Photography lesson

A key lesson from the Harlem police shooting

A vigil for police officers Rivera and Mora (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office)

Mayor Adams’ plan to end gun violence, just released to much fanfare, represents, unfortunately, an old wine program in a new bottle overly dependent on punitive law enforcement tactics. The mayor is seeking to roll back bail reform and criminalize more young people, and will return to our streets the notorious undercover NYPD units responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner, Sean Bell and others. These measures would do nothing to prevent the kind of shocking tragic incident that claimed the lives of police officers Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora.

The main impact of these policies will be an increase in both the arrests of young black and Latino men and the number of New Yorkers locked up in the hellish and inhumane conditions of Rikers Island, all of which needlessly disrupt thousands and thousands of lives, including the families of those arrested and imprisoned. As Brooklyn Assemblyman Phara Souffrant Forrest posted on Twitter, particularly regarding Adams’ proposal to toughen bail policy: “Locking people up because they’re poor doesn’t does not guarantee the safety of our neighborhoods.”

The practice that the shooting of Officers Rivera and Mora should cause our city leaders to reconsider most seriously is the daily routine of sending in police officers to handle domestic disputes. How does it make sense to send a uniformed officer armed with a pistol and a taser to help resolve a dispute between a mother and her adult son, as was the case during the fatal incident in Harlem? Add to the importance of this issue: that officers so assigned can be as young and inexperienced as 22, as Rivera was, and that, for better or worse, but understandably, many New Yorkers in color hate and/or deeply distrust police officers.

Why not send social workers and family counselors instead of police officers, a measure that immediately helps reduce the risk of escalation? While that doesn’t seem to have been the case with Rivera and Mora, we know too many cops view their jobs as an opportunity to use their force to control situations, often making them worse. Why not rely on professionals whose vocation is to relieve people in stressful situations, to use their intelligence and their compassion to defuse situations and offer help, rather than on agents whose training is often focused on the use of force?

It’s likely that if New York City had implemented such a practice, the outcome last Friday night would have been different. At the very least, do we think it’s likely the shooter would have opened his bedroom door and started firing a gun had he known they were two social workers walking through the corridor in his direction? Wouldn’t it be likely that Officers Rivera and Mora are alive today? Isn’t it possible that trained professionals were able to calm Lashawn McNeil, the crazed shooter, and he too would still be alive?

A model for this kind of alternative approach has worked successfully in two Oregon cities, Eugene and Springfield, for decades. Crisis Assistance Helping Out on The Streets, aka CAHOOTS, has teams made up primarily of paramedics and mental health professionals trained in conflict resolution who deal with, among other things, mental health emergencies and domestic disputes. Launched in the late 1980s, CAHOOTS has received more public funding over the years due to its effectiveness – by 2017 it had grown significantly and now responds to over 20% of all emergency calls to Eugene.

Larger and more diverse US cities have successfully adopted the CAHOOTS model. Austin’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (MCOT) and Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) are two programs, for example, that have recently replicated the Oregon model. New York City policymakers should follow suit and establish an emergency response system that replaces police officers with trained social workers and other medical professionals. Our great city needs an approach that saves lives.

Robert Gangi is the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, or PROP. On Twitter @GangiFromProp.

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