US city blazes trail for a police-free future

Armed and dangerous: The US police kill over 1,000 people a year. © Reuters

Do we need the police? After the killing of George Floyd, the Minneapolis police department is to be abolished – and the world is debating whether society can function without police at all.

Abolish the police. A far-fetched, radical idea. A slogan on a Black Lives Matter placard. And, now, a reality in Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd died in police custody two weeks ago.

In an astonishing move, the city has voted to disband its own police department, saying it “is not keeping our communities safe”.

Campaigners are calling it a “landmark” decision that must lead to a “major global shift” away from an over-policed society to a police-free future. It sounds crazy, unthinkable, and possibly dangerous – but supporters say it is both sensible and urgently needed.

Most societies for most of history have existed without a police force. But, in the 1800s, people in rapidly growing cities worried about rising crime and civil unrest. Armies were expensive and unpopular, so pioneering reformers like Robert Peel set up professionally trained civilian officials to maintain law and order.

Peel said, “The police are the public” and not an occupying army, working by consent, and using force as a last resort. Lofty ideals, but they only tell half the story. The police’s role in slave patrols, strike breaking, and dispersing demonstrations gave them a reputation for protecting the powerful and harassing the powerless.

The early 19th-Century policemen were armed with a truncheon and a whistle, but critics say the 21st-Century cop is almost indistinguishable from a soldier.

Heavily armed and dangerous, they kill more than 1,000 people a year in the US. A disproportionate number of those killed are black, supporting the accusations of racism and the belief that the police make black lives less safe.

But what would a cop-free world look like? Sociologist Alex Vitale says people will have to take a more active role in resolving conflict in their communities. This is already happening in many cities around the world, like the Cure Violence team of ex-offenders patrolling Chicago’s streets and mediating face-to-face with violent gangs.

It would mean spending more money on social services and tackling many of the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour. Instead of always calling the police, people need counsellors for mental health and drug addiction experts for drug abuse.

A police-free world means legalising many non-violent activities and finding community alternatives to sending people to jail. It’s a radical vision of the future. But right now, in Minneapolis, it doesn’t look so far-fetched.

So, do we really need the police?

Thin blue line

Yes, the world would be a more dangerous place without the police. There are serious problems with modern law enforcement, but the principle is worth defending. If we don’t have a professional and accountable organisation in charge of keeping people safe, we will be at the mercy of criminal gangs and community vigilantes.

No, for many people, the police are the biggest gang in town and make people’s lives less safe. Money that could be spent on solving the serious issues facing poor communities is being wasted on militarising police forces. We should reduce their responsibilities and find other solutions to society’s problems.

You Decide

  1. Would you join the police?
  2. In what circumstances is it acceptable for the police to use force?

Activities

  1. Design a recruitment poster for a neighbourhood watch to replace the police in your area. What skills are you looking for and what rules must your recruits follow?
  2. Imagine a situation in your neighbourhood where someone might call the police. Instead they call you, the local mediator. Describe how you calm down the situation, bring people together and resolve the problem.

Some People Say...

“You were put here to protect us. But who protects us from you?”

Lawrence Parker (also known as KRS-One), US rapper and hip-hop artist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Modern policing is based on two philosophical ideas. Thomas Hobbes argued that humans are naturally violent and dangerous, and need to be governed by laws backed by force. Jeremy Bentham believed this could be done scientifically and rationally, with a professionally trained police force and prison system.
What do we not know?
We can ask whether Hobbes is right about human nature. If he was wrong, and humans are naturally peaceful and law-abiding, perhaps we don’t need a police force after all? Many anarchists and libertarians would agree. If Bentham is wrong, the police is not a fair and balanced tool of government, but a force that takes sides and protects some people and not others. Many anti-racist activists agree that this is the case.

Word Watch

Robert Peel
(1788–1850) Former British prime minister and home secretary. British police earned the nicknames “peelers” and “bobbies” after the father of modern policing.
Civilian officials
The police officer’s blue uniform was a deliberate choice to distinguish themselves from the red livery (uniform) worn by soldiers.
Lofty
In this case, important, noble, and admirable.
Slave patrols
In the US, early police forces were organised to catch runaway slaves from sugar and tobacco plantations.
Strike breaking
From the industrial revolution through to the present day, police have often played a controversial role in targeting striking workers and unions.
Heavily armed
Iceland, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, and the UK are the only countries in the world where the police do not normally carry guns. In the US, police departments spend hundreds of millions of dollars on military equipment.
Disproportionate number
A black man aged 15-19 in the US is 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than his white counterpart.
Alex Vitale
Professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, he argues that the police cannot be reformed.
Cure Violence
A project that treats violence like an infectious disease rather than a crime, and uses ex-offenders to “interrupt” street violence. The 2011 documentary The Interrupters follows their work in Chicago.
Alternatives
There are many examples around the world of restorative justice, such as post-conflict Northern Ireland and post-aparteid South Africa, where communities have sought to share blame and responsibility instead of punishing individuals.

Subjects

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