Volume 59

Are Police the Key to Public Safety?: The Case of the Unhoused

by Barry Friedman

We as a nation have to think deeply about what it means for a community to be safe, and what role the police play (or do not play) in achieving that safety. We have conflated, if not entirely confused, two very different things. One is the desire to be safe, and how society can assist with safety, even for the most marginalized or least well-off among us. The other is the role of the police. Contrary to what many seem to think, the police are not a one-size-fits-all provider of public safety. 

In this paper, I discuss this issue in the context of one of the most intractable and challenging problems in the United States: that of unhoused individuals living among us. Rather than doing what we are able to do to help them find their way to safety, we criminalize their conduct. This does not solve the problem—indeed it creates a revolving door of street to jail to street. We reach this result because we have failed to utilize cost-benefit analysis around public safety issues and are especially neglectful of social costs, and because we also have failed to have a candid conversation about what public safety means and how to achieve it. This paper suggests alternative approaches to public safety, instead of relying so heavily on the police. One of them is an untried idea of creating an entirely new set of first responders—individuals holistically trained, including in social services, mediation, and much else—to deal effectively with social needs they encounter on the streets. 

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