“Abolish the Police.” Such a statement instantly stirs fear in many of a dystopian world of anarchy and violence and lawlessness. Many wonder who will pick up the phone when they dial 911 in the case of an emergency.
However, I argue that it doesn’t need to. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the deep aversion to the idea of police abolition, and I have shared these same sentiments regarding it. But I decided to learn more about what police abolition really means, and uncover the substance beneath the slogan.
There are a variety of perspectives regarding what police abolition actually is, but here I would like to talk about my vision of what it would look like.
First, we must understand what the police really do. One might think that the mission of the police is to serve and protect. However, this is not necessarily the case. Please don’t think that I am maligning everyone in the police, there are tons of very good people in the police force.
However, when I say that the mission of police is not to serve and protect, I am not attempting a character assassination on the police force; I am actually being accurate.
The majority of what police spend their time on is in fact not only not violent crime at all, but actually not even crime. According to a study published in Criminal Justice Review entitled, “Community Policing and the Work Routines of Street-Level Officers,” patrol officers, the majority of police force, are doing random patrol for one-third of their time, responding to non-crime-related calls for one-fifth, doing administrative tasks for 13 percent, doing personal activities like eating food for 9 percent and communicating with the public for 7 percent.
In other words, doing the math, about 82.33 percent of patrol officers’ time is spent dealing with non-crime matters. The remaining, approximately 17 percent, is devoted to answering crime-related calls, though the large bulk of these calls are misdemeanor-related. In fact, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2019, less than five percent of arrests are actually connected to severe violent crime.
To understand the mission of policing in the U.S. we must also examine the history of U.S. police, which has its roots in the slave patrols in the South.
In the North, municipal police departments were formed in the early 19th century to deal with “disorder” instead of decreasing crime. According to Dr. Gary Potter, a criminologist with Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, officers were supposed to keep the “underclass,” made up of African Americans, immigrants and the poor, in check. I am not suggesting that the U.S. police today is the same as slave patrols or even the same as those municipal police departments, however, there is a clear line that we can draw from then to now. The past affects the present and future, and the trends of the past do not disappear, but merely change form.
I argue that we can abolish the police and replace it with a much smaller agency that solely focuses on the prevention of violent crime. The non-violent crime aspects of the current police force can and should be handled by other municipal agencies and organizations. I would like to find a path for excellent employment for people that are no longer part of the police force, and would love to hear your ideas for what this would look like.
In addition, I completely respect that many will disagree with this approach, and I was in fact one of them who vehemently disagreed with it. I understood there were systemic issues within the U.S. police force and I wanted to change the disheartening reality of police brutality and violence, but I did not fully understand what “abolish the police” really meant. I wanted to get a detailed framework and outline of a better system, instead of more discussion of the flaws with today’s police system, which I was already fairly knowledgeable about. Therefore, I understand the aversion to the idea of police abolition and the diverse range of perspectives that people have on the U.S. policing system.
However, what I do think is very necessary is to decrease the scope of and demilitarize the police. I do believe that we should take money from police departments that receive excessive funding and invest that money into dealing with the root causes of crime, including access to crucial services and income gaps. In addition, police are not the armed forces, and taxpayer dollars should not be going towards militarizing them.
As 19 of the world’s countries, including the U.K., Finland, and New Zealand, have police forces that do not carry guns, so can we. We should either have a police force that does not carry guns except in certain circumstances, or if they must carry guns, we should substantially decrease the use of military-grade weapons. We should invest this money in causes such as food security and homelessness and addressing poverty, so that we can actually prevent crime from happening in the first place.
Furthermore, we can re-direct funds toward the long-term crisis of climate change and the hopefully short-term crisis of COVID-19, along with overall improving public health and wellness. In my opinion, addressing the underlying conditions and improving the world that we live in should be our #1 priority.
This current system of punishment and incarceration is not sustainable economically, socially, environmentally, physically, mentally, and emotionally. We must divert our focus to improving society as a whole and mitigating the conditions that lead to crime in the first place, and by doing so we will reduce crime. We must listen to data, instead of our much-repeated talking points.
We must focus on the real threats to public safety, which again involve the long-term necessity of mitigating climate change and the immediate necessity of decreasing the spread of COVID-19. This isn’t to say that we must have no law enforcement or to downplay the threat of violence, but I think that the law enforcement should be much smaller and only focus on violent crimes. One possibility is that we could also have another agency which offers community service and counseling for individuals that commit nonviolent crimes as opposed to locking them up in prison.
Alternatives to prison time are important because today’s criminal justice system is a prime example of quantity over quality. It focuses on locking people up for inordinate periods of time instead of actually giving them productive and engaging activities which help them make great contributions to society. A nation with 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population has got some serious work to do.
Overall, while I understand the aversion to abolishing the police and also abolishing prisons, I do think that it is an important lens to view change through. Attempts at reforming the police have not led to lasting changes, and training programs and efforts to increase diversity in the police force do not address the underlying issues.
One thing that is certain is that we must perform a substantive overhaul of policing, and reimagine a future for public safety that benefits all of us and keeps all of us safe.
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, but that is what makes the process of change so beautiful. I don’t believe that anyone has all of the solutions for how we can move forward, but through respectful dialogue and conversation, we can combine our different perspectives to form a more perfect solution, a better solution.
(This article was first published on medium.com and is reproduced here with permission from the author. Rakesh Peddibhotla is a freshman at Pitzer College in Claremont, California)