by James Abrenio, a trial attorney who “specializes in Personal Injury & Criminal Defense throughout Virginia,” who has served as a public defender, and who has served on the Board of the National Alliance of Mental Illness of Northern Virginia.
We are living in truly unique times. Amidst a global pandemic, we have a president who would prefer to lay waste to free-and-fair elections rather than concede a clear loss (306-232 electoral votes; around 4 percentage points in the popular vote). Still experiencing flashbacks to 2016, the complete surrender by an entire political party to Trumpism, and a closer-than-anticipated election, many of us are wondering, “what the heck is going on in America?!?”
Right on cue, finger-pointing has begun within the Democratic Party. Two prominent Democrats from purple/red districts – Conor Lamb and Abigail Spanberger – have argued that calls for Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal and “Defund the Police” resulted in them barely holding on to their seats. More progressive members, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, retorted that these very policies compelled unprecedented turnout, while some Democrats committed campaign malpractice with their lack of digital presence on social media. All the while, pundits speculate that the Democratic Party is being torn apart from the inside. What I see, instead, is healthy debate that is leading to tangible change.
A perfect example relates to the slogan “Defund the Police.” To be clear, there is confusion as to its actual meaning. For the far right, it is a purported “socialist” demand for anarchy. While some on the left interpret the concept literally, I believe that for many Democrats, the term is more of a rallying call for rethinking policing in this post-George Floyd era.
From the perspective of this local criminal defense attorney, “Defund the Police” is not a call to close police departments or to empty law enforcement coffers. Instead, it is a demand to rethink policing in America. It is a recognition that mass incarceration is real; that systemic racism exists; and that our jails are disproportionately filled with black and brown people, the poor, and those suffering from severe mental illness. It is an effort to do what we do in every other single faction of life – learn from our mistakes and try to become better, more educated, empathetic people. It is not “Defunding the Police” – it is Progressive Policing.
The push for Progressive Policing has created space for tangible change where it matters – at the local levels. In Virginia, Governor Northam signed into law the MARCUS Alert System. Named after Marcus-Davis Peters, a 24 year old, African-American high school teacher killed amidst a mental health crisis, the bill requires localities to create crisis teams, placing mental health professionals alongside law enforcement, when responding to calls of individuals suffering a mental health crisis. Only days later, Prince William County announced an expansion of its “Co-Responder Pilot Program,” a similar effort at the county level.
With endeavors like the MARCUS Alert System, hopefully, Progressive Policing leads to increased institutional knowledge. The culture of the mental health world ingrained into law enforcement, leading to more creative solutions than simply arresting and jailing, while relieving some of the heavy burden off police officers’ shoulders, whom we currently demand flawless responses. In turn, this will allow police officers to refocus their efforts to where they are most impactful.
The reality is Progressive Policing will likely lead to increased funding for the police – mental health professionals are not free, and their efforts must be supported with resources. This additional investment, financial and otherwise, is worth the potential return – healthier, safer communities for all.
The movement towards Progressive Policing would have been impossible but for the well-rounded efforts by all of those involved – progressives, moderates, and, yes, even some conservatives.
Whether our national politicians acknowledge it (or even realize it), our country needs them all – the Lambs and Spanbergers alongside the AOCs of the world. Indeed, the Democratic Party needs them too. Without this passionate, internal debate, we become a party of one – One Message, One Ideology, and, most dangerous of all, One Person. And we all see where that leads.