So, what’s the alternative?
Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative
Residents of Atlanta, in the state of Georgia, can now dial 311 instead of 911 if they feel the need to call someone when a person is panhandling or looking for food and shelter, but don’t want to call the cops.
Calls are received by a referral co-ordinator from the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD), who dispatches a two-person team of harm reduction specialists. The team brings food and hygiene items and speaks to the person who prompted the call to gauge their interest in receiving support.
Through partnerships with the city, county and other nonprofits, PAD aims to divert people away from jail and toward resources. Instead of being traumatized, they are connected to options for temporary and permanent housing, recovery services and physical and mental healthcare. Currently, PAD operates on weekdays between 7.00am and 7.00pm – but by the end of 2022 will be assisting with a 24-hour diversion centre in Southwest Atlanta.
PAD’s workers envision systemic change while enacting material change for our most marginalized neighbours every day. It’s a labour of love. When I began a legal internship at PAD in June 2021, the Georgia Department of Corrections began taking a quarter of my stipend as a ‘cost’ for incarcerating me – a fee paid out of funding for non-carceral solutions.
I decided to go to law school as a means of building power as an abolitionist. Never in a million years did I imagine I would be working closely with police officers and prosecutors. Most of the people served by PAD are diverted to us by officers who come into contact them, recognize they have quality-of-life needs that can’t be properly dealt with by the police, and call PAD instead of proceeding with an arrest.
One of our long-time participants, a veteran named Antonio Bryant, always thanks the Atlanta police officer who introduced him to PAD. He openly shares his experiences at police training sessions and with those experiencing homelessness right outside our office. ‘I have to let them know that they can make a change the same way I did,’ he says.
After someone consents to PAD’s services, care navigators serve as holistic points-of-contact. Sometimes participants come into the office to vent to them, or to pick up mail, some food or a coat. Other times, as care navigators Caroline Henderson and Devona Martin explain to me, ‘We meet them where they are.’ Roughly 90 per cent of PAD participants are living on the streets.
For the last quarter of 2021, 82 per cent of our people were arrest-free in the six months after becoming PAD participants. Supporters like to see progress in numbers, but our real success is in the qualitative results.
PAD’s values remain rooted in its origins – a Black trans women’s movement to stop police brutality and the criminalization of sex workers in Atlanta.
It’s said that 50 per cent of winning is showing up and that’s what PAD does – it shows up for its people, whether to give them bus fare, sit behind them in court or just listen.
By Lucilla Harrell
Founded as a feminist collective in 1979, Taller Salud’s primary focus was women’s access to healthcare. But things changed for the Puerto Rican organization in 2009 when one of the young people they were working with was shot dead. Executive director Tania Rosario-Mendez explains: ‘We started having dialogues with the women in the community – the mothers especially – whose first health priority was to prevent their kids from being killed. Until that was solved, they couldn’t really care about anything else.’
For the first time, Taller Salud initiated a programme, named Acuerdo de Paz (peace accord or agreement), where the main participants – and programme leaders – were men. Since it began, Taller Salud have recorded a dramatic drop in violence in Loíza, the Black majority municipality where they are based – as much as 80 per cent in 2018.
Acuerdo de Paz focuses on community accountability, and not the police, to address harm. It includes direct interruption of violence to try and de-escalate heated situations. Community mediation is deployed to bring back into the fold individuals who are perceived as violent.
Taller Salud also works to challenge ‘toxic masculinity’ and expectations around male behaviour. ‘It’s a very heavy burden and it just kills our boys, because if you are trying to prove you’re a man while you’re still a boy.… They feel very relieved once they can accept a new narrative,’ says Rosario-Mendez.
The police are not involved. ‘The main reason is because our mediators need to be trusted,’ notes Rosario-Mendez. ‘But the political reasons have to do with how abusive the police have been, especially in Afro-Caribbean Black communities in Puerto Rico – Loíza is no exception.
‘The police are not our allies and have not proven to be effective, or at least more effective than we are, at preventing violence.’
But Taller Salud is willing to train police officers and strengthen collaboration as part of its separate gender violence programme – although Rosario-Mendez describes this as a bit of a ‘juggling’ act.
She is staying optimistic: ‘If you want to work in violence reduction and eradication you have to believe it is possible to do. If you are cynical about it, you should change your line of work.’
By Amy Hall
Alan Duarte had never seen a man in his family die from natural causes when he set up Abraço Campeão (Embracing Champions) in 2014. Guns had always got to them first.
In Complexo do Alemão, one of the poorest areas of Rio de Janeiro, where Duarte was born and raised, gun battles rage between police, drug traffickers and paramilitary gangs with ties to the state.
Over 100 people were killed in Complexo do Alemão and its surrounding areas between January and August 2019; 50 per cent of these by the police, most of them young Black men.
Duarte came from a family involved in drug trafficking, but he credits taking up boxing in the nearby Complexo da Maré with keeping him off the streets. Here he attended personal development classes with an organization called Luta pela Paz (Fight for Peace). ‘I could express my emotions, talk about how I was feeling or things that I was going through – there was no other space for this.’
Abraço Campeão started on a small football pitch in Complexo do Alemão with a pair of old boxing gloves. Duarte would train a small group of youngsters while games went on around them. A nearby abandoned locker room was a back-up space when they needed to shelter from rain or shoot-outs.
Since then, over 1,200 young people have come through Abraço Campeão’s programmes which combine martial arts, weekly personal development classes and after-school tutoring.
Such is Abraço Campeão’s popularity that there is now a satellite academy in Complexo da Penha. They are currently fundraising to build a new training academy and educational centre.
Duarte explains that sport is a way to open dialogue with young people. ‘We inspire critical thinking,’ he says. ‘We get people to think about why these shootings are taking place, why they face racism, suffer sexual violence. This helps to give them tools that will protect them; it gets them to think and to reflect before they act.
‘Young people in this area don’t have access to any quality education and this works as another form of violence against them because it means that they’re prisoners in the territory, they don’t see any way out. This can lead young people to turn to drug trafficking as their only form of survival.
‘Public policies are incredibly important,’ Duarte adds. ‘Instead of investing in weapons that then spread through the streets, the government needs to invest in things like sports centres, health centres, technology development centres. Young people would probably spend their time there rather than being on the streets.’
By Amy Hall
Interpreting by Sandra Young
Safe OUTside the System
‘I believe outreach is the heartbeat of movements,’ explains Kerbie Joseph, the co-ordinator of the Safe OUTside the System (SOS) anti-violence programme, part of the Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn, New York City.
‘If we’re not talking to people about abolition, about de-escalation, about community security, about racism, about oppression as much as we can, we’re going to lose out, because the system’s recruiting too.’
SOS is led by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, trans and gender-non-conforming people of colour, and trains households, businesses, churches, community groups – anyone who’s interested – in de-escalating situations without involving the police. The foundation of the training is political education around topics like racism and sexism, moving into strategies for communities to keep themselves safe.
One queer shelter SOS worked with managed to lower calls made to the police by around 30 per cent after staff had de-escalation training. ‘People learned that there’s different ways of having conversations with people, or letting people calm down, or allowing people to walk away instead of calling 911,’ she says.
During the Covid-19 pandemic SOS has trained rent-striking apartment residents in de-escalation and their wider legal rights. Youth centres have also been asking for training, particularly since the 2020 uprising and Black Lives Matter protests.
Local businesses are another major point of contact. ‘We go to them and say, “Ok you say you support queer communities? Come get trained. Because that’s how you’re going to keep queer communities safe.” It’s not about just putting a rainbow flag out.’
SOS produces resources like violence intervention safety tips and a safe party toolkit to support people who want to build safety in party spaces without relying on the police. They also organize the annual Bed-Stuy Pride event in Brooklyn, which Joseph says is the only LGBTQI+ Pride event in New York City to not involve the police. Instead, SOS trains everyone involved – even vendors running stalls – in community safety.
The collective has a mutual aid fund for people who have experienced violence and recipients develop safety plans for themselves, in order to help them deal with it in the future. ‘None of those plans include calling the police,’ Joseph explains. ‘And after putting them together every one of those folks feel empowered and secure.’
By Amy Hall
Lucilla Harrell is a student at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School and an activist working inside and against the prison industry in the US.
Amy Hall is a co-editor at New Internationalist.