What Systemic Change Looks Like: Alternatives to Calling the Police

By Jamie Evanini, Trustee, UUCWC Board of Trustees

In our last two meetings, the UUCWC Board has begun to discuss our congregational policies around calling the police. In fact, UU congregations around the country are also engaged in similar conversations after nationwide protests arising from the murder of George Floyd this summer. The issue of calling the police became even more timely for Unitarian Universalists after this June’s UUA General Assembly, during which participants affirmed an Action of Social Witness to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to “create systemic change within our congregations”. One of the many systemic changes recommended in the AIW reads, “choosing not to involve police departments and deactivating security systems that mobilize police response when triggered.”

This year was the first time I had attended a General Assembly, and also the first time I participated in the Action of Immediate Witness process. Upon my first reading, I was supportive of the AIW as a whole, but hesitant about that one specific change about “choosing not to involve police departments” at our congregations. As a white person, and as the daughter of a retired police officer, calling the police feels safe to me. Indeed, I’ve been involved in calling the police (either alone or with another person) several times in my life — as a child, when our neighbors were having what sounded like a scream-filled, knock-down, drag-out fight; in college when I thought I heard gunshots; in my 20s when it looked like a burglar was in the apartment across from ours; even this past year, when I wasn’t sure what to do with a lost dog without a collar on a Sunday when the local animal shelters were all closed.

This year’s AIW however, forced me to confront the fact that many people of color do not feel “safe” around police and do not consider calling the police a “safe” thing to do. And the truth is, often, it is not a safe thing to do when people of color are involved.

Consider the case of Muhamad Muhaymin Jr. killed by Phoenix police in 2017. An employee at a community service organization called the police after he attempted to use their public bathroom with his service dog, which was against the rules.

Consider the case of Atatiana Jefferson, killed in 2019 by police in her own Fort Worth home after a concerned neighbor noticed her front door ajar late a night and called the police. The neighbor later said, “he felt ‘guilty’ for calling the police because ‘had I not called the Fort Worth Police Department, my neighbor would still be alive today.’”

And consider, of course, the protest-sparking case of George Floyd, killed in May after he used one counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store and a young store clerk called police. The owner of the store, Mahmoud Abumayyaleh, now says “ ‘we will handle incidents like this one using non-violent tactics that do not involve police.’ He will tell staff not to call the cops unless there’s an extreme situation…and no longer pay for off-duty officers to patrol the business on Friday or Saturday nights.”

And that is what this year’s Action of Immediate Witness asks us to do as a congregation: just like store owner Mahmoud Abumayyaleh, we need to think about other ways of handling incidents that in the past might have led us to reflexively call the police. We need to think about situations that are not ‘extreme’ and how we could handle them without bringing in police officers with deadly weapons.

I will admit that I am still wrestling with this — because the fact is, I DON’T know how to handle situations that require de-escalation, or how to help someone who is having a mental health crisis. The good news is — there are a lot of people and organizations who DO know, and they have put a lot of resources out there that we can use to figure this out. The UUA has collected some of these resources on their website (see “Alternatives to Calling the Police”). One resource listed on this page (from SURJ-DC) has a helpful flowchart to use when considering whether to call the police, with questions like

  • Is this merely an inconvenience to me? Can I put up with this and be okay?
  • Can I handle this on my own? Is this something I could try to talk out with the person?
  • Is there a friend, neighbor or someone I could call to help me?
  • Could we use mediation to talk through what happened, or could I call an emergency response hotline? [i.e. the National Runaway Safeline, a local Rape Crisis Center, a Suicide Prevention Hotline, etc.]
  • And finally, “If I call the police, do I understand how involving the police could impact me and the other person?”

In the coming months, the Board in consultation with the Right Relations Committee and Racial Justice Ministry will examine our policies around calling the police to ensure that asking questions like those listed above are part of the process when dealing with a disruptive person. We will investigate what other emergency response options we have in our area. We will have listening circles and offer trainings on the skills needed to de-escalate a tense situation and help a person in crisis. We welcome your input and participation in this process.

Responding to this Action of Immediate Witness will require education for all of us. We will need to examine our own experiences, capacities and biases more carefully. How has my experience with police differed from someone else’s? How does my implicit bias affect what I see as ‘suspicious’? In what situations could I imagine NOT calling the police? We will need to learn new skills. How do I de-escalate a tense or hostile situation? And we will need to learn more about our wider community’s capacity to help in times of crisis or distress. What local organizations in Mercer and Bucks County can I call on to help in a variety of situations?

Finding answers to these questions will not only leave us a healthier and stronger congregation. We can take these newfound understandings and skills into our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our schools, and our relationships, making our communities healthier and stronger as well. We can build what Danielle Sered calls, in her powerful book on the criminal justice system, Until We Reckon, “better community capacity to address harm.” We can build the Beloved Community that calls to us from our own 8th principle.