Could This Bill Be a First Step Toward Taking the Police Out of Policing?

Friday, June 5, 2020

By Anthony Pignataro for LA Magazine

If you’ve been to a protest march in practically any city in the U.S. over the past few days, and it’s likely you’ve seen or heard the slogan “Abolish the Police.” Though mainstream news sources are treating it like a sudden cause du jour, the police abolition movement (and the prison abolition movement, which is closely linked) dates back many years.

Despite a decade’s worth of police reforms across the country, law enforcement agencies have grown even more militarized and have continued to cause harm in communities of color. In fact, in many cities this past week, the police response to largely peaceful protests in response to the killing of George Floyd has itself helped promote the idea that cities are overinvesting in their police forces. Now, a bill that might start the work of making police abolition a reality is steadily moving through the California Legislature. In fact, it passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, June 3.

To be fair, the word “abolish” doesn’t appear anywhere in AB 2054, which is popularly known as the Community Response Initiative to Strengthen Emergency Systems (CRISES) Act. In fact, Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the bill in January, doesn’t see the bill as seeking to “abolish the police,” an aide said. Instead, Kamlager sees the bill as “a positive means to empower community groups that have shown that they can protect their communities.”

Of course, “abolish the police” doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all law enforcement officers everywhere. It could mean exactly what AB 2054 lays out: help people, especially people who’ve been harmed by law enforcement, find other help and assistance in times of crisis besides uniformed law enforcement officers.

“We must work to support the health and safety of our most vulnerable Californians,” Kamlager said, according to a May 12 Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization staff report. “And we must rely on the knowledge, skills, credibility, and trusted relationships that community organizations have and can deploy to keep people safe in these critical situations.”

To do this, the CRISES Act directs the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to administer $16 million in grants to community organizations in at least ten counties over the next three years. “The complexities of emergency issues surrounding crises in mental health, intimate partner violence, community violence, substance abuse, and natural disasters can, at times, be addressed more safely, with greater impact, and more cost-effectively and efficiently with community organizations, which often have deeper knowledge and understanding of the issues, trusted relationships with the people and communities involved, and specific knowledge and relationships surrounding the emergency,” the bill states.

According to Kamlager, this will “de-escalate crises, reduce reactive violence, and send vital services to people who have a tougher time accessing critically needed emergency services.” She sees the act as a way “to fill the void that exists in emergency response services for vulnerable populations so that young people of color, people with disabilities, people who are gender nonconforming, people who are likely to face disproportionate police contact, people who are formerly incarcerated, people with immigration status issues, and people who are unhoused or homeless can have ready access to quality emergency services from trained professionals that ensure safety, are culturally appropriate and relationship-centered.”

A number of statistics suggest that limiting interactions between people of color and police would be a very good thing. Latinx people make up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, but were 16 percent of killings by law enforcement in 2016, according to PBS Newshour. They also made up 23 percent of police searches and 30 percent of arrests. Black people, who are also about 13 percent of the U.S. population, were 24 percent of those killed by law enforcement in 2019, according to the group Mapping Police Violence.

Additionally, at least 139 people with mental illness were killed by police in the U.S. in 2018. That comes out to about one in four people shot by law enforcement, according to Assemblymember Kamlager’s office. And according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 58 percent of respondents said they’d “experienced some from of mistreatment” when they interacted with law enforcement officers the previous year.

Nearly 60 advocacy groups and organizations support the CRISES Act (no one has yet filed any official opposition to the bill). A key supporter is the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color (ABMoC), which co-sponsored the bill.

“Every day, community-based organizations across California are successfully responding to many types of emergency situations,” states a page on the CRISES Act on the ABMoC website. “And during this current COVID-19 public health crisis, community-based organizations (CBOs) are stepping up to ensure vulnerable people are safe and healthy and meeting their emerging needs. Too often, the only response available for people in need of support is to call the police, which can escalate a crisis and increase risk for everyone. The lack of community-based support is particularly dangerous for Black and Brown folks in crisis.”

Another is the Los Angeles-based Initiate Justice, which seeks to end mass incarceration by organizing people who are incarcerated and their loved ones.

“AB 2054 empowers communities to respond to instances of harm on their own,” Greg Fidell of Initiate Justice wrote in a June 4 email. “At a time when LAPD is responding to peaceful demonstrations with force and escalation tactics, we know that communities can meet their own needs in a more holistic way than law enforcement ever could.”

AB 2054 next heads to a vote of the full Assembly, which Kamlager’s office said could come in the next week or two.