By Ted Wachtel
“‘DEFUND THE POLICE.’ This provocative slogan at its most constructive represents a welcome call to reimagine public safety in the United States.” Washington Post Editorial Board, June 9, 2020
I spent an evening, a couple of decades ago, riding around in a squad car in what used to be a high-crime neighborhood of Indianapolis—known to cops as “the swamp.” A few months earlier I had trained a group of Indianapolis police to use Real Justice conferences, at their discretion, as an alternative to arresting young people. The police officer could bring together victims, offenders, and their respective families and friends, to deal with the impact of a crime and decide what to do about it. Research into these police-run conferences showed remarkably high levels of satisfaction and a sense of fairness among all the participants.
Although a short-lived and largely forgotten experiment in reimagining public safety in Indianapolis, Indiana, which lacked administrative support and public awareness at the time, I learned from that experience how much cops would love to have a more meaningful role in “keeping the peace” in their communities.
Here’s a funny story that illustrates the point from my 1997 book, Real Justice: How to Revolutionize Our Response to Wrongdoing.
Some police officers use conferencing more informally when it is not practical to convene a larger formal conference. My favorite example is the story of the stolen “whale.” That’s the way the report came over the radio—a report of a stolen whale. The police officer even checked it on his car’s computer. He still read “whale.” When he arrived at the indicated address and spoke with the victim, he realized that the man’s southern accent had been misunderstood in the midwestern town. Not a “whale” but an ornamental “well” had been stolen from his front yard.
The officer soon apprehended Charlie, a teenager who admitted taking the well as a prank. While the officer wanted to handle the offense with a Real Justice conference, he learned that the victim was about to leave town for a couple of weeks on a vacation. So he held an impromptu conference then and there. Sitting in the victim’s living room, Charlie talked about what he had done and then the officer asked the man to tell how the offense had affected him.
As is often the case with a so-called “minor” offense, the effect on the victim is far more substantial than the degree of economic loss. The real consequence is about a loss of safety, a sense that one’s private space has been violated, and a fear of further violations. Given that the man was about to leave town, he was particularly fearful that other theft or damage might occur in his absence. To Charlie, the theft of the well had been funny, but to the victim, it was deeply disturbing. The theft also came at a hectic time when the man was rushing to make arrangements for his vacation. He still had many things to do, including finding someone to cut his lawn. Charlie offered to cut his lawn for him while he was away and an agreement was quickly reached.
Charlie sincerely apologized for what he had done, now aware that his action was far more hurtful than he had ever imagined. The victim generously accepted the apology, much relieved that the incident had been resolved. Now he no longer worried about further theft or damage and he had someone to cut his lawn while he was gone.
The police officer had demonstrated a classic example of problem-oriented policing. The citizen later told all his friends and neighbors about the creative response to his problem, enhancing the community’s view of the police. Charlie learned an important lesson and waved to the police officer whenever he saw him on patrol. And the police officer cruised by the house during the man’s vacation and saw that the lawn was neatly mowed.”
Later that night, as we cruised the swamp, a youth on the street waved to the police officer. The cop smiled and said to me, “Never before have kids I picked up for offenses waved to me afterward.”
Never underestimate the power of a conversation.
The Building a New Reality movement is trying to reimagine a variety of institutions in all facets of society. We advocate for revolution by conversation and we thank our subscribers for their interest.
If you’d like to learn more about how we can improve police-community relations, take a look at an earlier BANR post by my colleague, Kerra L. Bolton, describing amazing developments in Detroit. “How Restorative Practices Helped Me to Trust the Police” explores Kerra’s very personal journey from fear and terror toward law enforcement officers to awareness and understanding.