You abolish it.”
Thus writes Mychal Denzel Smith, echoing James Baldwin’s anguish some 50 years ago.((“Abolish the Police. Instead, Let’s Have Full Social, Economic, and Political Equality,” The Nation, 4/9/201 5, available at: https://www.thenation.com/article/abolish-police-instead-lets-have-full-social-economic-and-political-equality/. The quote from Smith follows one from Baldwin, also published in The Nation (1966).)) Both write out of the same frustrations that drive #BlackLivesMatter and the recent Millions March occupation of (New York) City Hall Park.(( Nick Pinto, “Protesters Say They Will Occupy City Hall Park Until the NYPD Is No More,” Village Voice, 8/1/2016, available at: http://www.villagevoice.com/news/protesters-say-they-will-occupy-city-hall-park-until-the-nypd-is-no-more-8929182.)) The motivation is understandable, and there may be some media value in the radicalism of its demand, but the proposal is deeply flawed.
Let’s ignore for the moment the unlikelihood that monies saved as a result of defunding police would be directed to economic and social equality. Politics never works as simply as that, and the present contours of institutions such as policing can’t be neatly isolated from larger social structures and sensibilities. Without for a moment denying that there is a problem with current policing institutions, or that we should seek to address the problem directly, our predicament runs much deeper – a society that is fueled by various ‘us’s and ‘them’s that scar our common humanity over generations of change. Political power is almost always contoured to preserve or advance the purposes of those in power,((In a well-ordered democracy, that may not seem so problematic, but as the present political season has shown again, the forces of distortion are powerfully arrayed.)) and black Americans have rarely had much access to it or access in ways that have yielded more than incremental benefits. When they have benefited, their best ally has been the courts, though the courts too, as recent years have shown, are subject to political winds. In many ways policing reflects the scars of our history, and responses to the excesses of policing need to be coordinated with other social changes.((See my blog piece, “To Protect and Serve: What is Wrong With the Policing of Minorities in the US?” The Critique, 5/24/2016, available at: http://www.thecritique.com/articles/to-protect-serve-what-is-wrong-with-the-policing-of-minorities-in-the-u-s/.)) Diversion of funds to greater economic and social equality need not await the defunding of policing institutions. Funding might just as easily be found in changes to banking regulations, the tax structure, military spending, or a host of other social arrangements. The project for major social change needs more and broader momentum than it presently has.
But this is not all that is wrong with the current proposal. Claiming that the core function of policing is “the control and elimination of black people,” even with its broadening qualification, is straight out ideology and bears little connection with reality. To the extent that it is taken at face value, it has been incredibly inefficient. As a social strategy, Hitler’s failed “final solution” was far better conceived.
It would of course be tunnel-visioned to deny that policing institutions in the US have helped to maintain a discriminatory status quo. African-Americans are frequently treated with much less respect than others (even, alas, by black cops((Charles M. Blow, “Officer’s Race Matters Less than You Think,” New York Times, 3/26/2015, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/opinion/charles-blow-officer-race-matters-less-than-you-think.html.))), but the fact that there are vastly more whites in prison than blacks, albeit disproportionately fewer, should at least point to the overreaching of talk about policing’s “core function.” Smith refers to the criminological claim that only 10% of policing is directed to crimefighting but mistakenly concludes that the other 90% is given over to broken-windows-type activities. But that figure (which is reflected in policing in communities that are not as racially riven as the US) misidentifies the 90%. Traffic and crowd control, paper work, and a host of “service” activities account for much of that 90%, not picking on blacks.((For some data, see Tom Whitehead, “Police spending half their time away from front line as paperwork increases,” The Telegraph, 8/14/2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/5751247/Police-spending-half-their-time-away-from-front-line-as-paperwork-increases.html. The article is based on: http://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/media/valuing-the-police-policing-in-an-age-of-austerity-20100720.pdf.)) Let’s not deny the excesses of stop and frisk in New York, profiling in Chicago, the pressures of quota-based policing, or the many other ways in which blacks come to be treated discriminatorily. Nor should we fail to criticize the ways in which so-called “broken-windows” policing has often been interpreted as zero-tolerance policing. But excesses and corruptions of purpose are usually better arguments for reform than abolition. The disillusionment with reformist efforts is understandable if you have failed to benefit from them, but radical disillusionment no less than reformist confidence can go astray.
In fact the advocates of abolition fail to acknowledge the extent to which the policing of black communities acts as a curb on black-on-black crime, for that, alas, is the statistical reality of street crime. Proportionately – albeit not in aggregate – blacks are more likely to be victims of black crime. Whatever one might argue about excessive police presence in black communities, that presence generally reflects the distribution of criminal activity (at least of the street kind) within a community.((It is troubling to me – though no surprise – that white collar crime gets less attention than street crime, though the problems of enforcement are correspondingly greater in the case of the former.)) No doubt, given social realities, that presence will be tainted in various ways. But the excesses highlighted by #BlackLivesMatter need to be set beside the crime-fighting benefits of police presence. The withdrawal (or chilling) of that presence was tragically apparent in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray protests. Crime skyrocketed in West Baltimore within largely black communities.((See Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “West Baltimore’s Police Presence Drops, and Murders Soar,” New York Times, 6/12/2015, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/13/us/after-freddie-gray-death-west-baltimores-police-presence-drops-and-murders-soar.html.)) True, the sudden withdrawal of police from a community is no solution in the absence of other efforts to restore ravaged communities. And the so-called “Ferguson Effect” is a conservative construct that has minimal empirical support.((We need better, not less policing. The so-called Ferguson Effect (popularized by conservative commentator, Heather MacDonald), works with a simplistic equation of “less policing (of the kind we are used to)” = more crime, where the former is characterized as the “demonization” of police: “The New Nationwide Crime Wave,” Wall Street Journal, 5/29/2015. At best it shows that police have been ill-prepared for the greater accountability demanded by #BlackLivesMatter.)) But advocates of police defunding have to offer more than broad calls for greater economic and social equality. Such initiatives, worthy though they are, take considerable time to implement and bear fruit, and, like most social initiatives, are likely to be imperfectly realized. If a realistic occasion for abolition is ever to arise, it lies well into the future.
There is little doubt that a significant amount of crime is associated with economic and social deprivation. Low crime countries are generally countries with good social safety nets, greater social equality, accessible education, and adequate employment opportunities. There is room for the US to do vastly better than it does. But any solution to the status quo – in the US as elsewhere – is not resolvable into the ravages of discrimination. The focus on street crime and other crimes that might be associated with deprivation can blind us to the extent to which white collar and other crimes are found among the privileged – often crimes whose effects are even more socially devastating than the overt violence of street crime.((Ironically the fear of white collar crime is not as palpable as that of street crime.)) Any community that seeks to order its affairs will need its police.
The present day protesters have a legitimate gripe – police departments that manifest the dangers of unaccounted power and the failings of the dominant social order. Their concern with the rift between community and police is a legitimate one. But it would be unfortunate were the reasonable demand for better policing undermined by the unreasonable demand for abolition. There are many realistic ways to improve the policing we have – first of all, an acknowledgement that police authority is borrowed, and that police are there to serve their communities. The accountability, transparency, and cooperation that this service implies would go a long way to calling into question much of what is presently configured adversarially – militarization, zero tolerance, resistance to challenge, denigration, and a need to control rather than problem-solve.
Some departments may require more radical overhauls, like the Northern Irish police, which needed a major reconstruction following the years of unrest. That is sometimes the function of consent decrees that are reached between the Department of Justice and particular cities((Consent decrees are essentially oversight “agreements” resulting from an outside review of a department with significant systemic failings. Those relating to Cleveland and Ferguson can be found at: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2087050-doj-cleveland-police-consent-decree.html and https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/833431/download. Consent decrees with Chicago and Baltimore police can be expected following recent reviews. See: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-chicago-police-federal-civil-rights-investigation-20160807-story.html and http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/09/us/document-Baltimore-P-D-Findings-Report-FINAL.html.)) – so that we can hope for better or more from Ferguson, Cleveland, Chicago and Baltimore. And perhaps there is a need for radical changes in the NYPD beyond those that have been achieved through recent court cases (especially relating to stop-and-frisk). Body cameras – with the timely release of tapes – have represented a step forward, and we can hope that an audio function will soon become available. But those who argue for more radical solutions are in danger of creating space for seven devils rushing in to occupy the gap created by driving out one.