The past year has illuminated America’s challenges with more urgency than ever before, and it’s clear that the status quo of policing needs to change. Minority communities are unreasonably harmed by overcriminalization — the overuse and abuse of criminal law to address every societal problem — and police brutality. For police officers, both structural and cultural barriers stand in the way of protecting and serving communities justly. But an either-or solution — pro-police or anti-police — is a false choice.
Stand Together believes that equal justice and public safety aren’t mutually exclusive. Our vision is to unite with communities and law enforcement to make policing work for everyone. Police have an essential role to play in keeping people safe by preventing and solving serious crimes. To do that, they need to establish strong trust and collaboration with the communities that they’re sworn to protect and serve. Our community’s policing reform efforts focus on policy change paired with grassroots community empowerment to create a system of policing that preserves public safety, while also respecting human dignity through collaborative practices that build trust.
Policing reform is an often overlooked, yet critical component of comprehensive criminal justice reform. “If we’re going to work on criminal justice at all, we have to start with policing, because that’s the first touch point into the system,” says Brianna Nuhfer, director of criminal justice reform at Stand Together. “What police do — how they enforce the laws, which laws they enforce — starts the chain of events that determines the outcomes a person gets from the criminal justice system.”
Challenges in the status quo
Nuhfer says the current state of policing is dominated by three challenges. First, police are asked to do too much. An overabundance of laws that aren’t necessary to protect public safety or individual liberty forces police departments to choose which ones they will enforce, and which ones they won’t.
The second challenge is the structural barriers to good policing. For example, police officers are often viewed as informal “tax collectors” within communities because of fines and fees policies — a process that unnecessarily saddles people with debt and leads to arrests for nonviolent infractions like unpaid traffic fines. “The ways in which officers succeed or advance in their career are often not the sort of things the community needs,” Nuhfer says. “That’s not helpful in terms of [advancing] what the core mission of policing should be, which is protecting people and keeping communities safe.”
Third, cultural norms in law enforcement hinder transparency and accountability. Nuhfer points to the culture of silence that invades law enforcement, often resulting in officers being hesitant to report a colleague using inappropriate force or being overly aggressive with a citizen. The effect is that people who have direct interaction with police — particularly minority communities or communities with high crime rates — tend to distrust the police and adopt a similar culture of silence, resulting in many serious crimes going unsolved.
“There are often racial biases informing policing decisions that can entrap people in the justice system unnecessarily,” Nuhfer says. This is particularly visible when it comes to enforcing drug laws. Black individuals are disproportionately incarcerated for drug-related charges compared to white individuals, even though drug use is relatively equal. This lack of trust hinders community members from partnering with police and sharing information to solve crimes. Rather than viewing law enforcement as a partner, they see them as an opponent who is going to arrest them or arrest their loved ones.”
Rebuilding trust, growing collaboration
Stand Together believes that a shift away from silence and mistrust, and towards transparency and collaboration, must begin with police. “Because police have so often been the ones bearing responsibility for unnecessary brutality against communities, they ought to be the ones to really make the first move,” says Nuhfer. “And to do that, it’s going to require some deep cultural transformation within law enforcement.”
To do this, Stand Together is proposing solutions to help law enforcement rebuild community trust — something that can only happen if police are able to focus their time and energy on what is important to their communities, not solely on arbitrary measures like arrests. The organization is concentrating on policy changes to reduce over-criminalization and unnecessary arrests, such as legalizing marijuana and changing the current system of fines and fees to cut down arrests of people who don’t pose a threat to public safety.
Nuhfer hopes that these policy changes will transform the way the public and law enforcement, interact, so that police are an integral part of the community, not an external force that’s being imposed upon them. “Sir Robert Peel, a former English statesman regarded as the founder of modern policing, said that the police are the public and the public are the police. It’s this idea that [police] shouldn’t be this occupying force, they should be the guy who lives next door,” she says.
Elevating real solutions
Rather than adding to the noise of a two-sided debate — pro-police or anti-police, equal justice or public safety — Stand Together seeks to find alternatives and elevate tangible solutions. “Yes, this conversation nationally is important. We want to be an avid listener and contributor,” Nuhfer says. “But at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we being effective in providing real solutions that are valuable to people?’”
The key to elevating real solutions is this holistic approach: tackling reform from a policy and a community level. The Stand Together community is uniting to build strong communities that can equip people to find purpose and live in safety. “The answer here isn’t just policy change, it’s not just change within communities — it’s a both-and approach,” Nuhfer says.
Through the Stand Together community’s policing reform initiatives, we are helping to strengthen bonds between community members and the police. Individuals will feel respected and heard, and structures in policing will equip law enforcement to apply the law fairly. Together, police and communities can work together to advance the shared goal of public safety supported by fairness and equal justice.