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Policing - A Future Beyond Law Enforcement

What’s happened to bring about the divisiveness between police departments and the communities we serve?
Coffee with A Cop (Macie May/Longmont Observer)

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Mike Butler wrote the following in the fall of 2019 as an expression of how he envisioned police departments to be run.

Our country’s police profession can and needs to transform itself from being perceived as a necessary evil in our communities into a powerful, influential force for social good and justice! It is time for us in police to reset, recalibrate and rethink what we do and how we do it. We cannot wallow in self-pity with how we are being portrayed in the main or the social media and with many activists’ groups. As someone who has been a police practitioner for forty years, I can unequivocally say the police have a responsibility to help change that reality.

I have heard police chiefs say their police departments are at war with parts of or their entire communities. We’ve all heard many communities stand up and loudly say we want a different brand of policing. We all know that one decision by one of our police officers, whether justified or not, can upset the equilibrium of an entire community.

What’s happened to bring about the divisiveness between police departments and the communities we serve? I think it starts with what our prevailing role is in our communities and what we attach ourselves to. Perhaps this is controversial to say but over the past several decades the police have become more integrated  into our nation’s criminal justice system than our own communities. We are deeply rooted into a system that prosecutes and punishes people for committing crimes. What we have mostly become are enforcers, enforcers of the law. And that makes us the bad guy, the ultimate patriarch, the long arm of government. In my forty years of policing, I have never seen as much hyper scrutiny and mistrust of police. There is a critical sense of urgency to take a good, hard look at what we in police did and still do that contributes to that perception. The fact that we are videotaped by the public for much of what we do and that we now have cameras that videotape everyone else is a powerful sign of the mistrust and distance that exists between police and our communities.

The vast majority of police departments have management systems and internal processes exclusively geared for their enforcement role. Who we hire, how we train, our cultures, and even the architectural design of our police departments are focused on and support our authoritative enforcement role.

And to further add to the heavy-handed perception of police - we are the only civilian profession that has the anomalous authority to justifiably use less-lethal and lethal force as well as take people’s freedom away. In a society in which the rights of individuals are paramount, in many people’s mind, the police have too much power.

The police and all our powers have been placed into a precarious role in our society and have become a “go-to” institution for our country’s social ills. And with that, the prevailing humanness in our profession is more often seen as a character defect rather than the aggregate of all the compassion, dedication, courage and skills that exists in our police officers. As difficult as it might be, our police profession needs to be literally overhauled. 

And we can make adjustments as to how we’re regarded in our communities without compromising our enforcement responsibilities. The majority of our society wants to trust the police, they want us to be effective at solving crimes and they desire that we keep our communities safe by separating out those who choose to prey on the vulnerabilities of others.

What does that potential shift look like?

In Longmont, Colorado, a city of approximately 100,000 people, we began searching for alternatives to the criminal justice system years ago. We wanted to find more effective protocols to the many health and social issues or their residuals we respond to. At one point the only response Longmont police had was to arrest or ticket someone. That’s it. And I venture to say that the vast majority of our country’s police departments are still stuck with these very limited responses.

Longmont began using restorative justice over twenty years ago. To date, we have referred 6,000 offenders to our restorative justice process in lieu of arrests and tickets. Both kids and adults, misdemeanors and felonies and first time offenders those who’ve committed multiple offenses are offered this alternative.

Three years ago, we opened our doors to people tormented by chemical substance addiction. Basically, a chemically addicted person can walk into our police department and ask for assistance. To date, 250 people have walked through our doors and in each case, we found them treatment. We have access to over 100 addiction treatment providers who agreed to provide free treatment to those who do walk through our doors. Longmont is no longer a community in which one has to have financial wherewithal or insurance to obtain treatment for their addiction. We call this program our Angel Initiative.

Longmont also has Law Enforcement Addiction Diversion (LEAD) and a Crisis Outreach Response Engagement(CORE) programs to assist those who are struggling with addiction or their mental health through a harm reduction model. Our police officers can and do refer people who have committed crimes in our community and are struggling with addiction and/or their mental health to LEAD and CORE. The results have been remarkable. We have considerably less contact with our one time frequent flyers and we’ve seen a reduced proclivity by them to victimize others in our community. The development of relationships by our staff with those we encounter is key to the effectiveness of these programs.

And before anyone starts talking about how these people deserve to be arrested, I would like to share a study the Longmont Police Department conducted a few years ago. We looked at 235 people we arrested in one year for the felony crimes of car break-ins, burglaries, and vandalism. When we examined their criminal histories, we discovered that on average, each of those 235 people had been arrested nine times prior to the year they were arrested for one of these felonies and had sixteen charges filed against them. If you are thinking like I am, the definition of insanity comes to mind. And without a doubt, this study could be replicated in any community within the United States and police officers will anecdotally state this is their experience. Add to that recidivism rates of anywhere between 50 and 70 percent and one has to ask if the criminal justice system really effective.

Longmont developed alternatives different than arrests and tickets to respond to many of our social and health issues that result in crime and consume considerable public safety resources. We also have dozens of partners within our community that play a major role in these programs. These programs work in part because they are not isolated within government. All of these services are guided by the need to form healthy relationships with those we encounter. And we have developed considerable “social capital” to help assist as well. Our restorative justice services are provided by a non-profit in which over the years, fifteen to twenty thousand people in our community have participated. For our Angel Initiative, we recruit employers who are willing to offer employment to those coming back into our community and are in recovery. And of course, the treatment providers who provide free treatment is a major source of social capital. We estimate we have leverage somewhere between two and three million dollars in free treatment for people in our community.

Since July of 2014, Dan Benavidez, a former city councilman, walked neighborhoods in our community. Dan and I began what we called a Belonging Revolution in our community. We walked 200 plus neighborhoods in our community and talked to thousands of people. Our purpose was to encourage people to feel and belong to our community. We wanted people in our community to feel that powerful sense of belonging. Belonging brings about a sense that “I belong to something” and “something belongs to me.” Most of the neighborhoods we walked were comprised of apartments and mobile home parks. About seventy percent of those we met were Latino. We would often encounter monolingual families. Dan and I heard repeatedly that our walks made a big difference in how our Latino community, which comprises thirty percent of our city’s population, viewed our local police. Our police officers also walk neighborhoods regularly and will soon be joined by firefighters. We believe police and fire have unique and special platforms to provide this kind of encouragement. We will soon be making personal invitations to residents to become more engaged in our community. What these walks positively demonstrated is that our police could not only significantly enhance the relationship between police our community of color, we could also help foster the life-giving belief that those who may seem marginalized or disenfranchised had voices that counted, thoughts that mattered, and maybe most importantly that their humanness was valued

Changing how a community views its police department and the internal culture of a police department, no doubt, can be challenging. There is a template and a model for how those transformations can be brought to life. In every police department, It will take a long-term outlook with long-term, consistent management. We will need, in many cases, to radically change our  philosophy, policies and practices. Cultures in communities will also need to shift from seeing justice as only as punitive and exacted by “a pound of flesh” into more chosen accountability, repair of the harm and with reintegration. We will have to hire people into our profession that can and want to serve our communities as police officers who would thrive in this model. The conversations we have with ourselves and with our communities will need to revise from one of patriarchy to one of true partnership where joint accountability is practiced. There are numerous other clear changes within our organizations that will need to occur, that if listed, would double the size of this article.

And while the police have work to do to alter relationships with our communities and significantly shift the perception people have of the police, we can also point to an erosion and abdication of individual and neighborhood responsibility by people in our communities as well as the criminalization of many of our social and health issues as contributors to the perceived excess power police possess. Name the social issue and the police respond to either those issues or the residuals of those issues. The social vacuum created in our neighborhoods is now filled with more police presence and the increased responsibilities created by new and unworkable laws needlessly adds to the enforcement contacts between the police and those they serve.

Ask any police officer in our country if they respond to calls from the community in which a helpful neighbor may have been a better choice than a police officer or in which more parental guidance would have precluded police response or in which a less-afraid neighborhood would have helped someone and prevented a need for police to do a welfare check and police officers will say those calls represent a large portion of what we respond to. The police are held responsible for what is not working well in our communities. These are a few examples among many.

Examine how our country from the local to the federal level tries to remedy certain social and health issues and one will often discover new legislation or stiffer penalties as part of the formula. Well guess who responds to those new legislative mandates? The police do. As if passing a new law, stiffening a penalty or invoking the criminal justice system will serve as an insurance policy that will protect us from the human condition.

New legislation that tries to fix social issues translates into more police being thrust into our neighborhoods where economically disadvantaged and people of color reside. The poor and often people of color are contacted more than other social economic groups and subject to police action because of misguided beliefs that more laws will somehow fix a social or health issue like addiction, mental illness, homelessness and others. It can be easily debated with anyone that a significant contributor to the disparate impact for people of color in our criminal justice system has much to do with what we legislatively mandate the police to do or with the abdication of power and responsibility by many who live in our communities and neighborhoods.

There is another contributing factor to why the police are perceived as merely enforcers. This component also contributes to a punitive oriented criminal justice system and to the continual addition of more jail space to our currently full prisons. As a society, we are very ineffective in determining who needs to be separated out from our communities and referred to prison. Our one-size-fits-all mass production approach(arrest, prosecution, imprisonment) overwhelms an already overburdened criminal justice system resulting in too many needless arrests and immoral mass incarceration. Thresholds and criteria in which we invoke our criminal justice system will need to rethought and retooled when making these decisions. In lieu of our current “arrest and jail everyone” philosophy, we will need to develop alternative programs, structures, and mechanisms not unlike those in Longmont particularly for those who don’t need to be in prison.

We have approximately one million police officers throughout our country in just about every city, town and county. We are ready-made to bring about a future that is different than the past with our 24/7 presence and our unique platform. We should be part of building the social fabric in our communities, active in surfacing and activating the abundant but dormant social capital that exists, assisting in strengthening  our neighborhoods and becoming a beacon of hope for those who are disenfranchised. We can do these things and at the same time, sustain our more limited enforcement role in our country.

Like all of our institutions that want to remain credible, useful and a source for good in our country, the police will need to transform itself to enhance our value in our communities. We have to become much more integrated into our communities and less attached and reliant on our criminal justice system to restore trust and to recover our own legitimacy which has clearly eroded over the last number of years.

 An enormous challenge indeed but one that will first, add great value in the ways police provide services to our communities, second, create the kind of trust our communities want to have in us, and third, become a model for how many government institutions can become much more in tune with the communities they serve!