A dangerous new idea is inspiring some criminal-justice activists.
The latest call to action from some criminal-justice activists: “Abolish the police.” From the streets of Chicago to the city council of Seattle, and in the pages of academic journals ranging from the Cardozo Law Review to the Harvard Law Review and of mainstream publications from the Boston Review to Rolling Stone, advocates and activists are building a case not just to reform policing—viewed as an oppressive, violent, and racist institution—but to do away with it altogether. When I first heard this slogan, I assumed that it was a figure of speech, used to legitimize more expansive criminal-justice reform. But after reading the academic and activist literature, I realized that “abolish the police” is a concrete policy goal. The abolitionists want to dismantle municipal police departments and see “police officers disappearing from the streets.”
One might dismiss such proclamations as part of a fringe movement, but advocates of these radical views are gaining political momentum in numerous cities. In Seattle, socialist city council candidate Shaun Scott, who ran on a “police abolition” platform, came within 1,386 votes of winning elected office. During his campaign, he argued that the city must “[disinvest] from the police state” and “build towards a world where nobody is criminalized for being poor.” At a debate hosted by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Scott blasted “so-called officers” for their “deep and entrenched institutional ties to racism” that produced an “apparatus of overaggressive and racist policing that has emerged to steer many black and brown bodies back into, in essence, a form of slavery.” Another Seattle police abolitionist, Kirsten Harris-Talley, served briefly as an appointed city councilwoman. Both Scott and Harris-Talley enjoy broad support from the city’s progressive establishment.
What would abolishing police mean as a practical policy matter? Nothing very practical. In The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith argues that police should be replaced by “full social, economic, and political equality.” Harris-Talley, meantime, has traced policing’s origins back to slavery. “How do you reform an institution that from its inception was made to control, maim, condemn, and kill people?” she asks. “Reform it back to what?” If cities can eliminate poverty through affordable housing and “investing in community,” she believes, the police will become unnecessary. Others argue that cities must simply “help people resolve conflicts through peace circles and restorative justice programs.”
Police abolitionists believe that they stand at the vanguard of a new idea, but this strain of thought dates to the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that stripping away the corruptions of civilization would liberate the goodness of man. What police abolitionists fail to acknowledge is the problem of evil. No matter how many “restorative” programs it administers, even a benevolent centralized state cannot extinguish the risks of illness, violence, and disorder. Contrary to the utopian vision of Rousseau and his intellectual descendants, chaos is not freedom; order is not slavery. In the modern world, civilization cannot be rolled back without dire consequences.
If anything like police abolition ever occurred, it’s easy to predict what would happen next. In the subsequent vacuum of physical power, wealthy neighborhoods would deploy private police forces, and poor neighborhoods would organize around criminal gangs—deepening structural inequalities and harming the very people that the police abolitionists say they want to help. Even Scott, when pressed by a local journalist about how he would respond to a shooting in his district, conceded that “we live in a world where it’s not possible to turn anywhere for help on big questions like this but to the police force.”
Reform the police? Sure. Abolish them? Never.
First Published in City Journal on December 26th, 2019.