As protests and riots continue into their third week in the USA and continue in cities around the UK and in Europe, calls to defund, dismantle and even abolish the police force have gained increasing traction. Typically, Conservatives on each side of the Atlantic have either ridiculed or been heavily critical of this idea, whereas those who position themselves beyond the centre-left welcome the idea of police reform that goes as far abolishment of the current system.

To many in the USA, many see the police as an oppressive force as opposed to one that is to “protect and serve” the people living within the precinct or county; the police are there to enforce the law but they are no longer serving the community as a whole, just those of a certain socio-economic status or skin colour. The police response to the protests has only added to those viewpoints with the unprovoked assault of peaceful protestors, the wide use of tear gas (a weapon declared illegal in war) and the use of rubber bullets that have led to a number of people with permanent injuries like loss of sight.

Protests went global – including in Berlin (Source: ABC News)

The murder of George Floyd was just one example of where the police are failing the communities they are supposed to be protecting. The murder of Breonna Taylor is another, perhaps more despicable, example. Police stormed her apartment without knocking and shot her 8 times despite her being unarmed and having no link to any crime they were investigating. In the recently released police report of the incidence, Breonna Taylor was listed as a victim but with no injuries. To say the US police force needs reform would be a dramatic understatement.

This isn’t just a blog to bash the police force; their job is undoubtably challenging and in the majority of occasions they’re putting their lives on the line to ensure we stay safe. However there is undoubtably the need for reform.

Defunding the Police

If we start here, with the defunding of the police force, then we’re looking at reducing the budget of police forces and investing that money in other services that reduce the requirement for police and work more for the community over the long term. For example, in cases where mental health is involved, like the case of Charles Kinsey who was shot trying to calm a severely autistic patient down, mental health workers could be there to help de-escalate rather than a number of untrained police officers.

A city at the heart of the calls to defund the police is New York. The budget of the New York Police Department is $6billion. To put that in some sort of perspective, New York would rank just outside the Top 30 in country-wide defence spending if it were its own country. It’s also more than the city spends on health, homelessness, housing, youth and community development, and workforce investment combined. More effort is made on enforcing the law than building up communities and making New York a more socially sustainable city for all 8.4 million residents.

Spending that much money on the police is something I’d expect to see in an authoritarian state. The line between ‘protect and serve’ and control becomes very blurry with that amount of money pumped into the police force. It’s also a reactionary response to the issue of crime rather than addressing problems at their core. Without funds for community development, the conditions for crime to thrive will continue to exist and no amount of money will address that – unless the USA does become a completely authoritarian state…

Abolishing the Police

Abolishing the police goes a little further than defunding. Instead of just the removal of funds, police forces are dismantled over a period of time and, at least in this case, having a more community-based approach to policing. Community infrastructure like health and housing receives a greater amount of funding and police work actively with the community, helping to build trust. There would also be a greater level of accountability for those working within the new ‘police department’.

The lack of accountability within American police forces is a huge case for the abolition of police forces. Take the police officers who murdered George Floyd, all had complaints made against them – Derek Chauvin had 18 – yet no action had been taken on a single one of those complaints. Or the murder of Breonna Taylor. The police officers that carried out a no-knock warrant on her apartment and shot her eight times are still working and filing false police reports.

An extract from the police report on the murder of Breonna Taylor. She was shot 8 times.

How many of us would still be in a job with that many complaints and lawlessness?

Abolishing the police is not a new concept. In fact, there are already examples of cities that have abolished their police force and created a community-based police force that is helping to rebuild trust in the communities they serve…

Welcome to Camden, New Jersey

Abolishing a police force has been done before. Camden, New Jersey, was once one of the most dangerous cities in the USA. Before the police force was abolished, the number of homicides peaked at 67, there were over 170 open-air drug markets, huge levels of violent crime and a lot of police corruption. The city looked at hiring more police officers in an attempt to solve the issue but budget problems forced a different pathway.

Instead, over a seven year period, the City of Camden abolished its police department and implemented a community-based approach that held police officers to a much higher standard than many other police departments around the country. A clear definition of ‘reasonable force’ has been developed, meaning that every other tactic to de-escalate a situation without the need for force, or even deadly force, must be used first. Misconduct must also be reported by officers and it is much easier to fire those who use excessive force, for example.

The overall result of this change saw the number of homicides drop to just 25 by 2019 and the crime rate has dropped by half. Complaints of excessive force have also reduced by 95% since 2014. At the same time, police numbers in the city have actually doubled along with the number of daily non-crisis interactions between the public and police. This additional presence had been unnerving when it first began but has quickly been accepted and is helping to build trust in the community.

Lieutenant Zack James of the Camden County Metro Police Department marched along with demonstrators in Camden, NJ on May 30, 2020 to protest the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by April Saul

Camden isn’t perfect. There have been an increase in arrests and summonses for petty crime which, in a city where 30% still live below the poverty line, does little to help reduce the number living in poverty and there is still work to be done if the police force is to reflect the demographics of the city. The direction Camden has gone in, however, is incredibly encouraging and works well as a blueprint for police forces going forward.

The Wheels of Change are Rolling

In the USA, whether you believe the protests are justified or an opportunity for anarchy, they are leading to change across the country. Minneapolis has banned chokeholds and neck restraints and committed to the abolition of the police force in its current state, New York is ready to pass a bill that would hold police officers accountable if they use a chokehold to restrain someone, and a federal bill that has passed through the house would make it much easier to prosecute police for misconduct – something that rarely happens in the US.

Defunding or even abolishing police forces in countries like the USA (and even the UK) may seem like an idealistic, utopian dream for the left, but it is far more realistic and potentially much more beneficial for communities. Trust between the police the public in the USA is likely at an extreme low, particularly in minority communities and will only lead to further protesting and violence. Cities are making a positive start but are still not doing enough to root out the systemic brutality of the police in America.

There are many aspects of the USA that are currently unsustainable; the distrust between police and the public they are supposed to ‘protect and serve’ will only lead to future protests and aggressions, especially within the black community, is just one. Listening to the words of protestors isn’t “giving in to the mob” (as I’ve seen it put), it’s recognising that there are still injustices within society that go beyond politics. Not doing so will only lead to further clashes down the line.

Recognising there is a problem of racially-motivated police brutality is the first step to addressing deep-rooted societal issues that exist in the USA. Tweeting ‘Law & Order’ will do nothing.

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