Community policing already exists in the US and it is dangerous

Defunding the police is crucial, but we must avoid obvious traps along the way.

President Barack Obama speaks at the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Summit
Former United States President Barack Obama speaks at the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Summit at the State Department in Washington, DC on February 19, 2015 [File: AP/Carolyn Kaster]

Since the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota on May 25, calls to reform, defund, and even abolish the police have taken centre stage in the United States.

In response to mass civil unrest, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a resolution on June 26 to replace the city’s police force with a community-led public safety system that takes a “holistic, public health-oriented approach”. City Council members specified that funds will be redirected from the police to a variety of programmes including the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP), located within the city’s health department.

Multiple public commentators have championed this turn to the health sector. In a viral social media post , US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested that the prioritisation of “youth, health, housing, etc” and restorative measures such as community service will naturally reduce reliance on police and carceral institutions.

The now popular book The End of Policing offers similar solutions. Citing the example of the United Kingdom, American sociologist Alex Vitale treats improved mental health resources as an alternative to modern law enforcement. Though acknowledging the inadequate training of many Mental Health Liaison Officers in the UK, Vitale nonetheless argues that the “overall attitude [of mental health policing] is one of care rather than threat neutralization”.

While these approaches urgently seek to disband the police as we know it, they fail to address how the violent work of policing requires the participation of countless state and non-state actors beyond uniformed rank-and-file officers. Through intricate government programmes like Countering Violent Extremism  (CVE) in particular, policing and public health have come to converge in dangerous new ways, making policing a community-wide affair.

The future of policing in the US

Modern policing conscripts a wide variety of parties including health workers, transnational corporations, the non-profit sector, educators, religious institutions, social workers, and increasingly, vigilantes and other everyday citizens. This pervasive “policing web” enlists even seemingly neutral actors and positions them as forces of social control.

For this reason, Vitale’s optimism about “mental health policing” in the UK is perplexing. Few countries blur the line between law enforcement and health services more clearly than Britain, where for nearly half a decade, academics and medical professionals have protested the health sector’s role in unethically monitoring political organisers, people of colour, and Muslims in the name of “deradicalisation”.

Consider Lyn Jenkins, the retiree who casually disclosed his participation in climate protests during a doctor’s appointment. This admission led to an unexpected visit by the police and his referral to the UK’s counterterrorism programme PREVENT. Or consider the Muslim man who visited his general practitioner about a leg injury, only to be pressed for his opinions on the ISIL (ISIS) group. As a July 2020 report indicates, such encounters are not isolated events, but indicative of institutionalised patterns of racism and religious discrimination.

Vitale’s blind spot, however, is hardly his alone. To critics of American policing, Britain may appear like a successful model to emulate. Despite a 2019 influx of tasers, the majority of police officers in the country remain unarmed – a policy partially responsible for Britain’s low rate of police murder. But this is not the only lesson to learn from the UK. It also demonstrates how a (largely) disarmed police force does not necessarily lead to a less repressive state.

In lieu of baton-wielding police staff, a more insidious “counter-terrorism matrix” has come to perform much of Britain’s domestic security work. Although fuelled by 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings in London, the legal arm of this system rarely prosecutes actual violence (the longtime purview of criminal law). Rather, it intervenes in a so-called pre-crime space, in which the books one reads, certain forms of speech, or practices of civil disobedience can invite state intervention upon target demographics.

The UK’s 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act imposed a legal requirement in nearly every single sphere of public sector life to report people who appear vulnerable to “radicalisation”. This statutory duty recast countless actors including all National Health Service (NHS) staff, public school teachers, and potentially even one’s colleagues as extensions of the state. Since at least 2019, the same strategy has been proposed as a solution to Britain’s “knife crime crisis” – a move that would place an unprecedented number of young Black men into the crosshairs of public sector scrutiny.

Key features of the US’s domestic security apparatus are modelled after Britain’s – itself refined long before 9/11, in the fight against paramilitary activities in Northern Ireland. Insofar as the US continues to emulate British security strategies today, policing trends in the UK remain instructive for American police abolitionists.

While the “science” of pre-crime is less developed in the US, legal mechanisms such as the charge of “material support for terrorism” have already transformed beliefs into criminal acts. Consider the case of Tarek Mehanna, sentenced to 17 years in prison for what was essentially a thought crime. His Arabic translation efforts, participation in online debates, and two-week trip to Yemen ultimately brought him under the microscope of the state.

Similarly, recall the 2005 conviction of Ali al-Tamimi, the biologist whose “often-incendiary rhetoric” against US foreign policy was deemed outside the parameters of free speech. He was sentenced to life in prison by a judge who emphasised: “this was a case about intent.”

Racism as a public health crisis

It is no coincidence that these shifts in US policing mirror the UK’s controversial PREVENT programme, introduced by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003. For almost a decade, PREVENT has served as a blueprint for  Countering Violent Extremism  (CVE) programmes in North America and across the world.

US President Barack Obama first launched CVE in the US in 2011. Though coercive and based on established methods of counterinsurgency, the programme is considered a “soft power” approach to counterterrorism that relies heavily on community participation. The underlying premises of CVE and its offshoots are that 1) Communities themselves provide the solution to violent extremism, and 2) Such efforts are best pursued at a local level, tailored to specific communities’ internal dynamics.

Despite its strategic messaging, CVE’s primary targets – Muslims – have been able to identify and critique the programme’s racist designs for nearly a decade, frequently resisting its expansion on a grassroots level. In response, the programme has adopted a new tactic in recent years, superficially rebranding itself in terms of a “whole community” or public health approach (PDF). As CVE practitioners themselves highlight, “Unlike a criminal justice approach, basing violence prevention efforts in mental health and education approaches offers significant promise in building community participation and buy-in.”

However, the US’s health sector, much like its law enforcement, is not innocent. One need only cite the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate of Black women, cruel experiments underpinning the development of gynaecology, or the role of psychiatry in pathologising political resistance to tell a (partial) tale of how racist harm and notions of “community wellness” are inextricably tied rather than mutually exclusive.

For these reasons, along with CVE’s history of continual reinvention, it is striking that the mayors and city councils of former CVE laboratories (“pilot cities”) Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul have all declared racism a “public health crisis” in recent weeks. While this description of racism as a public health crisis would logically imply that racists might become targets of increased government scrutiny, recent federal mobilisation tells a story more consistent with the US’s historical record.

Since at least June 2020, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has partnered with state and municipal authorities across the country to monitor protestors seeking justice for George Floyd. Groundwork for this federal involvement, however, was partially laid years earlier, in response to Black-led uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore.

In 2017, the FBI even issued a memo warning of the dangers of “black identity extremism” – a pseudo-legal category later renamed “racially motivated violent extremism” in order to appear more capacious and colour-blind.

Such terminology has cast a shadow of criminality over anti-racist movements, naturalising their placement within the scope of counterterrorism. While this lexicon echoes, for example, the COINTELPRO-era targeting of “militant black nationalist groups”, its reformulation in our post-9/11 world should raise red flags about the development of a more explicitly PREVENT-like infrastructure in the US – one that weaponises health and public services to repress political dissent.

The case of Minneapolis: Policing the pre-crime space

In Minneapolis-Saint Paul, where George Floyd’s murder catalysed an ongoing national uprising, CVE-style “community policing” and technologies of predictive policing work side by side. Like British counterterrorism, both approaches construct and subsequently monitor a sphere of so-called pre-crime. In this framework, logics of prevention, risk mitigation, and data accumulation appear to prevail over that of punishment. This, however, is no cause for celebration.

In January 2019, Minnesota residents alarmed over inevitable civil rights violations and racial profiling prevented a proposed data-sharing agreement between Saint Paul, Ramsey County, and Saint Paul Public Schools. Relying on “zip codes, incomes, truancy numbers, race and other indicators”, the goal of the project was to use algorithmic techniques to identify “at-risk” youth for local, pre-crisis interventions. Critics, however, pushed back against the “labelling of children as ‘early criminal’ ” and cited similar experiments in the 1990s that ultimately funnelled teenagers into juvenile detention.

While this predictive policing initiative was successfully halted, similar efforts more strategically tethered to health and social services remain in place. For example, the Minneapolis Health Department has administered a Youth Violence Prevention programme in coordination with local police since 2006. Despite concerns , the city has also been seeking to expand initiatives like Group Violence Intervention (a US Department of Justice model) that bring together social service providers, city officials, law enforcement, and carceral institutions across federal, state, and municipal levels.

At a quick glance, these “community-oriented” or “participatory” styles of policing appear to break from existing paradigms of surveillance and punishment. But as former CVE pilot city Minneapolis demonstrates, such approaches simply delegate policing duties across new networks, ultimately expanding the reach of a widely criticised  criminal justice system. Further, the common rhetoric of “collaboration” and “cooperation” surrounding such efforts obscures the deeply conditional character of “partnerships” with the state.

Consider Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP), the Trump administration’s iteration of CVE. It focuses on a “growing threat from domestic actors – such as racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists” and emphasises proactive rather than punitive interventions. In this endeavour, it does not highlight, for example, the hiring of more uniformed police.

Rather, it stresses “empowering communities and individuals” to themselves counter “extremism” on a local level. Through large Department of Homeland Security grants, the programme funds non-profit organisations and other bodies that further its stated mission.

Despite careful messaging meant to suggest otherwise, programmes like TVTP are not meant to support existing grassroots efforts. In reality, they carefully select and artificially amplify those “community” voices that bolster security state imperatives.

The resulting partnerships are shaped by the unequal power dynamic between funder and funded. In 2020 alone, TVTP has made $10m available to potential grantees – an amount set to double next year. Such manipulation of the political landscape creates an environment in which it is difficult to discern whether civil society actors are truly independent or mere extensions of the government.

In our current moment of social upheaval, street mobilisations are continuing to generate innumerable victories and concessions, and more people than ever are recognising the inefficacy of fighting anti-Black racism purely through legal channels. For these reasons, we should be especially wary of attempts to reroute popular energy entirely into “collaborations” with state power, non-profit organisations, or bureaucratic court proceedings.

Risks of co-optation are particularly high in economically deprived urban centres, where non-profit organisations are seemingly permanent fixtures. Meant to serve as community lifelines, many such organisations actually function as apparatuses of political containment, perpetually ready to deploy the rhetoric of “community” in service of the status quo. Thus even “community” becomes a tool – wielded by careerist activists, politicians, and the Department of Justice alike – in the scramble for authority during moments of new political possibility.

Calls to reject mere reform or clarifications that “defund the police” means “defund the police” recognise exactly this. They push us to ask: how might community appear when liberated from the imperatives of foundation funding, racist governance, or the impotent politics of multiculturalism? How might fighting for a world unstructured by policing change how we view ourselves, relate to one another, and imagine our collective future?

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.