Break the machine to save it might sound extreme, but theres a deep strain of police history that drives some to believe its necessary. Police forces, as they see it, have certain kinds of inequality woven into their DNA. Beginning in the 1830s, local town-watch systems evolved into formal municipal police departments, a change driven less by popular demand than by businesses desire to ensure more social order. In the South, the rise of police was more explicitly racial: A significant precursorto formal police departments was slave patrols, first created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. After the Civil War, they evolved into police forces whose job, in large part, was to enforce Jim Crow segregation laws. And this is not just the stuff of a bygone era. Today, black people are disproportionately stopped by police, shot by police and killed by police.
According to YouGov polling, more African Americans fear victimization by police than fear violent crime.
With all that in mind, some say its impossible to fix police departments without first wiping the slate clean. Others, however, think that instead of wiping the slate clean, big chunks of what policing looks like today should just be broken off, leaving a leaner force for limited purposes.
Alex Vitalea professor of sociology and author of The End of Policing, a manual of sorts for the defund movementfalls roughly in thiscamp.Im certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police, he toldNPR in an interview last week. What Im talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake, and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them.
In this view, abolishing, or at least defunding, police departments would serve one other practical goal: to free up money for other local services that might actually help to reduce crime, like mental health treatment, drug rehabilitation, poverty relief, education and housing. In 2017, the Center for Popular Democracy published an analysis of 12 major jurisdictions across the country, showing that at the city and county level, spending on police vastly outweighs spending on other services.
Politically, the push to reduce police department budgets and reinvest in community services is gaining steam. According to CityLab, lawmakers in more than a dozen cities already, including Los Angeles, having proposed or made pledges that would divest some resources from the police. The effort to, at minimum, scale back police presence in schools is already advancing in places like Denver.
And Minneapolis, depending on what it does next, could be a test case for real abolition.
3. We truly shouldnt have police.
The most extreme view of abolish the police is that it means what it says. It does not mean reimagining or reinventing the police. Police abolitionists want the literal end of the institution of policing in Americaeven if it takes a while to get there.
This as-advertised view of the rallying cry, while perhaps the most farfetched in the modern political climate, is also the most deeply rooted, with an intellectual history and framework thats been developing over decades.
The echo of slavery abolition isnt a coincidence. Eighty-five years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term abolition-democracy in his book Black Reconstruction, describing the fight to finish what the abolition of slavery had started and Reconstruction failed to do: break the rest of the institutions that had arisen to keep black people poor and powerlessthat push them backward toward slavery. In the criminal justice system, he focused chiefly on prisons and convict leasing, but also specifically mentioned white police as being an instrument of black domination.
The new movement to abolish the police is a direct outgrowth of the prison abolition movement that grew in part from Du Bois ideas. In the 1940s, a group of incarcerated black men began to call for the abolition of prisons, and the idea gained wider traction on the left in the 1970s, when two white womenone a Quaker, the other a communistpublished books explicitly calling for it. By the 80s and 90s, prison abolition had become a movement, most closely associated with two black women, Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, as well as Canadian Quaker Ruth Morris. Prison abolitionists such as Davis expanded their critiques to a broader prison-industrial complex, including policing. In the public sphere, some activists started to use abolish the police as a rallying cry after a series of prominent police shootings in 2014 and 2015, but it didnt really take off until this year.