All people are concerned about their own safety and that of their families and friends. This is a basic human need and is the reason that communities fund police and fire services — to protect the safety of their residents. Oak Park, the community where I live, is no different: 30% of our overall village budget is dedicated to just these two services. And it is no surprise that the people of this primarily white community prioritize police services to keep their families safe. White people typically see the police as their protectors in ways that may or may not be the case for people of color, especially Black residents.
And as we have seen in a variety of cases over the past several years, there are circumstances in which the traditional police response to a crisis makes individuals less safe instead of more. In certain situations and with certain people, the presence of police exacerbates that crisis rather than calming it. One example was the shooting of Quintonio LeGrier in Chicago, which happened when officers were called while LeGrier was undergoing a mental health crisis. Confronted with a person they viewed as a threat, officers reacted as they were trained: to neutralize that threat with deadly force. In so doing, they killed LeGrier and his neighbor, Bettie Jones.
A situation like this is a key demonstration of why the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer called for defunding the police — decreasing police funding and redirecting that funding to mental health and other community services. Many white people and white communities claimed to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and their demands in 2020, but far too few communities have followed through on those commitments.
That is why it is essential that our local governing bodies start to budget for and implement changes that reflect real racial and social progress, such as the creation of non-police crisis response teams. Our local Village Board took this action at their most recent meeting. Unfortunately, they allocated $300,000, rather than the $800,000 that community organizations had requested, but it was a start.
This crisis response team will respond to situations in which people need support for mental health emergencies. This will allow community members to access support without calling on police. Given that Black community members and other residents of color may be understandably hesitant to call police, the availability of a non-police crisis response team may increase the degree to which our village’s residents access the support they need.
How we respond in a crisis says a lot about our community: what we value, whom we prioritize, what we love. A report by Vera Institute of Justice states, “Creating alternatives to police responses will connect people in the community with the services they need, reduce arrest rates and the potential for violent police encounters, and promote the health and safety of community members.” I believe that the vast majority of our village’s residents share these goals. I am grateful that our Village Board set us on a path toward those goals and said something positive about our community in the process. Now we need to fully fund this program going forward and refine it so that it best serves this community, and demonstrate that we are willing to follow through on our commitments.
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