Philadelphia starts the new year with a new police commissioner and the promise of long-overdue reform. But in cities like Chicago and New York, some community groups are teaching people about alternative conflict resolution tactics to be used when a crisis might be exacerbated by police presence. Some organizers and activists argue that police departments are so fundamentally broken that abolishing the current system of law and order is the only way to move forward.
The Inquirer asked two scholars to debate: With departments nationwide in need of reform, should police be abolished?
The latest call to action from some criminal justice activists: “Abolish the police.” From the streets of Chicago to the City Council of Seattle, and in the pages of academic journals ranging from the Cardozo Law Review to the Harvard Law Review and of mainstream publications from the Boston Review to Rolling Stone, advocates and activists are building a case not just to reform policing — viewed as an oppressive, violent, and racist institution — but to do away with it altogether.
When I first heard this slogan, I assumed that it was a figure of speech, used to legitimize more expansive criminal justice reform. But after reading the academic and activist literature, I realized that “abolish the police” is a concrete policy goal. The abolitionists want to dismantle municipal police departments and see “police officers disappearing from the streets.”
One might dismiss such proclamations as part of a fringe movement, but advocates of these radical views are gaining political momentum in numerous cities. In Seattle, socialist City Council candidate Shaun Scott, who ran on a “police abolition” platform, came within 1,386 votes of winning elected office. During his campaign, he argued that the city must “[disinvest] from the police state” and “build towards a world where nobody is criminalized for being poor.” At a debate hosted by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Scott blasted “so-called officers” for their “deep and entrenched institutional ties to racism” that produced an “apparatus of overaggressive and racist policing that has emerged to steer many black and brown bodies back into, in essence, a form of slavery.” Another Seattle police abolitionist, Kirsten Harris-Talley, served briefly in as an appointed city councilwoman. Both Scott and Harris-Talley enjoy broad support from the city’s progressive establishment.
What would abolishing police mean as a practical policy matter? Nothing very practical. In the Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith argues that police should be replaced by “full social, economic, and political equality.” Harris-Talley, meantime, has traced policing’s origins back to slavery. “How do you reform an institution that from its inception was made to control, maim, condemn, and kill people?” she asks. “Reform it back to what?” If cities can eliminate poverty through affordable housing and “investing in community,” she believes, the police will become unnecessary. Others argue that cities must simply “help people resolve conflicts through peace circles and restorative justice programs.”
Police abolitionists believe that they stand at the vanguard of a new idea, but this strain of thought dates to the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that stripping away the corruptions of civilization would liberate the goodness of man. What police abolitionists fail to acknowledge is the problem of evil. No matter how many “restorative” programs it administers, even a benevolent centralized state cannot extinguish the risks of illness, violence, and disorder. Contrary to the utopian vision of Rousseau and his intellectual descendants, chaos is not freedom; order is not slavery. In the modern world, civilization cannot be rolled back without dire consequences.
If anything like police abolition ever occurred, it’s easy to predict what would happen next. In the subsequent vacuum of physical power, wealthy neighborhoods would deploy private police forces and poor neighborhoods would organize around criminal gangs — deepening structural inequalities and harming the very people that the police abolitionists say they want to help. Even Scott, when pressed by a local journalist about how he would respond to a shooting in his district, conceded that “we live in a world where it’s not possible to turn anywhere for help on big questions like this but to the police force.”
Reform the police? Sure. Abolish them? Never.
Christopher F. Rufo is a contributing editor of City Journal, where this piece originally appeared. He is also a documentary filmmaker and research fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty.
By George Ciccariello-Maher
America is the most policed and incarcerated country in the world. When policing is a way of life, it’s hard to even imagine alternatives. When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail — so goes the saying. To suggest abolishing the police is therefore to invite immediate knee-jerk skepticism: after all, we need the police, right?
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.
Once we do the math, we see that the police only “protect and serve” a small minority of the population, but this is nothing new. Police were created to serve the interests of the white and the wealthy, and they continue to do so today. And that’s not all: unaccountable police institutions are a petri dish for brutality, violence, and corruption, as recent high-profile cases in Philadelphia make clear.
The past decade has seen high-profile police killings met with mass protests, demanding radical reform of police practices. But 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. The police cannot be reformed — they must be abolished.
But I am under no illusion that this will happen overnight, which is why many organizers nationwide have embraced the three D’s: disempower, disarm, and disband. This means attacking the root of police power on the way to abolition. It means watching, recording, and disrupting the police. It means pushing back against police privacy laws like HB 27 and supporting calls for Mayor Jim Kenney to make contract negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police public and to reform disciplinary arbitration.
Abolishing the police will be a long and uphill battle, but in recent decades, advocates of prison abolition have succeeded in shifting the national narrative. There is now broad agreement that the war on drugs was a catastrophe and mass incarceration is a crisis in need of solutions. Prison abolitionists created a space for the election of radical district attorneys like Larry Krasner and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. Advocates of police abolition need to do the same.
We know that alternatives to the police exist: when we rely on family, friends, and neighbors instead of calling the cops. And there are entire neighborhoods here and across the world that have pushed out the police entirely. This means reinvesting in communities, building local grassroots power, and strengthening other forms of conflict resolution so that policing gradually becomes obsolete. But above all, it means shaking off our blinders, looking at things differently, and beginning to imagine a world without police.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a visiting scholar at the College of William and Mary and the author of “A World Without Police,” which will be published next year by Verso Books.