Let's Talk About Abolishing the Police

Forget reform. It’s time to start working toward abolition, because I honestly believe it’s the only solution to police brutality.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Apr 16 2021

15 mins read

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I am tired.

 

In the past few weeks, U.S. police have killed at least six children and young men, most of them Black or otherwise racialized: Adam Toledo (13), Peyton Ham (16), Iremamber Sykap (16),  Travon Chadwell (18), Daunte Wright (20) and Anthony Alvarez (22). Last weekend, footage of Virginia police pepper-spraying Afro-Latinx US Army Medical Corps lieutenant Caron Nazario during a December 2020 traffic stop went viral. On Tuesday, we found out that Rusten Sheskey, the Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer who shot Jacob Blake in the back, was “cleared of breaking any internal policies, and has been back on duty after months of administrative leave since March 31,” according to USA Today. And Ontario’s police watchdog recently decided not to press charges against Peel Regional Police officers in two separate “officer-involved killings”—that of 62-year-old Ejaz Choudry and 30-year-old Clive Mensah, both racialized men who had schizophrenia.

Despite our protests and IG posts and attempts to spread awareness, police never actually stopped killing people, especially Black people. But this week feels particularly exhausting, in the same way that week at the end of May 2020 felt, when George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Tony McDade's deaths and Christian Cooper’s Central Park run-in went viral. Now, like then, one particularly horrifying incident has captured the world’s attention, and is making it easier for other instances of police brutality to gain international attention.

 

This time, it was 20-year-old Daunte Wright’s death at the hands of Kim Potter, a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Police Department in Brooklyn Centre, Minnesota. She pulled him over because he had air fresheners dangling from his rear view mirror (according to his mother, Katie, who he called when he was pulled over) or because there was a problem with his registration tags (according to the police department). According to the New York Times, “in a brief clip of body camera video, officers from the Brooklyn Center Police Department can be seen trying to handcuff [Wright] before he suddenly lurches back into his car. One of the officers aims a weapon at Mr. Wright and shouts, ‘Taser! Taser! Taser!’ She fires one round, and Mr. Wright groans in pain.”  

Brooklyn Center is a suburb of Minneapolis; Wright was killed within miles of the street where Derek Chauvin killed Floyd, and the courtroom where he’s currently standing trial for second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. On Sunday evening, protestors held a rally where photographer Joanie Shafer pointed out that both Wright and Floyd had called out for their mothers, Wright on the phone when he was pulled over, and Floyd as he lay dying. But they also have a real-life connection—Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, was the dean of Edison High School when Wright was a student there. Nazario is also Eric Garner's cousin. Or go back further: Fred Hampton’s mother babysat Emmett Till. For Black people, the connections to victims of police brutality feel real because they ARE real. And frankly, that’s how we should all be feeling. Those young men should feel like our nephews, our little brothers, our friends. We should be mourning with their families and feeling disbelief at how callously they were killed—even if they were killed while breaking the law, because last time I checked, police officers are not meant to be judge, jury and executioner, they’re meant to arrest Black and brown people as easily and non-violently as they do white mass murderers.

So, I don’t have a celebrity take this week, nor do I have any new thoughts about police brutality and racist violence. Everything I thought last week, last month, last year—it all still applies. (Except for some vocabulary updates.)

 

What I do have is… research.

 

It feels very clear to me that abolition is the solution America—and Canada—needs. I'm guessing if you're reading this, you likely feel the same (though there are good reasons here, here, here and here if you're not sure yet). So, what I spent my time researching this week was how to show other people that this is true, because while the idea became mainstream after Floyd’s death last year, it’s doesn’t yet have widespread support. A July 2020 Gallup poll found that, while 58% of Americans say policing needs major changes, only 15% want actual abolition, and a March 2021 Ipsos/USA Today poll found only 22% of Americans support defunding the police, abolition's less radical counterpart. The numbers are a bit better in Canada, at least when it comes to defunding—which is an excellent first step, I think. A July 2020 Ipsos poll found 51% of Canadians support defunding the police, with millennials and Gen Zers showing the most support (77% and 63% respectively) and Canadians 55 and older showing the least. To me, that sounds like an opportunity for us to talk to our family and friends about the source of their resistance, which likely comes from misunderstandings about what abolition means, what policing accomplishes (and doesn’t) and/or what a police-free future could look like. Here are stats, background information and talking points that I hope will help.

 

“So, you want to live in a lawless land?!”


Uh… no, ma’am. I want to live in a land where laws are applied equally and actually work to make all citizens safer.

Listen, I get why the words “abolishing the police” sound scary. However, the truth is that abolition is a complex process, not an invitation for our cities to devolve into anarchy. As activist Mariame Kaba explained in a New York Times op-ed last summer, wanting to dismantle policing (and the entire prison-industrial complex) doesn’t mean “abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.” Alex S. Vitale, author of The End of Policing, expands on that idea. “I'm certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police,” he told NPR last June. “What I'm talking about is the systematic questioning of the specific roles that police currently undertake and attempting to develop evidence-based alternatives so that we can dial back our reliance on them. And my feeling is that this encompasses actually the vast majority of what police do. We have better alternatives for them.”

 

“Who will protect us from crime?”

 

I do think some of this anti-abolition attitude stems from the flawed notion that we have just always had police, but that’s not true. The first modern police force in the U.K. was created in Glasgow in 1800. “Night watches” were established in American colonies as far back as the 1600s, but the first police department in the United States wasn’t established until 1838 in Boston. That’s not even 200 years ago—a tiny fraction of the time human beings have lived in societies.

 

What’s more, police were never that interested in crime-fighting as much as they were keeping order—which is not the same thing. In southern, slave-holding states, policing naturally evolved from slave patrols, but even in northern states, “the first police forces were overwhelmingly white, male and more focused on responding to disorder than crime,” according to Connie Hassett-Walker, an assistant professor of justice studies and sociology at Norwich University who wrote a June 2020 essay on the topic for The Conversation. Hassett-Walker went on to reference Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Gary Potter, explaining that those early “officers were expected to control a ‘dangerous underclass’ that included African Americans, immigrants and the poor. Through the early 20th century, there were few standards for hiring or training officers.”

 

So maybe it’s not a surprise that police spend a shockingly small amount of their time addressing crime today, too. As Josie Duffy Rice wrote in Vanity Fair’s September 2020 issue, “the New York Times culled available data and estimated that police spend roughly 4% of their time addressing ‘violent crime.’ And yet no matter the call—the loud party next door, the permit for a parade, the expired car tags, the escort for a funeral procession, the elderly welfare check, the frolickers barbecuing in the park, the schoolyard fight, the opioid overdose, the homeless person outside in the cold, the stray dog—the state’s answer is to respond with armed agents blessed with the near unimpeachable right to kill.”

And even when they are addressing crime, they don't need to actually know the law. As Vox explains, in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "police officers can pull someone over without a legitimate legal justification as long as they reasonably misunderstand the law to allow the stop... which effectively lets cops pull people over for just about any reason—as long as they reasonably claim ignorance of the law."

 

“You’re just talking about a few bad apples.”

I’m really not. White supremacy is rampant throughout police forces in North America. Earlier this year, Alain Babineau, a social justice advocate and former police officer with the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP, wrote an op-ed for CBC explaining that systemic racism is pervasive in Canadian policing. “Because these beliefs and philosophies have shaped the policies and practices in policing, even I, a Black cop, can act in a racist way — and I did,” he says, before going on to recall his experience of being racially profiled while applying for a job with the RCMP, white officers who cheerfully recounted racist stereotypes to his face and stories of other Black men who experienced racial profiling.

 

Babineau says racism exists in policing because racism exists in the world and police forces are just microcosms of wider society, but sometimes it’s a bit more blatant than that. In 2006, the FBI released a bulletin calling attention to the “threat of white nationalists and skinheads infiltrating police in order to disrupt investigations against fellow members and recruit other supremacists,” according to a 2016 PBS article by Kenya Downs. “The bulletin was released during a period of scandal for many law enforcement agencies throughout the country, including a neo-Nazi gang formed by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who harassed black and Latino communities. Similar investigations revealed officers and entire agencies with hate group ties in Illinois, Ohio and Texas.”

 

The problem has only gotten worse since then. Last summer, Huffington Post journalists Jesselyn Cook and Nick Robins-Early reported on police-owned and -operated media outlets and message boards where far-right conspiracy theories, hysterical posts about antifa and violently racist language fester. For the record, those attitudes don’t just stay online. They shape the ways police interact with the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting and serving (though American police have not had a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm since 2005) and inspire them to take to the streets themselves—so it should surprise exactly no one that some of the extremists who attended the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol were also active-duty police officers.

 

“What about domestic violence? What about rape?”

 

Police are usually not that helpful in cases of gender-based violence, tbh, whether it’s physical or sexual in nature. “The fact is that the police never investigate most sexual violence, because most sexual violence goes unreported,” Guardian columnist Moira Donegan explained last year. “According to the Rape and Incest National Network, or Rainn, a little less than 25% of sexual assaults are reported to police, significantly less than other violent crimes. The reasons are myriad, but an often cited one is distrust and fear of the police.” RAINN says arrests are only made in 4.6% of sexual assault cases, and less than 1% get prosecuted. And for those 1% of cases that go to trial, conviction rates are low, partially because police mishandle cases, sometimes due to incompetence, sometimes due to what Donegan characterizes as “duplicity.”

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 She cites a 2018 study of Austin, Texas’s police department, which found officers “could not read lab reports on DNA evidence and often lacked an understanding of basic female anatomy.” Worse, “one study of the New York police department discovered it was knowingly undercounting rapes in its public figures, using a deliberately strict definition of rape in order to shrink the number of reported rapes in New York. An inquiry into the NYPD found its special victims division to be grossly dysfunctional, with officers instructed to ‘simply not investigate’ misdemeanor sexual assault cases.”

 

And don’t forget that police themselves can also be the perpetrators of rape and gender-based violence. Between 2003 and 2015, U.S. police officers were charged with forcible rape 405 times. Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer who was convicted of eighteen counts of rape, sexual battery and forcible oral sodomy involving eight different women in 2015, is perhaps the most high-profile example of a police rapist, but he’s clearly far from the only one. Meanwhile, within the families of law-enforcement officers, rates of gender-based violence are between two and four times higher than in the general population.

 

“Police need funding to do their jobs!”

 

Nope. First of all, according to a Brookings Institute blog post by Rashawn Ray, higher budgets don't lead to safer cities. “A study using 60 years of data found that an increase in funding for police did not significantly relate to a decrease in crime,” he writes. “Throwing more police on the street to solve a structural problem is one of the reasons why people are protesting in the streets.”

Furthermore, police have LOTS of money already—though some cities have frozen budgets amid calls to defund the police. The Toronto Police Service’s 2021 operating budget is $1.076 billion, a 0% increase over 2020 and a 3.9%, or $40 million, increase over 2019. Vancouver’s 2021 operating budget is $340 million—the same as its 2020 budget, but still 21% of the city’s total operating budget and 15% more than its 2019 budget of $294 million. Some cities are spending more, though; in Montreal, the police budget for 2021 is $679 million, which amounts to 18% of the city’s total budget—and 2.2% (or nearly $15 million) more than it received in 2020.

The numbers are even more jarring in the U.S. For the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the LAPD’s budget was $3.14 billion, which, as GQ reported last year, was the single-biggest line item in the city’s $10.5 billion budget. As for the NYPD, “which has the largest budget for any police department in the country,” writer Luke Darby goes on to say, “mayor Bill de Blasio [called] to reduce the NYPD's budget by $23.8 million—a step in the right direction, but only 0.4 percent of the department's $5 billion budget.”

 

Even with all that money, police really don’t solve that many crimes. Ray cites data that shows “approximately 38% of murders, 66% of rapes, 70% of robberies, and 47% of aggravated assaults go uncleared every year.” (“Clearing” a crime means police have arrested someone and turned them over to the prosecution. But they don't have to actually be found guilty, and when we also take into consideration the well-documented racial biases among police officers, it's easy to see that "clearing" doesn’t mean the crime has actually been solved.)

 

Interestingly, crime rates have fallen drastically since the 90s in Canada, the U.S. and other industrialized countries—but in America, so have the number of cops, which means there isn’t really a correlation between more cops and safer cities. In fact, no one's really sure how to explain the so-called crime drop, but it's likely policing only played a small role.

 

“Okay, policing is broken—but can’t we just reform it?”

 

We tried that. It didn’t work.

 

As Kaba argued in her NYT op-ed, activists have been calling for reforms for decades, to little avail. (She cites the 1894 Lexow Committee, the 1931 Wickersham Commission and the 1967 Kerner Commission.) More recently, some forces have instituted some reforms, including body cameras, implicit bias training, hiring more racialized officers and arresting the odd killer cop. But as Kaba points out, "Minneapolis had instituted many of these ‘best practices’ but failed to remove Derek Chauvin from the force despite 17 misconduct complaints over nearly two decades, culminating in the entire world watching as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.”

Not that we actually needed to use Chauvin as an example; we already had plenty of data to show body cameras do not meaningfully affect police behaviour. Implicit bias training doesn’t either.

 

“This won’t work either.”

 

Okay… but what if it does?

And Did You Hear About…

 

Elizabeth Gulino’s thoughtful Refinery29 article about Colton Underwood’s coming out, and why we can both celebrate him living his truth and hold him accountable for past abusive behaviour.

 

The abuse allegations against Chet Hanks.

 

This Atavist longread about two Newfoundland men who found out they had been switched at birth as adults.

 

Scaachi Koul’s super smart look at the cruelty of early aughts gossip culture, and how two of its biggest names—Perez Hilton and Lainey Gossip—are making amends now.

 

Every single one of the skits on this Instagram account.

 

P.S., feedback and corrections are very welcome! Send me a note at stacy@fridaythings.com.

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