Following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last May, larger groups of people internationally are expressing how communities’ needs are not being met by current public safety configurations.
This has led to increasingly mainstream discussions about what our communities might look like with police abolition, police reform, And/Or budgets that reallocate typical police funding towards community-named needs.
In Asheville, for example, some community-named needs that were raised amidst budget draftings for the city have included calls for a fully funded Transit Master Plan, a pay raise for firefighters, the removal of confederate monuments, and calls to cut the APD budget by half and reinvest the money in Asheville’s Black community.
One petition connected to the local newspaper ‘the Urban News‘ (Take Action to Shift the Culture of Policing), argues that money set to fund the Asheville police department could better address community needs by “creating a new city department of peace and well-being, tasked with the care and safety of people and communities” – duties sometimes expected of the police but not necessarily received. “Under this new department,” the petition states, “there could be new roles to support the peace of the city and the well-being of its residents. (It could provide) unarmed support teams (that) could be dispatched at a moments notice,” including:
-A team of social workers, counselors, mediators/negotiators to support individuals and families
-A team trained in domestic violence
-Neighborhood leaders could be hired and trained to be peer support mediators
-People assigned to handle the flow and safety of traffic
-human and civil rights in housing, employment, etc observers
-Services for healing stress and trauma
-Allocating funds toward investment in current and incubation of African American and Latinx owned businesses,
-equitable economic and educational opportunities,
-living wage jobs, affordable housing, transportation, and poverty remediation
This appears as a sort of list of needs assumedly unseen in our current public safety models or local governing bodies.
Looking beyond Asheville, one recent example of funding reallocation has been in Austin Texas, where the community decided to redirect funds to support women’s health care following public outrage to the murder of George Floyd. Other cities have reduced police budgets and made promises for reform that we will watch over the next years (Minneapolis, L.A., etc) .
The focus of the audio broadcast featured here comes from another example that I learned of when speaking with Asheville drummer, Matt Shepard. He described to me how emergency medical services in the United States prior to the late 60s were often provided by police departments, and not the well-equipped EMS teams and ambulances that we think of today. In 1966, following a health research publication (Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society) often called the 1966 White Paper, it was noted that “inadequately trained (police), and inappropriately designed and ill-equipped vehicles” resulted in high numbers of unnecessary deaths. In fact, “50% of ambulances services nationwide were being provided by morticians, collecting dead bodies,” not providing trauma care. This all changed with an interesting project which emerged in 1967 out of Pittsburgh.
Dr Peter Safar of Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, and the creator of CPR, collaborated with a community center (Freedom House Enterprises) in the predominantly black, hill district of Pittsburgh to create what has become the model of our current EMS systems. This project was called Freedom House.
In an effort to create meaningful work and respond to the lack of trauma care offered by police, Freedom House addressed community needs by developing a program of ambulances and trained paramedics from the community to meet those needs. Tragically, in a move of racist political gain, the city’s mayor, Peter Flaherty, took over the program and pushed out much of the original, successful black EMS team, taking credit for their work. Even so, the model developed by that original team of Freedom House provided the grounds of the Emergency Health Care response model that we now take for granted.
While until 2009, the story of Freedom House had been all but erased, Gene Starzenski, has told the story of Freedom House with a documentary. Gene is a career medical worker originally from Pittsburgh who is now based out of California. After completing the documentary, the story is now being negotiated as the base of a streaming mini series.
More information and opportunities to contact Gene can be found at:
Perhaps like Freedom House in the 60’s and 70’s, Asheville can now fund communities of color to create, continue or expand programs and businesses, that in 50 years will come to be taken for granted in its service (like our EMS) and honored in a documentary.