Imagine arriving at your hotel after a long day of travel and all you want to do is enjoy some Netflix. To your surprise, when you get to your room, the only entertainment options are straight out of the 1980s: an antenna TV, VCR and a few old VHS tapes. Wouldn’t you be mad? You would probably call down to the front desk and ask them to bring you a TV and streaming device that is actually usable. You might even demand a refund — why on earth would you pay for something so incredibly outdated?
Author and thought leader Sonya Renee Taylor says it’s instructive to think about the process and acceptance of technological advancement as an analogy for how we think about social advancements too — including policing and public safety. She calls this approach the Theory of Obsolescence, or VCR Theory for short.
Today, the Minneapolis Police Department is our primary and largest investment toward safety. Everyone —from the U.S, Department of Justice, Republicans, centrist Democrats, progressives — agree it’s not great. In effect, we are stuck with an old VCR that works inconsistently, ruins tapes of our most precious memories and keeps us stuck watching old movies. Our policing system is equally old and ineffective technology that rarely prevents crime, inflicts trauma and (at worst) death on our residents, and rarely tries new ways to keep people safe.
If we were actually talking about technology here, what would we do? We would honestly assess the current system and start investing in and building something new. We would put dollars into research and development and would conceive of, test, learn and invest in solutions that show promise. We would shift resources away from the VCR and into new programs and platforms.
Yet, what we actually see happening is those deeply invested in the VCR yelling: We can fix it! Better design (new policies, better culture)! Better tape (training)! Better customer service (more use of force reporting)!
But if we ask those seeking more investment in the VCR if they have tried these strategies before and if the strategies worked, they avoid answering. Instead they imply that change is incredibly risky and that those calling for promising alternatives are naïve, simplistic even. Everything they say we should do to fix the VCR has been tried before, multiple times, over multiple decades. Their solutions have clearly not made us meaningfully safer so instead they rely on fear, trying to distract us from having the real conversations we need to have. The system is broken. No one person or even a set of “good people” can fix it. The VCR does not and cannot meet our current needs.
We should be fighting to make the leap toward streaming, not doubling down on the VCR. New systems are not built overnight and they are never built without investment, vision, tough decisions and commitment. In the case of public safety, the best part is that we know so much about what would keep our city safe while honoring the dignity and needs of all. This new approach will actually include police officers but in a new public safety department that’s designed to prioritize the health, safety and wellbeing of all of our neighbors instead of doubling down on contain and control tactics that disproportionately harm our Black and brown neighbors and create a false and short-term sense of “safety” for others.
With Minneapolis’ upcoming election we have a chance to vote Yes for Minneapolis and to vote for City Council members and mayoral candidates who understand that systems change is what is required here. It’s time to stop fixing the outdated VCR and start investing in a better future for us all. Troubleshooting a broken system (again) is a waste of our precious time, resources and neighbors’ lives.
Maggie Rittenhouse and Molly Leutz live in Minneapolis. Geri Katz, Maria Lander Cabrera and Kate Bischoff of Minneapolis also signed this piece. They all live in Ward 11.
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