Reimagining Policing and Public Safety

By Grace Anglin and Carly Nelson Marcoe
Posted on April 30, 2021

Police Officer Alice White in patrol car

On April 20th, 2021, in a rare rebuke of police violence, a jury convicted Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd. For supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement—a groundbreaking one in United States history—this outcome ignited hope and celebration. 

Progress is real. Choke holds and no-knock warrants are being banned. Yet, significantly more work is needed to address the interrelated issues of systemic racism and police violence. More than three people were killed by police each day as the Chauvin trial unfolded.

We must continue to ask ourselves the hard question: How can we make our communities safer, reform policing, and reimagine public safety?

Independent Lens is working closely with Fair and Just Prosecution, the Vera Institute of Justice, and numerous community-based organizations, journalists, and public media stations to spark meaningful conversations about these and other criminal justice reform topics. This ongoing dialog is part of our Stories for Justice partnership with PBS. 

On February 4th, 2021, we brought together more than 500 community members from across the country to discuss policing and public safety. The event was free and open to the public. 

Individuals came to the event with varied experiences. Around a quarter of attendees currently or previously worked for a police department. Another quarter did social justice work related to criminal legal issues. And others were newer to the issues, indicating that they had no prior experience working for or to reform the criminal legal system. When asked in a post-event survey how they feel when they see police officers in their neighborhood, participants expressed a range of perspectives. 

Linear data graph that reads showcasing 73 participants response to When you see police officers in your neighborhood, how do you feel? A majority responded feeling neutral to safe. Two leaned towards unsafe.

The group first met in a virtual screening room to watch Women in Blue. Filmed from 2017 to 2020, the film focuses on the Minneapolis Police Department’s first female police chief, Janeé Harteau, and other women officers as they face the uphill battle to reform the department as the city of Minneapolis grapples with a troubled history of police misconduct and racism. Deirdre Fishel, the film’s director, describes the film “as an exploration of the intersection of gender, race, and violence in policing through the eyes of women officers.”

The film helped to level the playing field for participants so they could discuss the issues on a more even footing. Around half of participants indicated they learned a lot about the criminal justice system from watching the film, and almost all indicated they learned at least a little. 

Throughout and following the film, participants engaged in a lively yet respectful discussion about combating racism and police misconduct, increasing gender equity, and healing relationships between police and the community. The conversation was moderated by Ganesha Martin, who advises nonprofits and local governments on building relationships between communities and police.

After the event, 77 participants engaged with our interactive feedback platform, DocSCALE, to share their perspectives on how communities can improve public safety.

They found some common ground. Folks generally agreed that increased accountability and diversity in police departments could make their communities safer. 

However, individuals who worked for police departments were less likely than others to believe that other policies—such as investing more in health and social services or hiring more police officers who live in the community that they serve—would increase public safety.

Bar chart with text How could your community increase the safety of its citizens?

Lingering disagreements over policy proposals are no surprise. Moving reform forward is hard work and takes time. The good news is that attendees are planning to bring others into the conversation to foster mutual understanding, build consensus, and propel efforts forward.

How do we know?

We asked participants, “What is the most significant action you will take after seeing Women in Blue?” Our DocSCALE platform then circulated their ideas to others who then indicated if they planned to take a similar action.

Many participants outlined plans to discuss policing and criminal legal reform with others. One police department employee from Forest Hills, NY planned to “continue to talk about difficult and complex issues regarding policing.” Another participant from Portland, Oregon planned to identify ways to hold police accountable by “having courageous conversations in an inclusive diverse group.”

Others were moved to elevate the role of women in their work. And their ideas were inspiring to others. For example, one participant that does social justice work in Saint Paul, Minnesota planned to set up a program to support women interested in working in policing or public safety. Their idea was shared with several police department employees who participated in the screening, most of which indicated they were interested in doing something similar.

Still, others questioned this approach with one participant from Vancouver, Washington expressing that “...hiring women into a racist/sexist system will not solve public safety issues. Rethinking public safety responses will. People with guns are unnecessary to the vast majority of calls….” More than one third of other participants—including a mix of police department employees, social justice advocates, and others—expressed strong support for this perspective. 

Reflecting this sentiment, Fishel has emphasized that “while women overall bring a much needed less aggressive, more compassionate approach to policing, nothing will change without systemic changes as well.”

How can we help keep the conversation moving?  

This Women in Blue event was just one of more than 50 Stories for Justice events hosted by Independent Lens and its partners from October 2020 through April 2021. Grounded by other Stories for Justice series and films including Philly D.A. and Down a Dark Stairwell, these events have fostered civic dialogue on countless topics including policing, pretrial justice, the intersection of behavioral health and the criminal legal system, and the factors leading to and the impact of mass incarceration.

We hope that these and future conversations at forthcoming events will act as catalysts for change as we continue to grapple with the complex and deeply rooted challenges facing our nation. 

Three pie charts showcasing the demographics of the people who attended the event for the documentary Women in Blue.

We would like to express our gratitude to Deirdre Fishel, Melissa Chiodo, Catherine Johnson, Monique Brown, and Ganesha Martin for serving as panelists or moderators for the event. 

We would also like to thank our event co-sponsors: The Deason Center, Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, Ohio Organizing Collaborative, International Association of Women Police, Oklahoma Women's Coalition, Ms. magazine published by Feminist Majority Foundation, Criminal Defense Section of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, The Pretrial Justice Initiative. 

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