*This piece is part of the ACSblog Symposium: 2017 ACS National Convention. The symposium will consider topics featured at the three day convention, scheduled for June 8-10, 2017. Also, this piece was written in response to the March 9 ACS National Symposium on Policing in a New Political Era. The full video of this event can be found here.
by Thomas Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department
One of the attendees at last week’s symposium on “Policing in a New Political Era,” co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society and New America, asked whether we should consider the abolition of policing in America. My fellow panelist, Cardozo School of Law Professor Ekow Yankah, deftly responded that it may indeed be time to “reimagine” policing in America. And so it is.
An insightful March 12 Washington Post article by Katie Zezima observed “police officers [are] acting as drug counselors and medical workers and shifting from law-and-order tactics to approaches more akin to social work” and that the police now envision their roles as mental-health workers and doctors. In fairness to the police, these are roles into which they have been, unwittingly and perhaps unwillingly, thrust in a societal expectation that the police are the default “responders” with responsibilities for dealing with the social marginalia that they are neither properly trained or qualified to undertake.
The police are deserving of praise for adopting strategies in dealing with the opioid crisis that no longer see enforcement strategies as the only tactics in dealing with drugs and drug abusers, but it is fair to question whether or not policing in this nascent political era should include having police “generalists” providing medical, mental health and social work services to vulnerable populations of people, throwaways whom those charting course in this political era would just as soon see disappear. The police are filling voids here in professional disciplines and in providing medical and mental health services that will almost invariably be inadequate to the task. Reimagining the role of the police recognizes that these vital services need to be provided to those who need them the most by professionals trained to treat the sick, the broken and the mentally ill.