George Floyd’s death lit a fire in the hearts of people across the world.

People have been on the streets in towns small and large across America, and numerous other countries.

The NAACP launched the hashtag “#WeAreDoneDying.” The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is being carried on signs, shouted by people of all colors and showing up on murals. Although police brutality has forever been part of our nation’s history, this death was one too many.

The mass outpouring of people crying out for change finally gives our country an opportunity to rethink how we police this nation. Hence, “Defund the Police” as a new cry for change. This phrase scares a lot of people. Some Americans imagine streets completely devoid of police and a descent into lawlessness. But that is neither the goal nor the likely result if done in a systematic way.

Let’s break down why we need to radically envision our communities and how we keep them safe.

First, most black people can tell you that police fail to keep their communities safe despite a massive presence. Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police despite making up a much smaller percentage of the population, and are disproportionately profiled, targeted and incarcerated.

Modern police departments are simply not equipped to keep our communities safe.

Police are prepared for terrorism with tactical gear, pepper spray and shields, all of which have been used on peaceful citizens in recent days. Cheri Maples, a former police officer, decried the money invested in items such as riot gear, while little was invested in the emotional resiliency of officers. She observed more police dying from suicides than in the line of duty.

Since most communities, including Johnstown, lack critical support networks for the poor and mentally ill, police are often called on to assist in areas where they have little to no training or ability to help. The risk of a mentally ill person being killed during a police encounter is 16 times higher than the general population.

Just recently, a Johnstown man was shot after he had been picked up repeatedly by police, brought to the local hospital, and then was killed after breaking into a woman’s house. This incident highlights the cracks in our community.

Our local police attempted to help this individual, but the fact is that our community lacks essential support for someone with serious mental health issues, and the police are not equipped to assist individuals with such needs.

Funds directed toward police place a priority on punishing individuals after crimes have been committed. Funds directed toward social services can help fulfill needs in the community so that crimes do not occur.

Instead of pouring more money into police and forcing them to address problems they are ill-equipped to solve, some of that money should be redirected to social and community programs that can address the root causes of crime and prevent it from happening in the first place.

I think we can do better in Johnstown. Some places are already presenting models we can follow.

Austin, Texas, recently added millions for mental-health services, and 911 calls now direct people to mental health, fire or police assistance. Eugene, Oregon, began a crisis-intervention program that now sends out a medic and crisis worker instead of police in response to health crises.

Many cities have begun using Cure Violence programs to help defuse potentially violent situations before they escalate using trained moderators rather than police.

Johnstown’s “Hope 4 Johnstown” organization began its own Cure Violence program this past year after receiving a one-year grant. Incorporating such a program into the city budget could provide a long-term sustainable alternative to over-policing.

We’ll still need a police force for some situations, and there are several possible ways we can re-envision policing to prevent tragedies and improve community relationships with police.

Some specific changes can include ending no-knock warrants and military-style raids, eliminating funds for military-style gear and incorporating regular anti-bias training.

We are in a historic moment in our country right now. We finally have the opportunity to make transformative change to our society that can correct historic flaws. It is vital that we stop and recognize these flaws. We must acknowledge that the historic institution of policing is built on slave patrols and union busting.

Police officers share biases that assume black Americans are more dangerous and criminal than white Americans.

These problems cannot be easily fixed, and require transformative change.

As a mother, I want to live in a society where all children can have an equal opportunity of growing safely into adulthood.

As a mother of a black boy, I am pleading for transformative change before he becomes the next George Floyd.

Christine Dahlin is an associate professor of biology at Pitt-Johnstown and co-chair of the Unity Coalition of the Southern Alleghenies, a social justice organization whose mission is to promote respect for difference, to repudiate words and acts of hatred, intimidation and violence, and to take a public stand for equality, diversity and non-violence.

Recommended for you