Riverside convened a conversation on policing last week, after a summer of unrest and protest nationwide in response to repeated incidents of police brutality against Black citizens – incidents that continue to stoke resentment and violence, as evidenced by the events that have played out in the last couple of days in Kenosha.
The village is not alone in its introspection – other nearby suburbs have had similar conversations – but it’s really just a start. A re-examination of the role policing plays in communities and what it will look like in the future is sure to be a long-term process, one municipal leaders need to confront.
While the conversation in Riverside last week featured little back-and-forth between top brass and residents, there was value in the exercise and it revealed that, at least in Riverside, leaders are cognizant that there are some things that need to change.
There’s no call to “defund” police locally, but even Police Chief Thomas Weitzel suggested that the community and police themselves might benefit from a rethink of how towns allocate resources.
Throughout time, police officers have had to take on roles they are not necessarily equipped to handle. They are almost always the first and sometimes only responders sent to mediate incidents of family turmoil and abuse.
They are often the first line of response for incidents involving those addicted to drugs and alcohol. When someone addicted to opioids overdoses on heroin, a police officer is almost always the first person there to render life-saving medication.
If a child refuses to go to school and parents feel they have nowhere to turn, they call police. If there’s someone clearly suffering from a mental health issue and acting unusually while walking around Riverside’s downtown, if someone calls 911, a police officer will respond.
Just as fire departments have shifted over time to predominantly agencies providing emergency medical response, police departments have morphed into social service providers.
Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel admitted as much last week when he proposed incident response teams that might include a social worker or mental health professional who could take the lead on such calls while police officers stayed in the background.
It’s an interesting idea, but one that would need funding. But from where? The chief suggested that such funding and training come from the state.
And while that might be a source of some revenue, municipalities are going to have to wrap their heads around staffing a new kind of police department – maybe a renamed police department – that includes the resources that residents really need in times of crisis. Sometimes a police officer is the wrong person for the job.
We’re glad Riverside had the conversation, and we hope that conversation will be ongoing and public and collaborative. It is, after all, the community’s police department, and it will be residents, through their elected leaders, who will determine its best version of a public safety and health department.
But, the past is over and change is on the way. Instead of feeling threatened by such change, communities need to look at this as an opportunity to improve public safety on their own terms.