The counterproductive nature of punishment and mass incarceration against violence and crime is not by any means a new concept for me, but I had no idea that serious proposals around radically different approaches existed. I’m actually astonished to see such a conversation come into the mainstream, primarily pushed by the Black Lives Matter movement in response to George Floyd’s murder in the hands — or under the knees — of Minneapolis police officers. The more I learn about the whole concept of “Defund the Police”, the more I realize what potential it has, not just for Afro-Americans, but for humanity itself on a global scale.
Of course, white communities are not nearly as affected by police brutality and in some ways have even benefited from racial injustice, particularly in America. But the way public safety has been perceived and planned all over the world is deeply problematic for all of us, even those who feel barely touched by these historic events taking place across the Atlantic.
I have seen with my own eyes what poor social safety nets, replaced with extra policing and stricter punishments, can do to people. And I’ve felt that change is necessary. A week ago, I couldn’t tell you what that change would look like, but now I am beginning to imagine, to hope. Not for the kind of minimal change that has been achieved through numerous “reforms” through the decades, but through a ground-up rethinking of the whole rotten system.
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Although my thoughts are exploring the full scope of the potentially groundbreaking change that may be about to unfold, my personal and professional testimony can only be from the perspective of mental health, particularly among children and youth. Because, during my specialty training, I have gotten a glimpse into the inadequacies of the mental health system and their consequences. Not in a society like USAs, but in a Scandinavian country where such racially charged, minority-focused problems should feel distant and irrelevant. Sadly, they don’t… not anymore anyway.
Sweden has seen rising crime rates and particularly gang violence erupting on its streets in recent years, causing escalating concerns about public safety. The dominant narrative, driven originally by the conservative parties, has been that less immigration and more policing is the solution to these troubling developments. The deceptively simple logic has by now permeated even the dominant left parties, affecting Sweden’s government planning.
Doesn’t it make sense? Give fewer foreigners asylum and hire more police officers to combat crime, simple as that. Strangely, this doesn’t seem to have worked for America, where politicians have slowly started realizing that mass incarceration is not helpful. That the very notion of war on crime is counterproductive, primitive and inhumane. Because branding people as criminals and taking everything away from them, including their humanity, giving them zero chances to come back in society is not a solution for crime, by any measure.
In reality, prevention is more effective than any degree of fierce punishment. What I’ve seen in children’s psychiatric wards for example, is drug-use, violence and crime waiting to happen. The soon-to-be culprits? Not “junkies”, “thieves” or “murderers”, but vulnerable children and youth not getting the help they so desperately need.
See, no one is born a criminal. With very few exceptions, we are all initially just children wanting to feel safe and loved. It is a combination of problematic parenting, poor social circumstances and (not well understood) biologic dispositions that create distorted examples of love, responsibility and problem-solving. If children in such situations are offered real, longtime help and support, these distortions can be replaced so that drugs and crime would never seem like a viable or preferable solution for their troubled lives.
In this country, I’ve met youngsters that seek refuge and happiness in drug-use, only because their mental health problems have gone unnoticed, or the help they have received has had no effect. When we ask a 13-year-old boy why he has been secretly taking Tramadol — a light-version but dangerous opioid prescription drug — he answers that it’s the only thing that has helped with his dark and suicidal thoughts. A 15-year-old girl with undiagnosed ADHD hasn’t been able to resist her impulses and has ended up in destructive romantic relationships, as well as potentially criminal circles providing her with a mixture of smoked drugs that help her concentrate.
These teenagers can (and probably will) become future criminals if we don’t help them. But I don’t see a safety net that can really do that, in a country that should definitely have the resources. Oh, I forgot, more police is the priority here. Better wait for them to commit serious crimes, to put them in jail instead. Yeah, because we’ve established that this makes sense.
The problems black communities in America face are quite different of course. But the twisted logic of allocating resources to fighting crime once it happens, rather than preventing it altogether, is exactly the same. Reversing that logic is what “Defund the Police” is all about. Not zero police and lawlessness, but another, more sustainable and humane way towards safe neighborhoods. John Oliver’s take and explanation on the issue is as usual on the spot.
This is not a change that can come overnight, closing police stations and firing police officers, but a long struggle towards a future where their services could be much less needed. The city council of Minneapolis has showed that this is becoming much more than a simple discussion, deciding by a veto-proof vote to dismantle their Police Department after the events surrounding George Floyd’s murder.
Even though this initiative has started and is being driven forward by the force of the Black Lives Matter movement, fueled by the combination of shock and anger brought forth by the continuing police brutality against protestors, Defund the Police has the potential to become meaningful change for every vulnerable group of people around the globe. It promises not only to reduce crime, but to make people feel safe and happy. Even the ones with difficulties or though life circumstances. And that is ultimately best for our societies as a whole.
Communities in the USA have been pushed to the edge, where they start feeling they have nothing to lose. This leads to violent protests, with riots, vandalism and even looting in some cases, but it also gives unprecedented power to the people wanting their country to change to the core. I hope that the latter forces prevail and take the spotlight for good, shifting the conversation from anger and violence to meaningful and productive efforts towards a better country.
I hope that, in one of the country’s darkest moments, people’s best sides will inspire and guide the rest of the world to a future where such horrible acts belong in the history books. Call me optimistic or naive, but I intend to hope anyway. And if I can, help a little too.