An Introduction to Police Abolition

Photo by Brandon Soderberg

Like the conversation surrounding reparations, the idea of abolishing the police has shifted in recent years from something (wrongfully) viewed as radical to the kind of an idea many are trying to get a handle on in clear, pragmatic ways: Do we rely too much on police? Is there actually a correlation between police presence and crime reduction? What would it look like to no longer have the police? And here in Baltimore, amid plenty of police corruption, shouts of “abolish the police” went from being something chanted at protests during the Baltimore Uprising to something that was nearly mainstreamed amid the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) scandal which revealed seven police officers robbing people, dealing drugs, and planting guns and during the GTTF trial, where more than a dozen other officers were implicated. To get a better sense of what police abolition means and what it looks like, I spoke to abolitionist and restorative practices specialist Bilphena Yahwon.

Lisa Snowden-McCray: Before we discuss police abolition, you recommended starting first by just defining “abolition.” Can you define abolition? 

Bilphena Yahwon: Tanuja Jagernauth provides a very clear and simplified definition of abolition: “Abolition is emptying cages and shutting down prisons, dismantling the systems that created them, and creating community-based processes for preventing, intervening in, transforming, and repairing after harm..” Abolitionists understand that the prison system and justice system as we know it was created to supplement for the “end” of slavery. Prisons are where unthinkable violence are allowed to thrive and they very much so resemble plantations (Angola prison in Louisiana sits on what used to be a plantation and is where the Angola Three spent the longest time in solitary confinement in U.S. history). There is a reason why the 13th Amendment deemed slavery unconstitutional with the exception of slavery as punishment for a crime. There is a reason why prison walls are bursting with black folks. Abolitionists question how we can truly receive justice and accountability from such a system. 

LSM: And it police who are putting people in prisons—especially black people. So to get rid of on we must get rid of the other?

If we understand that the justice system was created to funnel black folks in prison for economic gain (carceral capitalism), then we know that police officers are the suppliers of the people. About $80 billion is spent each year on correctional facilities with the intention of receiving that profit back. Policing is the engine behind the justice system and ensures that prisons are filled with labourers and will therefore produce profit. Police officers are charged with enforcing the laws and are able to make their own interpretations of what is legal and illegal. They get to decide who will enter into the justice system and who will not (the decriminalization of opioids is an example of this). The documentary “Crime + Punishment” on Hulu examines police quotas and how despite quotas in New York policing being banned in 2010, officers are still expected to make a certain amount of arrests. In the documentary one officer says that he was explicitly told to “arrest black males between the ages of 14 and 21” and faced consequences for refusing to do so. 

We also cannot ignore the roots of policing. Policing as an institution in U.S. comes out of slave patrols who were tasked with catching runaway enslaved people and preventing rebellions. If we know that the justice system cannot provide real justice and accountability then we know that policing cannot provide real safety because it is inherently anti-black. Michael Brown taught us this. Aiyana Jones taught us this. Atatiana Jefferson taught us this. Prison is modern day slavery and police officers are modern day slave patrols. This why the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had armed panther patrols—it was a response to police brutality. 

LSM: What are some common misconceptions about police abolition? 

BY: The biggest misconception is that the absence of policing as we know it is the absence of safety.  A lot of people think that police abolition means letting “rapists, murders and pedophiles run free”—as if the very same police officers we place our trust in aren’t the murders and rapists we claim to be ridding our communities of. According to the National Center for Women and Policing, 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence in contrast to 10 percent of families in the general population. There are numerous cases of police officers killing their wives. We also know that sexual assault runs rampant within policing and Black women and sex workers are particularly vulnerable. Daniel Holtzclaw who was convicted in 2015 of raping multiple women over a period of six months is just one example. We also can easily look at the GTTF (Gun Trace Task Force) Trial in Baltimore to see how officers used their badge to aid gangs, participate in drug trafficking rings, plant drugs and weapons, steal money from homes and even carried out robberies. GTTF was able to thrive for years and without any consequences. 

Is this the policing we are so invested in? Are these the people who are supposed to keep us safe? Furthermore, most police officers are not even from the communities that they police and therefore lack awareness of the culture of the people they serve. In Baltimore in 2010, about 3 in 4 police officers did not live in the city. White people make up 28% of the population in Baltimore city but make up 45% of Baltimore city’s police force.

LSM: Are there any places in the U.S. or in the world living successfully without police? Where?

BY: I think it’s important to understand that the purpose of policing varies from country to country. There is a reason why year after year the U.S. has the great honor of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. This is not to say that violence and corruption does not exist in other country’s police forces, but the militarization of U.S. policing allows it to function in a different—a way that has influenced other countries as well. While there are sovereign states who do not have armed forces or policing as an institution, I do not know of any western country that is without police. This is proof of the globalization of policing. Even with police, there are countries who have disarmed policing. This includes Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Britain, and Ireland. 

LSM: After the death of Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman in Texas who was shot by a police officer, I saw some people saying that you shouldn’t call the police for wellness checks for folks (as Jefferson’s neighbor did). Can you talk a little bit about alternatives people could go to in that specific situation?

BY: Atatiana Jefferson is an example of how strong communities can often provide the needs that we look to policing for. If her neighbor had a relationship with Atatiana built in trust, he would have been more likely to check on her himself rather than calling the police. And if he himself didn’t feel comfortable, he would have been able to reach out to another neighbor to do so. I don’t think people understand how fairly new of a thing the U.S. police force is. The first organized police force with full time officers was created in Boston in 1838. People calling police for noise complaints, parking issues and welfare checks wasn’t always the norm and is why community associations exist. 

LSM: How might for example, a community association go about differently than a neighbor calling the police?

BY: Mariame Kaba shared on Twitter recently how she was able to create a system within a neighborhood she lived in that decreased calls to police through community building. Through community meetings, they created a group of neighbors to create an apartment complex phone tree. Issues were resolved and folks were able to receive assistance through this system. What Mariame did in her community is another example of how community associations can serve to address issues people may be inclined to call the cops for. 

LSM: So what can you someone living in a neighborhood, the individual do to decrease the need to call the police?

BY: There are a number of ways to imagine a neighborhood operating without police and I’ll list a few.

-Get to know your neighbors and discuss community safety that begins with redefining crime and is honest about how black neighbors are criminalized. 

-Create a safety plan with neighbors that maximizes the area of expertise of those within the community.  Is there a social worker who can be a first responder if necessary? Is there a nurse or doctor who can be called? Is there someone trained in CPR? Someone who knows how to administer opioid overdose reversal drugs? Etc. Police officers are not trained in trauma informed care and can often escalate and agitate those in distress. Neighbors can have the relationship and tools needed to de-escalate incidents better than officers.  

-Implement a restorative justice based approach to address crime and conflicts in your neighborhood. Restorative Response Baltimore offers RJ based processes to communities for free. 

-Create an alternative to calling the police list that can be shared throughout your community. Include resources for domestic violence, suicide prevention, homeless shelters, rehabs etc. 

The May Day Collective and Solidarity & Defense produced a joint zine called “12 Things to do Instead of Calling the Cops” that provides more alternatives.

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