Despite all the talk happening across the country right now of defunding the police, too many people still don’t have a grasp on what that entails, assuming that a call for defunding is synonymous with a call for abolition.
However, what defunding the police actually means is taking the over-inflated budgets that many police departments have to work with and allocating a portion of that money to invest in programs outside of police that would benefit communities.
Activists often talk about how this would keep police, who are often armed and primed for violence, from responding to calls that don’t require force. In fact, some cities have already pledged to start training non-police responders for calls about things like neighbor disputes.
But what isn’t discussed as often is how something similar happened years ago — and it’s the reason we have ambulance service the way we know it to be today.
Writer Jamie Ford shared a history lesson on Twitter, explaining that up until the 1970s, ambulance services were often handled by police and fire departments.
“There was no law requiring medical training beyond basic first-aid and in many cases the assignment of ambulance duty was used as a form of punishment,” he wrote.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t often work out too well, particularly in Black communities.
This led to the creation of Freedom House Ambulance Services.
Black leaders in Pittsburgh worked with Dr. Peter Safar to train 25 Black men from the community as emergency medical technicians. They were able to start transporting people in crisis to the hospital while administering medical help along the way, with more success than the police-run ambulance services had in the area.
Despite FHAS’s success, police and fire departments wouldn’t retrain their people to be better equipped to save lives. So the city reallocated funds and created a new service.
Activists have said again and again that retraining and reform within the police department would be difficult, if not impossible, due to the culture that’s existed within for far too long.
It’s unlikely that attempts would actually solve most of the problems between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve, and that defunding police departments, and reallocating those funds to new programs and communities, would bring about more of the positive change that everyone is looking for.
And the story of FHAS only strengthens that argument — it worked before, it can work again.