with low-level offenders, mostly with drug and mental health problems.
About a quarter of prisoners in DeKalb’s jail have a serious and persistent mental illness. DeKalb spends about $2.1 million a year on mental health services through its community service board outside of the jail and about $3.7 million a year to MHM Services for mental health services in the jail. The CSB asked for another million this year. They didn’t get it.
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In every county in metro Atlanta, the jail is the largest provider of mental health treatment services and jails are the wrong places to provide treatment.
Every sheriff in Georgia, black or white, liberal or conservative, will tell you the same thing. They will wax poetically about it, I promise you. The sheer amount of time sheriff’s deputies have to spend just transporting detainees with mental health problems for treatment — the law requires deputies to do this, I note — presents a massive financial cost.
We say these are intractable problems because the solutions are expensive. “Defund the Police!” means look at police budgets for funding. Crime is actually pretty low. The kinds of crimes cops should be focused on in a period of historically-low violence — financial crimes and fraud — aren’t solved with armored personnel carriers and SWAT teams. If there’s a time to try to shift spending, this is it.
It’s not the job of the people in the street to come up with palatable language for reforms. Their role is to show elected officials that politicians won’t get smoked by a slick-talking con artist on Election Day after doing the right thing.
George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate.
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