The Call to Defund and Abolish Police

Like many people I have been caught up in the events – the marches and rallies – following the tragic death of George Floyd. And like many others, I have cried and agonized over the naked and brash manifestation of white supremacy evident in his death. While there have been calls for many changes in our society, one that is louder and more persistent than others is the call to defund and even abolish the police. This past Saturday, there was a rally and march throughout Philadelphia that focused on that one goal: to abolish the police

Now I must admit when I started hearing those chants, it gave me pause. My first thought was “Yes, there needs to be reforms and changes in the ways police officers interact with communities, particularly communities of color. But abolish them? Who would stop the robbers and the crazy drivers on the highway? Who would make sure our communities had a modicum of safety? Abolish the police?” That seemed extreme.

Imagining a Post-Police Society

But then I had another thought: What would a post police society look like?  It is one thing to call for something to be abolished, but what would, what could replace it? Can we conceive a society that can live out the police motto of “protect and serve” without tear gas, tasers, and military-style tactics, without singling out young men of color for targeted raids, where the needs of the individual and the broader community could be met without incarceration?  And so I have been reading what others have said on these questions.I want to share what I have learned.

Lornet Turnbull of YES! Magazine says it well: The movement [to defund police] isn’t really about eliminating all law enforcement from any city overnight. Rather, it’s about reimagining public safety and realigning priorities so that cities are spending less on militarized police forces and more on services that can lead to a reduction of crime in the first place. The city of  Minneapolis is taking the lead on addressing these questions, as the City Council has voted to dismantle its police force. Activists in Seattle are seeking to get their city council to do the same. This is an experiment in the making, which all can learn from.  

While many of us may have been somewhat caught by surprise by the magnitude and intensity of the call to defund and abolish the police, for many anti-racism activists, dealing with police brutality in communities of color has long been on their agenda. That is why when the call for action came, groups like the Movement for Black Lives and Campaign Zero were ready to hit the streets and make their voice be heard. They had been tirelessly working on this issue, calling again and again to instances of police abuses of power against people of color. While many political leaders and mainstream media types were distracted by the small percentage of protestors who turned to violence and looting, these activists stayed on message and they are now beginning to be heard.

What’s Wrong With the Police?

In response to the calls to abolish police many will say, “There are a lot of good cops. We just need to get rid of the bad cops.” Yet, what has been leaking out from within the police ranks is that even those good cops often find themselves in compromising situations where they see abuse and unnecessary hassling of black and brown people, but don’t speak up for fear of retribution. Police unions hold inordinate power which makes it nearly impossible to fire or prosecute police who commit illegal acts. While I generally support unions, they can’t be allowed to protect those officers who commit illegal and destructive actions. The officer who used the chokehold that killed Eric Garner was acquitted, even though that chokehold had been outlawed in 1993. The officer who shot Michael Brown never even went to trial. There is a culture in many, if not most, where police forces that approach their jobs as soldiers controlling an enemy force, rather than a member of the community there to protect and serve their fellow citizens. Weeding out “bad cops,” changing regulations, and requiring diversity training has not worked. Something new and different needs to be created.

Part of the problem is that police are being asked to address problems and issues that are way beyond their skill set. That is why many of the proposals involve an approach that teams officers charged with issues of security, with social workers, drug counselors, youth workers, and community organizers. All too often police are forced to play those roles. Not only do they not have the skills needed, but they can also find themselves in situations where they are emotionally overwhelmed and react badly and destructively. They are put in situations other professionals are far better equipped to deal with.

The Roots of Crime

Also, the roots of crime are not that there are inherently bad people out there, but that there is poverty and the desperation it fosters, which often leads to crime. For the last eight years, I have been working with a team of people from POWER, an interfaith social justice network, to get equitable funding for Philadelphia’s underfunded schools. The schools are overcrowded and under-resourced, in dilapidated buildings filled with lead and asbestos. Kids who drop out of school are most likely to end up on the street, which in turn lands them in jail. But if their schools and neighborhoods were properly served, research shows that crime would drop precipitously. If schools were fully resourced they could address the variety of needs students bring to schools. Funds given to police forces to “stop crime,” could be used to bring help and health to underserved communities.

The idea being put forth in a variety of ways is for police or “security officers” to be one part of a multidisciplinary approach to addressing problems in a community. An example of this kind of approach is The Wild Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon, a mobile mental health clinic that runs a program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets). They work in collaboration with the local police and fire departments, providing a whole range of mental health services to local residents. Newark, NJ is doing something similar by hiring and training community outreach workers to intervene in high-risk mental health circumstances.  Other cities are beginning to explore these sorts of options. So this sort of team approach is not unheard of, it is happening in pockets around the country. 

For those who are privileged and relatively well off financially, this calls upon us to give more, to pay more taxes, to let go of our control so as to erase the inequities. We may call for racial justice, but real justice will means we who “have” must do our part to lessen the huge disparities faced by the “have-nots.” Thus, there is a redistribution of wealth and resources that needs to occur, and that will not happen easily. As Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Those of us relatively well-off are hearing a demand; will we respond willingly, or will we be forced to change?

To Be A Good Neighbor

No doubt this approach calls for a much higher involvement of local government in creating and coordinating all the necessary services, but it also calls upon individuals in communities to rethink their relationships and connections to their neighbors. Many of us remember when we are children how neighbors looked out for each other, and even held us accountable when our parents were not around. That is rare these days. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam noted and bemoaned the loss of community ties between people across the United States. For many of us the people we would consider our relational support networks, are not the people we live next too. We are connected more often to people through work or social media, and not by geography. Many people (including me) have a hard time even remembering the names of their neighbors. We are disconnected from the people all around us.

We have become such an individualized, digitized, and often polarized nation that we feel hard-pressed to work effectively together. The call to defund police requires that each of us become our brother’s and sister’s keeper in ways we have not been socialized to operate. It calls not only for significant structural change, but also a deep cultural change. We must come to terms with implicit bias and unacknowledged racism that divide us from each other. We must learn to live with our ideological and political differences. And it challenges us to tie our success, health, safety, and flourishing to others who may be different than us but who share our hope for a more wholesome community.

Keep Pushing Us

I have no illusions. Whatever changes come about in police forces around the country in the short term will be frustratingly inadequate. Structural and cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. Even so, I am so grateful to the thousands of people across the country who have marched unrelentingly to bring forth this call to abolish police tactics and culture as we know it. Their call is righteous and just. Police violence and abuse against people of color must stop. To build something new will take time, fortitude, and vision.

Don’t let up protestors! Don’t let up marchers! Keep the pressure on. You are pushing us in the right direction.