From University of Idaho to Tyre Nichols, here's what we get wrong about public safety

An analysis of what we get wrong in safety policy

Despite what the frenzy surrounding the University of Idaho murders would have you believe, in the United States, you are far more likely to die at the hands of your government than at the hands of a serial killer.

Last year, 1,096 people were fatally shot by American police. The federal government’s dubious records estimate that more than 4,100 people die behind bars in American prisons each year, and local records indicate that about 20 people died at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail in 2022 alone.

Perhaps most shockingly, less than 1% of U.S. homicide deaths – equivalent to fewer than 260 deaths in a given year – are committed by serial killers.

As an attorney, a career public defender and a person now working to increase public safety and well-being through expanded public defense services, I have learned that when most voters think about what they want out of their public safety infrastructure, they tend to think about harsh solutions to punish the sort of people they fear most, rather than relying on logic and data to determine what would actually make them safer.

In reality, safety creation requires lifting people up, but fear-based policies encourage most voters to find harsher and harsher ways of cutting people down.

It’s time for the American public to face the facts: We are at least 20 times more likely to die from this country’s criminal legal system than we are from a rogue serial killer, and we must invest in systemic policy solutions to redress this glaring reality.

Potential policy solutions are plentiful. To start, if we really want to lower crime, we should be investing vastly more money into housing programs, sources of income for low-income families (such as expanded public benefits, a higher minimum wage and fewer barriers to employment based on criminal record), and free, accessible mental health and substance use care.

If we really want to increase safety, we have to stop thinking about safety as a condition privileged people enjoy, and start recognizing that fighting police violence is a crucial safety intervention that requires policies such as replacing militarized police units with social work teams (which worked tremendously well in Colorado and Oregon, among other examples) and moving away from armed traffic enforcement.

Of course, achieving these policy goals will require us to wrangle our more irrational, fear-based impulses. Thankfully, this is not without precedent. For example, many people are far more scared of perishing in a plane crash than a car crash, despite the well-cited fact that one is 1,600 times more likely to die in a passenger vehicle than in an airplane.

By focusing on the risk realities in this situation, however, we are able to face the facts about what are the actual drivers of danger in our society and put in place protections such as seat belts to guard ourselves against the bulk of harm.

In other words, the policy solutions listed above are our seat belts for the killing machine our government calls policing and prisons – and we all should be wearing them.

It’s also critical to note that while we are all more likely to die from policing or mass incarceration than a serial killer, Black and brown Americans’ odds of death-by-government are disproportionately high. As a result, trust in law enforcement is lower among these communities where perhaps a more accurate risk calculation about the government’s use of force prevails.

It’s also likely not a coincidence that many of these communities’ members who have historically suffered at the hands of police and prison guards are also statistically more likely to support measures such as defunding the police as a means to protect themselves against the real drivers of risk in their communities. Overall, white America seems to be less aware of the reality of the dangers police pose in this country – but that does not mean they are dying because of it.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I agree. As long as we rely on outdated, punitive ideas and status quo policing to make our communities safer, we will continue to face record levels of police killings and mass incarceration rates. And if what we truly crave is actual public safety, then we must pivot to community-based safety investments.

We can no longer permit our government to get away with murder.

Emily Galvin-Almanza is the founder of Partners for Justice, a nonprofit bolstering public defense across the country.

Originally posted on USA Today at:

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