Since protests and uprisings began following ex-Minneapolis officer Derek Chavin’s killing of George Floyd, police have responded by rioting nationwide, as video after video shows police inflicting unprovoked violence on the public.
Cops reacting violently to a movement sparked by police brutality isn't merely ironic—such a reaction is expected given American history or the present political landscape. And despite a long history of gratuitous violence, racism, and little accountability, funding for police departments has grown even as waves of austerity reforms have gutted the budgets of nearly every other public institution.
Debates that have raged for years among activists have now gone mainstream: Should we reform the police, defund and downsize departments, or abolish the institution altogether?
For the last week, mainstream publications and centrist thinkers have tied themselves in knots trying to explain that when activists say they want to defund the police, they don’t really mean that; “defund the police” is a slogan that actually means “make police departments smaller and more accountable,” they say. But many people who say “defund the police” mean exactly that—defund and abolish police departments, and use that funding to lift up communities.
Two campaigns—8 Can’t Wait and 8 to Abolition—best represent the competing visions for what to do with the police, and ultimately what kind of society we should have. 8 Can't Wait is a reformist proposition with an emphasis on implementing rules and requirements for police, whereas 8 to Abolition seeks to defund police as part of a movement toward a world without the institution as we know it.
For many, the idea of abolishing the police is a foreign concept, even a frightening one. Largely, this is due to unfamiliarity with the decades of scholarship and actions on the topic. So, if you're wondering what abolishing the police means, or just need a refresher, here's what you need to know.
What is 8 Can't Wait?
Campaign Zero, a liberal reform group that emerged after the Ferguson protests, has put forward eight use-of-force policies that aim to drastically reduce police violence in America. Together, the proposals are called 8 Can't Wait.
The group calls for changes that:
- Ban on chokeholds and strangleholds
- Require de-escalation
- Require warning before shooting
- Exhaust all other means before shooting
- Require officers to intervene when excessive force is used and report such incidents
- Ban shooting at moving vehicles
- Impose requirements on the levels of force allowed based on levels of resistance
- Require comprehensive reporting of every use of force or threat to use force
While this sounds good, the core of abolitionists' critique of 8 Can't Wait is that some of the more racist and violent police departments have already adopted many of these reforms, to essentially no effect. The LAPD has 5 of the 8 Can't Wait reforms, Chicago 6, Cleveland along with Philadelphia and the District of Columbia have 7, and San Francisco has all 8. All of these departments still have major problems with police brutality and use of force.
Is 8 Can't Wait good enough?
From the abolitionist perspective, initiatives like 8 Can't Wait don't go nearly far enough. The crux of the critique is that many of these reforms have already been implemented in police departments currently implicated in racist violence. Moreover, police unions have an extreme amount of power that allows officers to be reinstated if they are fired for violations of these regulations and often have the power to reject them altogether.
In short, an institution that disdains any and all restraints on its power appears reluctant to regulate itself, especially when the requirements are meek and easily met to a minimum with no real effect, such as "warning before shooting" or requiring "comprehensive" reporting on every use of force or threat to use force.
The LAPD has killed hundreds of people with little consequence and responded more violently to protests than most departments nationwide, for example. Chicago PD is still disappearing people, including a protester the police beat unconscious at a George Floyd protest. Cleveland’s reforms since the 2014 murder of 12 year-old Tamir Rice didn’t stop the April 9 police killing of Desmond Franklin. After brutally beating a Temple University student with a metal baton, Philadelphia police officer Joseph Bologna surrendered to a crowd of applauding officers and, in solidarity, the police union began selling shirts labeled “Bologna Strong.” In 2018, the reforms didn’t stop DC’s use of force from increasing by 20 percent, with 90 percent of all reported uses of force involving black community members. And while San Francisco has adopted all eight reforms, it also wasn't enough: the Department of Justice recommended 272 reforms in 2016, of which only 40 have been completed.
Minneapolis's "duty to intervene" policy did not stop two officers from watching Chauvin kill Floyd or another from blocking bystanders who tried to help Floyd.Breonna Taylor was killed in her bed despite Louisville's own "warning before shooting" policy, and Tamir Rice himself was killed despite a "warning before shooting" policy. Freddie Grey’s death was caused by six officers and their “acts of omission” that ignored department policy and safety procedures—would more rules have changed anything?
There are issues with Campaign Zero's 2016 study on the 8 Can't Wait reforms, such as unclear metrics behind how the 72 percent figure for reduction in police violence and ignoring police violence outside of shootings. New York City's unconstitutional Stop & Frisk program, which terrorized Black communities and led to lasting negative social and psychological effects, is not even mentioned.
In her essay “Policing as Plunder,” Jackie Wang points to another area that these reforms miss in their focus on killings: “the socially deleterious methods of revenue extraction that target vulnerable populations, particularly poor black Americans” whether that be targeting Black motorists for fees and fines or creatively criminalizing poverty.
All in all, the 8 Can't Wait reforms assume good faith on the part of police, something the evidence cautions against.
De-escalation and "exhaust all alternatives before shooting" are good proposals but come with giant loopholes: they go out of the window if a cop says “I thought I was going to die” or otherwise expresses fears of bodily harm or death. Even before Campaign Zero’s study, it was widely understood that shooting moving vehicles was dangerous and ineffective, and yet in 2015 the Guardian found dozens of instances where it was done and accountability was avoided by the officers expressing fear for their life. The requirement of comprehensive reporting assumes much of an institution that distorts statistics for its own ends, and shields abusive cops from any sort of accountability.
Abolitionists say that we shouldn’t settle for reforms created years ago when their effectiveness is questionable at best, especially when those reforms do nothing to disrupt the political economy of policing or law enforcement.
What is 8 to Abolition?
Budgets are moral documents. If your city's budget continues to defund public goods and services in favor of an institution that targets and kills non-white people with impunity, then you have a profound moral failure on your hands. While budgets for mental health services, drug abuse harm reduction programs, and public transit have been slashed or cut entirely, police have become increasingly militarized and have become “responsible” for responding to an increasing number of issues; we have police intervention in mental health episodes, drug overdoses, and traffic stops where a community-based approach would be better.
The most immediate way to rectify that moral bankruptcy would be to defund the murderous institution and re-fund others that were starved to preserve its interests. This means defunding the police with an eye to abolishment.
"This is in one sense a last-resort policy: If cops cannot stop killing people, and Black people in particular, society needs fewer of them," Annie Lowery wrote in her breakdown of America’s moral budgeting priorities for the Atlantic. "But it is also and more urgently a statement of first principles: The country needs to shift financing away from surveillance and punishment, and toward fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities."
In response to the 8 Can't Wait campaign, a group of police abolitionists have put together 8 to Abolition, a series of "non-reformist reforms" that seek to "reduce the scale, scope, power, authority, and legitimacy of criminalizing institutions." At the same time, tearing down those systems would require we build up "life-sustaining systems that reduce, prevent, and better address harm."
The platform is built on 8 core points:
- Defund police
- Demilitarize communities
- Remove police from schools
- Free people from jails and prisons
- Repeal laws that criminalize survival
- Invest in community self-governance
- Provide safe housing for everyone
- Invest in care, not cops
Crucially, the goal here is not to simply create kinder cops or prisons, but "a society without police or prisons, where communities are equipped to provide for their safety and wellbeing."
How do you abolish the police?
With defunding the police, abolitionists want to reduce its scope and our reliance on the institution until it no longer exists, partly by reallocating its responsibilities (and funding) to other entities better able to address that need without violence and partly by destroying some roles entirely.
In practice, and as a start, we can end the private-public partnerships that seek to "predict crime" with racially-biased algorithms and justify perpetual expansion of the police budget and constant surveillance and patrolling of communities even when there is no “crime” being committed. At the same time, we can undermine the power of police unions to protect racist and violent officers or to demand political concessions. It would mean significant budget cuts, but also ending civil asset forfeiture programs and predatory fees, fines, and overticketing that cops use as revenue streams for things like "renovated jails, new police cars, exercise equipment, courtrooms, military equipment and helicopter equipment."
Undermining the ability of the police to preserve itself or rationalize perpetual expansion, either through revenue extraction or political power, is a key first step to seriously ending their violence and improving our well-being.
Because defunding is an ongoing battle with abolition as the goal, one important front is demilitarizing our communities. Militarization encourages police to view communities as “the enemy" and encourages policies, creates technologies, and preserves institutions that act on that assumption, all of which arguably acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Local police not only train with federal authorities, departments train with foreign militaries (some of which engage in human rights violations) and secure loads of free military surplus equipment. Under a defunding program with abolition as the framework, all that will need to end.
Demilitarizing our communities also means kicking police out of our schools as well as cutting ties between them and universities. Federal data has long shown that their presence creates and reinforces policies that criminalize nonviolent behavior such as truancy instead of solving it without the threat of imprisonment or a gun, creating a pipeline from schools to prisons.
This list of demands brings it home with calls for community governance, along with a radical expansion of public goods and services. This doesn’t mean that if someone robs your house then you’re on your own (you likely already are: the police’s solve rates are surprisingly low) but that we delegitimize the state’s interference in our lives while pursuing solutions that don’t involve violence. Communities where decisions are made by neighborhoods, their municipalities, and the people who live in them as opposed to armed officers who don’t live in the communities they police, don’t understand their needs, and view these neighborhoods as enemy territory.
By expanding housing and mental health services, we can imagine "wellness checks" done by trained community care workers that won’t kill you in the middle of a mental health crisis, for example. We can pursue alternative models of justice that, instead of throwing people in cages, view crime as "harm to people, relationships, and the community" and work out processes to repair that harm and transform the causes of it. Harms against individuals and the community could still be investigated and solved, but in a way that doesn't unnecessarily endanger people's lives.
“Has the current approach ended rape and murder,” asks prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba. “The vast majority of rapists never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone get convicted and end up in prison. In fact, they end up becoming President. So the system you feel so attached to and that you seem invested in preserving is not delivering what you say you want, which is presumably safety and an end to violence.”
Abolition means more than the police
Policing is a society-shaping institution, and it both feeds into and feeds off of a whole web of things that must necessarily be changed to make changes to the police really meaningful.
Police abolition is also intimately tied to prison abolition—ending the carceral system that demands more criminalization and more policing. This country spends nearly twice on our industrial-prison system (from policing to the courts) than it does on social programs like food stamps and welfare. $100 billion each year goes to a system that doesn’t actually make us safer, but does increase the amount of suffering inside prisons and make defunded public services (such as mental health care) part of the carceral system.
Police abolition touches on education even beyond removing officers. How schools themselves are run must change, namely how punishments like suspensions and expulsions—which disproportionately affect non-white students—make schools function more like pipelines to prison than sites of education.
To address the social problems behind most crime, then we must also decriminalize survival whether that be "sex trades, drug trades, and street economies" or statutes that criminalize homelessness. Currently, nearly 80 percent of all arrests and state dockets are for misdemeanors, and as of 2011 survivors of physical or sexual abuse accounted for nearly 60 percent of the people in U.S. women's prison, often criminalized under “failure to protect” laws that punish failing to report abuse of your child even if you’re being abused as well.
Reformers and abolitionists, represented by 8 Can't Wait and 8 to Abolition, have two radically different visions for society that flow from their approach to the problem of policing. The former seeks a world where many of the same institutions and systems persist, despite their bloody histories, albeit in a kinder, more regulated form.
While some see the reformist position as more "realistic," history shows us that the 8 Can't Wait proposals have often had little effect or even acted as a smokescreen for brutality. At its core, it fails to challenge the autonomy of police, their unions, and the prison-industrial complex. More realistic, in terms of achieving the goal of remaking the police into an institution that serves society, is the abolitionist position. The 8 to Abolition proposals focus on concrete actions such as reducing police budgets, rather than introducing abstract procedural rules that are easily undercut by police.
If we are truly interested in public safety and community well-being, we need to address more than just police killings. Campaign Zero’s narrow goals are easily co-opted by those in a position to dilute reform. Already, police departments nationwide are supporting reforms as police unions are digging in their heels. Meanwhile, we are subjected to bad faith criticisms of defunding the police as if the United States hasn’t been steadily defunding every single social program, or “starving the beast,” as fiscal conservatives called it.
What our country looks like in the coming years will depend, in no small part, on what we do with the police. Either America becomes a nation committed to renouncing its surplus of violence—committed to rehabilitation, not punishment, and community well-being, not "law and order"—or it continues down its current catastrophic path. When the stakes are so high, which vision is really more radical: the one where public goods and services are continually starved for an army of brutes, or the one where public goods and services are able to feed and care for everyone?