Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

The Bumpy Road to Police Abolition

Protesters and activists have categorically changed the national conversation about public safety. Now they have to figure out how to change public policy.

A protester holds a homemade sign during a peaceful protest walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on June 19, 2020.Getty Images

In mere weeks since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, sweeping nationwide protests have pushed the idea of police abolition from the fringes of public debate to the mainstream. Cities are paring back the budgets and responsibilities of their police departments, and some law enforcement leaders are considering their profession in a new light—even if activists aiming for a world without police concede they don’t yet know the path to reach it.

Though decades old, the idea of abolishing the police has been marginalized even recently. Since 2014, when the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City sparked sustained scrutiny of American policing, the public’s outrage has generally been channeled into efforts to improve the police rather than eliminate them. 

But the sense that those piecemeal reforms have not slowed a seemingly relentless series of police shootings—let alone the violence and racial disparities that characterize the rest of the criminal legal system—has magnified the public’s exhaustion and anguish. Alex Vitale, a sociologist who championed abolition in his 2017 book “The End of Policing,” told The Appeal, “We’ve had six years of reform and nobody feels policing is any different.”

Seemingly overnight, a debate once framed largely around the collateral damage of policing and attributable to the malice or carelessness of individual officers has been recentered on the harms inherent to the profession itself, and the goal of eliminating it. Although there are numerous studies showing that as police forces have expanded, violent crime has fallen, that blunt observation obscures the variety of activities that police undertake (most of which are unrelated to violence), the limited evidence supporting many of them, and the possibility that alternatives would work better. 

Police are distinguished from other public servants and arguably defined by their capacity to use force to achieve their ends. For abolitionists, this force can never be constructive, and the trauma that is its byproduct is never acceptable. “Policing is not something that is broken and needs to be fixed,” said Mohamed Shehk, the media and communications director of the nonprofit organization Critical Resistance. “It’s something that needs to be abolished.” 

As long as protesters continue to crowd the nation’s streets, that message is getting a hearing in its council chambers: In dozens of cities, organized efforts are underway to halt the growth of policing budgets or begin to shrink them. And although the slogan “defund the police” has been coolly received by law enforcement leaders, it is forcing some of them to seriously consider whether society should aim to respond to addiction and mental illness and even violence with something other than force. “That is not only laudable,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is also the elected head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “It’s an absolutely necessary long-term goal.”

Brandon del Pozo, who commanded precincts in New York City and then served as chief in Burlington, Vermont, said it’s little surprise that police are poorly matched with many of their responsibilities. Unlike most other city agencies, police are available 24/7, 365 days a year, with their own communications and transportation systems; like a gas, they tend to expand to fill all available space. “Everywhere in America, you dial the same three numbers and you mutter something into a phone and you know the police will show up,” he said. “The nature of that institution means it will get involved in everything that people think needs an immediate response.”

But when it comes to untangling that web, “defunding the police” is only half the battle. Its proponents believe that benevolent social services can fill the space vacated by law enforcement, but funds divested from police budgets may be insufficient to provide substitutes. Nationwide, police account for about 4 percent of state and local direct general expenditures, according to the Urban Institute. That amounts to little more than a dollar per person per day in most cities. 

And experts who have studied community-based responses to violence say we are far from realizing a replacement for police. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton who has shown that local nonprofit organizations played an essential role in the crime drop of the 1990s, says that despite communities’ tremendous potential to contribute to their own safety, the systems for organizing them don’t yet exist. “The discussion around defunding the police often comes with the assumption that other existing institutions can jump in and take over the role of overseeing communities,” he told The Appeal, “and that’s just not right.”

According to Sharkey, New York City has made as deep a commitment to community-based approaches to public safety as any U.S. city. Since 2014 it has spent more than $100 million to establish a system of neighborhood residents trained to mediate disputes and interrupt violence before it escalates, youth mentorship and employment programs, and microgrants to bolster community cohesion. But Jessica Mofield, executive director of the city’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, which now oversees all of those initiatives, says there are still situations only the police can handle. “If things happen that are really serious, that require an enforcement presence, it’s not like we’re going to call Ghostbusters.”

Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose evaluations of violence interrupters were instrumental in legitimizing the approach, worries about the public’s fickleness when it comes to criminal justice. Those supportive of reform may be quick to reverse themselves out of fear of being cast as soft on crime, so new initiatives need to be protected with solid evidence. If a city wanted to radically reduce expenditures on policing, Butts said, “I would totally back it, but I would be terrified we would squander all the good energy by not being fully prepared.” 

Even as staunch abolitionists argue that police can play no meaningful role in their own reform and oppose any measures that increase their funding or legitimacy, they tacitly accept that for the foreseeable future, cities will continue to depend on them. Markasa Tucker, who has been organizing for police reform in Milwaukee since 2014 and recently launched a campaign to divest $75 million from the city’s department, said she knows the police department can’t be dismantled today or tomorrow. “Until there are alternatives out there, people are going to believe they need police. We are constantly working on what a parallel system looks like,” she said.

Tucker does not expect police to help in figuring this out. “The only thing I’d like to hear from law enforcement is them admitting what they are doing hasn’t worked, and offering up their salaries to support investment into what we all know will add to people, not harm people,” she wrote in an email. Similarly, D’atra Jackson, national director of the Black youth activist organization BYP100, felt there was no common ground with police. “We have different interests. Our desires for the future are very different.”

That leaves the question of how to proceed. Abolition suggests a direction to move but not the path to take; it is a compass, not a map. One approach would be to gradually divorce from policing those functions for which it is ill-suited. As Vitale pointed out in his book, this is essentially what the U.S. did when it ended Prohibition and regularized gambling, converting what had been preoccupations of law enforcement into regulated industries. 

In a recent working paper, Barry Friedman, faculty director of the Policing Project at NYU Law School, proposed “disaggregating” policing into its constituent functions to identify those that ought to be forgone entirely, and others better addressed by a different agency. For calls involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction, Friedman suggested a new kind of highly trained generalist first responder. Cities are taking up the proposition: In the last week policymakers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Albuquerque announced their intentions to develop a branch of emergency response for handling calls in which a community safety response is more appropriate.

The police chief of Tucson, Arizona, Chris Magnus, who considers himself to be on the progressive edge of his profession, has taken similar steps—while retaining police at the helm. Police departments often rely on officers for responsibilities that other professionals are better suited to handle, he said. “There are a lot of things that we don’t need sworn cops to do in police departments. And the more thoughtful we are about identifying those tasks, those jobs, those assignments, and getting the right work in the right hands … the better off we’ll be.”

His police department’s process for addressing mental illness is exemplary of this approach. For a decade, Tucson’s 911 system has triaged thousands of calls to a behavioral health crisis line rather than respond to them with police. In 2011, the surrounding county built a Crisis Response Center to keep people with behavioral health issues from landing in jail. And three years later the city stood up a mental health support team trained to handle mental health calls without the use of force. 

That unit is composed of licensed behavioral health professionals, substance use counselors, and homeless outreach workers—but is still backed by officers and detectives. Magnus said he would not be comfortable sending a mental health worker out to an uncertain and potentially confrontational call for service unaccompanied by law enforcement. And in his view, anyone calling for total abolition has little understanding of what police encounter daily. “Is their plan to ignore the proliferation of firearms throughout this country and how that impacts all kinds of dynamics in terms of family, mental health, crime in general?”

The idea that police would retain even a diminished role is anathema to abolitionists. But some acknowledge that until some indistinct and utopian future when genuine investment in other social services has made police irrelevant, there will be a need for agents of the state empowered to use force. Vitale says that only by addressing economic inequality can we truly reduce crime and violence and become less reliant on police and prisons. “And then we see what’s left,” he said. “But I can’t predict exactly what that is.”