In a call for 'de-funding,' a look at how the job has evolved

DENVER (CBS4) – Instructing future police officers is a challenge in changing times for Andrea Borrego, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice.

“It’s an institutional problem that we have here in the U.S.,” she says about law enforcement in black communities. Part of the basis for that is how police are doing far different work than they were decades ago. Government has shorted many communities on social programs and has filed the gap with more policing. That means police are involved in mental health and addiction issues. They are sweeping homeless squatters camps that have increased as housing has become more out of reach.

“As we started to defund those institutions that would help solve these problems we took those institutions out of black communities,” says Borrego. “So the only people they have in their community are police officers, and when you have distrust,  it’s problematic for both citizens and the policing job.”

The Denver Police Academy (credit: CBS)

Add to that demands on police from elected leaders to crack down on crime.

“We started looking at order maintenance policing, which required police officers to police quality-of-life offenses. Being drunk in public, graffiti, everything like that in response to these problems.”

All of these factors she lectures about in her classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Future officers in her classes are learning they will have to deal with far more than officers of the past.

“As social problems got more complicated within society police officers have taken that on … mental health, social work, substance abuse and we’ve kind of made it the job of police and criminal justice in general to solve those problems … the systemic racism doesn’t just happen in police. It happens across all of our institutions that are important for a healthy community.” And she says data shows the system has institutionalized racist ideologies.

“Black men are not more criminal, they are disproportionally effected by the racist system.”

As an example, she cites policies on drug enforcement.

“If you look at it statistically, whites and blacks use drugs at the same rate. The ‘War on Drugs;’ they told police officers to go out and police heavily in these areas again that focused on crack cocaine, on marijuana.”

Realizing that is a start on the discussion on how things are different. As people discuss de-funding police, the question is at least partially how much police should continue to be involved and how some behavior becomes criminalized.

green valley ranch west park homicide denver police

(credit: CBS)

“Their goal is to defend the most lives possible. So that person having a break attacks the police officer, it doesn’t always end up well for that person when they just needed some kind of mental health help.”

Police have changed roles in some ways that some see as effective. Drug addiction expert Denise Vincioni, regional director Denver Recovery Group says, “Law enforcement has come to the table with us as treatment providers as partners trying to understand. Why do we see these people over and over? We don’t have anywhere to send them … It has been recognized for many years that putting people in jail to treat addiction has been ineffective.”

It’s even more cost effective to get people into treatment versus jails. Getting to that point took work.

“We’ve done a lot of good work together. But that took, you know, our administration all the way down into the local precincts … to force education, to force the community of conversations … to happen.”

Vincioni says it would be good to see a “warm handoff” of some of the responsibility to people with expertise in addiction and as of yet not all police are signed off on the idea of treatment over jail, but there’s progress.

“We have  a long way to go,” says Vincioni. “Talking to patients, you still have patients that you know, there are police officers that think that addiction should be consequenced with incarceration.”

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