Laramie is having a historic summer as incredible numbers of people have taken to the streets in our small community and across the country. I wish I could say these events were a celebration marking some happy milestone of achievement.
I can’t do that. Instead, it has been a time for many citizens of Laramie to bear witness and express anguish over the state of American society. It’s also the result of living during a global pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen for a century. It’s often easy for us to feel distant from national or even global events living here on the high plains of Wyoming, but not now, and truthfully this is never the case. The economic, social, and environmental evidence of that is all around us.
As we live in this moment, we should listen to the voices that ask us to look at the extreme disparities in health care, housing and criminal justice that are serious, deeply rooted problems in America. These issues reverberate so widely that they are cause for action in government at every level, even in the city halls of small-town America. We are in such a moment in Laramie, as a result I feel a responsibility to communicate a few key beliefs guiding my actions as a local office holder.
First, I believe that you can be for reforming police departments without having to necessarily agree that law enforcement in particular or the United States in general is irredeemably racist. At the same time, I think it is fair to say that as a member of the large majority of white people in Wyoming, I don’t always even see the ways that race still matters.
To me, recognizing and working to improve the community means choosing not to ignore these challenges or pretend that enough progress has been made. I don’t think it is fair or accurate to say those calling for action are extremists. I think many in people Laramie, whether marching down the streets or not, have said clearly that more work needs to be done, and it will be done. There is a trust problem between many people in Laramie and Albany County with our local law enforcement.
There are fences to mend and if we are going to do it right, we will need to do it together. Trust is usually earned not inherited. At what point did we become convinced that the work of building the best community we can was over? If your neighbors feel like they can’t rely on public services, isn’t that also, on some level, a problem for you? This is the continuing work of citizen engagement and responsive local government.
Your city council has recently voted to begin the process of creating a Civilian Oversight Board. I invite you to research what these boards actually do. If you do, I think you will find they are not about demonizing police. They are about building trust and accountability. I believe the Laramie Police Department is always committed to that.
Sometimes, it seems as though working for change in our public policy process is designed to make sure change never happens. It can be much slower than some may want and faster than others can accept. This is quite a difficult time we’re going through, dealing with public health and social crises at the same time. There are many questions being asked. One question is: Are we going to defund our police?
I can’t speak for everyone but what many seem to mean, and what I believe when I hear people say, “defund the police” is not the abolishment of police departments. Those that label this as a far-left movement for the elimination of police are trying to scare people or only listening selectively to certain voices. This is about more than the loudest voices being heard. What’s being discussed is serious budget reform at every level of government.
If we want safer, healthier communities we should be talking about and acting on that. Most communicating with me haven’t said “take the money away from the police department and eliminate police officers!” They’ve asked for an examination of the budget and guidelines for the LPD.
Some are also concerned about the perceived militarization of local law enforcement. Laramie is not unique there, that is a national issue. It’s about how local governments, including the police, can best serve the communities they are granted responsibility for. Police can’t be social workers, addiction counselors, and civil arbitrators. So why do we keep expecting them to be and getting angry when it doesn’t work out? Police are a public safety department asked to protect citizens from danger, prevent, and investigate crimes. Why do the public and the political process keep asking for more? We don’t pay them for it.
Tight public budgets have shifted the burden of serious social problems onto the police, they are not alone, ask any teachers you know. Our public spending priorities are creating difficulties for people who already have incredibly hard jobs. We need to rethink this approach; we need to re-evaluate public spending at the city, county, state and federal level to create stronger communities. We need to re-examine priorities, not eliminate police departments. These are system problems, not individual problems. We can’t put all of society’s dysfunctions in jail. They aren’t people, they affect people. For example, ask yourself, has the war on drugs been successful?
This editorial sure isn’t a snappy little sound bite is it? No, it’s about difficult, serious, and necessary work. How do we do it? We start with the assumption that local government is a “we,” not a “they.” Your local government is yours to support, assist, and if necessary, repair.
We have to avoid “drive-through” democracy. An inclusive, deliberative process takes time to prepare and to carry out, as it should. If you’re an office holder, you must leave time for professionals to have preparation and outreach. If you’re a citizen, expect well-run, fair democratic processes to take time. We will listen to people, identify and define our community goals and keep engaging the public in a broad-based process. This is a process of exploration, conflict transformation, collaborative action, and decision making, patience is required.
We will be inclusive. The more voices involved in the process, the more durable the decisions will be.
The City of Laramie is committed to this process. An organization that follows these principles will make good decisions that result in better outcomes for the public.
Paul Weaver is a member of Laramie City Council and represents Ward 2.