What abolishing the police really means

Since I started writing this article, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement – half of them Black. It is time we abolish the police.

To be clear, people who support abolishing the police are not advocating for the removal of public safety or accountability. What abolitionists do advocate for, though, is being imaginative in a way we never have before to build community support services that aren’t posing a danger to members of the community. Confusion surrounding what abolishing the police means and entails is certainly valid and expected because the movement itself is not monolithic. Some scholars and activists disagree over what the phrase should entail – the words defund, abolish and reimagine the police are all phrases used in different contexts.

A way to distinguish between abolition and defunding is understanding the degree to which the two movements want to phase out police presence in communities. The defund movement generally imagines a space for police (i.e. exclusively responding to violence) whereas the abolition movement advocates for a world without police and reimagines ways in which violence can be addressed. Students who support abolishing the police should educate their community about alternatives to policing they can begin advocating for.

The structure of law enforcement as it currently exists is so entrenched in violent tendencies, corruption and inadequate provision of safety that it cannot be reformed. While reforms can reduce the extent to which the adverse effects of these characteristics are inflicted upon the community, reforms cannot reduce these effects to an extent that would be sufficient to protect our most marginalized communities. Understanding that those who experience the failure of our current policing structure is drastically disproportionate along racial and class lines is key to understanding the abolition argument. What this means is that the way in which the popular imagination understands the role of police, as maintaining the safety of communities, is not experienced by everyone in the same way.

For example, Black, Indigenous and people of color have experienced the most violent and disruptive aspects of policing because of structurally discriminatory policies that stem from neighborhood segregation. People often understand segregation as being a relic of the past. But racially restrictive practices, like the implementation of zoning laws and redlining, have worked to confine Black Americans and other racially marginalized groups to neighborhoods “that were overlooked and underserved by local governments, financial institutions and private developers. Meanwhile, federal policy incentivized home ownership for White families in areas that saw ongoing public and private investments.” As generations of communities have established themselves in these neighborhoods, these dynamics have “produced neighborhoods with profound differences in employment opportunities, poverty rates, school quality, access to health care, exposure to environmental hazards and crime, and so much more.” Even if racially discriminatory behavior, policies and processes were to be halted, racism would endure because its victims are left with disadvantages in life conditions, choice, opportunity and power.

The development of these increasingly segregated neighborhoods along with other supplemental factors, have provided the geographical foundation for neighborhoods that are predominantly “poor” or “Black” to be violently policed for surveillance and social control and “un-policed” with regard to the provision of emergency services. In other words, the more segregated a neighborhood is, the more likely there is to be a racial disparity in who experiences police violence. The result has been that out of all of the individuals who police officers shot between 2010 and 2016 in the 50 largest police departments, 55 percent were Black – double the proportion of Black people to the population of these policing districts. In 2016 alone, police officers killed nearly 1,100 people – with Native American, Black and Latino people being killed at a rate 111 percent, 78 percent and 11 percent proportionally higher than their White counterparts, respectively.

Abolishing the police, while it sounds dramatic or radical, is really based more on common sense than it appears. For example, in the event of an armed burglary, one would call the police and, in the absolute best case scenario, the police would show up and arrest the burglar. Besides the threat of prison, few measures are taken to ensure this person won’t burglarize another home. There are also few efforts to assess why this person felt it necessary to burglarize your home in the first place. Additionally, since policing isn’t survivor centered, if you’ve suffered trauma from the burglary or need financial or emotional support, you’re on your own.

On the other hand, an abolitionist approach that appreciates the forces that drive people to commit crime and that takes into account the need for the provision of basic living necessities, preventative crime measures and the provision of survivor-centered support services, is much more productive in addressing harm. In Oakland, California, for example, the Mental Health First hotline responds to mental health and domestic violence incidents with “a hotline staffed by trained volunteers such as doctors, nurses, mental health professionals and community members.” The appropriate volunteers then respond and “work to deescalate the situation and connect the parties involved with community resources like shelters, mental health treatment or financial assistance.”

Of course, in advocating for abolition, it is important to understand what is going to replace the police. The short answer is it depends, and the long answer is that activists’ replacements to policing must be informed by the culturally, historically and temporally specific characteristics of a community. Abolitionists have organized to form a variety of alternatives to the police, each specific to the needs of their fellow citizens, and we shouldn’t assume that what works for one community will work for another. For instance, many organizations provide educational resources so people know how to respond to mental health situations, acute injuries and other emergencies that would ordinarily involve contact with the police. It is also crucial to advocate for an alternative to the police that is productive, as not all alternatives are — for example, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps could be described as a reimagining of police, but it is really just a vigilante group that attacks immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In considering all of this, students should begin to identify how they can amplify access to social and economic resources aimed at supporting members of the community, while simultaneously reducing their reliance on, and eventually working to phase out, their local police presences. Once there’s an understanding of the constructive and restorative potential of abolition, we can start working to build a better community.

Karina Ochoa Berkley, a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy, is a columnist.

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