Herewith an aggregation of thoughts about policing, pointing towards various approaches to alternatives. Emphasis on getting to the root of the problems, rather than asking institutions of suppression to reform themselves. All complaints and queries may be directed to me, Dave Lippman.
First off, a bit of perspective about defunding: Society has been defunding education, affordable housing, mental health, and social services generally for decades, moving the money to the agents of armed social repression. So moving it back might be appropriate. But in a society that likes its solutions short term, we get repression, not progression.
Second, we have to consider what the police are: they are the agency that preserves order, and the order is unjust. It appears to be peacekeeping, but it actually maintains a permanent system of injustice, inequality, and poverty based on housing loan denials, localized inferior education, and pervasive discrimination. Not to mention its roots in Jim Crow and slavery.
A couple of basic sources:
Here you can find short statements and demands from the Movement for Black Lives on topics like the war on black communities, demilitarization of police, surveillance, prisons, etc.
A set of specific proposals to deal with a variety of problems and solutions in policing, including use of force, community oversight, for-profit policing (ticket and arrest quotas, etc.), power of police unions, etc.
Now then, What do people mean by defunding the police?
It doesn’t just mean slashing budgets. One of the main ideas is that police departments are often the only agency to respond to problems — even if the problems are not criminal in nature. Police handle mental health crises. They enforce traffic laws. They patrol public school hallways and contract with colleges and universities. They answer 911 calls about barking dogs and loud parties. Advocates of defunding the police argue that many of these functions would be better left to other professionals, such as social workers and others with the needed training.
Although the slogan “defund the police” has been coolly received by law enforcement leaders, it is forcing some of them to seriously consider whether society should aim to respond to addiction and mental illness and even violence with something other than force. “That is not only laudable,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is also the elected head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “It’s an absolutely necessary long-term goal.”
What do police do?
A New York Times study shows about 4% of calls are for violent crime.
Some cops agree that social workers or others might be better assigned to noncriminal disturbances, traffic accidents and enforcement, and noise complaints. (And demonstrations?)
Why do police kill black people?
Overall, the police are charged with maintaining an untenable relation between permanently suppressed groups and the society that suppresses them. That hasn’t worked, and won’t.
Of course, police kill white people too — more, in fact. But black people are three times as likely to be killed. There are several reasons: one is that white police are afraid of black people, and another is that white police are racist and want to kill black people. Then there’s the fact that a high percentage of police are military veterans, a history that can bring with it a strong relationship to violence and sometimes to PTSD as well. Or at the least, treating every encounter like a battle where one needs to “dominate.”
On the one hand, police are understandably frustrated at being asked to risk their lives and then told to take care of those who may threaten them. On the other hand, police work does attract a number of people who should not be there. Sadists, for example.
Then again, since police generally enjoy impunity, what’s to stop them from mayhem?
In divided societies, failure to restrain so-called bad apples within the police and other security forces “is not a capacity issue but a political choice,” said Kate Cronin-Furman, a lecturer in political science at University College London who has studied abuses in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “What this does is to tell marginalized minorities that they are never safe, that they don’t possess the full panoply of citizenship rights, and that their humanity is always in question,” Dr. Cronin-Furman said.
That offers double protections to the dominant class or group: Police violence preserves their position in the social hierarchy, and by encouraging it through implied permission rather than through explicit top-down orders, those in power maintain plausible deniability about their role in the brutality.
About those reforms….
People have been trying to reform the police for generations. In recent times, body cameras have been instituted. Sometimes they are turned off. Sometimes they are on. But still, only 3% of police murderers are charged, and only 1% convicted. This is because police have strong unions that enforce the police state that Black people live under. Politicians are bent to their will (DeBlasio).
It is possible that you cannot reform the police, any more than you can reform the Pentagon or the CIA. Institutions that have a mission to enforce inequality might just need abolishing. Luckily there are other models for organizing society. What seems extreme in the United States might be quite normal in other places.
There was a whole set of what we often refer to as “procedural reforms” designed to make the police more professional, less biased, more transparent — and that this is going to magically fix the problem. But things did not get better. People are still being killed, and more importantly, the problem of overpolicing remains.
We have [millions of] low-level arrests in the United States every year and most of them are completely pointless. It is just a huge level of harassment meted out almost exclusively on the poorest and most marginal communities in our society. There is a deep resentment about policing in those places. And then, when there’s a high-profile incident, it unleashes all this pent-up anger and rage.
Reducing policing goes hand in hand with decriminalizing sex work, drugs, homelessness, mental illness. We don’t really need a vice unit, we need a system of legalized sex work that’s regulated just like any other business. We don’t need school police, we need counselors and restorative justice programs. We don’t need police homeless outreach units, we need supportive housing, community based drop-in centers, social workers.
Not all homicides are the same. Is it a domestic violence case? Is it a school shooting? Is it a drug deal gone bad? We know, for instance, that in almost all the school shooting cases, somebody had a pretty good idea that this might happen, but did not tell anyone — or told the police and the police had no tools to do anything about it. What if instead, we had a system in place where when a young person thinks their friend might do something awful, can go and talk to a responsible adult without worrying that the police will get involved, that they will have ratted on their friend to the police, or that their friend will get expelled from school because of some zero tolerance policy?
Other countries do it differently.
Here are a few examples.
In 2004, the nation of Georgia abolished its corrupt police force and replaced it with a smaller, better-trained force.
U.S. police get 21–33 weeks of job training. German officers get 2–1/2 to 4 years.
Of course, 40 percent of the world’s arms are in the United States — including lots of civilians. That must be dealt with. As must the source of gang and drug-related activity, which is the anti-social nature of U.S. society (and other hyper-exploitative capitalist states), which is to say the allocation of resources to make rich people richer and poor people poorer.
That said, a number of police officers in countries such as Britain, Ireland, and Norway aren’t armed at all.
Following the murder of Michael Brown, a recommendation was forwarded to President Obama to establish an Inspector General of Police, such as exists in Britain, and to track fired officers to prevent them being hired elsewhere. The suggestions were not acted upon.
Budget cuts to psychiatric services in the United States have resulted in police taking on a greater role in dealing with the mentally ill. An estimated 10 percent of police encounters involve people affected by mental illness. A Washington Post analysis found that 25 percent of those shot and killed by police in the United States in a six-month period in 2015 were in a mental health crisis.
Newer approaches involve sending mental health professionals along with — or instead of — police into situations involving mental health emergencies. Stockholm’s mental health ambulance — an emergency vehicle with two trained nurses and a driver — seeks to free up police resources, to allow officers to focus on fields they are the experts in.
In 2005, Glasgow was dubbed the “murder capital of Europe.” Exasperated by the city’s high homicide rates and its notorious booze-and-blade culture, police decided to try something new. They set up a violence reduction unit with a philosophy that violent behavior spreads from person to person; to contain it, you need to interrupt transmission and focus on prevention.
Former offenders patrol emergency hospital wards looking for people at a “reachable moment.”
Glasgow’s homicide rates have dropped dramatically, and although it’s unclear how much of that decrease should be attributed to the violence reduction unit, the model has drawn interest from police forces as far away as Canada and New Zealand.
Finland is the standout example in Europe for its handle on homelessness. As a starting point, it offers unhoused people a permanent, stable home. From there, the formerly unhoused are offered access to other support services, such as help with addiction and advice on work placements. Finland is the only country in the European Union where homelessness is on the decline. Since launching its “housing-first” program in 2008, the number of long-term unhoused has dropped by more than 42 percent.
England and Wales have 43 police forces, which are overseen by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, an independent body that carries out inspections, writes reports, and makes recommendations.
Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist from the University of Cambridge, said that this oversight body can, effectively, defund the police by withholding roughly half of the police budget. The threat of that sanction, he said, helps to concentrate minds of local police chiefs.
“The question of how you keep a rogue department under control shouldn’t have an answer that says, ‘Get the right police chief,’” Sherman said. “The answer should be: Have a high-level large population electorate overseeing a regulatory process that is applied impartially, without fear or favor, or local friendships.”
This does not speak to the required level of ongoing community involvement. But it could.
What the U.S. Can Learn From Countries Where Cops Don’t Carry Guns
Norway is one of 19 countries worldwide where police officers are typically unarmed, and permitted to use guns only in exceptional circumstances. These countries, which include the United Kingdom, Finland, and Iceland, seldom see deadly incidents involving police officers. While 1090 people were killed by police in the United States in 2019, Norway saw no deaths at the hands of police officers for the same year.
While the 19 nations in the world that do not arm officers vary greatly in their approach to policing, they share a common thread. “What we can identify in these countries is that people have a tradition — and an expectation — that officers will police by consent rather than with the threat of force,” says Guðmundur Ævar Oddsson, associate professor of sociology at Iceland’s University of Akureyri who specializes in class inequality and forms of social control such as policing.
Countries with a philosophy of policing by consent, such as the United Kingdom, believe that police should not gain their power by instilling fear in the population but rather, should gain legitimacy and authority by maintaining the respect and approval of the public. This model of policing maintains that uses of force should be restrained and success is measured not in how many arrests officers have made but rather, by the absence of crime itself.
“I think that the United States must learn that it takes time to educate people,” says Rune Glomseth, a professor at Norwegian police university college. “Police are a very special role in society and you can’t just train them for a few weeks. You need time.”
Officers in both Norway and Finland also work in tandem with medical professionals, particularly psychiatric specialists that accompany officers when dealing with people who are exhibiting signs of mental illness. In contrast, funding for psychiatric services in the United States has been cut in recent years, resulting in police officers handling cases of people who are mentally ill without having the knowledge or training necessary to do so properly. The result is striking: A Washington Post analysis found that 25% of people shot by police officers during a six months period in 2015 were experiencing severe mental health issues.
The threat of terrorism, not to mention the number of guns flourishing on the black market, has sparked a recurring national debate about whether Britain’s police should begin to carry firearms. But the police themselves have been the first to oppose such a move, even in the heat of the London bombings in 2005. A survey by the Police Federation in 2006, the latest available, found that 82 percent of its 47,238 members did not want officers to be routinely armed on duty, despite almost half saying their lives had been “in serious jeopardy” during the previous three years.
“Having police officers patrolling neighborhoods and being routinely armed could be seen as a more military type of police service, which is unlikely to be supported by either the police or the public,” says Steve White, a former firearms officer and chair of the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers.
Abolishing the police
Abolitionists, who want to abolish prisons and also police, say that “The end goal of these reforms is not to create better, friendlier, or more community-oriented police or prisons. Instead, we hope to build toward a society without police or prisons, where communities are equipped to provide for their safety and wellbeing.” The advocate demilitarizing/disarming the police
They propose to repeal laws that criminalize survival:
- Repeal local ordinances that criminalize people involved in the sex trades, drug trades, and street economies.
- Repeal local ordinances that criminalize the occupation of public spaces — particularly for people experiencing homelessness — under statutes against loitering, loitering for the purposes of sex work, fare beating, panhandling, soliciting, camping, sleeping, and public urination and defecation.
- Refuse to deploy police when they are contacted in relation to the above.
- Repeal statutes that criminalize survivors of gendered violence, including mandatory arrest and failure to protect laws.
- On the road to complete decriminalization, immediately decriminalize all misdemeanor offenses, which currently account for 80% of total court dockets.
- End all fines and fees associated with the criminal legal process, including ticketing, cash bail, court costs, and parole and probation fees.
They envision a society that fulfills human needs as having no need for police/prisons. Provide housing, health care, childcare, transit, youth programs, and end the funding of schools through property taxes. Then humans will function cooperatively, without needing to be forced into it, or into prison.
Some efforts are being made here and there. In Eugene, Oregon, the non-profit mobile crisis intervention program “Cahoots” (“Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) has taken mental health calls since 1989. They respond with a team comprising a medic and a mental health counselor. Last year they fielded 24,000 calls — 20% of the area’s 911 calls. They are consulting with several other cities. See https://whitebirdclinic.org/services/cahoots/
In 2013 Camden, New Jersey, abolished its police force and started over at the county level. (Police officials blamed the four police unions then operating in the city for having too much power, driving up overtime costs and dictating how patrol cops were used.) Violent crime in Camden has fallen by 42 percent and the murder rate has fallen by more than half, from 67 killings in 2012, the year before the reforms, to 25 last year. (see also https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/06/12/camden-policing-reforms-313750 )
Generally, cutting the number of encounters between poorly-trained or racist armed guardians of order and the suppressed classes of society (African Americans, poor people, mentally struggling folks…) will cut the number of deaths (murders) and unwarranted imprisonment.
Barry Friedman, faculty director of the Policing Project at NYU Law School, proposed “disaggregating” policing into its constituent functions to identify those that ought to be forgone entirely, and others better addressed by a different agency. For calls involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction, Friedman suggested a new kind of highly trained generalist first responder. Cities are taking up the proposition: during the current revolt, policymakers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Albuquerque announced their intentions to develop a branch of emergency response for handling calls in which a community safety response is more appropriate.
“The closer you get to it, and the more you work on it, the more you realize that the system is not fixable the way it is,” says attorney Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which has litigated civil rights lawsuits on behalf of Illinois prisoners for years. Mills knows Kaba and says her work has been influential in legal circles; after much heated discussion, prison abolition was adopted as a platform of the National Lawyers Guild last year.
Some people may be put off by the word “abolition” itself, Mills says, but he argues that many social causes actually fall under its umbrella. He points out that abolitionists in Chicago have championed reinvestment in community mental health care, and were behind the creation of the Community Bond Fund, which collects donations for bail bonds for people in pretrial detention at the Cook County Jail. The initiative has been endorsed by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and many legal aid groups.
“I think that you have to view it as a strategy and a goal rather than something that can be implemented tomorrow,” Mills says of abolition. “When I listen to the abolitionists, what I hear is that it is possible to build a world without prisons or policing.”
And, Mills adds, this world is closer than a distant sci-fi future. “Germany and Norway have a different philosophy,” he says. “The reason people commit crimes is because they’ve become disconnected from social networks.” In the Norwegian model, “the role of prison is to rebuild those networks,” he says.
But Kaba warns that America will need much more than just a tweaking of the way prisons operate — the abolitionist project in the city and the country will require much farther-reaching social transformation in the way we think about crime, punishment, property, and how we relate to one another. “Abolition is not about changing one thing,” she says. “It’s about changing everything, together.”
George Ciccariello-Maher :
We don’t know what a world without police would look like, but we do know that the police don’t truly “serve and protect” most people. Not people of color, who are routinely brutalized and disproportionately killed. Not those suffering mental health crises, who are an astonishing 16 times more likely to die in encounters with police. And not women, either: an estimated 40% of police are domestic abusers — an unseen epidemic. With rape conviction rates below 1% and hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits piling up nationwide, it’s possible that police actually inflict more violence on women than they prevent.
Reform won’t cut it. Civilian oversight committees are toothless, so-called “community policing” only weakens already ailing communities, and the widespread call for body cameras overlooks research showing that cameras do more to convict suspects than hinder the police wearing them, who often simply cover them up, turn them off, or delete the footage.
In conclusion…you cannot reform a center of power without removing its power and beginning on a new footing, with new people, not steeped in a culture of fear and ignorance and white supremacy. And of course, ultimately, one cannot reform police without reforming the roots of violence and crime and unrest: inequality. And racism. Which, together, form white supremacy.