Abolish the police?

Yesterday Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey was asked by a protester if he was in favor of defunding the police. When he asked if that meant “abolition of it?”, the protester said “one in the same.” Frey then said he didn’t support “full abolition.” At that point the crowd began chanting “shame, shame,” Game of Thrones style.

Here’s a story about it:

For the record, I believe the law enforcement system in this country is in need of some major, major reforms. But abolishing the police seems like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Anyway, what would abolition of the police look like? Do any of the people proposing such a scheme have any ideas for what would take its place, or who would investigate crimes, respond to disturbances and apprehend wrongdoers?

It sounds like crazy talk to me. As bad as the police can be the alternative would be orders of magnitude worse. Just look at areas that are controlled by gangs and the cartels.

This is complicated. I can understand how people won’t accept the idea of another reform movement when they see more disadvantages than advantages in their local police. I think our police departments exist as a political entity, not one designed to deal with real law enforcement needs. Powerful police unions work hard to encourage increasing number of police and remove the police from any responsibility for their actions. The public sees those efforts applied to cops like the ones that killed George Floyd but it doing so they forget to look at the source of the problem up the line, the officials within the police department that hire, train, and fail to manage, and the politicians who play political games with them.

I can see where a number of police departments could be eliminated and replaced if actually needed with a new and different organization meant to actually serve the communities they operate in.

Yes, look at them. That’s what you get from the police.

Abolishing the police/ complete defunding of the police seems just a bit extreme. I say we try holding them accountable for acts that defy basic human decency for a period of time, and then reassess the situation. Make fine tuned corrections where necessary. Proceed in that direction.


It did/does to me, too. But lately, some of the things I’ve been hearing about the police have been sounding awfully crazy, too. When I saw the story about police slashing journalists’ tires, I started to think, “Okay, yeah, maybe these guys should be abolished.”

Like Minneapolis, for instance, where a gangster murdered a man last week without even caring that he was being filmed, because he figured he could get away with it.

Abolishing the police is a right wing wet dream. Privatization of public services, vigilantism, and unregulated militias are all worse options than the shitty system we have now. We know how to fix this. Fire every cop if you have to, but use the existing institutions as a framework for building something better. We didn’t throw out the US Constitution in 1865 because it allowed slavery; we fixed it.

This is not a new idea. And most of the time what’s being called for is a massive reduction in size and responsibility for departments, as opposed to complete abolition. And contrary to the laments of the pearl clutchers amongst us nobody is advocating doing this in a vacuum; there will still be law and order.

The first part of the idea is that for the vast majority of the things that the police do, unarmed dedicated corps would be preferred. You dont need an armed police force to deal with movement control (blocking off streets, escorts, emergency logistcis, etc). you dont need an armed police to investigate crimes. You dont need an armed police to deal with things like domestic disturbances, petty theft, the homeless, drug addiction, (alot of these should be decriminalized anyway).

Police depts are expensive. In most municipalities it’s the single biggest budget item. Some estimates are that it costs upwards of $100,000 per officer per year above their salary (for things like payroll taxes, med ins, retirement contributions, liability ins, equipment and maintenance, infrastucture. . .) and alot of this money could be redirected to areas like mental health. and housing, etc. to help to prevent the events that the police are now dealing with.

And for those of you who simply cant imagine a world without the police, I’ll just remind you that civilization got along just fine without them until the mid 1800’s. It’s not such a crazy idea.

I posted this link in the controversial encounters thread, it’s a good intro to the idea.

Six Ideas for a Cop-Free World

Interesting that you pick that example, because it reminded me that we did throw out the Articles of Confederation in 1789.

Still, I’m not sure whether “abolish the police” is more like “throw out the Constitution” or like “throw out the very idea of having a constitution.” Maybe there are some police departments that need to be abolished, and replaced or rebuilt from the ground up?

There are several slogans floating around right now, one of which is “Defund the Police”, which certainly sounds like it means “abolish” the police. It doesn’t help that such slogans are often explicitly contrasted with “Reform the Police” (as in, “We don’t need just ‘reform’, we need to ____!”). At least for SOME of the people using these slogans, if you actually read their manifestos (and not just their bumper stickers) they seem to have a more nuanced view–“defund” meaning “transfer various functions now handled by the police to other agencies of the government (and take money from the police and give it to those other agencies)”. I personally think “Defund the Police” is not a great slogan, because it IS subject to misinterpretation (including potentially willful misinterpretation, but in a political fight, I don’t think it’s a good idea to use slogans that are so easy for the Other Side to misrepresent). For me, something like “Demilitarize the Police” would be a better “bumper-sticker” sort of political slogan.

Someone did link from these boards recently (in the mammoth “Controversial encounters between law-enforcement and civilians” Pit thread) to a website called “A World Without Police”. The people at that website are really not just talking about “reform”, and their slogan/URL is quite serious. They want to abolish the police, and they aren’t kidding around. They also say

So, this is a quite radical agenda (I mean, just in the original etymology of the word “radical”–“going to the roots of things”). It’s some sort of left-anarchist site, I guess, and they do, in fact, want to tear out nearly all of our current society “by the roots” and replace it with something very, very different.

To the extent that the agenda of the “Defund the Police” people is in fact about “abolishing the state in its entirety, along with capitalism” then I guess their slogan would be fine and would adequately convey their point of view; but to the extent the “Defund the Police” people really just think the cops shouldn’t have military-surplus armored vehicles and shouldn’t be called out every time some homeless person needs help and so on–but they aren’t actual hard-core left-anarchist revolutionaries–I do think their sloganeering needs work.

(I also don’t think the Democratic Party should start talking about “abolishing the state in its entirety, along with capitalism”. Not that I think there’s any chance Joe Biden is going to start talking that way; I’m just saying.)

Right. The point is not that there should be no system of law and order. Lots of things that are currently being handled by police can be handled in other ways.

Defund/abolish the police is a nutty idea whose main effect will be to supply useful targets for Republican attack ads. It has no chance of being enacted not least because the police are in fact pretty popularand respected , more so than many other political and civic institutions. Leftists really need to get out of their delusional bubbles and learn what normal people think.

This is coming from the Left, however.

It’s true that Britain and the U.S.A. “got along fine” (for certain values of “got along fine”) without police until the mid 1800s. This lack of police in the Anglophone countries on both sides of the Atlantic was in large part due to the old English distrust of “standing armies” that also gave us the Second Amendment and various American state constitutional guarantees of the right to keep and bear arms. From the 1776 Constitution of Pennsylvania:

We don’t want the King (or even a republican state) to have a “standing army”, because it could be used to oppress the people; and a professional corps of guys with guns and uniforms smacks of a “standing army” even if you call them “the police”.

The thing is, though, the pre-police era in the Anglophone world wasn’t what you’d call “progressive”. It’s not at all a coincidence that England–before Sir Robert Peel finally persuaded the English to adopt the dangerously continental European idea of a permanent police force–had over two hundred different offenses on the books that were punishable by death. The good old Anglo-Saxon notions of literal “community policing” (the “hue and cry”) and maybe call out “the Yeomanry” if things got really out of hand most definitely did NOT result in an era of peaceful and non-repressive law and order.

That was my point. It’s an ill considered position for someone on the Left to make.

As with all major revolutionary changes, show me the new model before you ask me to throw away the old one.

With public health care, we can look at Canada, Australia, Japan (etc!) and see if what works for them works for us. Let’s do the same with policing.

I agree. This is the sort of rhetoric that gets law-and-order right-wingers elected, rather than real reforms enacted.

People who say “abolish the police” will sing a different tune when or if someone comes to assault/rob/murder them and 911 isn’t there to help.

There will always be “police”. The question is, do you want them to be public servants or vigilantes and private contractors?