The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has successfully brought police brutality, rampant since time immemorial, into mainstream political discourse. Pre-empting the “where are your demands” nonsense, BLM has released a thorough policy platform. One proposal, however, should be given more attention: “Direct democratic community control of… law enforcement agencies.” A police that serves the public, not the state, is hardly a traditional police. This proposal has a radical implication: Police Abolition.
No country has ever implemented something like this, and nobody has ever laid out a coherent argument for it (to my knowledge). So here’s the simple case for police abolition:
- The police are themselves guilty of crimes. This part of the argument has received the most attention because of BLM. While the laundry list could go on forever (to include surveillance and suppression of activism), it’s worth reviewing the basic evidence.
Murder: Most sources estimate that police kill over 1,000 people (disproportionately black, of course) every year, but only 3% of officers get charged with a crime.
Sexual Assault: Behind excessive use of force, sexual assault is the second-most reported form of police misconduct (618 reports). This doesn’t count assault that goes unreported or thinly-veiled harassment in the form of stop-and-frisk.
Robbery: Civil forfeiture laws allow police departments to seize cash and property from the public, often without any conviction. Police raked in more from forfeiture than burglars did from burglary in 2014, not to mention petty tickets and fines.
- The police are not effective at preventing serious crimes. There’s scant evidence for the conventional wisdom that more police reduces crime; historically, the crime rate in a number of regions has often increased despite increased police per capita, and conversely, sudden decreases in police (due to layoffs or strikes) have not led to increased crime.
Murder: Even among those who believe that police may reduce crime overall, few scholars have found any link between levels of policing and violent crime (as opposed to property crimes). This makes sense, since murders often occur in a heat of passion or inside homes.
Sexual Assault: First, two-thirds of sexual assault cases go unreported. Second, even when they’re reported, rape kits often remain untested for years – the current backlog is at least 140,000 kits. Third, the police plainly don’t know how to handle assault cases. The DOJ investigation of Baltimore PD found systematic victim-blaming and inaction, but BPD is surely not the exception.
- There are better ways to reduce serious crime. Rather than detailing specific policies, I’ll just mention some alternatives to policing that would better prevent crime.
Reduce Social Inequality: While poverty has been linked to crime rates, income inequality is an even better predictor of crime (violent and property). This makes sense, since more unequal societies tend to foster the mistrust and resentment that leads to crime.
Combat Sexual Assault: The same study cited above found no link between income inequality and rates of sexual assault. Instead, prevention may focus on changing traditional gender norms through education campaigns.
The police may make you feel safer if you’re from a privileged background, but that doesn’t mean the police actually make neighborhoods safer. On the other hand, for less privileged groups, the police are a source of active terror. Allowing such an institution to survive is plainly irresponsible.