A recent political ad, sponsored by the conservative State Government Leadership Foundation, imagines the hellscape of a post-police Minneapolis. A terrified white woman jolts awake at 2 am during a home invasion. She alerts her husband. She grabs her phone. She calls the police. But it’s too late. They have all been defunded. A dispatcher informs her that a “human resources” specialist can’t help her right now as the camera pans over her sleeping child, the burglar advancing ominously. “Radical liberals are fighting for a police-free future,” the narrator intones. “Don’t let them put your family in danger.”
There is one thing — and only one thing — the ad gets right: On all sides, in all directions, the debate over the future of policing remains a debate over safety, driven by communities who desperately, deeply want to feel safe.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, virtually every faction in American politics — from Trump Republicans to Biden Democrats, from Cato libertarians to intersectional Marxists — says they want to change policing.
On one end of the spectrum stand abolitionists, who want to “delegitimize the police.” These activists demand an entirely new public safety system based on social and economic equity, bolstered by a network of nonviolent emergency responders. They are offering more than a different vision for public safety — they are offering a different vision for the composition, and fundamental assumptions, of society. They have a different view of what causes crime. In the world they imagine, America would spend much more on education, health care, and infrastructure, and nothing on police departments as we currently know them.
On the other end stand reformers, who want to “restore legitimacy to the police.” This group seeks to implement procedural reforms to make officers more accountable and effective. They also, in general, want to spend more on policing. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s plan, for instance, spends more on education and health care and infrastructure, but also more on policing: He’s proposed a $300 million increase to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program.
Countless opinions dot the range between — in particular, the “defund the police” movement (more on that in a moment). Much of the debate remains contentious, particularly on how best to defeat violent crime. Yet even amid consternation, bad faith, polarization, disagreement, and partisanship, a common refrain cuts across the parties: America relies too heavily on the police for unrelated services.
“We need alternatives to policing,” says Thenjiwe McHarris, an activist in the Movement for Black Lives and a police abolitionist. “If someone is sleeping on a bench, if there’s a mental health issue, policing is the one tactic — often a failed tactic — used in our communities for the range of needs our people have.”
“The reality is we have turned to police to handle a lot of problems in society that nobody else wanted to do — to handle issues around substance abuse, to handle issues around the homeless, to handle issues around mental health,” says Laurie Robinson, who chaired President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which produced the basic agenda of the police reform movement. “I think they would be very happy to hand off these responsibilities.”
Likewise, former NYPD sergeant and Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo asked: “Why are we still asking the police as untrained interventionists to deal with people who are overdosing and using drugs or as barely trained crisis interventionists to deal with mental health when we can piggyback or create separate apparatuses that handle that for us?”
This cross-coalitional interest in reassigning nonviolent services presents the most promising opportunity for ambitious change to a country rollicked by weeks, and years, of protest against racist policing. In an opening bid, abolitionists have suggested rerouting 50 percent of police budgets to other civil services.
But understanding the areas for compromise also requires seeing where the different visions conflict. So let’s go through them in turn.
Reforming the police
The police reform movement stands atop two premises. Good policing is good. Reams of research show it does, in fact, reduce violent crime. But bad policing is bad. It’s bad on its own terms, because it harms the people it brutalizes, and it’s bad because it delegitimizes the police in the eyes of the community they’re meant to serve.
In Milwaukee, for instance, an important study showed that 911 calls fell after a publicized case of police brutality. The harm of bad policing, in other words, was both the police brutality and the severing of the relationship between the community and the public agency meant to keep them safe.
Police reformers, then, are trying to do two things at the same time: Make sure there are enough police to keep violent crime low, and make sure those police are both well-trained enough and tightly constrained enough not to abuse their power.
The Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing formed just after the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, and published its report immediately after the 2015 Baltimore uprising. Its policy goals were a shift in policing culture, use of force, transparency, and fairness. As with universal pre-K, a $15 minimum wage, free community college, and a federal jobs program, the report articulated a progressive vision that was never fully achieved. Yet today, as establishment politicians respond to protesters’ calls for change, the task force’s report still offers a window into how traditional reformers imagine a new American policing paradigm.
Among the report’s 59 recommendations were that officers “acknowledge the role of policing in past and present injustice and discrimination”; avoid violence against “children, elderly persons, pregnant women, people with physical and mental disabilities, limited English proficiency, and others”; and “adopt and enforce policies prohibiting profiling and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, age, gender, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability, housing status, occupation, or language fluency.”
The task force envisioned officers who are friendly, mentally well-adjusted, highly trained “guardians.” Through incentives, curriculums, and hiring programs, departments would create officers who prioritize deescalation and nonviolent intervention, abide by strict anti-discrimination laws, operate under strong transparency protocols, and stand accountable to local civilians.
Under this plan, police are not abolished; they are enlightened.
The authors also call for expanding the use of social workers and other nonviolent crisis specialists to supplement police officers. The report recommends reducing crime “through a variety of programs that focus on public health, education, mental health, and other programs not traditionally part of the criminal justice system.” This broader response to crime represents an area of overlap with the more progressive protests demanding alternatives to policing.
Robinson, the co-chair of the task force, says the ethos of the document has entered into the bloodstream of American policing. Citing a survey of 47 of the largest law enforcement agencies in the United States from 2015 to 2017 conducted by the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) and the National Police Foundation, Robinson notes that 39 percent of the departments updated their use of force policies and incorporated deescalation training. The survey also reported that officer-involved shootings during this period dropped by 21 percent.
While these data points highlight good news, Robinson also underscores that administrative barriers prevented the policy recommendations from becoming universal policing standards across the country.
“We have a highly decentralized system,” she says. “We have 18,000 separate and very independent state and local law enforcement agencies that are operated and run by, in our case, many local independent mayors and city managers who are responsible for operating and overseeing those local departments.” This fragmented bureaucracy clashing and the strength of police unions makes even the more modest reforms suggested in the policing task force more difficult to enact. But Robinson — and Obama — remains optimistic that the report’s recommendations remain the right path forward.
“We know there are specific evidence-based reforms that if we put [them] in place today would build trust, save lives, would not show an increase in crime,” Obama said in a statement following George Floyd’s death. “Those are included in the 21st-Century Policing Task Force report.”
Thomas Abt, another Obama administration alum and author of Bleeding Out, a book on policing urban violence, said in principle he supports conversations around what roles police served and how they might be scaled back. Yet he remains worried about the tenor of the current defunding conversation.
“I am supportive of asking these big questions about whether we can start winnowing down the police role. But you don’t do that by just slashing police budgets, without a broader conversation about who’s going to step up and fill the gap,” Abt says.
“I worry that people don’t understand what it takes to set up a first responder operation. It took us well over a century to put together police, fire, EMT,” he continues. “To have a government service capable of responding in real time to these things is an enormous undertaking.”
Abt and other more traditional reformers continued to see a central role for American police in society. Abt supports a mix of police reforms to increase transparency and curtail the use of force while also deploying surges of concentrated policing in the most violent neighborhoods.
But to the defunders and abolitionists, reform has been tried, and it has been found wanting. This year, the police department in Tucson, Arizona, was noted as “progressive” and “reform-minded” and had “banned chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, embracing a range of measures aimed at reducing police violence,” according to the New York Times. Yet local officers still killed Carlos Ingram-Lopez, a Latino man who was reportedly naked and experiencing a mental health crisis when he was killed, and withheld the video for months. Likewise, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was celebrated for its progressive mayor, a former civil rights attorney, and their reform-minded police chief, city employees still killed George Floyd.
Citing reform failures, many activists want to go further.
What it means to “defund the police”
Last month, the Washington Post published an article that cautioned that after a recession budget crunch, Vallejo, California, “defunded its police department” and officer killings shot up, while crime enforcement plummeted. “Vallejo’s experience offers a glimpse of what a reduced police presence on America’s streets could mean as defunding continues to gain traction,” the piece warned.
But austerity-driven disinvestment is not the future defunders want. (It also does not accurately represent the public policy vision that defund advocates are fighting for, as the Washington Post later clarified in the article.)
“Part of the push here is that we know what we want to defund — the other part about the demands for what we need,” says defund advocate and Illinois state Sen. Robert Peters (D). “Folks often get caught up in this ‘oh, my god’ of demanding to defund the police. People need to know there’s a whole host of other demands attached to that, which are about uplifting community.”
In essence, defunding exists as a suite of public policy ideas premised on investments in individual well-being, community infrastructure, alternative first responder services, and divestment from the use of lethal force.
Defunders don’t just emphasize expanding social programs and investments but also removing money from police departments. They argue that the swelling police budgets fuel violence and corruption.
Advocates like the Center for Popular Democracy’s Kumar Rao argue that police departments run on a broken financial feedback loop where, after poorly policing communities of color and running up huge legal fees for abuse, torture, and unjust killings, departments are rewarded with larger budgets the next year, funding a cycle of violence.
“Part of the problem here is the amount of money that has gone toward policing over the last several decades,” says Rao. “We’re now reaching a point where we spend over $100 billion every year on policing. That kind of spending on policing has entrenched an institution and has made it ultimately unaccountable.”
For Rao, increasing police budgets increases the number of officers, which increases the scope of officers’ duties, which increases officers’ interactions with civilians, which increases opportunities for police violence.
Beyond issues of corruption, defunders also argue that reliance on police departments is poor execution of public policy because police specialize in violent crime, but violent crime only represents a small portion of the sprawling civil services they perform. They believe the money could be used more effectively elsewhere.
Take traffic, for example, where police spend nearly 20 percent of their time working in some cities. Experts like Transportation Alternatives deputy director Marco Conner DiAquoi argue that it is both safer and more efficient for cities to manage traffic through transportation infrastructure investments, automated enforcement, and specialized civilian first responders rather than through police.
“Police officer-based enforcement is less effective than infrastructural alternatives, like street redesigns and automated enforcement, and puts people of color at risk,” DiAquoi and co-authors write in “The Case for Self-Enforcing Streets.” The report, published in June by Transportation Alternatives, seeks to remedy the ways in which enforcement of traffic laws leads to discretionary and often biased policing of minorities.
In New York City, DiAquoi argues, many of the violations that are cited in minority neighborhoods are the natural upshot of poor infrastructure in segregated communities — elements like a bike lane, quality sidewalks, or well-designed streets. DiAquoi and the other co-authors make a case for reallocating “significant portions” of the NYPD’s budget to the Department of Transportation to “increase investments in street design and automated enforcement to create ‘self-enforcing’ streets” which would “reduce the ability of police officers to violate civil rights, cause property damage, or otherwise participate in sueable offenses.”
Decriminalization illuminates another part of the vision behind defunding. Defunders — like many others — believe the war on drugs has been racist and ineffective, and we should simply end it. And if we end it, it makes sense for police budgets, which have grown in part because of the drug war, to be cut.
In Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing, the Brooklyn College sociologist explains how Portugal successfully decriminalized drug use in 1999; it handed over drug harm reduction to health officials, reaping “very favorable” results, with most drug use “now treated as a health problem.”
“Studies have found significant reductions in heroin addiction, overdoses, and disease transmission,” Vitale writes of the country. “In 1999, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV infection among injecting drug users in the European Union; by 2009, the number of newly diagnosed HIV cases among drug users had decreased substantially.” Likewise, reporting on Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs for the New York Times, journalist Nicholas Kristof found “the number of heroin users there fell by three-quarters, and the overdose fatality rate was the lowest in Western Europe.”
“Meanwhile, after decades of policing, the United States was losing about 70,000 Americans a year from overdoses,” Kristof continued. “In effect, Portugal appeared to be winning the war on drugs by ending it.”
Even scholars like Stanford University’s Keith Humphreys, who has been skeptical of the methodology used in the Portugal research, note that similar results can be seen in the United States. Citing data from the Criminal Justice Statistics Center, Humphreys notes that after California lawmakers decriminalized marijuana, the state saw decreased interaction with the police. According to the study, marijuana possession arrests in California dropped by 86 percent after the law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug. “We don’t need Portugal,” says Humphreys. “We, in the United States, have done these things. I think we could probably start moving on to what happened in California.”
“There was no evidence of substitution effect, either,” he adds. “Some people worry that the police will just find another reason to arrest the same person — you know, get you for jaywalking or whatever. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case.”
“There’s police time involved in making those arrests,” Humphreys says. “If you’re going to cut the police force or defund them more, this might be a way to do it without doing any real damage to public health. At least for cannabis, people may use it a little more, but it doesn’t seem to be they use a lot more than that. I think a lot of people would see that as a reasonable trade.”
Crucially, Humphreys also argues that investing in health responses to drug abuse indirectly lowers interaction with the police, as users who successfully undergo treatment decrease the criminal and antisocial behaviors affiliated with narcotic use and trade.
Here, again, the case for defunding the police rests on the concept that it is more effective and efficient to shift responsibility away from officers and departments to civil service and care workers specifically trained to handle medical and logistical problems. Repeating this policy thought experiment across mental health, domestic counseling, homelessness, and more, defunders outline the playbook to move away from policing.
Many of these advocates still see a role for police officers, albeit a significantly diminished one. They view officers as a last resort, reserved for the most serious crimes, and for true emergencies as opposed to the roles they currently serve as default first responders. In this way, they differ from the abolitionists.
The abolitionist vision
In interviews, advocates of defunding the police speak very favorably of abolitionists, and vice versa. In fact, in the short term, there is virtually no policy difference between many defunders and abolitionists. This symmetry can be seen in the recent vote by the Seattle City Council to cut the city’s Police Department by 50 percent and reroute that money to social programs. This policy action, led in part by non-abolitionists elected officials, mirrors the policy recommendation of Mariame Kaba, the prison industrial complex abolitionist who recommended a 50 percent defund this summer in the New York Times.
That said, the long-term difference between those who want to defund and those who want to abolish is that the former believe police to be necessary in the case of true violence and extreme emergencies. Abolitionists don’t; they ultimately call for alternative interventions, even for violent crimes.
In addition to all the critiques levied by defunders, abolitionists contend that the police remain an inherently racist institution, with its legacy stretching back to slave patrols, a history of supporting white supremacy groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and contemporary patterns of the racialized brutality on Black, brown, Indigenous, and vulnerable communities.
Abolitionists describe ending the police as an integral part of America’s “third Reconstruction,” where in addition to full citizenship and economic rights, Black people and all people will be free of wanton state violence at the hands of the police.
Police and prison abolition can be traced in the modern context to radical Black feminist and anti-capitalist thinkers like Angela Davis. In her 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis pushed readers to question their acceptance of the carceral state, principally prisons, in American life.
“In most circles prison abolition is simply unthinkable and implausible. Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish,” she wrote.
“This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families,” she continued. “The prison is considered so ‘natural’ that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.”
The same goes for police. Abolitionists envision ending both police and prisons as the next critical chapter in the Black freedom struggle following up on the end of slavery and Jim Crow. They believe that much of the crime that police officers respond to reflects broader conditions, disinvestments, and oppressions present across society, which are then used as justification for the policing and carceral states. Police, in this telling, mask deep societal sins, and only by removing them can we see the real work and transformation needed.
In the Boston Review, attorney and activist Derecka Purnell outlines what the road to police abolition might mean in broad strokes:
Police abolition could mean and require society to decrease and eliminate its reliance on policing. Rather than re-center police as a public good, the nation must become good and public. The prison–industrial complex must be dissolved. Communities must rebuild labor organizing to shift capital, and the state must drastically disrupt rising wealth inequality. Congress may have to pass laws around prison labor, voting rights, gun ownership, and campaign finance, and decriminalize thousands of behaviors. Social workers and activists must work with communities to find solutions for patriarchal, homophobic, and mental health–based violence. Police abolition advocates and scholars have robust visions for the future beyond transformation.
The vision is sweeping. Foundational to police abolition is what Purnell describes as eliminating “reliance on policing.” Kaba describes this idea as wanting not merely to “close police departments” but “to make them obsolete.” This is abolition as innovation. It is social engineering calling for a bold public policy action to address chronic social and economic issues and provide for basic human needs.
In this view, the primary aim centers on preventing criminogenic preconditions (joblessness, underinsurance, etc.) that lead to the violence for which people rely on the police. To the degree that violent crime persists even during and after these policies take effect, activists favor what they described as non-carceral interventions.
The Breathe Act, introduced by Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, promotes programs that view violent crime as akin to a public health problem, requiring public health-style responses. Violence, in this view, spreads like a virus, and successful violence interruption programs rapidly deescalate neighborhood tensions following a shooting to stop the further transmission of violent retaliation. A recent memo from Data for Progress outlines the successful pilot programs using violence interruption to curb shootings in the neighborhoods with the highest levels of gun violence.
Repeated evaluations of Cure Violence have shown that it significantly reduces violence. In West Chicago’s West Garfield Park, the program reduced shootings by 67% in its first year. A NIJ/ Northwestern University evaluation found that Cure Violence reduced shootings across Chicago by 41% to 73%. Other studies have also found that Cure Violence reduced shootings in cities like New York and Philadelphia.
Similarly, a 2017 UCLA analysis on violence interruption described the program as an effective way to curb violence by “tasking civilian community interventions workers to mediate conflict and control rumors following a reported gang crime.”
“Our analyses of quasi-experimental interventions in Los Angeles indicates that civilian Community Intervention Workers, tasked by the Gang Reduction Youth Development program, cut gang retaliations by 45.3%, independently of the effects of policing,” the authors wrote.
The Breathe Act leans on such non-policing alternatives to transition away from police solutions to crime. It also calls to expand Medicaid, implement a living wage, create targeted job programs for the long-term unemployed, and other economic justice initiatives.
“You can tell a lot about a country based on how it allocates its resources. We’re saying that now is a time when we target budget, local and federal — where we say, divest from these institutions that have been harming us and invest in what our communities have always needed and will continue to need,” says Thenjiwe McHarris, the abolitionist and Movement for Black Lives activist. “We actually want to have access to safety. And what that means for us is a divestment from policing, and the institution of policing and an investment in what our communities need: quality housing, quality education, health services, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.”
While abolitionists like McHarris have radical political aspirations, they remain committed to translating that vision into more immediate policy. Beyond the Breathe Act, abolition goals articulated in the Movement for Black Lives platform and in the more recent 8 to Abolition campaign outline first steps municipalities can take toward reducing, and eventually ending, the need for police.
Critics of police abolition remain skeptical about these activists’ ability to create alternative forms of care and emergency response to address violent crime. These traditional policymakers fear reducing the police force will result in spiking neighborhood violence. Since clearance rates and crime reporting in low-income communities of color remain abysmally low, abolition advocates often embrace a new policy framework.
Activists view the abolish mission as part of a multigenerational Black freedom struggle, and a radical tradition. “It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We’re inside of a particular opening. It was decades to get us here. We’re all inside of multi-decade strategies,” says McHarris.
Defunding non-criminal services — much of police work — appears promising
Sharp, and even seemingly irreconcilable, differences exist in the competing visions of reform, defunding, and abolition. Yet the shortcomings of the American police system — and American public policy more broadly — stretch so wide that it creates a significant zone of overlap. Policing fails to address much of American inequality, dysfunction, and civil disorder. We have asked them to do too much, and we have neglected the investments and institutions that would make their presence less necessary.
More than half of police work addresses non-criminal issues according to an analysis of public records by the New York Times and an observational study in Criminal Justice Review. Likewise, policing scholars like NYU Law’s Barry Friedman argue that “crimefighting actually is a very small part of what police do every day.”
Moreover, officers themselves often question the utility of using police for issues like mental health and homelessness. “I’m not even saying now that the budgets shouldn’t be looked at, and seeing if there’s another way to do that,” Vince Champion of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers said on a recent episode of The Daily. “Look, a lot of officers, we’re social workers. We’re marriage counselors. We’re doctors sometimes. We’re more than actually what we were trained to be. I mean, we try to train for everything that we can, but we just can’t be.”
Then-President Barack Obama echoed a similar sentiment in his 2016 Dallas police speech, when he castigated America for underinvesting in schools, allowing poverty, underfunding drug treatment and mental health programs, not regulating guns, and then telling the police “you’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor.”
Converting common sense into consensus policy remains a daunting task for a country ailed by overlapping health and economic crises and diminishing political capacity.
This is a difficult debate on its own terms, happening at many levels simultaneously. Racial justice activists seek to address the problem at the scale at which it exists — that is, on the scale of multigenerational theft, divestment, and discrimination. For many, this is too daunting to contemplate and too complicated to legislate. But it doesn’t make it any less necessary.