After years of police brutality and the tumultuous protests of the summer of 2020, one sentiment echoed through the young, liberal population: something must be done about the police. Although most liberals have attempted to reform the police, agreeing that something has to change, tiny modifications are not enough. Communities are suffering. Police brutality, limited resources, and politicians who care solely about profit and upholding the carceral status quo are killing people. Not just any people––overwhelmingly Black, Brown, and/or poor people are affected. These communities are often overpoliced and underfunded in all aspects except for their police forces. Reform is not enough. We must abolish the police.
Won’t crime go up? Who will protect us?
For the 2023 fiscal year, the DC budget approved a whopping $526.1 million dollars for the Metropolitan Police Department, which is double the budget given to economic development, an agenda providing funding for affordable housing, workforce development, and economic planning. Our council’s spending habits manifest very clearly in our city. Despite MPD’s budget being almost identical to the ones before it, our violent crime rate has increased. Homicides and gun violence are increasing, and our police, despite having an extravagant budget, don’t do anything to combat rising chaos. Police often show up after crimes to take notes and write a report, barely doing anything else. FBI data shows that in two thirds of reported rape cases, police don’t make any arrests, which is also true for half of reported aggravated assaults.
Not only do police not prevent crime, but they often are the crime. One third of all homicides committed by strangers are committed by the police, and the top complaints against the police in the US are excessive force and sexual misconduct. 40% of police are reported for abuse against their spouse and/or children. Police don’t keep us safe; they make us less so.
However, what does make us safe is more resources. Crime is concentrated in historically disenfranchised low-income neighborhoods with few resources. Crime rates drop when these communities have food, stable housing, employment, and health and well-being services. The money we would’ve used to fund the police would not just go away; it would be used to fund these services and help communities in need, preventing crime from the onset. All crime has a root, and if we can solve the problem at its root by providing services and support for those who need it most, we can stop crimes before they even happen. As for the crime that does happen, we can make police extraneous by sending healthcare professionals, EMTs, de-escalators, social workers, and more in their place during emergencies. To quote Mariame Kaba, an abolitionist organizer: “We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.” By taking funding away from the police and giving it back to communities, the need for police will slowly wither away. Our communities will be stronger, happier, healthier, and safer.
What will happen to criminals?
Abolition doesn’t just involve the police, but also the abolition of prisons. What do we do with criminals? Many people believe that abolition lets criminals “walk free,” which is untrue. Abolition simply offers a better alternative to the inhumane treatment and cruelty that happens in prisons. 25% of women’s prison populations and 10% of men’s are assaulted while incarcerated. Within three years of their release, two out of three former prisoners are rearrested, and more than 50% are re-incarcerated. Incarceration strips people of their communities, their resources, and their lives, and when they are released, they are often forced into a life of crime in an effort to stay afloat. The prison system doesn’t stop violence. It simply centralizes it, feeding the cycle while targeting the most vulnerable––the Black, Brown, queer, trans, and poor.
In place of prisons, those who commit crimes should be given humanity and rehabilitation: long-term centers where they can receive the help they need while being unable to hurt anyone else in the process. Therapy, resources, and community support are all things that can be funded with prison abolition. Abolitionists dream of a world where dignity and care are valued over punishment and control. To get to that world, we must abolish prisons and the police.
Why can’t we just reform the police?
We already tried that, and it hasn’t worked.
Modern-day policing at its root is racist and violent. We can trace back the idea of policing in America to slave patrols, a system created with the very intention to terrorize and violently brutalize any slaves who dared to rebel against their masters. After the Civil War, slave patrols turned into militia-style groups, which inspired the creation of the police we see today. Policing has historically been a way for those in power to threaten others and maintain their authority, which will remain true if we keep enabling our notion of “public safety” by tying it to the police.
In 2015, the Obama Administration’s President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing resulted in more training, more feedback sessions, and more money given to the police. What came out of it? Police killings actually increased after this task force made its tweaks. Even a member of the task force, Tracy Meares, admitted that “policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed.” When most people say “why don’t we just do XYZ about the police?” they are suggesting a complete transformation, something that no longer resembles the original idea of police. How much can you reform something before it’s actually considered abolition and the rebuilding of something new?
I’m arguing against “reformist reforms,” reforms that enforce and strengthen the harmful systems at hand. This includes giving the police more money for training or more hires. However, that doesn’t mean we have to abandon the idea of reform completely. Non-reformist reforms, such as gradually taking money from the police or cutting police force numbers, are all things that we consider on the path to abolition. There are alternatives to getting rid of the police overnight. Reform and abolition can coexist and help each other on our path to a better world.
So, how do I get involved in abolishing the police?
Number one rule: don’t call the police. More often than not, police are not necessary for a situation and actually escalate it. When faced with a situation that requires de-escalation and/or intervention instead of violence, consider calling a number from this list of community resources: https://dontcallthepolice.com/washington-d-c/. Doing this could save and change a life.
Most importantly, there is power in numbers! We cannot abolish the police alone, and we must work together. Joining a group or coalition of people who are actively working to abolish the police is one of the easiest pathways to getting involved. Multiple groups in DC are working to defund and eventually abolish DC’s MPD, mostly found in the Defund MPD Coalition. Where you plug in depends on what side of abolishing the police you’re interested in, as abolition is an intersectional and multi-faceted issue. Below are some different types of groups that all relate back to abolition in DC that you can get involved in:
Abolishing the police is environmental justice (https://www.defundmpd.org/why-defund-articles/environment):
The Sunrise Movement DC, the Palm Collective, and ShutDown DC.
Abolishing the police is housing justice (https://www.defundmpd.org/why-defund-articles/housing):
The FairBudget Coalition, Washington Lawyers’ Committee, and the Cancel Rent Coalition.
Abolishing the police is relevant to the decriminalization of drugs (https://www.defundmpd.org/why-defund-articles/decriminalizing-drugs): HIPS, the Drugs Policy Alliance, and SSDP.
Abolishing the police is vital to labor justice, class liberation, and food security (https://www.defundmpd.org/why-defund-articles/food-justice):
Metro DC DSA, Working Families Party DC, Heal Da Homies, and Food Not Bombs DC.
Of course, abolishing the police is racial justice. Some groups organizing around Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian liberation, along with abolition, are Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, the Palm Collective, BLM DC, Occupation Free DC, Justice for Muslims Collective, Anakbayan DC, Sanctuary DMV, and many many more.
(This list is obviously not exhaustive and does not include all of the groups doing amazing work for the DMV community.)