A person holds up a placard that reads, 'Black lives matter' during a protest in the city of Detroit, Michigan, on May 29, 2020, during a demonstration over the police murder of George Floyd. (Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)
The killing of George Floyd by police sent a wave of righteous rage through the nation and around the globe. It seems to have been the tipping point — following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade — prompting a new sense of urgency for major intervention on the matter of police. But not everyone is on the same page. There is a broad consensus that there is a problem with police in the United States, but divergence on whether the problem lies with individual officers and their respective departments, or with the institution itself.
As long as police have existed, they have operated as the foot soldiers of the social order meant to control, criminalize, and surveil marginalized people while prioritizing the protection of property.
On one end of the intervention spectrum, there are those who want to reform the police: make them better by implementing more rules and regulations, requiring more training, investing in technology to bolster accountability, and generally changing the culture of law enforcement. These actions are what Critical Resistance, an organization that aims to end the prison-industrial complex, calls “reformist reforms,” or policy solutions that make cosmetic changes while expanding the reach of policing. The two most visible and recent examples are the prominent organization Campaign Zero’s #8CantWait campaign and the congressional Justice in Policing Act. Both were introduced within days of each other and garnered significant media attention.
“Non-reformist,” or abolitionist, reforms, on the other hand, work to chip away at policing and reduce its overall impact. Abolition is the theory and practice of chipping away at a vast system of formal social control, imposed through punishment and surveillance, while also building new practices and systems that affirm people’s humanity. Ultimately, abolition is about striving for a world where police, and the prison-industrial complex in which they operate, is obsolete because we can build communities that are equipped to rely on each other for safety and create alternatives to punishment.
At a time of mass mobilization and uprising, when communities are demanding reparation for historically rooted and ongoing harms, it’s a moment to dream big, fight for abolitionist demands, and reject “reformist reforms” that will only further entrench our system of racist policing.
Critical Resistance developed a chart that was inspired by organizer, writer and educator Mariame Kaba. Critical resistance presents four questions to assess and distinguish between reformist reforms versus abolitionist reforms. In the organization’s words:
Does the solution reduce funding to police?
Does the solution challenge the notion that police increase safety?
Does the solution reduce the tools, tactics, or technology police have at their disposal?
Does the solution reduce the scale of policing?
Measuring the #8CantWait reforms and the Justice in Policing Act against these criteria, they surely fail the litmus test of transformative change. #8CantWait seeks to “bring immediate change to police departments” through eight restrictive use-of-force policies that the initiative claims can dramatically reduce police violence by 72%. The campaign encourages police departments to: (1) Ban chokeholds and strangleholds; (2) Require de-escalation; (3) Require warning before shooting; (4) Exhaust all other means before shooting; (5) Intervene and stop excessive force by other officers when it happens; (6) Ban shooting at moving vehicles; (7) Require use-of-force continuum, which guides the appropriate officer response in particular situations; and (8) Require comprehensive reporting each time an officer uses forces or threatens to do so. The initiative has since caught a lot of valid criticism, not only for the methodological flaws of its research underpinnings, but also because it is insufficient to change the fundamental structure of policing.
These recommendations presume that giving officers more rules and reporting requirements means that these guidelines will be followed; it does not. The reality is that many cities — including those with huge police departments, like New York and Chicago — have a lot of these policies in place already. Yet, unsurprisingly, these police departments are still purveyors of violence. For example, the New York Police Department (NYPD) banned chokeholds in 1993, but didn’t stop an NYPD officer from killing Eric Garner using that very method in 2014. What’s more, 40 NYPD officers have used chokeholds since the beginning of 2015. And even with accountability mechanisms to ensure that these policies are being followed, it is not enough. The margin of error is still too high. On the matter of life and death, one life taken by the state is too many. So what do we make of the 28% that #8CantWait leaves on the table?
Five days after the launch of #8CantWait, three members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the chair of the House Judiciary Committee introduced what they call the “first-ever bold, comprehensive approach” to police accountability and reform in the Senate: the Justice in Policing Act of 2020. This 134-page bill seeks to: prohibit racial and religious profiling, require body cameras, investigate police misconduct, hold police accountable in court, change the culture of law enforcement with training, improve transparency with data collection on misconduct and use of force, and make lynching a federal crime, among other reforms. There is some overlap with #8CantWait regarding a ban on chokeholds, as well as with a demand from local organizers calling for an end to no-knock warrants. There is also some overlap with demands from progressive organizations like Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), which has called for a national database of decertified police officers to prevent them from simply moving to different jurisdictions, ending the qualified immunity doctrine that prevents police from being held legally accountable, and demilitarizing the police. It’s worthwhile to note, though, that the proposed congressional bill seeks to only limit the transfer of military equipment to local police departments under the 1033 Program with additional regulations, while ACRE is calling for the altogether elimination of military transfers. Even with this overlap, the Justice in Policing Act does not get us to the rotten core of the problem that is policing.
None of the recommendations from either initiative recognize policing itself as the problem. As Kaba has said, “violence is endemic to U.S. policing itself,” making the notion of police violence redundant. It is an inherently racist, violent institution born out of slave patrols. As long as police have existed, they have operated as the foot soldiers of the social order meant to control, criminalize, and surveil marginalized people while prioritizing the protection of property.
Neither initiative reduces funding to police. In fact, core elements of the Justice in Policing Act increase funding for more training and community policing. The latter would allocate funds from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to establish local task forces on what they call policing innovation. The bill would also allocate funding to create training programs for law enforcement on “best practices” from the reforms proposed by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. More funding is, obviously, not aligned with the goal of defunding and certainly not abolishing the police.
Not only do these “solutions” fail to challenge the notion that police increase safety, they actually further entrench the legitimacy of the notion that police have a monopoly on public safety. The aforementioned COPS grants are what Congress calls an investment in “transformative community-based policing programs,” but there’s nothing transformative about the notion of a community-engaged arm of the police state. The bill would allocate these funds towards community-based organizations to come up with new ways to work with the police when it should really be for community-based infrastructure for accountability and justice without having to use police. Community policing tends to operate as a means to undermine self-governance, and mobilizes the community to act as police intelligence gatherers and political advocates for punitive criminal justice. Community policing offers, to cite the Chicago political formation We Charge Genocide, “the promise of blunting grievances of radical movements and co-opting some of their leaders.” Further, members of Congress co-opting language like transformative and reinvest from abolitionist movements is disingenuous and counterproductive in a time when reception to the idea of reducing the size, scope and role of the police is at an all time high.
Disturbingly, the Justice in Policing Act also requires more technology in the form of body and dashboard cameras, which not only requires funding but could be used to justify police murder by people who look for such excuses.
Thankfully, reformist reforms are being countered by those who can imagine and are fighting for a world where police are essentially obsolete, because the elements of real community safety are fundamentally opposed to what police actually do. The demand to defund police is reverberating across the country, thanks to the work of Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), the abolitionists who put forth the #8ToAbolition response to #8Cant Wait, and the radical left movement that has been dreaming of freedom from the police state for decades.
Defunding the police may sound completely ludicrous to people who are wholly invested in the idea that police keep us safe. That belief is, in large part, due to what seems to be a lack of alternatives. However, in all spaces that I’ve been in that have engaged in some type of visionary exercise to imagine a world without prisons and policing, and devise new understandings of what real safety looks like, this vision inevitably involves a community with significantly more resources. Policing, prisons, poverty and profit are all connected; any discussion of abolition must discuss distribution of resources.
The recent moves towards abolition through defund and dismantle strategies have been exciting to see, like Minneapolis Public Schools severing ties with the Minneapolis Police Department and the subsequent City Council vote to completely disband its police force. These are victories that were years in the making by grassroots organizations like the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, yet the fruits of this labor is just the beginning. There’s much more work to do.
Abolition is not just about getting rid of police officers and brick and mortar buildings full of cages. It is also about undoing the society we live in because the prison industrial complex both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities. It’s about divesting from punitive systems, and then investing in systems that care for people, from mental health clinics and drug treatment programming to universal childcare and after-school programs. A prison abolitionist framework entails, more specifically, developing and implementing alternative social projects, institutions and conceptions of governance, and remedying shared problems — interventions that might make police and prisons insignificant and ineffective to ensuring safety and security over the long term. And critically, to move towards an abolitionist horizon, we must identify and critique those “reformist reforms” that threaten to knock us off our pat