Problems with policing in the United States are real, but fantastic ideas like abolishing police will make everyone less safe.
In the wake of protests and unrest over the death of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality, activists, pundits, and politicians have floated various ideas to curb violent or potentially violent interactions with police, many of which are, for lack of a better term, unrealistic. De-funding police, abolishing police departments, and not arresting nonviolent offenders are among the most wild suggestions. The predictable consequences of these ideas would be much higher crime rates, unsafe neighborhoods, vigilante justice, or a proliferation of private security firms only accountable to their employers.
When I was running for mayor of Rockford, Illinois, I advocated a return to community-oriented policing, and I think that combined with better and more frequent training and demilitarization can solve a lot of the issues with police brutality. Rockford was a large Midwestern city struggling with a post-industrial environment. It had a high crime rate. Gang violence, robbery, and drug trafficking were common. Relations between police and the local community, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, were strained. An incident in 2009 in which a police officer shot and killed a young black man named Mark Anthony Barmore in the basement of a church further eroded relations.
I haven’t lived in Rockford for several years, so maybe things have changed, but back then the mayor would play lip service to community policing every once in a while and bicycle patrols would appear downtown for a few weeks. It was kind of like playing whack-a-mole. By focusing on one area, it was difficult to respond to crime in other areas. Rockford’s problem was not too many police, but too few. It was impossible for its centralized police force to effectively cover such a large area. Response times to a call could be as long as 40 minutes.
Under actual community policing, a dedicated team of police officers focuses on one geographic area, patrolling on foot, bicycle, or even horseback, getting to know people who live in the neighborhood, learning their particular problems, and working with community members and neighborhood watch groups to solve those problems. That’s how policing was done before cars and modern communications distanced police officers from the people they policed.
There exists today an “adversarial” attitude in many places between police officers and community members, because the only interaction anyone ever has with an on-duty police officer is when they are arresting someone or handing out tickets. Community members perceive police officers as intrusive outsiders. In Rockford, for example, most police officers didn’t even live in the city, and they weren’t allowed to drive their patrol cars to and from work (at least not when I was living there). This type of policing is simply responsive and does nothing to proactively reduce crime.
Militarization of police contributes to this alienation. There is no reason a typical civilian police department needs an armored personnel carrier. When I was in the Army, I rode in Humvees, MRAPs, and other tactical vehicles. Those vehicles are designed with small windows and thick armor to protect their occupants from improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, and military-grade weapons. I understand a need for these vehicles in certain specific situations (border protection, riots, etc), but generally it is unnecessary at best and, at worst, contributes to a dangerous perception that police officers are “at war” with the communities they are policing.
When I was a graduate student at Western Illinois University in Macomb, I witnessed the effects of this type of policing firsthand. In the spring of 2011, riot police in full tactical gear broke up a student block party on Wheeler Street using chemical irritants, pepper spray, batons, and a sound cannon. They sprayed students standing on their own porches with pepper spray. What caused the riot police to move in was a handful of students who started a fire at a stop sign. Local cops did nothing to stop it, but used the incident as a pretext to clear everyone off the street. Of course things escalated, with drunk kids throwing bottles at the police.
If police officers had simply intervened to stop the incident with the stop sign, everyone could have gone on partying without the situation devolving into a riot. But police had already decided they were going to use a show of force clear the street. The “West Central Illinois Mobile Field Force” didn’t show up in full tactical gear with a sound canon not expecting to use it. Why was any of that necessary for a student block party? Rather than ensuring everyone have a good time while keeping the peace, police made a conscious decision to escalate the situation far beyond the force required to deal with a couple rowdy twenty-somethings.
It wasn’t the presence of police that was the problem, it was their method of diffusing the situation that was the problem.
According to activist groups like A World Without Police, “Violence is built into the policeman’s role in modern society… The only way to stop the violence is to abolish the police, and transform the conditions that gave rise to them.” The website cites the statistic that 1,146 people were killed by police in 2015, but omits the fact that the overwhelming number of those people were armed or resisting arrest. The number of unarmed black males killed by police in 2015, according to the Washington Post, was 36 (94 total among all races). There were 15,696 murders and 1,197,704 total violent crimes in the United States in 2015. How many do you think there would be if we just got rid of every police department?
The solution seems simple. End police violence by ending police. But by “solving” one problem, you’re going to make another, larger problem significantly worse.
No one should live in an unsafe neighborhood or fear the threat of violence. Every law-abiding American, no matter what their background, should be able to walk the streets without fear of harassment by either cops or criminals. By transitioning to a community-oriented policing model, we can reduce violent encounters, be more proactive about preventing crime, and heal the social divisions caused by horrible incidents like the death of George Floyd and so many others.