July 13, 2020


Key Takeaways

-- Many agencies already use some alternatives to arrest. Many agencies regularly issue citations for low-level misdemeanors and offer diversion programs for some categories of crimes.

-- COVID has pushed agencies towards using alternatives to arrest more frequently. To minimize contact and limit jail populations, agencies have been using alternatives to arrest more frequently.

-- Some arrests still need to happen. Police still need to take some people into custody, many of whom don’t want to be arrested. Officers can use de-escalation skills, but force will sometimes be used, and a use of force often looks harsh to bystanders.


Santa Cruz, CA Chief Andy Mills:

If the Legislature Doesn’t Want Certain Laws Enforced, They Should Take Them Off the Books

Because of Assembly Bill 109, and then Propositions 47 and 57, we have decriminalized many crimes at a felony level. It is very difficult for us to get people into jail, even for some felonies. In my opinion, that has gone too far. But at the same time, policing cried that the sky was falling when all these bills passed, and the reality is that crime has still gone down in spite of those bills.

During the COVID crisis, the only people we were putting in jail were violent felons.

I think we need to think broadly about why we’re putting people in jail, and maybe focus more on when people are “hot.” There are people who go on a tear of committing burglaries or shootings, and those are the people who need to go to jail and not get out until they cool down. I think that is where we should focus.

I’m working with my city council to give police officers the authority to divert victimless misdemeanor crimes before they go to courts. For instance, if we catch somebody urinating in public here, that would be a citation that goes to the courts. By sending that citation to the courts, we’re spending more money on that than we could possibly get back from that citation. So rather than putting it through the criminal justice system, we’d have the person do something positive for the community that we can measure and control. The officer in the field would have full authority to cite people into this diversion program instead of into courts.

Because of our enormous homeless population, 85% of those we issue citations do not appear, and they do not turn into warrants. After 5 citations, it goes to collections. So we’re sending homeless people to collections, which is the height of insanity. It would be better for us to divert them and have them help clean up the downtown area.

We tell our officers to use their best judgment and discretion, but they have the option to arrest if it’s something they feel strongly about. We’re not taking that option away from them, we just want them to use their discretion.

Chuck Wexler: How do you manage arrests when someone resists being taken into custody?

Chief Mills: Everyone in this profession knows that there is no such thing as a pretty use of force. It’s just ugly. People don’t want to see it or know about it.

We have done ICAT training and our own de-escalation training, and we want those same principles used in these situations. We have mental health workers in the field with us to try to handle the mental health aspect of these situations when they can. But I can’t think of another agency that could take over these arrests.

I want our officers to do everything they can – time, talk, and tactics – to be patient, de-escalate these situations, and not use force. But there are some people who are violent and dangerous, and officers are going to have to use force.

Chuck Wexler:  What would be the stance of an organization like the ALCU on these issues?

Chief Mills I’ve had this conversation with my local ACLU board. They would say we should just walk away. There are times that we do walk away, but we’re not always afforded that luxury.

Sometimes we may take it too far, but, at the same time, if the community and legislature don’t want certain laws enforced, they should take them off the books.

The basic element of police work is not going to change. Certain bad people have to go to jail. I think we put too many people in jail, and we can reduce that amount without causing a significant increase in crime.

Chuck Wexler:  What about the George Floyd case in Minneapolis? Is that the type of case that could be handled without an arrest?

Chief Mills:  I don’t know all the facts of that case, but if it’s just a case of trying to pass a fake $20 bill, he would be cited and released in Santa Cruz.


Irving, TX Chief Jeff Spivey:

We’re on a Path Toward Fewer Arrests for Low-Level Offenses

Most agencies that have started talking about alternatives to arrest have centered around misdemeanor possession of marijuana. We’ve seen marijuana legalization across the United States. We’ve yet to adopt that in Texas, but we’ve had conversations around how we deal with that and our community’s expectations. Our community has been very conservative in their approach and what they want us to do about marijuana, even though Dallas County is more liberal and we have a district attorney who is very supportive of alternatives to arrest. So we’ve been slow to act on that, though COVID has certainly changed our mindset.

We’ve created a culture of procedurally just policing, and it started long before I became chief. We’ve tried to find alternatives to jail for some people we came across who had small amounts of marijuana, or were criminally trespassing because they were homeless and didn’t have anywhere else to stay, or were drunk in public. The alternative to jail  might be to call a friend, or have the person surrender their marijuana, or find the homeless person a hotel to stay in for the night. It’s been a mindset of the people we hire and train, and it’s made it easier as we’ve adapted to restraints that the district attorney’s office has put on us.

We haven’t had the pushback that I thought we might have when the district attorney said he’s not taking misdemeanor marijuana cases or arrests for smaller amounts of hard drugs. I think our police officers see that this doesn’t bring about the end of safety in our community. And I think it will pay dividends once COVID is over and our legislature considers legalizing marijuana. Our cops won’t feel like it’s the end of the world, because they will have seen that society will continue on even if they can’t make arrests that they normally make.

I’m interested to see what happens as we continue down this path. As you’ve seen across the county, violent crime rates continue to go up, even as lower-level property crimes go down. Are we seeing that occur because we’re not putting those low-level offenders in jail? I’m curious to see how that bears out over the next year or so, as well as the impact COVID has had on crime rates.

We’re getting to a point where our officers are fine with options other than arrests. I started my policing career in the ‘80s, and learning to not have such a law-and-order mindset didn’t happen overnight. It was a transition over a number of years as my responsibilities changed and I moved up through the organization. I began to see things from different perspectives, and I certainly see things differently now as the chief of police.

I think the men and women we’re hiring today see policing in that same light. I think that change is more difficult for our older officers who have always done things a certain way. For those low-level offenses, there’s still an opportunity for them to feel their authority is challenged, and they may act out of emotion and ego as opposed to common sense.

I think our communities are going to demand that we handle some of these offenses differently. They’re going to say, “You shouldn’t have been trying to arrest this person for this offense. You should’ve been trying to solve the problem in a different manner.”

I’m currently part of a Dallas County working group about alternatives to arrest. We’ll be issuing a report in the next few months about how we handle low-level offenses and divert some of those cases away from the criminal justice system.


Baltimore County, MD Chief Melissa Hyatt:

One Issue Is that a Person Needs a Valid ID to Be Issued a Citation

We use criminal citations for low-level misdemeanor offenses, and in many cases that’s quite successful. Part of our protocol is that a person has to have a valid ID in order to be issued a citation. That’s one area we need to figure out, because there are many people who don’t carry an ID and there are times that we’re unable to identify people. If we’re writing criminal citations to people who we can’t identify, that’s probably a waste of time.

We’re having conversations about alternatives to arrest. One juvenile program we’ve been utilizing for many years is called Juveniles Offenders in Need of Supervision (JOINS). It’s for low-level first-time offenders and gives juveniles the chance to participate in a program with officers over a period of time. We’ve been really successful in terms of low recidivism among participants.

On the adult level, we are having conversations with our state’s attorney’s office, but it’s not something that we’ve figured out at this point. We need to have more discussions about whether an arrest is worth it for some of these lower-level offenses, particularly when we look at the end result of some of these situations. And I think there’s room to expand the use of criminal citations, but there are definitely limitations to that.

During COVID we’ve put an extra emphasis on trying to reduce the number of people we place under arrest. We were issuing a lot more criminal citations than we traditionally have. But we have to consider whether the criminal citation will resolve the issue. If it will, it’s a great option. But there are times when it won’t resolve the issue, so we need to put more thought into those situations.

The types of offenses that lend themselves to citations, rather than arrest, are things like low-level marijuana possession, a shoplifting misdemeanor, or drinking or urinating in public.

Chuck Wexler: Are there ways to respond differently when someone is resisting arrest?

Chief Hyatt: We have crisis intervention teams available to respond, depending on the circumstances. They include certified clinicians who can respond with our officers. We’ve also had conversations about the possibility of bringing in professional mediators to co-respond to some situations.

But the other side of this is that when we have someone who is going to be taken into custody and doesn’t want to be, we’re the only organization equipped to manage that. I’d like to see alternatives in certain circumstances, so we don’t put our officers in no-win situations. Even when they follow their training and do the best that they can, sometimes these situations just don’t look good. But at a certain point, when someone is going to be arrested and absolutely does not want to be, I don’t know what alternative exists.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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