On The Path Toward Police Abolition

Understanding harm reduction, defunding, and other strategies to end police violence and redefine public safety

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

his moment is too important for Black people — we cannot afford to lose. Viral videos of Black people being killed by the police have become a grim currency. It is easier to post a video clip of a dying Black person taking their last breath than to reckon with the reality that these killings will happen again and again until we collectively acknowledge that policing is not the source of public safety.

We must reduce the immediate power the police have to harm and kill us, while we simultaneously move money and resources from the institution of policing to the community-based groups that keep neighborhoods whole and far safer than policing ever has.

There are no doubts that the entire institution of policing is dangerous for Black people. That is why our #8CantWait campaign does not stand as a singular set of demands, or in contradiction to those we’ve been hearing in communities across the country to defund the police, but in conjunction. I owe it to you to make that abundantly clear.

We need immediate harm reduction, like changes in use of force policies, removing police from schools, and stripping the power of police unions — changes we have spent years advocating for at Campaign Zero. A recent example is that we fought for masks for people who are incarcerated during the COVID-19 crisis while also continuing the work towards the end of prisons and jails.

We need divestment from the police and a radical investment in communities of color, including housing, jobs, and education. Ultimately, we need abolition, to replace the systems that harm us with ones that heal us.

Don’t call this a war. It provides cover for a militarized response from the state. This is an American assault on its citizens.

I get it: It doesn’t seem like policy change can make an immediate difference. But based on 40 years of research, these and other harm reduction tactics can truly be a material and immediate first step in ending police violence. I felt a sense of urgency in this launch and I owe it to you to ensure clarity. Campaign Zero stands in support of defunding the police, and we stand with other protestors and activists working toward that end, like the organizing efforts at People’s Budget LA. We stand in support of local demands that call for transformation in ways that are unique to each city, and national demands that help shift the entire field, like those of Color of Change and The Advancement Project.

We stand with those reimagining public safety without police, who are teaching us what this means and how to better understand it. And we stand with those who, like this campaign, are seeking immediate implementation of first steps toward all of these ends, including pushes for the Department of Justice to reapply consent decrees and for Congress to take action against racial profiling.

In 2019, there were only 27 days where the police did not kill someone. Last year was the first year where Black people reported being more afraid of being killed by the police than being killed by community violence. In 2014, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and a movement to end police violence was born. But since that time, the police have killed more people per year, not fewer. Today, one in every three people killed by a stranger is killed by a police officer. A Black person in Minneapolis is 13 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person — the highest racial disparity in the country. And people died at the hands of police at the same rate in March and April of this year as they did during the same months in 2019, despite every major city in America being locked down on quarantine due to Covid-19 and crime reaching historic lows.

Even a pandemic has not stopped the police from killing us.

In cities, killings are down 30% since 2013 — but this is still not enough to offset the national trend. Unfortunately, police killings in rural and suburban communities have increased at such an alarming rate that it erased the gains made in cities. Rural and suburban police departments are now responsible for a majority of cases where the police kill people.

We must get to a place where the police kill no one.

Don’t call this a war. It provides cover for a militarized response from the state. This is an American assault on its citizens. Don’t call our struggle a marathon. This is not sport, and we must be urgent. We do not need a metaphor to tell this truth: there are explicit laws, policies, and practices that protect police officers from accountability and a system of policing that will continue to produce dead and beaten bodies unless the entire system is replaced.

We cannot let officials lull us into complacency through weak interventions disguised as solutions.

The strategy to protect lives now and move toward abolition is two-fold: reduce the power of the police and shrink the role of law enforcement right now without hesitation. These strategies happen simultaneously — this is both/and not either/or. By reducing the power of the police through use of force, we begin to mitigate the harm that they can inflict in communities today.

In shrinking the role of the police, we permanently move responsibilities and the associated resources away from the police and reallocate them to community-based solutions today. These changes can take place quickly — it is a scare-tactic to suggest that use of force changes or defunding strategies take years to implement or that they are at odds with each other.

We also have to move away from a set of interventions that are disguised as solutions to police violence but do not substantively prevent police from abuse of power or the violence they inflict. Too often, the discussion focuses on these four:

  1. Community policing
  2. Body cameras
  3. Implicit bias and/or mental health training
  4. Hiring more police officers of color

These ideas sound good, but they are ineffective. Worse, they enable elected officials and police chiefs to tout their response when nothing has fundamentally improved.

The research is clear: Community policing — which often takes the shape of cops mentoring Black teenagers, neighborhood roundtables, and basketball games — can increase citizens’ trust of law enforcement, but it does little to change abusive behavior from police or reduce their deadly use of force. The same goes for implicit bias and mental health training. Body cameras have also not been found to reduce use of force.

The racial composition of a police department matters. Research shows that the percentage of Black officers in a police department leads to a reduction in police violence but not until that percentage exceeds 35%. For context, only 12 of the 18,000 police departments in the country have more than 30% Black officers. This may be a solution, but it is not a scalable solution.

We know now more than ever what works and doesn’t work. We cannot let officials lull us into complacency through weak interventions disguised as solutions.

The implementation of these policies to reduce the power of the police must be coupled with strategies that shrink the role and scope of the police. To accomplish this, we should empower experts to tend to their field of expertise. Should the police respond to people experiencing mental health crises? No. A trained mental health professional should. We know this intuitively, but the data also confirms this — at least 19% of the people killed by police every year are experiencing a mental health crisis. Also, the police should not be responding to people facing the impact of drug addiction, public health officials should. The police are quick to remind us that they are not social workers and we agree. We should begin by removing all responsibilities that fall under the purview of social workers, mental health, and drug addiction from the police department.

Once we continue to identify the range of responsibilities assigned to the police which they are clearly ill-equipped to deal with and lack the expertise, we will realize that there is little need left for them.

As long as there are police, we must reduce their power to inflict harm.

I have seen people sensationalize the idea of defunding the police as if it will lead to chaos. It is chaos now. The police kill roughly 1,100 people per year with little to no consequence. The reality is, when we enable experts to do what their expertise and training has prepared them to do, communities are safer. The police are not experts in many of the responsibilities which are assigned to them — we should permanently move those responsibilities to community-based partners along with all associated funding.

You can’t keep feeding a beast and expect it to shrink.

As we continue the work toward abolition, we can immediately limit the ability of police to cause harm in communities by creating rules that limit their use of force. We identified eight use of force policies that, when enacted, lead to measurable decreases in police killings. These policies save people’s lives:

  1. Ban chokeholds/strangleholds
  2. Require de-escalation
  3. Require officers to exhaust all means before using force
  4. Establish a use of force continuum
  5. Require a duty to intervene if they witness another officer engaged in misconduct
  6. Ban shooting at moving vehicles
  7. Require a warning before shooting
  8. Require all use of force be reported

When a police department goes from implementing zero of these policies to implementing all eight of them, there’s a substantial reduction in police killings. Current police departments with four or more of these restrictive use of force policies had the fewest killings per population and per arrest. This is real harm reduction.

These policies are commonsense, but they are not commonplace. Only 28 of the 100 largest cities ban chokeholds and strangleholds. Remember, chokeholds are not banned in NYC today and strangleholds were not banned in NYC when Eric Garner was killed. Additionally, only 17 of the 100 largest cities restrict officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles. And only 25 of the 100 largest cities require that all force — including pointing a gun at someone or threatening to point a gun at someone — be reported.

It was not easy to complete this analysis because these policies are not public in the majority of American cities. There were even cities that replied to our requests for data on these policies by sending us heavily or entirely redacted documents. There are even city council members who had to call us to get their city’s Use of Force Policy because the police department would not release it to them. They did not want us to have the information. But we do. And we know that the current policies endanger lives today and lead to police killings. That must end today.

Ultimately, we need abolition, to replace the systems that harm us with ones that heal us.

In the days since the launch of #8CantWait, a campaign to get police departments to immediately adopt these eight policies, we have seen denouncements from police unions and police chiefs. They simply do not want to accept a mandate from the people to implement rules that prevent violence and deaths of their fellow citizens. This is to be expected. They are never able to offer a strong rationale against any of the policies. They do, however, say that these policies will “handcuff” them and make them less safe. They also claim that these policies will increase crime. But there is no research to support these claims.

As long as there are police, we must reduce their power to inflict harm.

We are in a moment that has the power to change the course of our history for the better. We have to demand the transformational changes that our lives deserve. “No justice, no peace,” is both a rallying cry and a statement of fact. If we do not use this moment to harness every strategy at our disposal to prevent more death at the hands of the police, we will assuredly be here again, soon.

There is a precedent for abolition in this country. The abolition of enslavement is the single most important and impressive thing we’ve done. No one thought it was possible. Many assumed that it was too aggressive and too far-reaching to be successful. Those people were wrong. It is possible to abolish the police — an institution that is one of the remnants of enslavement.

I will never betray my heart. Curator, connector. TFA. Educator. Bowdoin alum. Protestor. Snapchat: derayderay. IG: iamderay. deray@thisisthemovement.org

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store