Monday Morning Thoughts: A Look at What Police Abolition Could Look Like


By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

People hear terms like “defund the police” “abolish the police” “disband the police” and most have an immediately thought that is likely a misconception of the concept.

I definitely tend to come down on the side of reform rather than abolition of police.  As I have written, I would like to take a very deep dive there however, to the point where I would contemplate completing changing how we police and who polices.

But I am also open to ideas, and I caught a clip of Derecka Purnell, author of “Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests and the Pursuit of Freedom.”  She was recently interviewed on the Daily Show – it’s worth a watch.

As the host pointed out – I think very correctly, “If you even suggest a criticism of the police… especially in America, you are seen as somebody who hates all police, you’re seen as somebody who loves crime, you’re seen as somebody who just doesn’t believe in a functioning society.”

Purnell pointed out it depends on who she talks to, but she gets the question – what about murders, the rapists, “will I be safe?”

“I’m usually in conversation with people who are most vulnerable to violence from their loves, their neighbors, strangers, cops,” she said.  “So then I ask them with a million cops right now, do you feel safe?”

“Usually their answer is no,” she said.

Right now for many – they don’t have anything and as Purnell explained police at least feel like something.

But what she then said is that abolition is “not merely the absence of police” instead she argued, “it’s eliminating the root causes of harm and it’s eliminating the kind of society that could rely on police to solve that harm.  Because you know that police can’t solve it.”

“That’s sort of where I start,” she explained.

She also asked key questions: “why do people kill people?  Why do people commit sexual violence?”

She argued, “Because sending police to go and arrest someone who’s a murderer, it doesn’t prevent the murder.”

She further argued, “It’s not as if police are standing out in front of their houses every night, protecting them from the bullets that entered their windows. That’s not what police can do.”

Instead, she argues, “Police can go get the person who may have killed them, but that doesn’t save lives.”

Now I think she misses what most people would consider two functions of police – (1) that their presence may not stop all murders but their absence would likely lead to more murders.  (2) They may not stop person A from killing person B, but they can – if they catch person A, they potentially prevent them from killing person C.

Now where I thought she would go – where I would have gone is that police actually don’t do a great job of catching Person A in the first place.  About half the murders go unsolved.  That’s an astonishing failure rate.  So they may not be deterring the killing in the first place and they are certainly not stopping the person before they kill person C – if they ever would have (most people are not killing randomly in that manner and most murders are probably a one-off).

Where she did go is on solid ground though.

“We actually know what eliminates and prevents murders, right. Which is a strong economy, jobs, healthcare, education, being connected as a part of a community where there’s accountability,” she said.

All of this of course is a long term goal that a lot of people will support, but changing society and changing mentality is not going to happen overnight.

Purnell acknowledges that.

“There’s no way abolition is going to happen overnight,” she said.  “There are one million cops.  There are 2300 jails and prisons.  There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies.  America loves cops.”

“What’s so sad is that cops don’t have an answer for every single scenario,” she said.  “But who is funded?  Police.”

She said, if police are the answer, “Why isn’t all of these ills of society decreasing?”

As the host pointed out: “fundamentally what you’re saying is Americans need to think about solving the cause instead of only treating the symptoms.”

I think Derecka Purnell makes an important argument that we need to look at the cause of these problems.  We know pretty much the root causes for crime.  It starts with poverty and especially concentrated poverty which puts pressures on individuals, families and communities.

If you want to lower someone’s chances for committing crimes – get them an education and a job.

Beneath that however, we need to deal with personal layers of trauma – abuse, neglect, trauma, and the accompanying mental health disorders and substance abuse.

Where I think people like Purnell have a point is we will pay $85,000 a year to lock someone in a cage, but we whine every time we talk about funding these programs.  We argue that these programs doesn’t work, but incarceration doesn’t work, 70 percent of people locked up will commit another crime precisely because we have not dealt with the underlying problems.

But our answer to that – hey, let’s incarcerate more.  We could lock people up indefinitely which is what we started doing in the 80s and 90s and the problem is the bills climb and there are better ways to actually address the problem.

So I think she is right there.  That said, we will always have a need for some sort of law enforcement in this country.

Other countries do not have near the crime problem that we do – but every society has police.  Where I have seen other abolitionists go is looking toward different structures for protecting public safety.  I could go for that.

As I have said before I don’t think the police we have are particularly effective at preventing crime, they are not very good at solving crime, and they are exceedingly bad at working on other social issues like mental health disorders and homelessness.

I think we can and should do better.  That’s where I would go with this.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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5 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: A Look at What Police Abolition Could Look Like”

  1. Edgar Wai

    A task-base system is different structure for public safety.

    Unlike an employment system that hires full time officers, a task-based system pays for anyone who fulfills a public safety task as an issues happen.

    Patrol: replaced by public surveillance that a public citizen may log on and watch for/flag suspicious activity. People may write their own AI to flag or help others investigate. (People are paid for identifying suspects and making tools for doing so.)

    License plate check: publicly available function. (People are paid for catching error and violations) Privacy: the system does not force anyone to give information, but it helps people look up public records.

    Intercepting a crime in progress/preventing a crime predicted to happen/wellfare check: replaced by a flare system that alerts those who signed up as responders. (Responders get paid for responding.) Requesting a bodyguard is free to the person getting one. The guard is credited by the system.

    Dispatcher: replaced by a decentralized and public flare system. Operators sign up for timeslots and get paid for being on-call and for responding to calls.

    Training: trainer is paid for number of trainees that contribute to the system.

    Investigation: replaced by independent/competing task forces (for each crime to be investigated, multiple teams may sign up to investigate)

    Weapon credits: a person earns weapon credits for having a record of doing protection tasks. The credits let them carry/operate higher power weapons (which are kept at certified secure armories) appropriate for a situation.  People can see how those people earn their higher power weapon licenses.

    Payment: based on a person’s participation record, the person gets a tallyed, untransferable credit. That credit is used for resolving priorities, and can be cashed out as monetary payment. (A person can earn sponsor credits by donating to those who want to cash out their credits). Unused credits are colloquially referred to as honor. The amount of public safety credits a person earned and the amount unused are part of their public record. (The system uses that record to recognize people who are just helping people for free.)

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