Police reform or abolition? This blog post discusses the history of the police institution in the United States, several possible reforms, and then the demands of abolitionist groups, to begin to imagine a future without police.
On May 28, 2020 in Minneapolis, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin and three other police officers, protestors burnt down the Third Precinct. Across the United States, as the protests raged, so did the fires. Police vehicles were burnt, left like empty, hollowed-out husks. The statement was clear: no more cops.
The brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other Black people at the hands of the police is nothing new. Black activists have been speaking out against police violence and the U.S. carceral system for centuries. What is new is widespread support for this moment and the apparent beginning of a real divestment from the police system. In a recent Monmouth University Poll, 17% of participants thought the burning of the Third Precinct was justified, and 37% believed it was partially justified. On June 7, 2020 nine members, a veto-proof majority, of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle the city’s Police Department, promising to create a new system of public safety in the city, where law enforcement has long been accused of racism.
The root of the “police problem” is systemic racial and anti-Black violence, resulting in disproportionate arrests, prosecutions, and mass incarceration. Police perpetrate violence, which results in injury, premature Black deaths, and immeasurable literal and psychological harm to Black families and communities. While reformists are quick to point to “bad apples,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains that racial social control may be the very point of the system.
To understand why policing amounts to racialized violence against Black communities, it is important to revisit the origins of policing in the United States. In their excellent article, Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford argue that the first “Police Associations” in the U.S. emerged during chattel slavery as “‘slave patrols,’ ‘alarm men,’ or ‘searchers,’ and nicknamed ‘paddyrollers’ or ‘paterolers’ by those they policed.” They explain that:
“Patrols of this kind were empowered to capture runaways and beat slaves caught travelling without a pass. As concerns of active revolt took hold, they would preemptively break up slaves’ gatherings, search their homes, and seize their possessions. The distinction is important: the patrols performed their activities not simply as hastily assembled bands sent out to catch a group of runaways or put down an ongoing revolt, but as a preventative body of racial, social and labor control.”
Post-Civil War policing structures remained largely unchanged due to the Black Codes, which penalized a wide variety of petty offenses in an effort to recoup free labor from formerly enslaved people. Indeed, today’s prison industrial complex, which involves the capture of primarily Black and Brown people, their placement in cages, and the extraction of enormous cheap and/or free labor from incarcerated populations, directly reflects these Post-Civil War structures. The police are and have always been “an institution that intended […] the reproduction of capital and the enforced social death of Black people.”
But can the police be reformed? Numerous social uprisings in response to police violence have called for the reformation of police – including implicit bias training, mandatory bodycams, and increased oversight and accountability. Many of these reforms have been implemented. But do they work? Does reform result in a less racially biased violent police force?
In response to Michael Brown’s 2014 murder by the police and the non-indictment of his murderer Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s family released a statement calling for all police officers to wear bodycams. In 2015, the Obama Administration awarded more than $23.2 million in grants to expand the use of body-worn cameras in an effort to explore their impact.
But body-worn cameras are only as good as officer compliance. Sociologist and author Alex Vitale explains that:
“In numerous shooting cases, officers have failed to turn on their cameras. For example: One of the officers present at the shooting of Walter Scott in Charleston did not have his camera turned on. Not a single one of the officers present at a shooting in Washington, D.C., in 2016 had their camera on. Eighteen-year-old Paul O’Neil was killed by police in Chicago who did not have their cameras on. One study actually found that departments using cameras had higher rates of shootings.”
Reformers have often also called on the police to be more diverse – hypothesizing that queer police officers, Black police officers, and officers of color may be less biased against marginalized people. Unfortunately, most studies have concluded that Black officers and officers of color use force at least as often as white officers. Another study suggests “that small increases in diversity produce worse outcomes, while large increases begin to show some improvements […] [and concluded] ‘[t]here’s no evidence to suggest that increasing the proportion of officers that are black is going to offer a direct solution.’” More diverse police departments also do not have increased community satisfaction amongst Black and Brown communities, due to their continued use of discriminatory and harmful practices such as excessive force and stop and frisk. Individual police officers, no matter how “pure” their intentions, remain a part of a system of “intensive, invasive, and aggressive crime-control policies that by their nature disproportionately target communities of color. These include broken-windows policing, with its emphasis on public disorder, and the War on Drugs, which is waged almost exclusively in nonwhite neighborhoods.”
So where do we go from here? If not the police, who will keep us safe? A variety of community-based organizations, academics, and individuals have posited that putting an end to the police will free up significant money to reinvest in communities, social services, and one another. Rose City Copwatch in Portland imagines informal networks of support through friends. Minneapolis-based MPD150 suggests investing in “mental health service providers, social workers, victim/survivor advocates, religious leaders, neighbors and friends […] to look out for one another.” An NYU 2018 study found that in a 100,000 population city, the creation of each new community-based nonprofit “[led] to a 1.2 percent drop in the homicide rate, a 1 percent decrease in violent crime rate, and a 0.7 percent reduction in property crime rate.”
And “what about the bad guys?” MPD150 wants us to remember that the police don’t spend most of their time fighting violent crime, rather they “make needless traffic stops, arrest petty drug users, harass Black and Brown people, and engage in a wide range of ‘broken windows policing’ behaviors that only serve to keep more people under the thumb of the criminal justice system.” In fact, the police are actually fairly ineffective at solving many violent crimes. In Living with Impunity, the Berkeley Law International Human Rights Clinic found that “[i]n the last decade, approximately 76% of [Oakland’s] homicide victims were black. During that time period, police made arrests in approximately 40% of Oakland homicides involving black victims and approximately 80% of homicides involving white victims.”
The study found that unsolved murder victims’ families “lack[ed] of confidence in the thoroughness of police investigations and questioned investigators’ commitment to solving the crimes.” Families expressed mistreatment by police throughout the investigation. At crime scenes, parents of murder victims felt like officers “disregarded their grief and treated them, at best, like a bystander, and at worst, like a threat to officer safety.” During follow-up investigations, most families “reported only limited communication with detectives at the beginning of the investigation and no contact with the investigators for extended periods.”
It is important to also remember that even when crime seems random, it is often caused by structural inadequacies that we could fund if we divested in the police. In a recent interview with Mother Jones, Alex Vitale explained a discussion with a friend about a stolen car, and illustrated the root causes of crime ignored by modern policing:
I said, “Well, let’s dig a little deeper here. What do we know about the person who got arrested that stole your car?” “Uh, the police said that he’d been arrested a bunch of times and there was drug paraphernalia left in the car?” And I’m like, Hmm. So we tried policing a bunch of times with this guy. Did it prevent your car from getting stolen? No. Is this person stealing cars because they have a drug problem? Probably. Is sending them to jail over and over again fixing their drug problem? No. Okay, if we want to reduce vehicle thefts, the first time that we come in contact with this person, we’ve got to start trying to address what’s driving their problematic behavior.
Of course, this blog post is not comprehensive – it is but a cursory analysis of the police problem. As attorneys fighting for justice, it is incumbent on us to listen to the times and to center these community organizations and their demands for divestment from police and investment in one another. MPD150, Rose City Copwatch, and other anti-police organizations, activists, scholars, and individuals remind us what can come after the fire – fresh soil to grow a new world.
Asher Waite-Jones (Berkeley Law, ’16) is a Staff Attorney & Clinical Supervisor in the Clean Slate Practice at the East Bay Community Law Center, where he works primarily on issues at the intersection of racial and economic justice and the criminal legal system.
Recommended Citation: Asher Waite-Jones, Fire to the Precincts: Imagining a Future without Police, Calif. L. Rev. Online (June 2020), https://www.californialawreview.org/imagining-future-without-police.