Abolishing the Police is Not as Extreme as It Sounds. Here is How it Would Work | Opinion

The movement against police brutality is consolidating around appeals to "abolish the police" and "defund the police." Just this past Sunday, the Minneapolis City Council voted to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. Organizers have been pushing for police abolition for years, but as the calls exit the fringe and enter the mainstream, many are taken aback and concerned. What do those demands mean in practice? A closer look reveals that they may not be as extreme as they seem.

Abuse and corruption have existed in policing for centuries. Calls for the abolition of the police stem from the fact that wherever policing is present, so too are cases of abuse. Daily indignities, killings, and trauma are all inevitable consequences of policing. Granting officers the power to kill implies that swearing to serve and protect somehow leads to infallibility—to perfect judgment. But the expectation that officers' high-stakes decisions will never be impacted by stress, fear, or anger is wholly unrealistic.

It is no surprise, then, that reform attempts have failed to curb police abuse. Bodycams have no effect on police use of force; more diverse police forces do not reduce police violence; and anti-bias trainings show no sign of making a difference. This is because the cause of abuse isn't bad training, bias, or lack of accountability. It isn't a few "bad apples". The problem is policing itself—it's the idea that most problems can and should be solved by armed men and women, by the threat or use of violence.

Alternatives work

The idea of abolishing the police is often met with dismay. It is seen as an extreme and unrealistic demand, one that would leave crime and violence unaddressed. The unease is understandable; our society is based around the belief that we need authority, that without enforcers, public safety would be in jeopardy. Our punitive culture holds that eliminating violence takes violence: the violence of armed officers, the violence of the criminal justice system, the violence of incarceration.

But alternatives to this punitive system exist—and in fact have proven to be far more effective. A congressional study found that opening drug treatment facilities "result[s] in significant reductions in criminal activity": selling drugs declined by 78 percent, drug-related crime by 48 percent, and arrests for any crime 64 percent. Community programs tackling gang violence have also had remarkable outcomes. In communities where "interrupters" (often former gang members) mediate between factions before or when violence flares up, shootings and gang violence have significantly decreased. Researchers also found that mental health services, for both juvenile and adult offenders, are highly effective at preventing a return to crime. For example, programs giving at-risk youth access to counseling and cognitive behavioral skill-building have decreased violent crime arrests by 50 percent. While school policing directly feeds into the school-to-prison pipeline, restorative justice, with its focus on mediation and face-to-face dialogue between offenders and victims, provide a viable alternative: at an Oakland middle school, suspensions declined by 87 percent and expulsions declined to zero.

These programs, and myriad others, have one thing in common: they do not involve policing. They do not use weapons, patrols, or surveillance. The task of building safety is shared among social workers, counselors, medical personnel, and psychologists. Many are members of the community itself—people who understand the conditions that give rise to crime, who do not see offenders as mere criminals but as neighbors, and as humans.

Of course, the deeper causes of crime and violence must be addressed. Inequality is the best predictor of murders, violence, and other crimes, so any long-term solution to our social woes must be anchored in building a more equitable and just system.

Abolishing the police does not mean firing all police officers overnight, or that crime and violence should go unaddressed. It means accepting that our punitive approach to crime has been ineffective and that it inevitably leads to police abuse. Abolishing the police means removing policing as an omnipresent force in our society. It means looking at crime and violence as symptoms of deeper issues, responding not with the baton and the gavel, but with healthcare, education, and community.


As police abolition advocacy group MPD150, writes, "sure, in this long transition process, we may need a small specialized class of public servants whose job it is to respond to violent crimes." But this is a small fraction of the work of building safety. Situations that require expertise would be handled by specialists and the appropriate community organizations rather than armed men and women. For example, mental health crises should be handled by mental health professionals and medics, not the police. In fact, police holding that role has led to an "epidemic" of police shooting at people with mental illness."

After outrage over heavy-handed arrests for failing to comply with social-distancing rules, New York City enlisted thousands of clergy and community leaders to engage with at-risk communities and make the case for respecting social-distancing. Rather than a back-up solution after the use of force failed, this should have been the default. But it illustrates how police-free alternatives are possible. All it takes is political will.

Abolishing the police means gradually curtailing the presence of police in our lives and in our communities. Reducing the numbers of officers and patrols. Replacing them with health and community initiatives.

This is why the calls to defund the police are so central. The United States spends $100 billion per year on policing, with many cities dedicating over a third of their entire budget to it—not to mention $80 billion per year on incarceration. Over the past 40 years, while police budgets have expanded to hire more officers, buy more military equipment, and procure more surveillance technology, public funding for education, health and community programs has dwindled. This is despite the fact that community and health approaches are considerably more cost-effective than policing. Step one is therefore to start reallocating funds from police departments to community-based initiatives, to funnel resources to schools, health centers, and community organizations.

Those most affected by police abuse and by violent crime have long known that alternatives to policing exist, that communities are best placed to address their own challenges. Yet, by systematically directing our resources toward policing, we have never invested in communities in ways that could effectively address those challenges. The call to abolish the police is not a call to end public safety, or the removal of a system to leave a vacuum in its stead. It's a call to move beyond failed methods and policies, and toward a system that is pragmatic about what armed enforcement can and cannot achieve, about how crime and violence arise, and about the kind of solutions that provide real, comprehensive safety.

Quyen Ngo is an actor, organizer, and facilitator. Raphael Mimoun is the founder of Horizontal, a human rights technology organization.

The views expressed in the article are the authors own.