On January 21, a mother’s call for help led to the death of two NYPD officers and her son. The mother, Shirley Sourzes, had requested assistance from the police to resolve an argument she was having with her 47-year-old son, Lashawn McNeil, telling the police that she did not believe she was in immediate harm. The officers—22-year-old rookie Jason Rivera and his partner Wilbert Mora—responded to the routine call and were met with gunfire by McNeil when they headed to the back room after McNeil failed to come out. McNeil was in turn shot to death by a third officer.
As we think about what we can do in the future to prevent such tragedies, we often overlook this critical question: Did the officers have to be there at all?
To be sure, once the 911 call came in, dispatching armed units was the default option under our current police-centric system. But what if Sourzes had had a different option than calling 911, or the 911 operator had had a different option than sending armed officers? Might a different presence have been more successful at defusing the situation than the police?
As a civil rights attorney and longtime public defender, I strongly believe that alternatives to policing are critical to the health and safety of overpoliced people and communities, historically and predominantly Black and brown. We don’t talk enough, however, about how alternatives to policing are also critical for the health and safety of officers. Our failure of imagination about how we deliver public safety fails them too.
During my eight years as a public defender in Brooklyn, I represented countless parents, sons and daughters, and domestic partners who called 911 during heated arguments. In some cases, they wanted to scare or cause trouble for the person with whom they were squabbling. Or they called out of desperation, believing that they had no other avenue to find help for their loved one. In most cases, they hoped the police would calm things down and ensure that violence would be avoided.
Too often, however, the result was precisely—and tragically—the opposite. For many people, especially in over-polished neighborhoods, a police presence alone is traumatizing. They associate the police with being unfairly stopped, frisked, interrogated, arrested, handcuffed, assaulted, imprisoned, and even murdered.
Even if there is no wrongdoing on the part of the police, once they arrive, a whole system is unleashed. Handcuffs lead to interrogations, fingerprints, and hours in holding cells and courtrooms. This, in turn, is often followed by unaffordable bail and incarceration. And prosecutors often request protective orders that separate loved ones for months against their will, forcing people from their homes and all too often leaving children without key caretakers and families without needed incomes.