What I Got Wrong About Police Abolition

If you ask my mom, one thing that made me difficult to raise was my absolute refusal to do what I was told. I feel like I was born with an innate distaste for authority figures. My most consistent political belief has been, “fuck the police.”

Police abolition, therefore, fits my ideological instincts like a glove. But, I am now re-evaluating my position. I haven’t changed my moral opposition to the police, and the police haven’t done anything to improve my feelings towards them. However, I am convinced that police abolition is a political loser that will be a millstone on the neck of any political body that supports it.

My arguments for police abolition are still pretty solid, I think:

  1. The police often don’t respond to crime promptly.
  2. The police have a low clearance rate on all crimes, even murder.
  3. The primary mission of the institution of policing is to protect the property of the ruling class and have no duty to “protect and serve.”
  4. The police disproportionately abuse black and brown people.
  5. Police regularly use their power to oppress and silence any opposition to them or their supporters.

My change of heart comes from two significant changes to my political thinking. First, the general public responds emotionally and intuitively to political messaging rather than to statistics and data. You can’t persuade most people by proving them wrong, especially if the data goes against their intuition. I want to have more faith in people, and I won’t pretend that this doesn’t enrage me, but I’ve accepted that I am just wrong.

The next change regards a focus on material conditions. On the left, there are two main camps, those who advocate for uniting around the improvement of material conditions and those who want to focus on a more identity-based idea of oppression and justice. I always thought both strategies were inseparable. However, I was missing the most crucial part of “material conditions,” the feeling of safety. Except for pandemic times, all crime rates have been on a steady decline for 30 years. Yet, Americans perceive crime as going up nationally. Opponents to criminal justice reform understand this perception and happily feed it. I don’t have any concrete ideas on how to oppose this force. I expect it comes from the ubiquity of national news and the death of local journalism. There will always be something awful happening somewhere with a big enough sample size, fear is a powerful emotion, and powerful emotions keep people watching the news. As long as this distortion of reality maintains its preeminence in the people’s minds, radical police reform will be a non-starter politically. Above all else, people want to feel safe in their homes, and even if we are proposing solutions that would make them safer, removing or changing the police makes them feel less secure.

I don’t have good answers here. I think police reform, on the whole, rarely makes any improvement to police behavior. Politically, I think the best bet would probably be to first reduce crime by focusing on poverty, housing insecurity, lead paint and lead pipes, and better support for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia. Next, work on rehabilitation and recidivism. Our prison system focuses on retribution, and the privatization of prisons messes up incentives for rehabilitating prisoners.

While we address the prison pipeline, hopefully, we can slowly divest the police of certain responsibilities. We could have trained mental-health responders to respond to those in crisis and have traffic enforcement handled by unarmed public safety officers. The money initially allocated to those policing efforts could be shifted into better investigative work to improve violent crime clearance rates. Another reform that may help is to increase the barriers to entry for people entering the police force requiring a four-year degree in criminal justice or legal theories and increase the amount of training needed at police academies. For communities too small to have their own police academies, the federal government could train future officers.

I don’t know if any of those ideas would work, and I haven’t given up on thinking about this problem. Unfortunately, I think I was wrong about the solution for which I’ve been fighting.