People For the American Way

I Know There’s a Solution to Police Reform Because I’ve Seen It


In the wake of the tragic death of Tyre Nichols, yet another young Black man killed by police, I feel frustrated over the conversations happening around public safety reform. On one side, some progressives advocate for a complete abolition of police departments, which is far from realistic. On the other side, many on the Far Right demand we throw the book at anyone convicted of a crime. Neither approach works.

Having spent 15 years in public office in Ithaca, New York, first on the city council and then as mayor, I know what it takes to redesign public safety the right way. I’ve written about it extensively, and People For has developed a vital report on the subject. We made it happen in Ithaca, and the same model can work in cities around the country. It takes hard work and open minds on all sides, but it can be done. Here’s how we get started.

Progressives Have a Winning Message on Crime Which We Don’t Use Enough

In the United States, we have more guns than people and more gun crime than any other country. No one can sensibly argue that crime isn’t a massive problem in this country. People deserve to feel safe, and they deserve to believe their systems are working for them.

Far Right media uses our deep desire for safety to argue for stiff prison sentences supposedly protecting society from people they consider undesirable. I won’t get into the ulterior motives behind tough on crime rhetoric, but the fact is, if a tough on crime approach actually worked, then the U.S. would be the safest country in the world. It doesn’t, and we’re not.

Progressive policies, on the other hand, have a track record of effective public safety reform without causing chaos during implementation or alienating the very communities we’re meant to serve. This is the message we need to get across and use to inspire hope in robust, progressive public safety reform.

Crime Can Be Decreased – We Have the Data to Prove It

In Ithaca, we proved public safety reform is possible, not by adding more police, but by investing in social services which genuinely improve people’s lives. Our fastest growing departments during my time in office were community centers, cultural centers, and centers for children. We invested in our community and crime went down. Even during the height of the pandemic when crimes nationwide went up, in Ithaca they went down. The reason is simple: when you take care of people’s economic, cultural, and community needs, your streets become safer.

This same approach is also working in places like Albuquerque, New Mexico. Instead of relying on armed officers, they’re investing in social workers and sending them to answer many 911 calls. So far, they’ve diverted 20,000 calls which otherwise would have gone to the police department. These social workers help ensure police can focus on actual crime prevention and getting guns off the streets rather than responding to every noise complaint or traffic accident which in no way necessitates an armed response.

We can lessen conflicts and build safer communities, especially in over-policed communities of color that have good reason to distrust police departments, by prioritizing well-trained, unarmed professionals who community members can believe are sincerely there to help.

There’s Too Much at Stake to Stick with a Broken System

To be a man of color and to watch in real time what the system does to people who look like me, to fear for what else the system will do and how it will affect my siblings’ safety, makes me want to ensure every police department is as safe, responsible, and professional as possible. There’s a way to do it. We’ve done it in Ithaca. Other cities like Eugene, OR, Berkeley, CA, and Brooklyn Center, MN, have found similar success. I believe we can build a brighter future for kids who are growing up in the same circumstances I did and who deserve to feel safe from crime and from the police.

We start by talking honestly about the problems, then looking objectively at the potential solutions. Too many people have lost their lives to let this go on. Let’s get busy and fix public safety together.


police reform, public safety, public safety reform