What Does It Mean to Abolish the Police?

Here at Portland Jobs with Justice we wholeheartedly support police accountability, and we have a history of doing so. We were part of the network that successfully fought to get Portland out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and we are actively engaged with our allies pushing the city to use contract negotiations with the Portland Police Association to win increased and much needed accountability and transparency around the use of force and bias-based (i.e. racist and discriminatory) policing. We have endorsed the demands issued by the Portland African American Leadership Forum and Unite Oregon to cut at least $50 million from the Portland Police Bureau budget and reinvest the money back into the black community.

In the weeks that have passed since the horrific murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and in the wake of the brutally violent crackdown on protesters by police departments across the country, the landscape around police reform work has shifted significantly. Seen as radical and fringe just a couple months ago, demands to defund and abolish the police have very quickly entered mainstream conversations. 

Our organization has not taken a position on police abolition. However, in light of these sudden and significant shifts in what is possible with regards to police reform and the increased attention on the demand to defund and abolish police, we feel it is important to explore what it means and what it might look like to abolish the police and create a community-centered and non-violent alternative to public safety.

A Shift in How Communities View Policing

The demands to defund and abolish police aren’t just topics of discussion, they’ve become practical points of action. Last week in response to protests and cries for defunding, the Los Angeles city council cut $100-150 million from L.A.’s police budget.

Portland’s City Council voted to cut $15 million from the police budget, while community organizations and residents continue to demand at least $50 million in cuts.

School districts in cities like Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Oakland, and Seattle have severed ties with police. 

The Minneapolis City Council has taken a number of steps on the path toward completely dismantling it’s police department to create a community-centered, non-violent alternative to public safety. 

Despite common fears, abolishing the police does not necessarily mean instantly firing all law enforcement officers and sitting back to watch cities descend into chaos. It means following the lead of city’s like Minneapolis and organizations like Freedom to Thrive, and begin to re-imagine and shift our perception of what public safety looks like and how we can achieve it. It means we find better and non-violent ways to solve social problems.

The Violent Nature of Modern Policing

The problem doesn’t seem to be poor training. We’ve put a lot of money into more training, better training, and other reforms that don’t strike at the root of the problem. Increasing diversity in police forces has failed to end police violence. Body cameras have failed to prevent police from using excessive force. Anti-bias training has not solved the problem of systemic racism in police institutions with a history rooted in slave patrols and the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. 

The problem seems to be that policing itself is inherently violent and doesn’t work. Our modern concept of policing and public safety is based on the idea that social problems should be solved by people who are armed with deadly weapons, and who are granted authority from the government to threaten and to actually use violence against people to force their compliance.

If policing itself is inherently violent and is the problem, then what is an alternative that gets rid of that problem and also creates real public safety in our communities? 

The answer to what it means to abolish the police and how it could be accomplished lies in changing our priorities and implementing various ideas and policies that reduce our reliance on police by shifting the responsibility for public safety into other agencies, programs, and practices that don’t rely on violence and the use of force.

Decriminalization and Restorative Justice

An important part of reducing our reliance on police is widespread decriminalization. There are so many laws that artificially create crimes that can and should be solved in ways other than punishment, for example through the practice of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a non-violent, community-centered practice that uses mediated, face-to-face interaction and conflict resolution between victims and perpetrators to solve problems. Through decriminalization, we can reevaluate what we consider to be crimes and how we treat people who engage so-called criminal behavior in our society. 

Drug decriminalization or legalization is a perfect example. If drugs aren’t illegal, then we don’t need police to deal with drug use and sale. We can instead focus our resources and efforts on treating addiction and solving the problems associated with drug addiction instead of just treating people like criminals who deserve punishment. 

We know the decades long “War on Drugs” has miserably failed to solve the problem of drug addiction, yet our prisons are filled with people who are guilty of nothing more than drug crimes. There are other tried and tested solutions that actually work. We’ve seen the success Portugal has had in fighting crime and drug addiction through decriminalization. We know that in the U.S. good healthcare and access to quality addiction treatment programs significantly reduces drug sales and use as well as crime in general. 

There are millions of arrests for low-level offences in the US every year around which decriminalization can also reduce reliance on police. Why is loiteringliterally just hanging outsomething that needs police attention? Loitering laws are rooted in systemic racism. They have a racist history that is closely related to lynching, enforcing racial segregation, and the criminalization of poverty. That by itself speaks volumes about our need to rethink and eliminate the loitering laws that soak up so much time and resources from modern police departments.

Petty theft is another example of crime that could be solved in non-punitive ways that don’t rely on police. Why do people engage in theft? Do they have a job? Does that job pay enough to take care of a family? What other ways can people who engage in theft be helped that aren’t punitive? Arresting people and punishing them clearly has failed to end theft in our society. If someone needs to eat and stealing is their only perceived means, they will steal food even if the threat of jail time exists. And once a person is in the criminal justice system, it can be close to impossible to escape it. 

Houselessness and mental health are two other areas where decriminalization could reduce reliance on police. If we stop criminalizing houselessness and start providing adequate services, social workers and supportive housing, then we would eliminate half of the work done by institutions like the Portland Police Bureau. We could then significantly reduce the size and budget of the police force while creating other solutions, while creating other jobs for the houseless and getting people into housing so we can truly end houselessness in our city. 

If we provide real and substantial mental health services in our city, then people will have an option other than calling police when someone has a mental health episode that puts themselves or others in danger. We know that in Portland and likely in other cities as well, calling the police when someone has a mental health crisis is often a death sentence. 

We don’t need to police sex workers. We need to decriminalize sex work and recognize that sex workers have the same rights and deserve the same respect on the job as any other worker in any other job. 

We don’t need police in our schools manufacturing a school-to-prison pipeline. We need more counselors, smaller class sizes, restorative justice policies, and curricula that focus on building critical thinking skills rather than rote memorization and standardized testing. Studies show that programs designed to give at-risk youth access to counseling and cognitive behavioral skill-building have decreased arrests for violent crimes by 50%. Restorative justice—focusing on mediation and face-to-face conversations between victims and offenders—has been tremendously successful at Cole Middle school in Oakland where suspensions declined by 87%, and expulsions were eliminated. 

We don’t need police, prisons, and punishment. We need to reorganize our society in a way that solves problems rather than making them worse. We need to reorganize our economy to eliminate the massive inequality that is the root of much of the crime and other social problems.

Violent Crimes, Policing, and Restorative Justice

Violent crimes happen. They can tear families and communities apart. But police generally don’t prevent violent crime, or any crime from taking place. Police come in after the fact and investigate crimes. They search for and bring in suspected perpetrators for incarceration, trial, and punishment. But as a general crime prevention mechanism, policing doesn’t work. Police, incarceration, and even capital punishment have all failed to prevent violent crime and keep our communities safe.

We don’t need squadrons of beat cops patrolling communities of color and poor neighborhoods in order to investigate and find violent offenders. We don’t need militarized police armies with tanks and tear gas to bring in murderers and other violent offenders. We can investigate violent crimes, and we can use restorative justice practices and other methods to create justice in our communities even in cases that involve violence.

Emergency and Disaster Preparedness

Decriminalization isn’t the only way that reliance on police could be reduced or even eliminated. Police departments are also heavily involved in our emergency response systems. There is really no reason to believe that this is a necessary arrangement forever etched into the stone of time. 

We can provide community peacekeeping and de-escalation training. We can create community earthquake and disaster plans that give roles traditionally reserved to police to other agencies that aren’t based on the use of force. We can increase mental health support and response, medic, CPR and first aid training, skills, and kits. We can provide communities with Narcan and overdose prevention training. We can teach safety and family network planning, and other skills we need in our communities to prepare for disasters and emergencies. That would greatly reduce and could eventually even eliminate the need for police during disasters and emergencies. If we can’t find ways to direct traffic that doesn’t use armed police who have a license to kill, then we might not be trying hard enough. 

Abolition is Possible

Modern police departments and prisons have only existed for about 150 years, while the history of human civilization dates back hundreds of thousands of years. We actually could abolish the police. We could do it by looking at the roles and functions that police fill in our society, and then figuring out common sense ways to re-imagine and refocus that work into other agencies and other jobs that don’t use violence to solve problems. We could do it by shifting our priorities and transforming our society to ensure that no one is left behind, that everyone has enough food, that everyone has good healthcare and comfortable shelter, and that we all have meaningful ways to contribute to our communities.

The question isn’t, can we? Yes, we could. It’s possible. The question then is, do we collectively as a society have the desire and the will to do it?

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