Reform, Defund, Abolish the Police: What Does it all Mean
Republicans want you to believe that any sort of reform to policing will mean that armed gangs of thugs will take over your neighborhood. The Democrats want you to believe that the idea of Defunding the Police lost them seats in the House of Representatives. Police Reform as the political establishment uses it means nothing substantial will change for the good. Historically it has meant that things would get worse for the poor, especially communities of color.
To understand why things haven’t changed in all these generations, we have to understand the dark origin and history of policing in America.
Protect and Serve?
When we think of policing, we think of constables serving arrest warrants, sheriffs as the enforcement arm of the courts, or night watchmen patrolling through the cities and towns with their lanterns looking out for brawlers or thieves. This was what policing was for white America, but there have always been two Americas – a white one and a Black one, and there still is.
For Black America, the model used for policing is and was the Slave Patrol. The first was formed in 1704 in South Carolina and although they legally ended in 1865, they continued under the hoods of Klan terrorists and in the renamed police departments that took on the primary functions of the slave patrols, though with a bit more nuance.
In many cases, the only thing that was changed was the name. The same people used the same tactics, for the same reasons, against the same people.
“The history of police work in the South grows out of this early fascination, by white patrollers with what African American slaves were doing,” Sally E. Hadden put it in her book, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. “Most law enforcement was, by definition, white patrolmen watching, catching, or beating black slaves.”
The rich and powerful, never ones to rest on their laurels in their capacity to use violence in the exploitation of the have-not’s, took these tactics and expanded them to use against poor white labor movements and various incarnations of movements for civil and human rights in America.
Police departments were created in every major city with the stated purpose of preventing crime, but their real purpose was to control growing immigrant populations moving into these cities. Modern policing has been used to enforce Jim Crow Laws, wage the War on Drugs, and suppress anything that even smelled like dissent.
Police, National Guard, and private police such as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency were used to break strikes and the unions organizing them.
The police have been used to disrupt, break up, or beat down every labor, civil, or human rights movement that has arisen in the United States right down the recent struggle for Black Lives. The police were never intended to protect or serve poor marginalized communities.
Their origins and history show us that they were always intended to subjugate these communities to ensure cheap labor on a broad scale and free labor in the prisons, where the 13th Amendment carved out an exception to emancipation.
This is where we find the moment we are in as a community and as a nation. Understanding where we have been, where our communities are, we have to forge a path to the future. We have to do this with not only those on the far right who has chosen to perpetuate the terror of the past and present but those occupying the center-left as well.
Community activists have been asking for police reform for generations, as have many in the political class on both sides of the aisle. But when politicians talk about police reform they aren’t talking about the same things community members are.
Politicians are seeking to solve the surface issue of the moment – not looking to fix the problem that is baked into the policing cake. Their purpose is to have those suffering under the status quo shut up and get back to work, while the community is seeking to re-imagine the possible and put their tax dollars where it can be used the most effective to achieve a reduction in crime and better the lives of the community.
Police Reform in America has a long history of being feckless, the primary drive for reform has been Civilian Police Review Boards, which have tended to focus on individual acts, ignoring the patterns of abuse in departments.
Even in this regard, it has had little actual power in holding individuals accountable, having little actual power other than to make recommendations that the departments ignore.
The 1994 crime bill authorized the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to bring “Pattern and Practice suits” against departments but we see how little this has changed in how police do their jobs. Many departments and individuals have found ways around any consent decrees implemented by the Department of Justice. Similarly, weak interpretations of what was required by the rulings in Mapp v. Ohio and Miranda v. Arizona have allowed the police to slither around the constitutional rights of citizens.
Despite these efforts we still ended up with “Stop and Frisk,” and “Broken Windows,” policing which has led not only to increased harassment of Communities of Color but also violated 4th Amendment Protections, which the Mapp Ruling sought to re-enforce.
Then came more training, even as they were being turned into small-scale armies, body cameras, Tasers, and a host of other ultimately meaningless reforms.
This can be seen no clearer than in the Minneapolis Police Department which instituted the very reforms our leaders in Congress and elsewhere are still pushing. They were even considered to be a leader in police reform with mandatory implicit bias training, de-escalation training, mandatory intervention when other officers engage in misconduct.
Yet with all the experts, all the policy changes, all the training, George Floyd was still murdered by the police over an alleged counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. An offense that if he had been white, he likely wouldn’t have even have come into contact with police
Minneapolis had their reforms in place since 2015.
Contrast this with how the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery were treated. Not only were they never restrained at the scene, but they were treated as if they were the victims. Even though at least one of them was soaked in Ahmaud’s blood.
Or how terrorist and mass murderer Dylann Roof was treated. The police took him into custody without incident, even though they suspected he was armed and had murdered numerous black churchgoers. Then the arresting officers treated him to lunch!
People of color are still being harassed, criminalized, beaten, abused, and far too often murdered. Politicians keep throwing money at police departments, as the system as a whole racks up reform failure after reform failure.
At the end of the day, these officers and departments that perpetrate these violent acts of terror in our communities continue to get little more than a slap on the wrist, if anything happens to them at all.
The community pleas for justice, or at least mercy, are answered with the violence of batons, teargas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, armored vehicles and, in at least one case, a city block bombed.
This was made clear in our city just this past summer when protestors were tear-gassed on the Vine Street Expressway for the vile criminal act of demanding the police not kill black folks.
Reform hasn’t worked to create a just form of policing that takes into account people’s humanity. How could it when it works for the purpose and in the way it was intended, to oppress people of color, immigrants, and poor whites?
“If we keep trying to reform the police into something they’re not, we’re going to keep coming to the same place where they get caught beating someone, killing them or planting evidence, what have you, then they tell us we need more money so we don’t do this anymore – then they do it again,” said Kris Henderson, of the Amistad Law Project. “Enough is enough.”
So let’s clarify the two ideas left to us if the word reform is meaningless in its traditional sense – defund the police or abolish the police.
Defund the Police
For starters, the phrase “Defund the Police” does not mean get rid of all police.
“Abolish the Police” does, and we’ll get to that idea later.
For now, let’s focus on what it means to defund the police.
The concept is simple and more fiscally responsible, the city would move money from the police to agencies and programs that are effective at reducing crime and improving the lives of citizens.
“Our communities are ready to cut away the pork in these police budgets, really there’s a lot of nonsensical trash in these budgets, honestly I don’t understand why more so-called fiscal conservatives aren’t on board with this. They want to cut things people need but could care less when money is wasted on programs they like,” said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and founder of Reform LA Jails.
Reducing the workload of police officers by having them focus exclusively on substantial and violent crimes – while assigning “crimes” based in social issues, like poverty, addiction, and mental disorders, to other agencies that are trained to handle them – effectively means a safer community with a higher quality of life for its residents.
“Seriously, the police have no business dealing with mental illness, homelessness, or addiction, it’s just not something that should be in their basket and there are already other organizations better equipped to deal with these issues more effectively,” said Cullors.
So defunding the police (i.e. removing a portion of their budget) and reallocating those funds to programs in the community that meet the needs of the community, sounds simple enough, but this simplicity is deceptive and only addresses one of the major problems that need to be addressed.
We also need to reduce so called “quality of life” crimes, end the war on drugs and begin to treat substance abuse as the mental and physical health crisis it is. We need to end the war on the homeless that has been devastating one of our most vulnerable populations. In short, we need not only to defund the police, but to fund our community and decriminalize the lives of poor people.
Lastly, we need to hold police accountable for their oppressive tactics in our community.
Some of the ways we can do this are by ending qualified immunity and other statutes that allow police officers protection from prosecution or being held personally liable to their victims.
Congress must amend statutes governing excessive force to include reckless behaviors, particularly when there is a victim of this form of abusive behavior, which is often used as a cover for intended harm.
Congress and state legislatures must pass legislation that ends the official and unofficial set of rules sometimes referred to as the “Police Bill of Rights.”
These often unofficial rules, written into police union contracts, provide for a so-called cooling-off period, where officers can’t be questioned for several days after an incident, limit the number of hours officers can be questioned and the number of people who can question them.
This exacerbates situations, particularly racially charged ones, by extending the time lost in holding these officers accountable due to the lag between the incident and the public finding out about the incident.
“Why should these officers have all of these extra rights, they should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one, especially when they’ve shown themselves to be prone to violence,” said Henderson. “Since they have the power to use force, we need to reduce that power and hold them on a tighter legal leash.”
Over the past two decades, police budgets have ballooned and continue to grow while failing to address the problems in our communities, making up one-third to half of some cities’ budgets.
We are at a crisis point in this country and the only real question left is what are we going to do about it – defund the police or abolish them altogether? Both positions come from the same places, see the same histories and both require a re-imagining of what community safety, justice, and fiscal priorities look like.
“We want to abolish the police, not help. Those are different things,” said Arianna Nason an organizer with MPD150 a grassroots group in Minneapolis.
Up to this point in the history of policing, the general theory has been if you keep adding rules this will reduce violence, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Police don’t care about the rules, they know they will more than likely get away with any rule they break.
The only way to reduce police violence is to reduce the number of police, their uses, and their budgets.
The first I had heard of abolition as a modern movement was in 2012 when I was covering the Free Mumia Movement. Activists, led by Pam and Ramona Africa, were fighting for the freedom of Mumia Abu Jamal who is being held as a political prisoner right here in Pennsylvania. He was convicted of killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner on the flimsiest of evidence. Witnesses stated that Faulkner had already been shot before Mumia had even arrived at the scene. There was also manufactured evidence and suppressed exculpatory evidence.
In addition to their work to free Mumia, these activists were also seeking the decarceration of Pennsylvania and to abolish the death penalty. Others in their movement sought to abolish prisons altogether.
I would hear this call for the next several years as the modern ideation of the Black Lives Matter movement. It became louder after the murder of Trayvon Martin, where I became familiar with the movement to abolish not just prison, but to abolish the police altogether.
The proponents of police abolition argue that police spend the vast majority of their time responding to noncriminal complaints and have a long unrepentant history of violence and oppression.
They argue that you can’t reform an organization that is doing what it’s intended to do. You have to start from scratch and re-imagine the way we implement justice and community safety.
That starts by abolishing the police and the prisons they were meant to cage human beings in.
What does that world look like?
Abolitionists start by suggesting that we should spend money on the sources of many of the problems in our society by investing in our communities, particularly those that are underserved.
Many crimes are crimes of opportunity and many of those have their root in people’s inability to meet their basic human needs, like healthy food, safe housing, physical and mental healthcare, and utilities like electricity, heating, and water. I would add into this mix internet and cellphones, which have become indispensable to even those living on the street in the past few decades.
“If we had mental health support, healthcare, access to healthy food, housing, and our schools fully funded would we be having these problems?” asks Strong. “It’s a question of what you prioritize, putting people in cages and ripping communities apart or life-affirming programs that lift families.”
“If de-escalation specialists and mental health professionals had responded to the Walter Wallace encounter, rather than armed police, Walter would still be alive,” Councilperson Kendra Brooks said in response to the policing killing of the father and newlywed in October at the hands of police. “The community would have been better served with unarmed community safety officers trained in de-escalation who were able to get mental health specialists to the scene.”
A New Way: Restorative Justice
One method currently being explored is restorative justice, which seeks to address the dehumanization of those impacted by the traditional criminal justice system and the victims of crime. Looking at a holistic approach to holding perpetrators accountable for their actions while repairing the harm done and addressing the underlying cause of the offense.
Practitioners of restorative justice models believe that by directly involving those most affected by a crime in the process, having the offender accept responsibility for their actions, focusing on the harm experienced rather than the offender they can empower the victim of the crime, the community, and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
This method of harm reduction and conflict resolution is already being practiced in some Philadelphia Schools and is set to expand to more over the coming years. Called “Relationships First”, it focuses on community building, restorative conversations, harm and healing circles, welcome circles, and accountability and support circles. So far this example of restorative justice in our community is proving successful and is being met with open arms by the schools currently practicing it.
The current view of the State as the primary victim of crime (rather than the community, victim, and offender) and the reliance on punishment as a solution have been failing. If we intend to reduce crime by restoring equanimity between the victim, offender, and community, then restorative justice models are far more likely to achieve this goal.
No matter where you stand on the issue of policing and criminal justice, it’s safe to say there is much work to do to make our communities truly safe and we can’t depend on Washington to do what’s right for our community.
This responsibility falls to us, there are no white knights to come save us, and the powerful will give us nothing without a demand, us in the streets and the voting booth, every time making “good trouble, necessary trouble!”