Can the US exist without police? Growing support for police abolishment in the United States

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On May 25, 2020 the world bore witness to the horrific police killing of an unarmed African American man named George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This event, captured on video, sparked an international call for an end to police brutality and wider demand for racial justice and equality. Organizers of the movement across the United States have been raising bail funds, volunteering to collect food and medical supplies, and coordinating community meetings. Even more so they are calling for more strategic and impactful action to take place to keep neighborhoods safe and decrease the disproportionate use of force by police against black and brown people.

In a Washington Post report, it has been reported that over 1,000 people in the United States have been killed by police. Additionally, the report also shows that police kill black people at a rate more than twice that of white people. Almost 50% of people killed by the police have disabilities. In a national survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center, data shows that 21% of law enforcement’s time is spent responding to calls related to people with mental illness. In 2015, one in four people killed by a police officer was found to suffer from mental illness. Police are also often called to address issues with people experiencing homelessness, which leads to a disproportionate rate of incarceration within this demographic. The statistics of police killings paint a grim picture of the state of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in the United States. After George Floyd’s murder, many people are seeking an answer to a deeply-rooted American problem.

One major effort proposed to address disparities within the police and the justice system is to divest from police departments and reinvest in communities. While this comes on the heels of major protests and demonstrations that are still ongoing in many cities across the country, the call to reimagine policing has been a demand from activists and community leaders for decades. A number of cities have gone through extensive, so-called “progressive police reforms,” yet the disparity in arrest and assault rates by police on minority communities has remained. This is why these communities are demanding more extreme measures to address factors that contribute to crime, such as poverty and lack of access to healthcare and employment opportunities. Communities and their leaders say that these factors should not be in the hands of police administrations that are actively disrupting and endangering their wellbeing.

The policy platform Campaign Zero recently started a campaign called, “8 Can’t Wait,” which provides a set of eight Police reforms that research shows can be made in order to reduce police killings by 72%. These reforms range from policies that ban police chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, require warnings before shooting, and require comprehensive reporting after incidents occur between police and civilians. By using data-driven approaches, the initiative outlines how cities can adopt the eight policies to reduce harm to communities, create a comprehensive plan for community safety, and reduce funds to police departments.

However, some community activists recently pushed back on the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, stating that for communities to truly be equitable and safe, they need to move beyond policing altogether, which means not focusing on reform and instead investing in transformational, long-term, institutional change. A concurrent campaign, “8 to Abolition,” believes that the aforementioned reforms have already been tried and subsequently failed and been disproved by abolitionist researchers. In addition, Campaign Zero’s proposed policies create opportunities for police to change tactics leading to more dangerous situations for marginalized people in the US. Among the eight points of abolition are proposals to remove police from schools, provide fair housing, and free people from jails and prisons. The campaign distinctly seeks to remove police and prisons from communities and replace them with community-resourced approaches to safety and protection.

Even as the abolition movement gains support across the country, there is opposition to the idea. Critics of these policy changes to dismantle police departments deem it too radical to be an effective way of keeping people safe.  The question of how to protect people from extreme crimes like rape and murder is often the first asked when confronted with a rethinking of the current system of policing. Some refer to the rising rate of crime over the past two years as a deterrent for trying to disband police forces. However, abolitionists stand firmly with their plans, citing data that shows that most crimes go unsolved: justice that is supposed to be the responsibility of the police is not being carried out as promised. For example, according to data from the United States Justice Department, out of 1,000 sexual assault cases, 995 perpetrators will not go to jail or prison.  The argument about police abolishment is not that crime doesn’t exist or that implementing community support will erase crime within society–it’s about calling out that current policing and the overall criminal justice system is not delivering on promises to protect and deliver justice. This means that a dramatic overhaul of a broken system is in order.

In order to do this, leaders of the movement say that investing in communities, removing harmful laws, and providing resources will result in a significant reduction in crime. A 2016 report showed that after increasing wages by 10% for men without a college education resulted in a 10-20% reduction of crime rates. Proponents of these policy changes are proving why these alternatives work. Neighborhoods that have opened drug treatment facilities have reported a 78% decrease in drug dealing, a 48% decrease in drug-related crime, and a 64% decrease in criminal arrests over five years. In California cities that implemented community-based mediators between gangs, rates of shooting and gang violence decreased by 44% in Oakland, 50% in San Francisco, and 66% in Richmond. These alternatives have not required the use of weapons, surveillance, or patrolling.

There is also the matter of funding, which activists argue is a key factor in reallocating ownership of communities to the people living in them. A recent data analysis by Bloomberg showed that the total police budget in the U.S. is $115 billion, which is a higher amount than nearly all other countries’ military budgets. Supporters of police abolishment speak to the fact that police budgets in most cities are drastically larger than the budgets for social services, education, and housing and have tripled in size over the past four decades. Furthermore, advocates say this funding should be allocated from policing to community implementations, such as the ones listed above, that are proven to work and could have significantly impactful results if fully backed by local governments.

There is even agreement among police officers that there can be an over-reliance on law enforcement to solve societal issues. A 2016 interview with Dallas, Texas Police Chief David Brown, alluded to the idea that it is asking too much of police officers to take on problem-solving for systemic societal challenges. Police, while primarily tasked with keeping communities safe and enforcing laws, also respond to calls pertaining to mental health crises, drug overdoses, and homelessness. Many experts say that the training and skills that police are provided with do not properly equip them to address these societal issues. Regardless of this, police forces and their unions remain powerful and influential institutions that have made it difficult to substantially change.  In the role of securing salaries and protecting job security, police unions have had a firm hand in safeguarding against punishment and termination of police officers. Collective bargaining agreements between police, unions, and local governments have led to protecting proven violent officers from transparency provisions such as internal and civilian review boards. This makes it nearly impossible to punish officers who have engaged in misconduct or who have violated the rights of civilians. 

Less than two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, city councilors in Minneapolis, MN announced a proposal to dismantle their city police force along with plans to reenvision how to strengthen community-driven solutions to protection and betterment. As of this moment, there is no specific plan to address the defunding of the $193.3 million budget of the Minneapolis Police Department. However, the city council is committed to redefining the way that local government engages the community in policy decisions to improve safety, health, and wellbeing.

As George Floyd was laid to rest in his hometown of Houston, Texas on Tuesday, a grieving country heeds the challenge of addressing racial disparity and police violence, and to reconstruct a future that returns power into the hands of the people.

 

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”

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Maya Weisinger is a second-year student at the Willy Brandt School. She specializes in Conflict Studies and Management and her research focuses on transitional justice projects and statebuilding in post-conflict settings. She graduated from Macalester College in 2012 with a Bachelor's Degree in American Studies.