Police Abolition: A Reasonable Idea

On its face, police abolition sounds crazy.


After all, we need police, they help protect us from crime! Their presence in the community helps prevent crimes actively and passively, and they work to solve crimes and catch criminals after they are committed. Well, the problem is that none of that is actually true. The vision of cops that is presented in the media and the reality of their existence in the world could not be more different.

In the abstract, the idea of a police force makes perfect sense. There are criminals out there, and the threat of armed officers roaming around on the lookout would discourage them from committing crimes. But this whole notion is mistaken in the first place, the idea that there are just random “criminals” running around, unmotivated by anything but their love for disorder. Of course, some people are just gonna be bad actors, but there are better ways of dealing with them.

Besides, the point here is not to get into the weeds of philosophizing, for once. Part of the appeal of leftist politics, to me, is the focus on reality, on actual, material conditions, as opposed to pontificating endlessly about big capital-noun concepts like Justice and Honor. In the course of my training in philosophy, one thing I definitely learned is that you can basically tell a story and make an argument for any old bullshit. Rhetoric is a skill that is separate from and often perpendicular to finding the truth.

The fact of the matter is that police do not have a legal duty to serve or protect. They lie in court all the time. They kill with impunity. They terrorize and make perpetual war on the communities they are ostensibly meant to serve. They are nothing more than a gang of petty tyrants making everyone’s lives worse.

Think of it this way: if your house was robbed, and you called the cops, what would you expect them to do? Would you expect some sort of television fantasy where they come in and examine the crime scene closely and use all sorts of clever tricks to find the perpetrators? In reality, they would come and get a list of what was stolen, look around a little, and say “sorry, nothing we can do”. Their purpose is to give you a report you can send to an insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance.

Or, maybe they’ll be in a bad mood, and come in hot. Beat you up and arrest you, kill your dog, maybe just shoot you dead right there, because they “feel threatened.” A cop who feels threatened can get away with basically anything. Even if it’s caught on camera, from multiple angles, showing them killing in cold blood, a jury will believe them at their word that they feared for their life, and let them go free, with back pay.

The legal excuses and wide latitude offered police officers by the legal system has been a slow-motion disaster for many decades now. They have no legal duty to protect anyone. They can kill in response to any feeling of threat, from anyone, at any time. For the most part, they don’t live in the communities they patrol. They lie in open court all the time, and even have a cute nickname for it.

As I read about the disbelief expressed by some prosecutors… I thought of Claude Rains’s classic response, in Casablanca on being told there was gambling in Rick’s place: “I’m shocked—shocked.” For anyone who has practiced criminal law in the state or Federal courts, the disclosures about rampant police perjury cannot possibly come as a surprise. “Testilying”—as the police call it—has long been an open secret among prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges.

Note, I am not even getting into the recent events that have exposed the horrific things cops do when dealing with protestors. From attacking businesses and their own cars to demonize political demonstrators to simply brutalizing them for no reason, to just attacking random passersby because they can, the abuses have been eye-opening for many. I must admit, I myself was pretty skeptical about police abolition until these events forced me to think about things more actively.

What the response to the George Floyd protests has revealed is that the cops just want to impose power. Here where I live in Seattle, the mayor lifted the curfew, and ordered the police not to attack protestors. The result? A completely peaceful protest, late into the night. The center of culture in our city was turned into a war zone for several days, and it was all the doing of overzealous cops.

When you stack all these things up, they add up to one idea: what do we even need cops for?

Okay, so, maybe the cops are bad, sometimes. So what’s the alternative?

Well, you just have to think about these issues from a different angle. What do we want the cops to do? What is their necessary function? How should these things actually be done?

In most cases, social workers would be more effective than cops. People who are actually trained to do the things we want cops to do for us. To deal with the root causes of problems rather than just cracking a few skulls. Sure, they may be some need for a limited number of armed representatives of the state to come in and deal with especially bad situations, but they should be the exception, not the norm.

We don’t need people wandering around with guns and the legal right to kill on a whim. It is absolutely possible to get the benefits that we already have from police without having the downsides. The status quo is not the law of the universe. The whole concept of police is only around 200 years old!

I’m not even going to get into the whole thing about police culture and the concept behind them being inherently racist and based on colonial violence. That’s not my lane, so to speak, but let me just say: it’s a thing, and you should look into it. Just another reason to throw onto the stack, this whole thing sucks and we should stop doing it.

This is the main hump that many people still have to get over, I think. The notion that something that has been part of society for so long could just… change. We could just stop having police in the way that we do. Change is possible, and necessary. It will be tricky to figure out, it will take a lot of debate back and forth, but merely being open to the idea is a huge step forward.

What you should always remember, though, is to keep your eyes open. Pay attention to the world as it is, not as you are told that it is by Big Thinkers. At the end of the day, all the philosophy in the world isn’t worth a hill of beans compared to the material conditions out there in the world.

Justice is not an abstract, impossible concept, it is a real thing. If a system is corrupt, but it’s been around for a long time, it should still be destroyed.

People who defend cops love to bring out the ol’ “a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch” line. Which is laughably wrong in just about every way. The few good cops who stand up and try to stop corruption and abuse end up getting ostracized and attacked by their fellow officers. The only good cop is an ex cop.

But also, it brings to mind a story from my own life.

When I was a kid, we had an apple tree in our backyard. It would produce tons and tons of apples, leaving them all over the lawn. Most of them were bad, full of worms or already rotting when they fell from the tree. Sometimes, my parents would try to weed out the small handful of good apples and use them to make a pie or some other delicious dessert. But for the most part, they were just a huge pain to deal with.

My brother and I had to go and pick up all those rotten apples for years and years. Bending over in the hot summer sun, filling dozens of plastic barrels with awful, rotten apples. They were endless. It was a perpetual problem, but the tree was part of the landscape. It had been there since before we moved into the house. It was easy to climb, and we built a treehouse up in its branches. It was troublesome, but we worked around it as best we could.

Finally, after many years, my dad got fed up. This was after I was a teenager, and no longer climbing in the tree or using the old treehouse. He called a landscaping company and had them cut down the tree. They found it was literally rotten to the core. Infested with insects and fungus, hollow in the center, slowly rotting from the inside out.

Still, the stump was a problem. It sat there, stinking, being in the way of the lawnmower, slowly rotting in the lawn, killing the grass around it. One summer, there was construction going on in the lot behind ours, so my dad paid the guy using a small excavator to come over and rip the stump up from the ground. It poured out a huge amount of fetid water from its hollow shell, and was finally gone for good. The lawn grew back, and we could finally forget about that horrible old apple tree.

So let this be the lesson: Bad apples not only ruin the bushel, they indicate a bad tree. And a bad tree can only be dealt with by ripping it out of the ground down to its roots. Otherwise you will continue to be plagued with bad apples for as long as you live.

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