Edit 2020-06-01: Check out Samuel Sinyangwe for more information on what actually does work when it comes to reducing police violence.
I, like many others, have been absolutely heartbroken this week after seeing a black man murdered in broad daylight by uniformed police offers, yet again.
For obvious reasons, lots of folks are talking about the role of police in our society. In conversations with friends, when I propose the idea of abolishing the police (or at least dramatically reducing their funding) I’m often met with expressions of dismay — where some people can’t imagine a world without police. They often respond “but who would you call if something bad happens?”. Even outside of the fact that the police have almost exclusively operated in the service of protecting the property of wealthy white people to the detriment of everyone else, it seems that a lot of people vastly over-estimate both the effectiveness of the police and their net impact on society.
Below, I’m going to present some facts that I believe are important to keep in mind when we talk about our policy options regarding policing — I really don’t think “abolish police” should be taken off the table so quickly.
- The police kill a lot of people
- One-third of all Americans killed by strangers are killed by police [Source: Granta]. You are much, much more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a serial killer.
- The police don’t actually solve that many crimes.
- The police (probably) commit a lot of crimes (and are very rarely punished for it)
- Families of police officers experience domestic abuse 2 to 4 times more frequently than the general population. [Source: The Atlantic]
- There are no good sources of data on rates of corruption or of crimes committed by police officers — those crimes are likely not to be reported, the perpetrators are unlikely to be arrested, and they’re even less likely to be convicted. The “brotherhood” of police officers allows for lots of bad behavior to go unpunished that the general public never hears about.
The need for dramatic police reform in the United States is pressing and paramount and many years overdue.
I believe that better training and better hiring practices will never be enough to carve out the rot from a fundamentally broken policing system. We need to put on the table policy options that involve dramatically reducing the size and scope of police forces as we know them today and shift budget and funding to community-oriented programs that address issues of poverty and family instability.
There likely is a role for a police-like force helping to prevent crime in our communities, but the police as they exist in the United States today are so broken that I’m skeptical we can ever get to the right type of policing without ripping the whole system out and starting fresh.