Why #abolishthepolice doesn’t actually mean abolishing the police

The slogans “abolish the police” and “defund the police” are a common sight at demonstrations against police brutality and racism. Jacob Frey, the earnestly liberal mayor of Minneapolis, was mau-maued out of a protest when he wouldn’t commit to police abolition. Even in Truro, Nova Scotia, this past weekend’s march had people carrying a large “abolish the police” banner at the front.

Are people actually proposing to get rid of police altogether, or reduce police departments’ budgets to zero? Law professor Christy E. Lopez says no – at least not any time soon:

To fix policing, we must first recognize how much we have come to over-rely on law enforcement. We turn to the police in situations where years of experience and common sense tell us that their involvement is unnecessary, and can make things worse. We ask police to take accident reports, respond to people who have overdosed and arrest, rather than cite, people who might have intentionally or not passed a counterfeit $20 bill. We call police to roust homeless people from corners and doorsteps, resolve verbal squabbles between family members and strangers alike, and arrest children for behavior that once would have been handled as a school disciplinary issue.

Police themselves often complain about having to “do too much,” including handling social problems for which they are ill-equipped. Some have been vocal about the need to decriminalize social problems and take police out of the equation. It is clear that we must reimagine the role they play in public safety.

Defunding and abolition probably mean something different from what you are thinking. For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.

The word “abolition” is used explicitly to highlight the comparison with slavery, according to Lopez:

Police abolition means reducing, with the vision of eventually eliminating, our reliance on policing to secure our public safety. It means recognizing that criminalizing addiction and poverty, making 10 million arrests per year and mass incarceration have not provided the public safety we want and never will. The “abolition” language is important because it reminds us that policing has been the primary vehicle for using violence to perpetuate the unjustified white control over the bodies and lives of black people that has been with us since slavery. That aspect of policing must be literally abolished.

I’ve seen many of my Facebook friends (and even some of my Facebook enemies) freaking out about the Minneapolis City Council’s proposal to disband the troubled Minneapolis police department. In practice, I suspect this is not about recreating The Purge, but about dismantling the current department and rebuilding a new one in its place, a plan undertaken with some notable success in Camden, New Jersey.

Honestly, I think many of these suggested reforms are long overdue, and agree that American and Canadian cities are using police to perform functions they really weren’t designed for.

I just wish they’d use another hashtag. As Matt Lewis points out in his latest email newsletter, it doesn’t make any sense to choose a slogan that specifically makes it look like you’re promoting an unpopular fringe idea, especially when that’s not even your actual goal.

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