Election 2021: One More Post on Public Safety (and Question 2 in Minneapolis)

I got an e-mail after my earlier post on public safety from someone who suggested that it would be helpful to make a positive case for what I think it should look like, since one of the objections is the lack of a mapped-out plan. Just to be clear, before I start: I am not an expert on this, I’m not someone who would be called in to help write a plan, and there are a lot of people who are experts who would be involved in writing a plan.

Given that caveat, a couple of thoughts.

Until the 1960s, some cities didn’t have ambulances.

This was one of those fascinating things I learned from Twitter (that someone else learned from a podcast); here’s an article about it. From that article:

Emergency services were not there to provide treatment at the scene or even necessarily on the way to the hospital… they were just about getting you to the hospital as quickly as possible.  It also wasn’t clear whose responsibility it was to rush to the scene of an accident. Oftentimes firefighters were the ones to respond, and they were expected to deal with health treatment themselves. In other areas, the responsibility for transporting patients often fell to local funeral homes. In many major cities, this crucial task fell to another municipal service that probably had even less business responding to medical emergencies: The police.

The police in many cities would literally take people to the hospital in the back of a paddy wagon! In Pittsburgh, the city ambulance service was created by a Black-run jobs training program called Freedom House, in a Black neighborhood, in cooperation with Dr. Peter Safar, an anesthesiologist who went on to basically create the idea of critical-care emergency medicine.

The idea of a city without an ambulance service is literally unthinkable now. But when the Freedom House ambulance service started, the police viewed them as competition:

The police felt like Freedom House had taken their jobs away, but Freedom House believed that the police — with their poor training — were a threat to the patient. Moon says that Freedom House would have a police scanner on to monitor the calls and would try to get to emergency situations before the police did to make sure care was given properly. Sometimes the police would relent, but other times they would threaten the paramedics with arrest unless they backed off.

What don’t we have today, that in twenty years could feel as absurd as not having ambulances? I can tell you that the concept of having mental health specialists respond to people in mental health crisis has been suggested since at least the late 1990s (probably longer, but I specifically remember an incident in the late 90s or early 2000s that set off a “why don’t we deal better with mental health crises” conversation that did not, in fact, result in mental health specialists being available to deal with people having mental health crises.)

Police get called for noise complaints. For conflicts between neighbors. They show up for entirely medical ambulance calls — sometimes even usefully. They get called on kids selling hot dogs. That story had a happy “police help kid get business permit” ending but why are armed officers of the law the people sent in response to a business operating without a permit?

What if, in response to conflicts between neighbors, we could send out a mediator? What if, if you wanted a wellness check for someone you were worried about, the city could send out someone who would check on them, then help connect them with services? What if, when you needed to report a crime for insurance purposes — to file an official statement of “someone broke into my garage and stole my bike” — the person who showed up had a clipboard instead of a gun?

I mean, in the late 1960s, the idea that you might have special people, with their own uniforms and training, just for the part where you drove people to the hospital — that was new. And the police resisted the idea! But putting resources into ambulances and trained paramedics was a transformative shift in public safety.

When all you have is a hammer, and the hammer isn’t fixing the problem, adding more hammers is probably not going to improve anything.

I read this fascinating Mother Jones article this morning. It discusses two incidents where police were called on a person who was sleeping or unconscious in his car, with a gun visible. In both cases, the initial call made was not “this person is a danger,” it was absolutely “I am worried that this person is in danger.” In the 2021 case (which didn’t end in the police shooting the guy! progress!) he’d crashed his car — it looked to the caller like he’d lost consciousness at the wheel.

And yet instead of treating this as a medical emergency, this was treated as a potential threat. Someone in the neighborhood recognized the unconscious man, and managed to reach his mother, who came and was (eventually) granted permission to try to wake him. His mother, in the article, commented, “I just couldn’t believe there were so many police with just one person” — “Three police vehicles blocked in Jones’ car. Five officers were positioned behind one cruiser. Another kept a gun trained on the hatchback from the turret of the BearCat.”

The police response to any situation they’re not sure how to handle is “add more police,” whether that makes any sort of sense or not. This was for one unconscious guy. Who had a gun in his lap that was illegal for him to own, but I don’t think the legality of the gun was a major factor here.

I do actually sympathize with the essential problem here, which was, “we don’t know if he’ll wake up, freak out, and start shooting.” This almost never happens — but there is, in fact, a local case where a police officer responded to a call of someone sleeping in a car and got shot. (In 1994, Ron Ryan Jr. checked on a sleeping man after a neighbor called. Guy Harvey Baker shot him as he walked back to his squad car to run Baker’s ID. Baker fled, then during the manhunt later murdered a second police officer along with his dog. This is a good illustration of why police paranoia about unknown people with guns is not entirely unreasonable.)

But the essential question in this case seems to me not “how do we get police to respond better,” it’s “in a medical emergency where we’re worried about the safety of the EMTs, how can we keep the EMTs safe?” Because this was a medical call. (One of the things I kept thinking about, reading the story, was that the ultimately peaceful — peaceful-ish — resolution was contingent on him waking up and following the instructions of the police. If he’d actually been un-rouseable due to lifethreatening hypoglycemia, or a heart attack, or a drug overdose, he’d have just died in the car while the police yelled at him to wake up.)

This actually seems like a legit use for those robot dogs with the grabber hands — if you can send a robot dog to open up someone’s car and grab the gun, and the guy wakes up and shoots the robot, you’re out a robot. (And let’s face it, if you woke up and saw one of these things climbing into your car, I wouldn’t blame you’d for shooting it.) But I’d much rather equip ambulance crews and mental health responders with robots to secure the scene, as an alternative to police, rather than equipping police with robots.

Policing in the US is a pretty classic example of the “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem, and the stories that result range from a comedy of errors to absolutely horrifying. Maybe instead of saying “we need to take these people, the ones we equip with guns, clubs, tasers, pepper spray, and tactical vests, and train them to do things other than use force” we should send different people. People with different equipment and different training.

There’s an awful lot of low-hanging fruit here.

There are so many civic roles that we have handed to the police that could be done a different way or by someone else. This article has a good graphic that shows you the percent of time police officers in Philadelphia spend on various tasks. It also quotes a former police officer:

“When I was an officer, I got calls about dead animals, ungovernable children who refused to go to school, people who hadn’t gotten their welfare checks, adults who hadn’t heard from their elderly relatives, families who needed to be informed of a death, broken-down cars, you name it,” says Seth Stoughton, a legal scholar at the University of South Carolina and former Tallahassee police officer. “Everything that isn’t dealt with by some other institution automatically defaults to the police to take care of.”

Right now, Minneapolis’s charter (which is a lot harder to change than the ordinances) not only specifies a structure for a police department, it requires a minimum of 17 police department employees per 1000 residents. Eliminating that minimum is one of the biggest changes in the public safety charter amendment, and it will allow the city to try shifting funds to have other people handle traffic accidents, property crime, derelict vehicles, truant schoolkids, embezzlement, and so on. If we cut down what we expect police to handle to the violent crimes with a sideline in “showing up for a call only to find out that nothing’s happening” (the biggest box on that chart above! and sadly I see no way around that one) could we have a city with a lot fewer cops? I really think that would be an option.

There are absolutely people with a more radical vision than me.

There are people who say “abolish police” and mean it, and mean that it should happen right now. There are other people who say “abolish police” and mean that as a long-term goal — they view crime as being overwhelmingly caused by societal ills (and certainly there are a lot of fixable contributing factors).

But you don’t have to be on board with abolition to support Question 2 in Minneapolis (the Public Safety charter amendment). All the charter amendment will actually change is the following:

  • It will replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety. Initially, the Department of Public Safety will look and work like the Police Department, but it will be possible to make changes via the ordinances.
  • It will get rid of the minimum number of police per Minneapolis resident, a rule that does not exist in any other city or town in Minnesota.
  • The Department of Public Safety will be overseen the same way as all other city departments, rather than answering solely to the mayor.

The amendment will open the door to further change — but all that future change is contingent on the City Council agreeing that these changes are a good idea. Radical changes will require a majority of City Council reps to buy in, which is part of why the scaremongering from groups like “Heroes PAC” is so patently absurd. The most radical people on the ballot, if you actually look at their plans, are talking about things like a gradual decrease in armed law enforcement while building capacity in other ways.

I feel like the argument we’ve been having for the last year and a half is about whether we need to keep spending all our money on hammers, or if maybe it would be okay to explore the possibility of investing in a screwdriver, a crescent wrench, a pair of pliers, and a tape measure.

I really hope Minneapolis votes Yes on Question 2.


In addition to writing political commentary, I write science fiction and fantasy. My book that came out in April, Chaos on CatNet, takes place in a future Minneapolis (and includes scenes of my imagined future of public safety). It’s a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and signed copies of both books are usually available from Dreamhaven and from the current mail-order-only incarnation of Uncle Hugo’s.

I do not have a Patreon or Ko-Fi, but you can make a donation to encourage my work! I get a lot of satisfaction watching fundraisers I highlight getting funded. Some that are worth your consideration:

In Minneapolis:

A first-year teacher at Bryn Mawr would like a variety of classroom supplies, including individual dry-erase boards, a big easel, a classroom rug, a selection of books, and some educational games.

A middle school teacher at Andersen would like to provide her students with some manga they’ve requested; they currently don’t have a media center, and students rely on classroom libraries for books.

A second-grade teacher at Folwell would like to provide her students with graphic novels in both Spanish and English. (A large percentage of her students speak Spanish at home.)

And a different kind of school fundraiser (again, in Minneapolis):

Kaytie Kamphoff is a special education resource teacher at Patrick Henry High School and the co-director/producer of Henry Drama Club. (Christopher Michael is her co-director and their full-time theater and dance teacher.) She initially asked for funds on Twitter just so the Henry Drama Club could stage a couple of plays this year. Ms. Kamphoff has now set her sights higher: she’s hoping to raise enough to run a summer theater program for Northside kids, free for participants, paid for the recent grads/Drama Club alums who work. You can donate to her by Venmo or Paypal: Venmo is Henry_DC and PayPal is Kaytie.Kamphoff@gmail.com. Note “Henry Drama Club” in the memo and if Paypal insists you need the last four digits of her phone number, it’s 5548.

Her Twitter thread is solidly worth reading if you’d like some heartwarming stories of the transformational power of theater in the lives of high school students.

4 thoughts on “Election 2021: One More Post on Public Safety (and Question 2 in Minneapolis)

  1. I like this post a lot. The ambulances example is so very educational! If I understand correctly, they sort of invented not only ambulances but also the job category of “paramedic” …. I wonder how many other useful public service jobs could be systematically supported if we took a long look at informal/local/mutual aid activities that people are doing right now.

    “There are so many civic roles that we have handed to the police that could be done a different way or by someone else.”

    I’m reminded of “I’m with Muni — How can I help?”, a short story by Annalee Newitz last year. I would love for there to be a social support program where non-cop social workers proactively rode lots of municipal transit buses to notice and help people in trouble — and when I posted a link to that story to MetaFilter, someone who works at Bay Area Rapid Transit mentioned that they are doing this.

  2. These are all great ideas. And I’m in favor of the public safety amendment. But I think it’s important to think about what it will mean if cops ONLY go out to manage potentially high stress situations. I think there is a possibility that this could actually create more stressed cops, and therefore more dangerous cops. If we want the job to attract people who genuinely want to serve the public, maybe they need to have some tasks that involve being helpful and reasonable.

    • Right now those that genuinely want to serve the public that I know left police work for social work because they didn’t want to cover corruption and violence in the police departments they saw. I think it would open a whole lot of options for careers to have better paying public safety jobs available to those who want to serve the community but not be police.

      Police who remain in positions that are dangerous should also implement good practices around preventing and managing PTSD because the rest of us who live with it don’t get to opt out of work. They refuse counseling and treatment as it is right now and with training there’s nothing saying they couldn’t move from active police work to another job in public safety if they’re qualified – the rest of us do that all the time too.

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