Unpacking With Lex | Rethinking the Police: A Study Guide


Unpacking With Lex is an occasional column examining current issues affecting mamas and kiddos — often outside of our respective bubbles. Pour a cuppa, grab your coffee or sip on a cocktail while our resident nerd provides the TME lowdown on topics worth noting. Let’s get cozy.

I am listening to Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and founder of the Black Futures Lab on an October segment of The Brian Lehrer Show. She is addressing policing in America. She says policing in America is based on a system of slavery and discrimination that warrants it unsafe for people of color. She does not call the police where she lives in Oakland, California, because they do not come.

Garza speaks of children being interrogated, and shot for going to the store to buy a soda and some Skittles. This is our America. This is a systemic issue. This is not an individual issue.

Garza is on the show to address the murder of Atatiana Jefferson. If you don’t remember that police shooting, it occurred last fall when Jefferson was babysitting her 8-year-old nephew. While the two were playing X-Box games, Jefferson was shot by a police officer who had come through her backyard, allegedly to see if she was OK, because her front door was open.

What Alicia Garza and Black Lives Matter and those familiar with futile attempts at police reform are suggesting is called alternative policing. It’s what would have (hopefully) prevented 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson from being shot in her home in front of her 8-year-old nephew, or George Floyd from becoming an arrest-turned-murder for a fake $20 bill or Rayshard Brooks from becoming an attempted arrest-turned-murder for being drunk and asleep in his car. Garza underscores that we have a systemic issue with a profession; it’s not about individuals within a police force.

We have a system, a profession, charged with keeping people safe — that’s what we tell each other and that’s what we tell ourselves—, and yet incident after incident after incident, black people, brown people, poor people are being shot and killed, by police, across this country and nothing is changing about it. We have to deal with the racism embedded in policing as a function in our society, and we have to deal with how we keep people safe, and how we keep people alive, and deal with problems differently….Our job is to challenge preconceived notions that to tinker with the thing is going to make it better. Tinkering with training is not going to stop black people from being murdered. Public apologies are not going to stop black people from being murdered. We have to have systemic change, which means that we have to investigate how systems function, we have to investigate why they function that way, in order to actually transform those systems into things that actually work for everybody”


Atatiana Jefferson’s neighbor, James Smith, 62, told the press after her death that he regretted calling the police for a wellness check. “If you don’t feel safe with the police department, then who do you feel safe with?” he asked. “If I had never dialed the police department, she’d still be alive.”

Listen to the full episode to hear how Garza examines that moment. In it, Garza addresses the broader context of policing: “We deploy people with guns for wellness checks and mental health checks that don’t require those levels of responses.” She very clearly elucidates some of the problematic issues the abolish police, defund police and policing alternatives movements attempt to solve.

Storytime: Mama Bears > Police Officers

August 2019: We are five beautiful women (and moms) at dinner, two of whom are not U.S Citizens, and three of whom are affected by the current immigration polarization in the United States of America. But no one’s bothering us.

Until we go outside.

We go outside for one last goodbye, and there the police are bothering a group of young black boys — right in front of us — as in, we are on the sidewalk, they are in the street next to us, near the curb, as if in a parking space. We literally fall into silence, eyeing each other pointedly and observe.

We watch these cops trying so hard to be on their best behavior because EVERYONE on the block is watching. We five are right in the front row of this show. A man, brown-skinned, sits down across the street on the steps of the original Anthropologie with his phone held up — I hope it’s on and I hope it’s taping. I am too tight-throated and discombobulated to get my phone to record. Later, when I finally look around, I see that the entire waitstaff of the restaurant we just vacated is standing outside, too, watching. Many people are.

These are the times when I am not proud of my neighborhood — the neighborhood I chose for my child to live in so she could be in this environment — the one with the first Anthro and the museums and the city parks delegated by William Penn, and the bike lanes and street fairs, and the ability to walk around at night past fancy restaurants and bars — and the “good” elementary school. I did not move her here to live in this environment — the one where the bicycle cops harass BIPOC for sitting along the wall of the park, or for playing their music too loud, while myself and my white friends sit and drink wine on a picnic blanket after work — alcohol explicitly prohibited, too — but no one bothers us then. As soon as I heard on the radio, in 2018, that two young black men had been arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, I knew that was my neighborhood Starbucks. So while I am always proud to be surrounded by this village of woke, educated, well-meaning families — many of whom I love — the juxtaposition of our values and some of the actions that occur here does not bring me peace. 

So we watch silently. We look at each other. We make sure the police know that ALL of us are watching. Witnessing.

The scene is, quite frankly, stupid. I believe that’s the word President Obama used to describe how the police behaved during the Henry Louis Gates situation a decade or so ago. The cops are questioning the boys in an inane, cyclical way. The boys — maybe Raines’ and AJ’s age, have plastic single-use bags from the 7-Eleven. The police want to know what they were doing there (buying candy).

It’s likely around 10PM — well, shortly thereafter. Curfew is 10PM, apparently. Apparently this “summer curfew” is only covered by TV news, so I knew nothing of it, but it goes something like this: The citywide summer curfew requires minors 13 and older be inside by midnight, and minors under 13 must be in by 10 p.m. The argument for it is that these kids are “scary” and “dangerous”. I have mixed feelings about this curfew. Yes, perhaps kids should not be out after 10pm or midnight, but…uhhhh….when we’re interrogating kids at literally just after 10PM for buying at candy at a 7-Eleven…it seems more like a nuisance law. Nuisance laws, (like ‘no loitering’) keep people in “their place”. 

Anyway, back to the inane questioning. It is cyclical. What are you doing? Who were you with? Why were you at 7-Eleven? What are you doing here? Where’s your brother now? Where do you live? If you live all the way up there, what are you doing here? Basically, what they’re trying to ask is “why are you in THIS NEIGHBORHOOD?”

I surmise, from this head-banging-inducing line of questioning, that the boys had been at a movie with their other brother(s), and the older brother(s) had eventually left them to go somewhere, and to let the boys get home on their own (via public transport). Note: we have no subway stop in our neighborhood (why is a different story), and no direct bus lines to the north from the center of our neighborhood.

Supposedly, some people in the neighborhood had called the police to complain that the boys were “harassing them.” Some of the boys had tape wrapped around their legs — kind of hilarious, and totally middle school. There are no weapons. It is unclear what the “harassment” entailed; the officers do not specify. The boys seem ignorant, naive and innocent enough for none of us to endure this circle of questioning any longer.

The officers begin to ask the boys for their names, and their mama’s names and phone numbers. This would lead to a fine at least, hundreds of dollars their parents did not likely have to spare, or worse — charges of neglect, a call to CPS. But curiously, the officers are not calling the parents on the spot. If they had been concerned with the boys’ safety — which they did not claim they were — they would have called the mamas right then and there. It is absurd — if you’re into logic and what should be happening.

What I do know from teaching boys that age, and from teaching black and brown boys, and children from varying socio-economic backgrounds, is that there is no imminent de-escalation. As long as the police keep questioning these boys — questioning being a white middle class tactic for establishing authority — the boys will continue to be defensive and we’ll all be submerged in this testosterone-induced quicksand.

The pace at which we are going nowhere is maddening.

Eventually my Teacher-Mama-Bear rises up. As the police bumble and fumble to seem as though they are protecting us and our neighborhood (they are clearly unclear on how to protect these boys), my gut tells me to pull out the teacher card. My light skin will protect me. The fact that I look like I “belong’ in the neighborhood will protect me. And as they try to seem not-so-aggressive, fumbling to jot down names and phone numbers while sussing out why the boys are in “THIS neighborhood”, I eventually stand up. We have been so silent — watching.

We walk over gingerly, and intervene. I state that I used to be a teacher and that I’m used to dealing with kids this age. Someone mentions that we all have kids. We say the best solution is for us moms to take it from here.

I ask the boys which bus they need to take, assert that I know exactly how to get to this bus. The officers seem surprised that we offer to risk our lives to walk these boys to the bus stop. M and I are walking that way anyway. Surely we can get the boys to the stop for the busses so that they can get home safely….me and my non-citizen friend and neighbor and mom date. We mom friends part ways. Some observers — and actors — seem so stunned at this simple solution.

We walk the boys a block north, where I pick up my bike; they wait, while I unlock it and load it down with my bags. We head north. We chat with the kids about their ages and their school, and where I taught. They are energetic, but not rude or dangerous. One attempts to leave his litter on a table as we pass an eatery, M tells him to pick it up and throw it out properly. He does. A few blocks later, the police officers, on their bikes, pull out of an alley…they must have been lying in wait…and finally go on about their business. Who knows if any actual crimes were being committed in that 30 or 40 minutes.

As we near the bus stop — we’re across the street, the stop a good 4-5 lanes of traffic out of reach — a bus approaches. It is the correct bus, the one they need to catch. I lament that they will miss it, and check my phone for the next bus. But the boys begin to run — “Do you have a bus pass/money for the bus?!” They affirm and sprint toward the bus. M and I wait, watching. The bus remains where it is, and the boys get on. The bus pulls away. We have done our civic duty. We continue our walk home.

Rethinking The Police: The Low-Down

Who You Gonna Call: But seriously, Ghost Busters may be a better choice than the police. Watch Trevor Noah breakdown the Rayshard Brooks killing, which for the first 30 minutes goes pretty much like the story above, except instead of ensuring Brooks gets to his sister’s safely, the officers escalate the situation. Alternative policing means we don’t call the police when someone is using a charcoal grill in the park, or for asking us to leash our dogs in Central Park. It means that instead of calling the police when a young child is crossing the street alone, instead we approach her, find out who her people are and where they are, and get her to them safely. That way, her mother doesn’t get prosecuted and the child doesn’t get taken away — simply because the mother was in the bathtub with headphones on, the child couldn’t find her, and the child had been told if she can’t find momma, to walk across the street to grandma’s. Alternative policing means when your neighbor is having a party, you talk to everyone but the police — the neighbor, preferably— in order to get your noise complaint resolved, so that your neighbor doesn’t get evicted. These may seem like extreme examples, but they are real. Oftentimes calling the police for low-level, non-violent offenses results in imprisonment for misdemeanors, for lack of ability to post bail, for violations of parole, and it can increase the recidivism rate. Sometimes, as in the cases of Justine Damond, Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd, it results in death. Read: When Calling the Police Is a Privilege:

In the days following the Starbucks incident, several people, including Karen Attiah of The Washington Post and Jason Johnson of The Root, have noted that in case after case—black children at a swimming pool, a black Harvard professor trying to get into his house, and the latest, two black men waiting for a business meeting at Starbucks—white people have routinely called the police for situations that could have likely been resolved with a conversation.

Adam Harris, The Atlantic

If you need more convincing to rethink the police, listen to this: Ingrained Injustice Talks That Contextualize This Moment (Ted Radio Hour). If you can make the time, listen to the whole show. If you can’t, at least listen to How To Deconstruct Racism, One Headline At A Time: “Writer and comedian Baratunde Thurston explores the phenomenon of white Americans calling the police on black Americans for doing everyday things. He reveals the power of language to change stories of trauma into stories of healing.” and Black Life At The Intersection Of Birth And Death (“Performing her poem “The Joys of Motherhood,” Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa explores the experience of black mothers in America and discusses the impact of the Movement for Black Lives. She says, it’s impossible to separate the two.”

I’ve grouped your “course reading” into 4 sections below: Alternative to Calling the Police, Abolishing the Police, Defunding the Police and Reforming the Police. While addressing public safety and the police is only one element of systemic racism to contend with, it’s likely to one to get the most results right now—if everyone can stay in the fight. I’ve offered up a brief description of each, so poke around, do the research, see what’s possible.

Alternatives To The Police

The idea behind alternatives to policing is to find ways to solve problems, promote public safety and decrease violence without involving the police. Because prior to this moment (behind which there is currently a lot of energy toward defunding and/or abolishing the police), police “reforms” are all we’ve gotten — and the data has shown these don’t work. In addition to understanding that police often do not solve problems, that they often do not promote public safety (at least for marginalized communities), that they’re often called for non-violent, non-human-harming offenses, it’s also related to the idea that by bringing police into communities, particularly where there may already be violence, brings more violence into the community and can further re-traumatize victims of violence. Calling 911 is what people should do IN AN EMERGENCY — when life is being threatened. Alternative policing is an “in the meantime” — while we wait for defunding or abolishing — approach.

*BTW — if you’ve been calling 911 for the nightly fireworks many of us have been hearing recently, listen to Brooklyn Borough President and former police officer Eric Adams, on meeting this moment by reassessing how we use 911 for quality of life policing.

  • Who is “Karen” and Why Does She Keep Calling the Police on Black Men? (Listen — On The Media) Understand some of the absurdity about calling the police for non-violent offenses. Professor Apryl Williams also explains memes about “Karen”, “Becky”, “Susan” and other phenomena about white women who want to speak your manager (or the police).
  • Six Ideas for a Cop-Free World — (Read — Rolling Stone) So this article is pretty basic, and the links within are pretty academic, but if you’re new to the idea of defunding or abolishing the police, or of alternatives to policing, it’s a good place to start and get your head in there.
  • 12 Things To Do Instead Of Calling The Cops (Read — A Guide) Click on Explore the full resource here. This is a pretty good list of things that range from just not calling the police for things like vandalism, to actually getting trained in de-escalation and/or advocacy in your community. There are tons of more related resources here.
  • How to Start a Neighborhood Association (Read — NYTimes, Smarter Living) Even if your neighborhood association isn’t specifically about public safety, it’ll help ensure everyone gets to know each other, and hopefully precipitate people approaching each other about concerns they have as opposed to dialing 911 and bringing the police into the community. If your existing neighborhood association is huge and older, you may want to consider a smaller, more progressive approach.
  • ALTERNATIVES TO CALLING THE POLICE AND POLICE AND JUSTICE REFORMS — (Read — Multiple Guides) This is an excellent overview with a lot of really good, useful information. While it is long; it is chunked into different sections and not overly academic. The graphics are great, the bullet points are helpful, and the links are useful. It’s sort of a one-stop-shop for everything to know about alternative policing.
  • Organizing for Community Accountability — (Read — INCITE!) This a more progressive approach of community organizing, and relates specifically to addressing violence within a community. While it may not apply to you personally, it does provide a progressive vision of the types of relationships and actions that prevent bringing more violence into a community by introducing the police. You can read more about INCITE! here, and more about organizing and their vision for ending law enforcement violence here.
  • Where’s the ethical line for calling a nonemergency police number on a person of color? (Read — NYT Ethical Advice) The second question and answer in this column deals with a young woman’s decision not to call 911 on a group of loud neighbors. The first question is interesting in terms of how we think about race.

Abolishing The Police

What does the call to “abolish police” mean? The language is directly linked to the country’s racist origins of slavery and genocide, and the reckoning that modern policing stems from slave patrols in the south, and protecting wealth and controlling labor in the north. Eliminating the system as it stands abolishes that connection to slavery and black-and-brown bodies, and allows folks to reimagine what types of public safety we need today. To abolish the police does not mean we do not need public safety, but rather that the current system is working exactly as it was meant to: to control black and brown bodies, to protect wealth & to police labor. It does mean that we have the opportunity to recreate public safety in a way that works for all peoples.

  • What Does It Mean to Defund or Abolish the Police? (Watch — The Daily Show with Trevor Noah) This is hands-down one of the best discussions about defunding or abolishing the police. A panel featuring 5 experts on the topic (Patrisse Cullors, Josie Duffy Rice, Sam Sinyangwe, Mychal Denzel Smith and Alex S. Vitale) digs in on what these calls translate to in real life.
  • How We Keep Our Communities Safe (Listen — On The Media) — To understand the call to abolish police, one must first understand its origins. This is the best interview so far that I’ve heard elucidating the problems with the current system of policing. I actually got a phone call from a friend after he listened to this, mind-blown. Yale professor Elizabeth Hinton explains the evolution of the American police from the slave patrols of the colonial era to the militarization of the police starting with the Viet Nam war. Such a good conversation. If All Things Considered is more your speed, this convo with Michel Martin will do it for you: The History Of Policing And Race In The U.S. Are Deeply Intertwined (Listen), think of it as the 6-minute alternative to the OTM discussion.
  • If you’re surprised by how the police are acting, you don’t understand US history: (Read – The Guardian) A really good article if you prefer to read about the origins of policing. For more on the heinous behavior of slave patrols, listen to this Fresh Air interview about The Texas Rangers.
  • Police Abolition Explained (Listen — All Of It) Nicole Lewis, a writer for The Marshall Project, sheds light on what “defund the police” actually means. She discusses the difference between “abolish police” (deliberately tying it to the slave patrols it evolved from) to “defund police” (moving money to other social services for both prevention of criminal issues, as well as addressing civil issues) to “reform police” (things like implicit bias training, diversity recruiting and body cameras).
  • What a World Without Cops Would Look Like (Read — Mother Jones) An interview with sociology professor Alex Vitale, the coordinator of the Policing & Social Justice Project and author of The End of Policing.
  • What I Mean When I Say I Want To Abolish The Police (Read — The Independent) I found this article after searching for the acronym “ACAB” from a reader comment. It’s pretty basic, but does explain what people mean when they say “All Cops Are Bastards”.

Defunding The Police

What does the call to “defund police” mean? To defund police means to move funding away from police and into social programs (education, social work, healthcare). Shana mentioned this in her recent moving forward post. It results in the dismantling of a lot of responsibilities and actions of police, without actually untying the profession from its shady origins. Those who call for abolition see dismantling as essential to recreating, while defunding allows the police “work” to continue but with a smaller budget and possibly a lower number of bodies, because social issues are dealt with by appropriate organizations.

Reforming The Police & Glaring Problems In Policing

Reforming the police refers to things like implicit bias training, diversity recruiting and body cameras, basically bullshit courses and enhancements to a system that isn’t changing. Defund police and abolish police movements maintain the position that reforms don’t work — and that policing is working in the exactly the way it was meant to. There is a whole list of reforms worth wading into, some of which could and should be done ASAP — think qualified immunity, use of tear gas, no-knock warrants, excessive use of force, some of which are below. If aiming to work toward reform, go for these biggies.

Happy studying! (— And be sure to sign those petitions, write those letters, donate those funds, get the word out, listen, learn, move, act and keep engaging)…


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Lex is our resident nerd, watchful editor & Chief Innovation Officer. Voted most likely to win BIG on Jeopardy!, she keeps us ahead of the curve, whether in mapping out strategy that has us dropping content at the moment you’re Googling for it, or branching us out into new channels/ media & letting us know what trends are giving. If you sit in on any meeting, you’ll often hear the phrase, “Ok, so Lex was right…” With her own personal style (boots, dresses, scarves), she doesn’t consider herself a fashionista, but she is keeping us #well #sustainable #empathetic #inclusive #current #DownToEarth & #OpenMinded; her wisdom ranges from yoga home practice & Feng Shui-ing an apartment, to living overseas & crushing analytics.

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  1. Thank you for another great article with so many resources to learn more. BC has 2 women in the news just now over being injured during RCMP “wellness ” checks. Definitely time to move on from broken systems here in Canada too.

  2. Thank you so much for educating us. I appreciate the time you took, especially since we shouldn’t be relying on BIPOC folx to do the work for us. So glad that you have this platform!

  3. So grateful for your gift of a column, Lex. I love you for sharing so many resources on so many important issues close to my heart. Once a teacher, always a teacher. Thank you.

  4. Thank you so much, Lex! Having all of these resources in one spot is so helpful. I’m so grateful for the work you’re doing and I’m sharing it as far and wide as possible.

  5. Mama Bear here, I am sick of the treatment of boys in general. Not to diminish the message of police here in this post. But the disparaging of boys needs to end. If those were girls (in the mama bear writing), would it be the same ?? Boys are kids too. They don’t need to be treated differently, dismissed, to somehow ALWAYS be on the radar as something worrisome. Sometimes when you do this – people give up. And live up to this negativity coming at them since they were little. They don’t deserve it. #boymom

  6. Thank you for this amazing article, and especially for standing up for the boys. I am thankful that the ;police were willing to let you help instead of being defensive. And yes, the police were tracking the boys and lying in wait in case something ‘happened;’ that they could use as an excuse.

  7. This is a thoughtful article and I recognize and appreciate your passion for understanding one facet of this. But oh, this is so much bigger than this facet, and the confusion i have with how you can ignore the basics of law and law enforcement, is more than I can express in a comment. I’ll try to submit an email or letter and I hope you’ll consider responding.

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