Abolish the police?

Real change requires changes in beliefs, institutions and laws

by Phil Anderson

Abolish the police?

Defund the police?

How can society function without law enforcement?  

People are not angels and we don’t live in a utopia. This may sound like a really crazy idea – especially if you are white and have not had to live with racial profiling and excessive use of force common to many minority neighborhoods. But sometimes it is better to start from scratch rather than try to fix what is hopelessly broken.

We have a 20-year-old car that is getting seriously rusty. A cheap cosmetic repair can make it look better but it won’t eliminate the rust that will continue to rot away the car. To fix it correctly you have to cut away all the rust. This will cost more than the car is worth and we would still have an old car. We either live with the rust – hoping nothing important falls off in the road – or junk it and get a newer vehicle.

Police reform will not be accomplished with cheap, cosmetic fixes. Nor can we continue to live with excessive use of force and lack of respect for minorities and civil liberties. The deeply embedded cultural and systemic rust must be completely cut out of law enforcement.

Unless the racism, bias, excessive use of force, over-policing of poor communities, and lack of accountability are seriously addressed the problems will continue.
Efforts to reform policing have fail-ed many times in the past because the problems have been painted over rather than fixed. Commissions, studies, and politicians pontificating are ways to delay real action and maintain the status quo. It may be time to start from scratch and create a new system of public safety.

This will be huge task.

In this country there is a long history of police using excessive force, primarily against people of color but also against labor organizers, peace activists and other social dissidents.

In many ways American history has been a continuous ongoing struggle to live up the the ideals of the founding documents. Too often actual equality and justice for all has not been achieved (or even been the goal).

Greed, violence, guns, racism, poverty and militarism are too deeply embedded in our society. Real change will necessitate serious changes in our beliefs, attitudes, laws and institutions. It may necessitate taking a risk on new ideas.

There is no doubt that people of col-or and poor people (often the same people) are frequently  treated unfairly by police.

In 2018, ABC news analyzed arrest data voluntarily reported to the FBI by thousands of local police departments. They determined that in 800 jurisdictions black people were arrested at a rate five times higher than white people. In 250 jurisdictions, black people were 10 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.

Police kill about 1,000 people a year. Numerous sources report that blacks are killed at double the rate of whites in proportion to their percentage of the population.  

A 2016 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that 52 percent of police shooting victims were white. Blacks were 32 percent of the shooting victims despite being only 13% of the population. The fatality rate was 2.8 times higher for blacks than whites.

There are many other reasons to build a new and better system of pub-lic safety in addition to the racial dis-parities and disproportionate killings.
The current system of policing is costly, inefficient and largely inef-fective. Police departments are a major cost item for many local governments.

Police are often the wrong professionals to handle incidents involv-ing homelessness and mental illness. Current policing practices are not working well and the current system delivers little in terms of real public safety.   

Most crimes are not reported to police and most reported crimes are not solved. In 2018, police nationwide “cleared” (i.e., solved or closed for other reasons.) only 46% of reported violent crimes.

For property crimes, the national clearance rate was 18%. The Pew Center says only about half of the violent crimes and a third of the property crimes are even reported to police. Often crimes are not reported because people believe the police can not, or will not, do anything. So most crimes don’t result in the arrest, charging or prosecution of a suspect, according to government statistics.

According to the Washington Post, in 52 cities police have failed to make an arrest in 26,000 killings. Blacks were the victims in 18,600 of those cases and despite being a majority of the homicides, were the least likely of any racial group to have their killings result in an arrest. Police arrested someone in 63 percent of cases with white victims but only 47 percent for black victims.

In addition the entire criminal justice system has many problems.

Courts are overwhelmed with cases and it often takes years to settle cases.

The U.S. leads the world in the number of incarcerated people.

There is little or no rehabilitation, drug counseling, or job training for inmates.
The criminal justice system too often doesn’t have alternative programs, such as mediation, restorative justice or reconciliation.

The problems with policing are only part of the overall problems with the justice system.

Given all this rust it is not surprising that people are demanding a new approach. The Minneapolis city council has begun the process of changing the police department into the “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.” The new department will have police officers but will also include a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” and use “nonlaw-enforcement experience in community safety services.”

Does this sound crazy?

I don’t think so. We need to build a peaceful law enforcement system based on cooperation and problem solving rather than force, punishment and incarceration. We need trust, fairness, justice and mutual respect between police departments and the communities they serve.

Let’s hope the time has come for real change.