In the wake of George Floyd’s public murder, thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to demand justice in a system that seems too far gone to be redeemed. Even as Americans protest police brutality, officers are caught on camera employing vicious tactics to curb resistance and committing war crimes against citizens. While some cities have already instituted reforms implementing implicit bias training, de-escalation training, and mental health evaluations for officers, history clearly demonstrates that reforms alone are insufficient to meaningfully address police brutality. Defunding bloated police departments and reinvesting these resources in the community is a first step towards addressing the root causes of crime and decreasing contact with the criminal legal system in the first place. Ultimately, however, cities must recognize that the racist and classist history of American policing requires abolishing the system as it exists today. This essay will explore why traditional reforms have not worked in the past, the solution of defunding the police as a precursor to the goal of abolition, and challenges to achieving meaningful change in policing.
Society needs more than symbolic change
Over the past few years, state and local governments have shown that they are good at reacting to great social unrest in order to appease their citizens. However, these gestures are often merely symbolic and fail to create enduring change. After other widely-publicized instances of police brutality, cities pledged to reform their police departments, and yet Black people continue to be brutalized and murdered. The Minneapolis police department is a timely example of how reforms alone do not address the underlying causes of police brutality. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo came to the department with the goal of reforming the Minneapolis police department in accordance with the standards laid out in then-President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Despite working to ban “warrior-style” training, the Minneapolis police department did not successfully change the toxic culture of protecting officers with a history of harmful and destructive behavior. As a result, Derek Chauvin remained on the force even after 18 official complaints were filed against him for misconduct, allowing him the opportunity to kill George Floyd. For these reasons, we cannot expect large-scale efforts to reform police conduct through legislation, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, to produce significant or long-lasting change.
One solution: defunding the police
Because police reform alone is unsuccessful, many activists demand that cities and states defund their police departments. Defunding the police entails diverting portions of police budgets to resources that are better trained and qualified to respond to the diverse range of community needs while addressing the underlying reasons people encounter the police in the first place. When an area is heavily policed, the community suffers. Areas with a high police presence are labeled “high crime areas,” causing property values to decline, disincentivizing investment, and decreasing political engagement. These phenomena often lead to poverty, lower rates of education and academic achievement, and limited professional opportunities. Defunding the police would reduce police presence in overpoliced neighborhoods and divert those funds to improving education, health care, and other social services shown to decrease contact with the criminal legal system.
Why we should not rely on police for every emergency
Police departments are routinely called for every “societal failure,” problem, or crisis. Law enforcement officials spend more than 21% of their time responding to mental health-related concerns. Officers’ lack of specialized knowledge often produces deadly results: one in four people killed by a police officer suffered from a serious mental illness at the time. Furthermore, police spend very little time addressing violent crime. A study conducted by the New York Times of three large police departments revealed that police officers spend roughly 4% of their time on serious violent crimes. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, 38% of murders, 66% of rapes, 60% of robberies, and 47% of aggravated assaults remain unsolved every year.
What time officers do spend investigating such crimes yields few results, in part because department policies aimed at combating violent crime are often racially-motivated. A recent study of the NYPD stop-and-frisk program, which was heralded to make the streets of New York safer from violent crime, found that over 95% of those stopped were not carrying any drugs or weapons, and police made arrests less than 10% of the time. Additionally, police stops are often racially motivated. Only 10% of people stopped by the NYPD in 2011 were white, while over 50% were black.
Because current police tactics are racist and ineffective at solving violent crime, police departments’ massive budgets are unwarranted and take critical funds away from community services shown to reduce crime. In 2017, state and local governments in the United States spent $117 billion on their police forces and an additional $79 billion on the prison system. The size of most cities’ police budgets greatly overshadows other social services. For example, New York City spends $6 billion annually on its police force, which is more than it spends on healthcare, services for the homeless, youth programs, and workforce development combined.
Defunding alone will not produce long-lasting change
Simply reducing the sizes of police departments will not eradicate police brutality. Like reform efforts, defunding alone would overlook how and why modern police forces are designed and why they operate the way they do. Abolition recognizes that America’s current system of policing is not broken – it is working exactly as it was designed to. And this is exactly the reason why it must be abolished.
Since their inception, modern American police departments have used force to maintain the status quo and keep those in power in place. By the end of the 19th century, newly-formed police forces forcibly quelled labor strikes that threatened the political and financial elite’s hold on the working class in the northern United States. In the South, police forces began as slave patrol forces that tracked down runaways. After the Civil War, these same police forces enforced Jim Crow laws and supported white supremacists during riots such as the Tulsa Massacre. Racism that was overt in early American police forces continues today in more subtle but just as deadly ways. This racial undertone permeates nearly every part of the criminal legal system and is often overlooked and its significance underplayed, and is therefore implicitly endorsed by politicians and the American people.
Barriers to police reform and abolitionism
There are several significant challenges that must be confronted before significant changes can be made to American police forces. First, the “warrior mentality” must be eradicated from officer training. The idea that officers are in constant danger is ingrained in new recruits’ minds from their first day at the academy. New officers are taught that every interaction with every individual is a potential threat. Their number one priority is to get home safely, at whatever cost (a common phrase among police is that it is “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six”). This idea is enforced by showing a compilation of officers being beaten, disarmed, or shot. This indoctrination leads even the “good cops”' to believe that their safety is in constant danger.
Apart from the fact that police officers voluntarily sign up to work in a potentially dangerous career, as opposed to the civilians they shoot, the data does not support the idea that police officers are constantly one step away from dying. Over the past ten years, an average of 51 officers were feloniously killed per year in the line of duty. Over the same time period, an average of 57,000 officers were assaulted annually, although only 25% of those resulted in physical injuries. Given that police interact with civilians approximately 63 million times per year, officers are assaulted 0.9%, physically injured 0.2%, and killed 0.00008% of the time. Although the risk of physical harm as a police officer is certainly real, it is not nearly the clear and present danger that would legitimize a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality.
Second, the infamous “Blue Wall of Silence” largely prevents those who may be considered “good cops” from speaking out against injustice or misconduct by the department ostracizing, firing, or taking legal action against them. For example, in 2017, Sgt. Isaac Lambert of Chicago investigated a shooting of an unarmed teen with disabilities. When he refused to change the report to list the officer as the victim of the incident, instead of the perpetrator, the department sued him. Similarly, in 2016, Officer Stephen Mader of West Virginia responded to a call from Bethany Gilmer who said that her boyfriend, R.J. Williams, was threatening to harm himself. Gilmer informed both the 911 dispatcher and Mader when he arrived on-scene that Williams had a gun, but it was unloaded. Mader quickly saw that Williams was not a threat and began to deescalate the situation. When two other officers arrived on scene, they almost immediately shot Williams, killing him. When they inspected Williams’s gun, they found it to be unloaded as Gilmer said. However, instead of disciplining the officers who shot Williams, the department fired Mader. The Blue Wall of Silence perpetuates the toxic culture of “shoot first, ask questions later,” and ultimately punishes those who enter the force intending to serve and protect every part of the community.
Additionally, police unions make it nearly impossible to adequately reform departments or discipline officers. Unions routinely protect officers charged with misconduct through collective bargaining rights, essentially allowing officers to use excessive force with impunity. Police unions also lobby states to adopt laws reflecting the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR). The LEOBR guarantees due process rights beyond those granted to civilians, such as requiring that officers only be questioned for a “reasonable” length of time, typically only during business hours, and allowing officers 10 days to “cool off” before they are required to make any statements about the incident for which they are being investigated. Similar rights and privileges are written into officers’ union contracts in states that do not have a LEOBR codified. Furthermore, unions are instrumental in keeping officers accused of misconduct or brutality from being removed from the force. An all-too-common example of this is Hector Jimenez of the Oakland Police Department. Jimenez shot and killed two unarmed men within a period of seven months. After the police department fired him, Jimenez appealed with the help of his union. Jimenez was not only reinstated, but was also awarded back pay for the time he was fired.
Finally, victims of police brutality often want to pursue civil legal action for money damages. However, qualified immunity makes suing an officer nearly impossible by protecting officers from lawsuits alleging that they violated a person’s rights. The Supreme Court explained in Pearson v. Callahan that an officer may only be sued if the victim can show that the officer violated a constitutional or statutory right that was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged misconduct. Instead of interpreting this rule as putting officers on notice of civilians’ rights officers must be aware of, lower courts have applied it very formalistically. Courts rely exclusively on case law that existed at the time of the alleged misconduct to determine whether the officer’s actions violated a “clearly established” right. In practice, this means that a victim cannot sue a police officer unless someone else had previously brought suit on an identical issue. In a world where almost every situation is different, this leaves victims with essentially no civil legal recourse.
As long as the footprint of the police is present, the flaws in the system will continue
Although the road to dismantling police forces as they exist today is paved with numerous daunting obstacles, abolition is the most likely way to eradicate police brutality at its root. Since their inception, police departments and unions have reinforced power structures that maintain the status quo. Reform and defunding alone cannot undo a system that is working exactly as it was designed to. The goal of police abolition is not to abandon communities to violence and anarchy, but rather to address the underlying causes of violent crime such that policing becomes obsolete. Cities must be thoughtful when implementing new approaches to emergency response and community safety to avoid perpetuating systemic racism in a new form. However, the potential for mistakes should not deter cities and states from trying new approaches. Although the task of tearing down a system we often take for granted as normal and rebuilding it from the ground up is daunting, this level of complete transformation is required if we truly aim to end police brutality in America.
 2017 FBI data reports 61.6% of murders and nonnegligent manslaughters, 34.5% of rapes, 29.7% of robberies, and 53.3% of aggravated assaults were cleared by arrest or exceptional means.