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Alfonse D'Amato

Reform policing, don’t trash it


There’s an old saying (with many variations): “Beware what you wish for, because you might just get it.” That fits the current rush to judgment against police forces across America.

Calls to reform the police have been replaced by demands to “defund” or even “abolish” the police by the most radical political elements. In Seattle, that’s led to the outrageous abdication of responsibility by elected state and local officials, who cowered before a mob that took over a whole city neighborhood.

The occupiers of the city’s Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone stormed a local police headquarters and forcibly expelled the officers stationed there. They set up barricades and have established their own tumultuous version of an open society. no cops, no discernible rules of behavior.

The result: a spiraling decline into lawlessness and disorder. Armed thugs roam the zone, dispensing their own version of justice. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, this has inevitably led to late-night shooting, and at least one death. But Seattle’s mayor and Washington’s governor have sat on their hands, making apologies for the mob.

No one should make excuses for bad cops or accept criminal behavior from those sworn to protect us. Police forces do need to reform, to be much better trained, to opt for de-escalation rather than confrontation. Bad cops should be weeded out and expelled from their forces. Police must win the trust of communities they serve, not see themselves as occupying forces, especially in communities of color.

But just imagine what will happen if police withdraw from patrolling high-crime neighborhoods. Think crime will magically go down? Think the killing will stop? Think again, because the summer killing season has already entered full swing in a number of America’s cities.

In Minneapolis, where the tragic death of George Floyd sparked a national awakening to the need to stop inexcusable police violence, recent murders of young black men have brought the tragedy full circle. But most of these murders weren’t committed by police. They were committed by criminals.

In Chicago, the death toll has been staggering. More than 250 people have been murdered so far this year. At the current death rate, Chicago could exceed last year’s 510 murders.

Recently the New York City Police Department unilaterally declared a withdrawal from undercover policing aimed at the most violent drug gangs. The law-abiding citizens of areas where those thugs roam can only hide — they can’t run from their neighborhoods. Unlike New York’s wealthy, who can and will abandon the city for safer environs if the level of crime returns to that of the bad old days, those who live in its poorest neighborhoods will be trapped amid the violence and death. They’ll absorb the brunt of the drive-by shootings, the stray bullets, the revenge killings.

We may forget that at the height of the last crime wave, New York was terrorized by a high of over 2,600 murders in a single year. Last year there were just over 300 murders. That’s 2,300 fewer dead, fewer funerals, fewer grieving parents, widows and orphans.

Good policing had a lot to do with that dramatic drop in deaths. Constructive police engagement in communities plagued by high crime helped reduce the death toll. That’s why it’s all the more damnable that a few terrible cops have defamed the reputation of their police brothers and sisters, and damaged relationships between police and minority communities.

This damage must be repaired. Our police forces must not retreat from our most vulnerable communities. They must not lose heart or commitment to the tough work they signed up for. We need to offer more, not less, support for better law enforcement, especially to encourage positive community engagement.

If that means creating specialized teams of social workers, medics, mental health professionals and others to help police respond to the calls they get, so be it. So many 911 calls today are domestic-abuse calls, child-abuse calls, drug- and alcohol-abuse calls. They require more than law enforcement intervention. They require all the skills the public sector and the community can muster.

I certainly get it that policing needs to change and grow to serve our modern and all too often dysfunctional society. We should look at policing with eyes wide open. Let’s figure out what works and follow it. Let’s make public safety a No. 1 priority. 

Let’s not throw in the towel on better policing, safer communities and fewer deaths, especially in our minority communities, which suffer the worst from criminal violence. Because black lives matter. Every single one.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.