Once a radical idea, “abolish the police” has now taken root in some corners of the real world. CNN is running “special reports” on the idea; the Minneapolis city council voted in favor of dismantling its current force; the city’s mayor was booed off the stage at a protest when he opposed the idea; and of course in Seattle, reports show a Gotham-esque Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone playing out––not in a comic book, but in major American city.
One glaring problem is that nobody is sure what all this means or what comes next.
The “abolish the police” movement has a couple different sides, and although they both contain serious flaws, the movement does offer some worthy policy ideas and, most importantly, draws our attention to the need for police reform.
Proponents give two different definitions for abolition, sometimes simultaneously. The first is obvious: abolition means uprooting the institution of law enforcement altogether. Abolitionists claim they can prevent crime by addressing causes like poverty, mental health, addiction, and trauma. They claim that “order can be maintained without the intervention of an armed representative of the government and that justice can be accomplished without punishment,” which is not just “an ineffective way to reduce violence; it is illegitimate.”
Polling suggests this idea is doomed. Although approval ratings for the police have declined, overwhelming majorities of Americans of all ethnicities have favorable views of the police and want to increase police presence in high-crime areas rather than abolition police forces altogether.
Accommodating this reality, many police abolitionists, when pressed, will admit the need for some police-like organization to combat and deter acts of violence. Thus, a second, softer, more popular version of "abolition" is to simply reimagine the institution of police, restricting traditional law enforcement functions to a much narrower scope of practice and reallocating taxpayer dollars saved to social programs.
The “defund” movement similarly suffers a messaging problem, with some advocates adopting a literal position of zeroing out traditional law enforcement budgets for a “police-free future.” Others, alternatively, call for “significant, permanent reductions to existing policing and carceral infrastructures” and an increase in funding for various social services. Definitional ambiguity aside, it has had real world impacts already: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has tabled a proposed police budget increase, and in New York, Bill de Blasio—under pressure from current and former staffers—has called for shifting funding from police to agencies serving youth and low-income residents.
Still, even the more practical side of this movement faces larger public opinion challenges. Not only do African Americans (who undoubtedly face discrimination from some police practices) generally oppose cuts to police budgets, but those who feel they’ve been treated unfairly by the police are even more likely to favor an increased police presence. What’s more, there’s pretty good evidence that hiring more (good) cops does reduce crime.
It’s easy to dismiss this movement as extremist and unrealistic, but it’s necessary to understand this increasingly popular proposal, whatever form it takes. While it’s true that black communities are less than enthusiastic about cuts to law enforcement budgets, it’s also true that these same communities feel both overpoliced for minor crimes and underpoliced for serious ones. Public order offenses like turnstile jumping, loitering, or public drunkenness call forth an overwhelming police response, but closure rates for major crimes like murder, rape, and serious property crime are shockingly low in big cities.
This dynamic may explain the appeal of abolition, even to some people who live in high crime areas. If police harass you for low-level infractions and aren’t solving murder cases anyway, it’s not a huge leap to say, “Out with them all.” Still, there’s no guarantee that cutting funding will fix this distortion; it may well make it worse. Who’s to say cuts wouldn’t just incentivize departments to crack down on lower-level offenses and collect fines or ramp up asset forfeiture efforts to make up for lost revenues?
The better option is to focus on smart, incentive-based proposals that could push departments to reprioritize the kinds of crime they combat, and various accountability measures to reduce the number of violence-prone officers on the beat.
Abolitionists claim popular reform proposals haven’t worked. This is untrue, but one could be forgiven for believing them, as most proposals never make it past the stiff resistance of the public-sector unions representing police departments. The abolition (or defund) movement nonetheless offers some worthy policy ideas. The movement has highlighted the low-level, quality-of-life offenses that make up more than 10 million annual arrests, while arrests for violent crimes comprise a small fraction of the total. Indeed, as an exhausted Dallas police chief lamented, we ask too much of police officers, expecting them to be the vanguard of a litany of social ills—from mental health breakdowns, to homelessness and drug abuse. Policymakers can address overcriminalization by reducing the number of arrestable offenses and deploy more mental health professionals and social workers as first responders.
Americans must also address the causes of violent crime, as the defund movements seeks to do, rather than letting people who commit violent acts rot in cells, only to be more prone to crime when they reenter society. Programs like CURE Violence and policies aimed at rehabilitating those who have committed violence must be part of criminal-justice reform.
The killing of George Floyd has understandably prompted demands for swift, large-scale change. Policymakers have a rare opportunity to reform an institution historically resistant to change. Many experts agree on a number of solutions to restore broken trust between police and communities. Abolition isn’t and shouldn’t be one of them.