Care not cops
The announcement that the City Council had voted to disband Minneapolis’ police department came after nearly two weeks of protest, triggered by the killing of 46-year-old black man George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin. The collective grief and rage against racism and police brutality spread across the US and the world.
For Jae Hyun Shim, an organizer with Reclaim the Block, it was a ‘culture shifting’ moment. The group has been pushing for several years for money to be moved from the police department into areas of the city’s budget that promote community health and safety. ‘We have worked really hard to try and remedy some of the trauma that we have been seeing.’ Shim lists some of the people who have been killed by police in the city: Jamar Clark in 2015; Philando Castile in 2016; Justine Damond in 2017; Travis Jordan in 2018, shot during what was meant to be a mental-health check.
The Minneapolis Council announcement, combined with calls from protesters across the world to ‘defund the police’, sparked much debate. Was it a realistic ambition?
The drive to defund police has a history in a wider abolition movement, with the prison-industrial-complex in its sights. The vision is for a society reorganized away from using incarceration and punitive violence to address social, economic and political problems, while building alternatives for the long-term.
Governments have ploughed money into the police, prisons and surveillance, but problems like drug addiction, rape, violence and murder are far from eradicated. Sectors concerned with care, education and preserving life have seen cuts in funding and increased privatization, with the result that social problems, including drug use and mental-health crises, have been turned over to the police.
As the state defunds care and infrastructure, policing further penetrates into areas of social life such as schools and hospitals.
For example, in the US, 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counsellors and 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses. School-based police officers are now more common in Britain too, disproportionately placed in schools with a high proportion of students who are working class and/or are people of colour. A survey carried out by Kids of Colour and the Northern Police Monitoring Project in Manchester found that two in five young people attend or have attended a school with a ‘regular police presence’ and that this created a ‘climate of fear, anxiety and hostility’.
Expanding police presence in schools increases children’s contact with police and the likelihood that ‘discipline’ issues will be turned over to the criminal justice system, thus fuelling the school-to-prison pipeline. Over 60 per cent of prisoners in England and Wales were at some point suspended or temporarily excluded from school and over 40 per cent permanently.
‘Everyone assumes that the more cops you have and the more prisons you build, the safer everybody is. That couldn’t be further from the truth,’ says Adam Elliott-Cooper, a researcher at the University of Greenwich. As prison populations have risen, ordinary people have not become safer.
In late 2014 and early 2015, New York got a taste of the effect reducing policing could have. For several weeks the NYPD held a ‘slowdown’ protest following the indictment of officers involved in the killing of Eric Garner – a black man who died in a police chokehold. Work was kept to a minimum and ‘proactive’ policing cut back completely. Researchers estimated that overall the slowdown resulted in about 2,100 fewer major crime complaints.
‘If we want to think about what police abolition might look like all we need to do is go to a wealthy suburb where police are not patrolling or harassing people at all,’ says Elliott-Cooper. ‘What does that wealthy suburb have? Everyone there has got good access to healthcare, people have generally got good access to mental-health provision, a well-remunerated secure job, good access to education.’
There can still be issues in wealthy areas, including domestic violence and mental-health crises, but the lack of contact with the criminal justice system and the meeting of basic health and safety needs are key. ‘People in wealthy suburbs can take all the drugs they want and it’s fine,’ Elliott-Cooper points out.
Back in Minneapolis, Shim underlines that the millions poured into policing do not stop murder and rape happening, sometimes with the police as the perpetrators. One study identified over 400 charges of rape by police officers in the US from 2005-11.
Abolition as construction
Reforming the police is not the answer. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, millions have been spent on trying to retrain police and tackle institutional racism. For abolitionists, reform just gives police more resources while painting a friendlier face over the harm they cause.
The movement to defund police is not calling for the elimination of police forces overnight but for a process, working towards a world where they do not exist. This can start with reducing budgets, taking police off incidents involving substance abuse, homelessness or mental health, removing police from schools and hospitals, and decriminalizing nonviolent activities such as drug use and sex work.
Abolition is also a construction project. Investment could instead be in housing, health services, women’s refuges and domestic violence support, sex and relationship education, treating drug addiction; support for mental health, community-level trauma, childcare, public transport and so on.
But just increasing existing services will not do the job, if deeply seeded racism is not tackled and alternative ways of dealing with problems are not developed that are community appropriate and challenge existing inequalities.
There are many examples from across the world of community-based transformative justice, violence intervention and crisis support.
One community-based initiative that has had success in Minneapolis is Group Violence Intervention, working with gang members and people at risk of being involved in gun violence. It fields calls for advice and support, provides one-on-one mentorship and responds to gang-related shootings. The initiative has been successful in de-escalating tension between groups without involving the police and has contributed towards a significant decrease in gang-related shootings.
It remains to be seen whether the police department in Minneapolis will actually be dismantled. Some council members have since dampened down their support and city residents would need to approve through a vote. But what has happened there has given hope that dismantling police departments is more than a dream of utopian radicals.
‘Movements to abolish police and prisons are a vision for the future – a vision of a world we want to live in,’ says Elliott-Cooper.
A world that’s safer for everyone.