A Better Approach?

In my continuing effort to find positive aspects of our gloomy socio-political landscape, I came across a very interesting experiment in public safety being conducted in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The city has established what has been named the “Albuquerque Community Safety (ACS) department.”

Launched in September, the agency is intended to complement the city’s police and fire departments by having teams of behavioral health specialists patrol and respond to low-level, nonviolent 911 calls.

While it is modeled after programs in a few other cities, ACS is the first stand-alone department of its kind in the country. The initiative is still nascent – Mr. Adams and Ms. White are one of just two responder teams at the moment. But authorities here hope it will defuse the kinds of tensions between police and residents that have surfaced in cities across the country and help reinvent 911 emergency response systems, which many believe have become antiquated.

As slogans go, “Reinvent policing” or “Promote Community Safety” are certainly less off-putting than “Defund the Police,” but the premises are similar; the idea is to relieve police from the need to respond to  situations that don’t pose an immediate threat to public safety and that can be better handled by social workers or mental health practitioners who have the often-specialized skills to handle certain interventions.

Most police interviewed about such approaches are enthusiastic, not defensive.

“What Albuquerque is doing is really exciting and innovative,” says Nancy La Vigne, executive director of the Task Force on Policing at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Police chiefs “almost universally say we’d love to offload these calls to other people. We need these types of models to be developed and implemented, so we can learn from them.”

Even before the police killing of George Floyd sparked massive demonstrations, a number of cities were debating how to reduce the use of lethal force, how  to increase meaningful accountability, and how chronically understaffed departments might reduce the need to send uniformed officers to deal with issues that aren’t, strictly speaking, posing a public safety threat.

In Albuquerque, those discussions were made more urgent by the city’s experience; between 2010 to 2014, “members of the Albuquerque Police Department shot and killed 27 people.”

One of them, in March 2014, was James Boyd, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded a month later that APD “too often uses deadly force in an unconstitutional manner,” including against “individuals who posed a threat only to themselves.” The police entered into a court-approved agreement with DOJ that October, which the department has been operating under ever since.

Initially, police shootings in the city decreased for several years. But more recently they have begun to rise again. From 2015 to this year, Albuquerque had the second-highest rate of fatal police shootings in the country among big cities.

If that wasn’t worrisome enough, the state’s behavioral health system was disintigrating.  A criminal investigation into whether 15 of New Mexico’s largest mental health providers had been defrauding Medicare led to the state freezing their funding. They were subsequently cleared of the the allegations, but according to the report, the state’s mental health system has never fully recovered.

Albuquerque’s aim with its new initiative was thus aimed at revamping its entire emergency response system, and not simply to reform policing.

About 1 in 4 people killed by police since 2015 had mental illnesses, according to a Washington Post database. Many of those killings occurred after the families of those people called the police for help.

“The default response is to send police to a scene and hope they solve whatever is happening,” says Dr. Neusteter. That’s “really not in anyone’s interests.”

“By and large [ACS] is a positive move” for policing in the city, says Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “It holds the promise that perhaps someday we will see fewer armed officers interacting with people in mental health crisis.”

The effort in Albuquerque is still in its early stages, and police organizations and community groups will be watching to see how it works. The early indications are positive.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Left could stop having to defend clumsy language and the Right would admit that American cities need to handle public safety more effectively and with fewer tragic outcomes–if we could all just put our ongoing culture wars on hold, and instead work collaboratively to use emerging information and expertise to make our communities safer?

I guess I’m just a dreamer……


Car Culture

I need to vent.

Today’s post isn’t about politics, or a particular public policy, or (except tangentially) my worries about the environment. It’s about the insanity of what–for lack of a better descriptor–I’ll call America’s “car culture,” and it was triggered by my recent drive from Indianapolis to a beach in South Carolina.

It isn’t as though I haven’t been concerned with driving behaviors I’ve seen locally. We have lived in downtown Indianapolis ever since 1980, and watched as more and more cars have evidently confused residential city streets with racetracks. I’ve lost track of the number of times a car has sped around me, only to come to a stop beside me at the same traffic light. (Do these speed demons think they’re saving time? They aren’t.)

But it was on our recent trip South that I witnessed a seemingly unending parade of drivers engaging in unimaginably reckless behaviors.

Now, honesty compels me to begin this rant with an admission: I have a heavy foot, and when I’m on an Interstate–especially during a very long drive–I can hit speeds of 79 or 80. But during this drive, even when I was going that fast, cars passed me as if I was standing still. Not only that–a number of them were weaving through three lanes of traffic, presumably unable to bear the thought of following some other vehicle. In at least one instance, we were slowed by a major wreck and a number of emergency vehicles involved in removing the injured and clearing the Interstate–I was actually surprised there weren’t more.

Every so often, we passed an electronic sign warning that additional efforts to catch speeders were being deployed, but I saw no evidence of those efforts.

It’s bad enough that America’s car culture contributes so heavily to the pollution driving climate change. It’s bad enough that the constant need to add lanes and reconstruct interchanges consumes untold amounts of our tax dollars, snarls traffic and triggers road rage. It’s close to unforgivable that we allocate far more resources to streets and roads than to mass transit and rail. But those are issues for a different rant.

What I don’t understand is why we don’t deploy available technologies to address an obvious and growing  problem.

When we leave Indiana for the beach by car these days, we take a new toll bridge into Kentucky. We no longer have to stop to throw quarters into little buckets—the time-honored method of paying a toll. These days, we don’t have to slow down or stop–a camera takes a picture of our license plate, and we get a bill in the mail.  Camera technologies have come a long way, and the upfront costs of installing them would easily be repaid by the ticketing they would facilitate. For that matter, if the driving I saw during this recent trip is any indication, we could repave America with the proceeds of ticketing.

I can hear the protests: cameras would invade my privacy! In my view, this is akin to the equally tone-deaf and selfish refusals to be vaccinated. In both cases, refusal clearly endangers others.

A speeding automobile is potentially a deadly weapon–a reality the law recognizes. We allow sobriety checkpoints in order to control impaired driving (an acknowledged deviation from the 4th Amendment); we require drivers’ tests as a condition to allowing people to operate a motor vehicle.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this reluctance to address the danger of speeding automobiles. This is, after all, a country that refuses to impose even the most reasonable controls on lethal weapons. But I do wonder: Where are all those “pro life” people when they might actually do some good?


Is It November Yet?

Every so often, our Accidental Mayor does something to remind us why it’s not a good idea to elect people who don’t understand how government is supposed to work.

As reported on the IndyDemocrat blog, Council President Maggie Lewis recently issued the following statement:

“Very recently I was informed that Mayor Ballard unilaterally authorized a withdraw of $6.8 million dollars out of the IMPD general fund without consultation or approval from the Council. This is not how good municipal government works. The Council recently overrode the Mayor’s veto to add appropriations to fund critically needed pursuit rated vehicles and necessary upgrades to IMPD facilities. His decision means many IMPD officers will continue to operate substandard vehicles and train at outdated facilities. We have too few officers on the street to begin with and this action by the administration may put at risk the city’s ability to fund this Fall’s final recruit class of 2015. I call on the Mayor to immediately reverse course and follow both the letter and spirit of Indiana law by returning the money to IMPD now.”

The most important sentence in that statement is “This is not how good municipal government works.”

Perhaps the Mayor had a perfectly good reason for withdrawing those funds. Or perhaps he didn’t. The purpose is irrelevant; the “rules of the game” require the Mayor and Council to communicate, to work together, and to jointly authorize fiscal decisions. The fact that the Council is controlled by a different political party than the Administration does not eliminate that requirement. (I should note that, back in the days of the Hudnut Administration, factional disputes among the Republicans on the Council made relations every bit as testy as the partisan divisions today–but despite a lot of grousing,  the Administration didn’t try to “sneak” things past the Council.)

Process matters.

Government in a democratic system is not run like the military, or like business, where the person at the top of the pyramid makes decisions that others must follow. That’s one reason why calls to run government “like a business” are so misplaced–government isn’t a business. It should be run in a “business-like” fashion (meaning efficiently and cost-effectively), but we should never lose sight of the fact that government’s mission is not focused on the bottom line, and the rules by which it operates must meet democratic accountability standards.

Mayor Ballard isn’t in the Marines anymore. He doesn’t get to unilaterally call the shots.

Aside from the inappropriateness of the Mayor’s action, I can’t help wondering: what was the money used for? In a city with an unacceptably high crime rate, what was more important than (our already grossly  underfunded) public safety?


Mayor Ballard’s Very Strange, Utterly Misplaced Priorities

Anyone who lives in Indianapolis and reads or listens to the news knows that Mayor Ballard recently vetoed a bipartisan measure passed by the City-County Council that would have increased the size of the police recruit class. He says we can’t afford it.

The news also confirms that Ballard is hell-bent on spending $6 million dollars to build a Cricket field.

A friend recently sent me the following clip from a news story, in which Ballard defended his priorities.

During an interview last week, Ballard grew impassioned when asked about the decision-making behind the nearly 50-acre sports complex and the shaky history of the United States of America Cricket Association. (It has new leadership after struggling to put on cricket tournaments in recent years.) He called local reaction to the plans “very upsetting.” “We have basketball courts, swimming pools, tennis courts, baseball fields — we have all these other sports — and these guys have nowhere to play rugby, hurling, lacrosse, Australian-rules football, cricket,” Ballard said. “Why are they not allowed to have their fields, too? … I think, as a mayor, that’s a good thing to be doing.”

Let’s deconstruct this. (I will try to do so without hurling.)

Because our parks have swimming pools and basketball courts, we have an obligation to offer cricket and lacrosse fields? Why not dodgeball (which actually has more fans than cricket, at least judging from Facebook likes)? How about people who compete in hammer-throw tournaments? Curling? Surely Ballard is not suggesting that this is some sort of equal protection issue–that taxpayers have an obligation to meet the sports needs of aficionados of even the least popular sports?

And I’m still debating the propriety of government providing golf courses…

If there is one thing on which virtually all Americans agree, it is that providing public safety is a government obligation. (That may be the only thing Americans all agree on.) Police may not be as exciting as cricket (actually, they are; I’ve seen cricket), but providing adequate police protection is–along with ensuring that we can flush–an absolutely basic government function.

So, as Ed Koch might have asked, how are we doing?

According to the Mayor’s own task force, the Indianapolis police force is short 685 uniformed officers. The national average is 2.5 officers per 1000 residents; the current IMPD ratio is 1.7 officers per 1000.

The murder rate in New York City is 3.4 per 100,000. The murder rate in Indianapolis is 17.5 per 100,000.

The City is shifting IMPD assignments in a desperate effort to put more cops on the street without actually adding personnel, but given our current staffing levels, that’s equivalent to rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. The Mayor’s own task force reported that there is no alternative to hiring more officers–redeploying may help at the margins, but there is no alternative to hiring more police.

Now, I’m not unsympathetic to the fiscal problems created by Mitch Daniels’ tax caps. (Caps that Ballard supported, unbelievable as that is.) Constitutionalizing those caps was brilliant politics, and terrible government. The caps starve units of local government of badly needed resources, requiring not only creative fiscal management (we are running out of public assets to sell off), but also those “hard decisions” that politicians talk about endlessly but rarely if ever actually make.

The Council’s proposal would have paid for the recruiting class only for the first year; the City would have to come up with the money to pay for the additional officers going forward. That would require hard trade-offs–at a minimum, fewer subsidies to local sports franchises, fewer cushy deals for developer friends of the Mayor. It might also require the Mayor to actually appear at the legislature–something he’s been loathe to do, especially if such appearances would interfere with one of his frequent “economic development” junkets–and petition our state-level rulers to get rid of the 40 plus “funds” that currently prevent Indianapolis from setting its own priorities.

The problem is, unless the citizens of Indianapolis feel safe, we can’t accomplish any of our other goals. We can’t revitalize neighborhoods. Economic development efforts will go nowhere. The bike lanes, the Monon Trail and the justifiably lauded Cultural Trail will empty. Downtown businesses will suffer. There will be a downward spiral that will make all other efforts immeasurably more difficult.

We have a real public safety crisis in Indianapolis right now–a public safety crisis that could undo the years of progress we have enjoyed.

And instead of focusing on that crisis and working with the legislature to address it, we have an utterly clueless Mayor who is spending what little political capital he has on a cricket field.


Disturbing Questions

We woke this morning to news reports that five teenagers had been shot while walking along Indianapolis’ downtown canal. The shots evidently came from the parking lot of the Historical Society–where a wedding was taking place at the time.

As I write this, little is known except that two of the teens are in critical condition and no one is currently in custody.

It may be that this was one of those random acts that no city, no matter how safe or well-run, can prevent. We deceive ourselves if we believe that police can guard against every sudden eruption of violence. But this shooting, in the heart of our city and next to the canal that so many of us routinely walk or bike, raises sobering questions.

First, what is the relationship–if any–between the recent “discovery” of fiscal shortfalls in public safety and what some people living along the canal claim was a diminished police presence? (The fiscal situation itself raises very troubling questions about the honesty of the Administration’s budgeting process during an election year.)

Second, if there were fewer police in the area, was that due to deliberate decisions about deployment, and if so, what were those decisions and why were they made? One story suggested that a number of officers were called to a brawl at the fire station at West and Ohio; do we have so few police that an incident in one place necessarily leaves other areas unprotected?

We don’t know the answers to these questions, and asking them is not meant to assume the answers. But the questions need to be asked, because this event will have repercussions far beyond the personal tragedy it represents.

Civic and political leaders have been nurturing the rebirth of downtown since the 1970s. The canal is one of the “jewels” of that effort–a jewel that has been sadly neglected the past few years, as I have previously noted. It is an important amenity in a city without oceans or mountains. Developers have been enticed to make significant investments along its banks; museums and public buildings adjoin it. Maintaining it and keeping it safe for the residents and tourists who enjoy it is an important responsibility and should be a high priority of the current Administration.

When the media is filled with stories of shootings, when on-camera interviews feature onlookers declaring they no longer feel safe in the area, the result is to undercut years of painstaking effort, and to reinforce inaccurate stereotypes about the “dangers” of downtown.

Perhaps this was one of those random events that even the best policing couldn’t have averted. Perhaps it was the result of public safety mis-management.

Or perhaps we are seeing the inevitable results of the anti-tax zealotry that added tax caps to the Indiana Constitution–tax caps that are starving local governments and decimating public services.

Whatever the answer, we need to find and fix it.