The focus of our August 3 discussion was Law and Order. We reviewed a number of articles about ways to make our laws — and law enforcement — function so that everyone receives equal treatment, which is a fundamental premise of democracy.
We started with Chapter 9, Justice, from Steve’s new book, Truth and Democracy. Equal justice for all is the principle behind our laws. This applies to those who are accused of crime as well as victims. But laws alone do not ensure justice. To bring it into practice those who enforce our laws must believe in the principle of equality, whether they are politicians, police officers, or members of the public.
We reviewed the recent US Supreme Court decision about whether the President needs to provide his tax returns to those conducting a criminal case. This would be required of ordinary citizens, but the President claimed immunity. The Court decided in favor of prosecutors, because, in the words of the two Trump appointees: “In our system of government, as this court has often stated, no one is above the law. That principle applies, of course, to a president.”
There is a great deal of tension in our country — and other countries — about unequal treatment of minorities by police. Defund the Police has become a slogan of many who are frustrated by this issue. We reviewed some of the ways that changing — if not eliminating — funding for police might work. In Camden, New Jersey, the police force was disbanded in 2011 after what many in the community considered overzealous policing, but it also was due to the financial crisis of the time. After “community policing” took the place of the old police force, homicides and complaints against officers were greatly reduced. The new department was trained to de-escalate tense situations and hand out less tickets for small infractions, which mainly go to minorities. Most people in Camden now see the police force as more fair and effective.
One of our members who is a mental health professional presented the view that police are not suited to dealing with many of the people with mental health problems they are called on to handle, and that it would be better to use trained mental health professionals. Although a number of members of the group felt the slogan "defund the police" was misleading and politically unpopular, people were open to rethinking the functions of the police and of transferring some of their duties to mental health and social service professionals who were better trained to handle and less likely to escalate some of the crises that now are assigned by default to the police. Many police departments and officers agree.
We also considered two articles about whether community mental health services can alleviate crime. According to the Brennan Center for Justice: “Community organizations have an important role in lowering crime rates.” Another article, “Whatever Happened to Community Mental Health?” described the emergence of these program under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and how federal funding has been greatly reduced since that time for programs where people are locked up rather than treated.
Another area of concern we discussed was the poor police response in places like Oakland to non-emergency calls like robberies, and the fear that police defunding would give robbers a free hand.
We then reviewed an article about a town where de-escalation training has been put in place: Huntsville, Alabama. A black man called the police after his wife, apparently with a mental health issue, threatened his young daughter with a knife. This situation ended without anyone being harmed, although the Minneapolis officers accused of murder in the George Floyd case also received similar training.
One of our members contributed an article about the recent California Use of Force law, which “replaces a general reasonableness standard with one more focused on whether a suspect poses an immediate threat of grave harm.” This change came about in 2019 and we still have yet to see if it results in less accusations of unnecessary force by officers.
We then discussed a chapter from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, “Harlan, Kentucky,” where families engage in long-term feuds in the manner of the Scottish clans from which they descend and vigilante justice often rules. There is no appeal to outside law enforcement, only to their own resources, which are based on a community-sanctioned norm of revenge.
Perhaps the most important question in our era of outrage is where do we go from here? Knowing what we don’t want is important, but then we need to know what we want to put in place instead. Here are some areas to consider. (1) In the area of police reform, funding should go toward what really improves the system. Police need to be seen — and see themselves — as guardians of the communities they serve, not just as overseers who pluck out bad apples. Training toward that end would include practice in actual positive interaction with community representatives, not just academic training. Mental health professionals also could be engaged in crisis situations so that police are not expected to act beyond their expertise. (2) There are many inequalities in our society. Those who believe that they do not have equal opportunities consider the system unjust. Our current education system often doesn’t lead to skills that enable a person to earn a living. Viable skills are an essential part of having a sense of pride and willingness to consider oneself a contributing and responsible part of the community. This is turn leads to a reduction in crime. (3) Often overlooked is how we treat each other in our society. If we learn to treat others with respect from the time our education begins we are more likely to see others as valid individuals who are equal to ourselves. If we believe that some people are better than others — for any reason — then we become caught in the syndrome of inequality that affects our actions. In treating others with respect we experience respect for ourselves.
There recently has been much talk about what some term as “cancel culture.” For many this means ridding society of reminders of oppression, such as the Confederate Flag. So we must ask ourselves if we want to be rid of every remnant of inequality and those who represent it, or do we need reminders of the past so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. For our September meeting, the topic will be To Keep or to Cancel: How Best to Use the Past as Our Guide. Our focus will be on how history can guide our actions without our forgetting both positive and negative incidents that provide examples for what to do — and what not to do — in the future.
Your (constructive) thoughts are always welcome (see Comments below).
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.