Patrick Sharkey: Keep the Police, but Add a Corps of Problem Solvers

Police are effective in reducing violence, according to Patrick Sharkey. “When there are more police on the street, there’s less violence, and we have very good evidence on that,” Sharkey said during a virtual “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program on July 22.

But that is only part of what is needed to make communities safe, Sharkey said. The reliance on police to deal with safety in urban areas has left big inequalities and needs unaddressed. That’s one of the key factors behind the enormous wave of protests since the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis in May.

So Sharkey, a professor of sociology and urban affairs at Princeton University and an expert on the value of community efforts in increasing safety, has been calling in places such as the Washington Post and New York Times, for bold experiments in new ways to help neighborhoods.

That led to Sharkey’s online conversation with Gousha, Marquette Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy. Sharkey has done consulting in Milwaukee in recent years and has visited Marquette Law School twice previously.

“We’ve become very dependent, we’ve become very reliant, on policing in the past 50 years,” Sharkey told Gousha. That goes beyond having police officers respond to crimes to having them deal with mental health issues, homelessness, domestic disputes, drug addiction, and many other matters that they aren’t really trained to handle. And the inequalities of life in cities, especially in neighborhoods where the residents are mostly Black or Hispanic, have gotten worse with the increase in emphasis on law enforcement and not problem solving.

Sharkey’s response to calls for “defunding the police” is not to cut officers or budgets, but to create a different set of well-funded, well-trained professionals who would respond to a wide range of other community needs while police deal with crime and emergencies.

Sharkey said his expectation is that if an effective second stream of problem-solvers served communities, “this is going to be at least as effective as the police on controlling violence.”

Community organizations have had major positive impacts in cities across the country, he said. But the efforts have been limited.  “We need to start investing in a different set of actors (than the police), a different set of institutions, and give them a chance with the same resources to create safe communities,” Sharkey said. “We need a model to reduce violence further but to do it a different way.” .

Violence has, in reality, fallen sharply across the country, including in most urban centers, since the 1990s, Sharkey said, and America as a whole is safer today than it may ever have been. That is true even with some rebound in crime rates in recent years and a surge of violence in some places (including Milwaukee) this year.

But, as valuable as the decline in violence is, it is not enough to create the strong communities if the gaps between rich and poor, and between people who are white and people who are not, remain so great. That is why a different approach, emphasizing helping people, is needed, Sharkey said. He said he hopes a bold mayor and a bold philanthropist somewhere will step up to create a demonstration project in line with his ideas.

To view the video of the conversation with Sharkey, click here.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. James Blumenberg

    First…agree with what Sharkey sets forth. Consider: change in politics & its definition. Used to be the “art of compromise”. Now it’s exercise of “power”. Political power impacting police in Milwaukee can be traced to state legislation that created a cabinet form of government for the city. ( I.e. Norquist). This removed the Ex Dir of the FPC from the commission to the political bodies. Further, the criteria used to select FPC members needs to be examined and publicly set forth. Finally, the size (number) of commissioners must be kept small. Adding numbers does not lead to effectiveness, quality and their individual KSA’s do. How would (you) like to be Chief of Police? Presently, think of those you’re responsible to: FPC, mayor, members of Common Council, the public, God help him. We must define the proper role of politics in the daily operation of the PD!

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