A s a former career police officer, I know that good police want the same things that most abolitionists do: safe, healthy, and empowered residents and investments in programs that prevent crime from occurring in the first place. The question is: How do we get there?
We will always need some police, because there will always be serious crimes that require an armed response and professional investigation. But today, police spend most of our time responding to low-level issues that do not need an armed officer. In fact, our presence often makes these situations more dangerous.
While the media features polarizing debates—“abolish the police” versus hiring more of them—many officers want to hand low-risk calls to trained “community responders” and to prevent those cops fired for misconduct from disgracing the badge again in another jurisdiction. By focusing on serious crime and holding ourselves accountable to our vow to protect and serve, we can change the current narrative on our profession and attract true public servants.
Law enforcement is simply not equipped to address many of the problems we are tasked with solving. In a perfect world, people would rarely need to call the police, because mental health and substance abuse treatment, housing services, support systems for the formerly incarcerated, and other programs would be funded to an extent that would prevent many of the crises that trigger 911 calls.
In our less-than-perfect world, however, those calls can be diverted to folks who can actually help address the root causes of these problems. The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit organization of officers that aims to transform the criminal justice system (I serve as its executive director), has been working with cities across the country to implement community responder models, which employ trained clinicians, peer navigators, and mediators to respond to 911 calls. Community responders should handle mental health crises, quality-of-life calls, disputes between neighbors, and other low-risk scenarios.
Dispatching community responders would help prevent unjust arrests and uses of force, which disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous communities as well as people with behavioral and some mental health disorders or disabilities. It would allow the police to deploy our resources where we are most effective and improve relations with our communities.
In addition, removing these burdens from police shoulders would accomplish something subtle but hugely important: It would change the way the police are viewed and how we view ourselves.
When I was a kid growing up in a white, middle-class community, the police were portrayed as heroes defeating the bad guys. That wasn’t true in the communities targeted by law enforcement, but it was the reason many of my colleagues went into policing—to be the good guys.
Yet after 50 years of the War on Drugs, as well as smartphone videos of horrifying crimes by the police and proven racism, this is no longer the narrative, and for good reason. However, it’s also important not to allow the past to dictate the future, but rather to use it to learn where to go from here. Society can’t cede the obligation to improve the police to those not inclined to do so. That’s why it’s so important we encourage the right people to go into policing: Reform from within is one of the best tools we have, but also one of the least discussed.
Currently, a police officer who is fired by a department, even if it is for serious wrongdoing, may simply move elsewhere and start again. As a result, every officer knows a few colleagues who are in the wrong profession. We need a national database that identifies officers sanctioned for misconduct, to ensure that law enforcement agencies hire only those who will maintain the highest ethical standards.
We also need to promote reform from within our ranks. That includes recruiting. We need more women. We need more people of color. We need better standards to ensure that only the best of the best are trusted with the ability to use deadly force in the enforcement of the law. And if we want anyone but fascists to apply, we need to stop painting all police officers as fascists.
That doesn’t mean denying the racism and violence and unaccountability and corruption that have plagued the profession. It means supporting those within police departments who would honestly confront and change these things so that they’re the ones determining where we go from here. Because many good officers are leaving right now. And I’m afraid of those who are going to take their place.
Having sworn to serve the public as an officer, I believe it is my duty to speak out about the need for change. Reforms will improve the public’s view of law enforcement and help us hire individuals who will bring honor to the profession and build the community trust we need to prevent and solve serious crimes.
Nearly all liberals, progressives, and radicals now acknowledge the existence of policing inequalities in this country. Nonetheless, too many on the left push for policies that expand the presence of law enforcement in poor communities. Well-meaning reformers often argue that instead of abolishing the police, we should focus on eliminating racist tactics and preventing unnecessary brutality. They propose solutions like body cameras, ending qualified immunity, and more training. Many progressives also endorse civilian review boards, community control of police, increasing police pay, and no longer having police enforce traffic violations or respond to mental health calls. Some claim that if society invests in solving the root causes of crime while maintaining, or even increasing, funding for law enforcement, we can keep our neighborhoods safe while not costing Democrats electorally. This all seems to be based on the misguided belief that police actually prevent crime and that supporting them is smart politics.
The reality is that community-led interventions are at least as effective as armed officers at keeping areas safe. Research by Patrick Sharkey, a Princeton sociology professor who is by no means an abolitionist, shows that deploying public workers trusted by people within a neighborhood reduces crime, especially violent crime, better than sending in police. There is also a great deal of evidence that investment in housing, education, jobs, and public health can lower crime rates. Yet political leaders aren’t getting the message. At the end of July, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the city is set to give its police force a 20 percent pay raise. This will cost Chicago residents at least $600 million. The same month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot laid off 443 public school teachers. Instead of funding the police, who tear communities apart, governments should give money to programs that knit neighborhoods together.
Abolitionists believe that so long as there is a militarized force defending the status quo, the country will not confront its inequities. Policing has never been just a behavioral management program for surplus labor and marginalized communities—though it is definitely that. It’s also a political project that produces reactionary and conservative politics, economics, and culture. The coercive power of the police shapes how society determines questions of distribution, elections, and merit.
But in a democracy, the rule of law should be enforced through the consent of the people—not at the end of a gun. The left should always be on the side of participatory, radical democracy. This is what differentiates us from conservatives and authoritarians. Given the history of police in the slave patrols and their current role in strike breaking, criminalizing protest, and enforcing voter disenfranchisement laws, police are undeniably an antidemocratic force. Reforms have been tried repeatedly in the past, including in Minneapolis—where Derek Chauvin, an 18-year veteran of the force, murdered George Floyd—but they have never changed the oppressive nature of the police.
The work of Vesla Weaver and Joe Soss, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Minnesota, respectively, shows that contact with law enforcement is the most common interaction that working-class Black, Indigenous, and other nonwhite communities have with the government. The police set the conditions for how these groups perceive the state, civil life, and democracy. Given the prevalence of state violence, it is not surprising that so many people in what Weaver and Soss call “subjugated communities” stop participating in governance and politics. There is a direct connection between lower rates of voting, employment, and civic participation and the funding of policing as our main investment in public safety.
This is why a police presence makes it exceedingly difficult to build a radical governing majority. Opposing law enforcement isn’t just an ethical position; it’s a practical strategy for those trying to build a left movement that can enact transformative social and economic change and secure public safety for all. Increased funding and political support for policing have corrosive effects on the left’s ability to organize workers, end voter disenfranchisement policies, and institute meaningful wealth redistribution programs. In a world without police, the left’s most ambitious goals become much easier to achieve.
The Biden administration sent billions of dollars to cities to bolster municipal budgets diminished by the Covid-19 pandemic. But as Chicago and many other cities demonstrate, police often received money with no strings attached and usually with increased overtime pay and resources, while teachers and other social service workers faced layoffs. The supposed antidote of pro-police procedural reform and small-scale divestment and investment is not enough to cure the country of such antidemocratic politics—and it never will be.