There’s been a lot of talk recently about de-militarizing the police. That’s good, and a lot of the ideas for reform are steps in the right direction. However, what these proposals often forget is that the only way to truly de-militarize an occupying force is to remove them altogether. Our conversation about de-militarizing the police needs to become a conversation about abolishing the police.
At least 400 people a year – though likely a lot more – are killed by police, and plenty beyond that face violence that is life-threatening, even if not life-ending. Certainly, part of the problem has to do with particular cops who are especially bad, and part of it has to do with a toxic culture of police solidarity. More fundamentally, though, police lawlessness is just the inevitable result of the structural factors at play.
Police are different from the rest of us in that they’re officially placed above the law. There are certain things that they can do that ordinary citizens can’t, and when they do things that even they’re not supposed to do, they’re given a lot of leeway. As in, the paid-leave-for-brutalizing-innocent-people kind of leeway. Which is exactly what we should expect from a legal monopoly that ultimately answers only to themselves.
Of course, that’s just if we focus on the ways cops can use force deemed even too excessive for their job descriptions. Even when they strictly obey lawful orders, though, it’s still pretty bad. The classic argument against standing armies is just as strong against a standing police force. It puts a ready weapon in the hands of every politician who wants to wage war on the public. Just by doing their jobs as foot soldiers in wars on drugs, guns, prostitution, and other victimless crimes, police throw increasing numbers of people into cages.
Many people will admit that the police are a serious and imminent threat to us all, but insist they’re a necessary part of keeping us safe from private criminals. Buried in that judgment is likely an assumption that criminologist Marcus Felson calls the “cops and courts fallacy,” the idea that cops are the key actors in crime prevention. As he reminds us, “crime comes first, and then the justice system follows.” Police work is reactive, not proactive, and Felson reports that cops are only present for less than 1% of crimes.
As for how to prevent crime without the police, there’s no more a single answer to this question that there is to “how do we make food without the government owning all the farms?” Protection associations, private security agencies, and similar organizations are all a part of the answer. The important difference between these groups and the police is that they’re completely legally equal to the rest of us, which makes them accountable in ways the police can never be.
Moving beyond organizations specifically created for the purpose of defense, there are countless other ways to reduce aggression. Home security systems, widespread firearm ownership, and community networks like those outlined in Rose City Copwatch’s “Alternatives to the Police” pamphlet are just a few of the more obvious examples. By eliminating the police, we would also help to eliminate the legal barriers trapping people in structural poverty, and thereby remove one of crime’s root causes.
All of which reveals us yet another way that the police put us in danger: because they exist as a legal monopoly, cops crowd out alternative methods of preventing crime.
Unfortunately, though, we probably won’t be seeing any police abolition ballot initiatives any time soon. So a more fruitful strategy for getting rid of the cops is to abolish them from our daily lives.
One of the things this involves is a fundamental shift in the way we respond to interpersonal conflict. Unless you have no other options, and you (or someone else) would otherwise be in serious personal danger, do not call the police. If your neighbors are making too much noise, go over and actually talk to them.
When police are present, you should make an effort to watch them, and if possible, film them. Groups like the Peaceful Streets Project help make police less likely to engage in overt brutality, and provide immediate evidence when they actually do.
Another way to help erase the thin blue line is by providing methods for circumventing their authority. One of the more famous examples of this in recent years was Silk Road, which helped people exchange illegal goods with a fair amount of safety. Other crypto-anarchist projects like Dark Wallet also provide useful tools for subverting unjust laws.
The least you can do is to start being open and honest about what needs to be done about the police. They are an instrument of repression, and cannot be tamed. We not only can live without them, but need to, given the danger they represent to the public.