More Firefighters, Fewer Cops

If we want to keep people safe, we need institutions more like the fire department and less like the police department.

Way more people trust firefighters than trust cops. (80 percent vs. 49 percent, respectively.) Firefighters have long topped lists of the most respected professions in the country. While police department after police department has been afflicted by scandals over corruption, racism, and brutality, there are rarely scandals surrounding fire departments. (This is not to say there are no scandals. In San Jose, for instance, an on-duty fire crew controversially gave a lift to a scantily-clad dancer from a strip club called the Pink Poodle.) 

Of course there are fewer firefighter scandals than police scandals. Law enforcement is exactly what it sounds like: forcing people to follow the rules. Policing is inherently violent. They have sticks. They have tasers. They have guns. It’s easy to see how things could get out of control in situations of conflict. Give people in positions of authority guns, scare the hell out of them by training them to be “hyper-aggressive warriors,” and tell them to go and keep order in a neighborhood: of course disastrous “officer-involved shootings” are going to happen. 

Fighting a fire differs from enforcing a law in some important ways. When you put a fire out, you are called to address a problem, and your job is to solve it. The way a firefighter thinks is: how do I keep these people safe? All of the training is about how to take a problem (the fire) and get rid of it, so that people are better off when you leave than when you arrived. Enforcing a law is a bit different. Your job is not solely to think about how you can solve a problem. It’s also about making sure a rule (that you didn’t write, and may or may not agree with) is followed. Police aren’t general problem-solvers, tasked with keeping communities safe. They’re tasked with punishing those who break rules. In theory, the rules are meant to keep people safe. In practice, police can end up making people much less safe through brutal and callous attempts to impose the rules through violence. Rosa Brooks, in Tangled Up in Blue, writing about her time as a police officer, documents what police training tends to emphasize. She told Current Affairs:

It was essentially operational and tactical completely—no discussion of anything other than, Here are the nine property forms, memorize them. Here is how you handcuff a prone person versus a kneeling person versus a standing person. Memorize it, because you’ll be given a multiple choice exam on these defensive tactics. So that was the curriculum. Here is the law in D.C. on this; here’s the procedure for writing a ticket; here is how you administer a field test for drugs. 

The absence of “scenario-based” training meant police were ill-equipped for, say, defusing a conflict or deploying solutions to illegal behavior that didn’t involve sending someone to jail. Their job isn’t to solve problems, but to ensure compliance.

What we need, then, is institutions that follow the “firefighter mentality” rather than the “cop mentality.” The cop looks for rule violations. The firefighter looks out for a harm and then keeps people safe. People appreciate firefighters because they understand that their mission is pure and uncompromised: all they’re there to do is help. They’re not going to hurt you for the sake of enforcing a rule.

I think the left would do well to emphasize building institutions that are more like fire departments than police departments. One of the reasons that ideas like police and prison abolition remain marginal is that they scare the hell out of people: they don’t make clear enough what would replace these institutions as a means of keeping people safe. I’ve previously mentioned the time when an armed man wanted for murder broke into my apartment building and hid in the attic directly above my living room. As critical as I am of the prison system, it was a relief to me when the police fished him out. I don’t know how to deal with the presence of an armed murder suspect in my attic. This is not my expertise. And I want there to be a public agency that will come and solve the problem somehow if and when it arises. That agency need not function the way police do in their current form. 

What if we rethought our institutions of public safety from the ground up, and the operative concept was “safety” rather than “enforcement”? What keeps people safe? Getting guns out of their hands keeps them safe. Violence interrupters can keep them safe. Having good free mental healthcare keeps them safe. Having communities with good schools, good childcare, good jobs, good housing, and good universities and hospitals keeps them safe. As Illinois State Senator Robert Peters told me: 

We know what safety looks like. If you live in the North Shore of Chicago, where there’s a lot of money, you’ve got a good school. You’ve got a good job. You’ve got good public transportation. You have food on your table. You have good housing. That is public safety. 

Peters is a critic of the American criminal punishment system. But he couples it with an emphasis on what real safety would look like, so that his constituents don’t have to worry that rolling back the use of policing would mean more violence. That’s also the ethic behind Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s People’s Plan for Community Safety. It pledges “to eradicate the root causes of crime and violence and advance a comprehensive, healing-centered approach to make all Chicago communities safe.” Note that it does not treat violent crime as unimportant. On the contrary, it’s centrally concerned with reducing violent crime. But it doesn’t put policing at the center of its approach. It adopts a “firefighter mentality,” asking not how we “enforce the law,” but how we put out the fire (in this case, violence).

I recently spoke with Astra Taylor about her new book The Age of Insecurity, and she stresses a similar point: we want people to be secure, which means to be free of the fear of all kinds of violence, from muggings to war. But we are critical of the approach that uses violence to achieve that security. As Taylor says: 

We want to be secure. We want to know that we’re going to be safe. We want to know that we will be fed. We want to know that we will be housed. We want to know that we won’t be destitute in old age. There’s nothing wrong with that. Why should we let the Right have that concept and that emotional terrain? It’s a powerful emotional terrain, and that’s what I’ve tried to show. The desire for security—and feelings of insecurity—are potent political forces, and the Right is tapping into that every day, saying, you’re afraid to be more afraid, so let us protect you with borders, with police, with the military, with market mechanisms that will actually make you feel worse, with authoritarian political figures who will misdirect your anxieties and vulnerabilities. So, I think there’s a word here, and we need to think about it and reconceptualize it. Security can actually be a beautiful thing.

When people hear about reducing the use of policing, they can get alarmed. What if you called 911 and nobody came? Nobody wants to face emergencies on their own. That’s why we need to emphasize building real public safety, meaning that people are neither worried that nobody will come when they call for help nor that they will be shot by the people who do come to help. We need institutions with a clear mandate to be helpers, institutions that will be as trusted and respected as the local fire department. 

More In: Criminal Punishment

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs