Why Police Make America Less Safe
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
Mandarin version/中文翻译 on our website
TW: violence, sexual assault, r***
How do we solve police brutality? In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, phrases like “Abolish the police!” and “All Cops are Bastards” (sometimes shortened to ACAB or 1312), have been frequently said and heard. The idea of abolishing the police is now becoming more and more mainstream. For conservatives, abolition has been the source of much consternation, and for some liberals, the idea of doing away with the police system entirely still seems too extreme. That being said, most people aren’t exactly sure what exactly abolition means and what its consequences are.
What is abolition?
“Abolish the police” is a slogan for a much broader societal problem, that of our entire criminal justice system and the anti-Black racism this country is founded on, and is also a vision to make our society more just and truly equitable. Abolition is the idea of abolishing the systems in our country that don’t protect all of our fellow citizens, particularly the police and prison systems, which overwhelmingly target and incarcerate Black people, and replacing these systems by putting public safety in the hands of communities and social services. Instead of relying on law enforcement and punishment, which have been proven many times to increase the crime rates, violence, and destruction of a community, abolition is the process of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance while at the same time enacting lasting alternatives to incarceration. It is a daily commitment by individuals and institutions to build systems of care and community rather than punishment. This means preventing organized militias from forming, passing laws that make lynching a federal hate crime, enacting stricter gun control laws, and working towards a safer future without having the need for law enforcement.
Abolition is the idea of abolishing the systems in our country that don’t protect all of our fellow citizens, particularly the police and prison systems, which overwhelmingly target and incarcerate Black people, and replacing these systems by putting public safety in the hands of communities and social services.
Detractors of abolition say that advocates of abolition don’t care about everyone’s safety. In fact, these advocates are the survivors of police violence themselves, who realize that institutions rooted in systemic racism need to be abolished because they end up causing more harm than good. Abolition advocates care very much about victims and safety. Abolition is a political agenda and also a societal goal. Dismantling police and prison systems is the first step toward making our society more just. The biggest goal we need to accomplish is fighting the long fight for a more equitable society overall. This might sound utopic, but abolishing slavery felt unattainable at one point, and interracial marriages did, too. Abolition is a marathon, not a sprint. We are in this for the long term to create a truly equitable society.
The history of systemic racism and the police
Before we even discuss the police system, it’s important to acknowledge that every aspect of the United States, whether it be beauty, politics, buying a house, or walking down the street, is steeped in racism. Systemic racism permeates the air we breathe, the traditions we proudly declare as uniquely American, the words we speak, the history we’re taught in school. It does not simply disappear by having Barack Obama as president or participating in one protest calling for racial equality. Racism doesn’t disappear overnight because it is systemic, an entrenched part of how our country was built. It improves the lives of some people at the expense of many others, and Chinese Americans straddle both sides. We are therefore obligated to recognize how and where systemic racism exerts its influence over our lives and our beliefs. For more on systemic racism, read this article.
A version of our modern police force has existed since the colonial era of the United States. These small, volunteer-based groups were created to ensure the public safety of all residents. However, as the country expanded in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, neighborhood night watches were unable to curb crime, leading to the introduction of the penitentiary system and the beginnings of centralized police forces. In the North, the new police system was based off of England’s, but the formation of the Southern police force was quite different. The main goal of the South’s police force (literally called “Slave Patrol”) was to control the extremely large and lucrative enslaved population. The goal was to establish a system of terror to prevent uprisings of the enslaved that would severely hamper the economic desires of white owners, and excessive force and control to subdue a rebellious enslaved person was the most common practice. Fugitive slave laws were written to keep this human capital securely in the hands of white people, and the North was by no means exempt from these racist practices; in fact, Northern states were some of these laws’ main participants (see the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law). For these strict fugitive slave laws to actually have any impact, Northern police officials had to catch the enslaved people who tried to escape and return them back to their masters in the South. Therefore, all of America’s police force are complicit in upholding the racist system and legacies of slavery.
America’s police was created to ensure that Black people stayed subjugated. It’s not a surprise, then, that our modern police force has not moved past this racist idea, because its entire existence is dependent on the racist legacy of slavery. Black people aren’t seen as equal before the law because the law is racist, and because those enforcing our laws, the police, are inherently rooted in racism. Not only is the police system itself rooted in the anti-Black racism of slavery, but the police still practice and reinforce slavery’s anti-Black racist legacy. The most blatant example is associating Blackness with criminality, a learned and manufactured association that has no factual basis whatsoever. Not a single piece of evidence proves that Black people are more prone to do criminal activities. Criminalizing Blackness is enforced by racialized policing, when police see a random Black person and immediately associate them with a suspect of a crime.
Here are some more current examples of our police’s racism. Some statistics: Black people make up about 12% of the population yet make up 33% of the incarcerated population. Black people are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. Why the disparity? Unlike what racist stereotypes say, Black people aren’t more genetically prone to crime than any other person (see below for a more in depth explanation of the stereotype). Yet somehow, even despite this fact, Black people are disproportionately represented among the people police arrest and incarcerate. This is because Black people with charges of petty thefts and misdemeanors are punished more severely than white people; a Black person with marijuana is four times more likely to be charged than a white person nationally. Some rates are as high as eight times more likely, depending on the state. Other times, the police will invent reasons to criminalize and murder Black people, which our courts and prisons uphold. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, pro-police, pro-law-and-order, and hard-on-crime political propaganda, as well as the War on Drugs, have contributed to the association of Blackness with criminality. Again, this is simply a modern manifestation of a long and deeply entrenched history of anti-Blackness that structures many other elements of our lives in the US—it is not in any way unique to policing, incarceration, or the late twentieth century.
The habits and ideologies ingrained in police training encourage and even champion, among other things ranging from perjury to drunk driving, a violent patriarchy (a symptom: many police officers are domestic abusers, and domestic violence is two to four times more common in police families). In fact, sexual assault is the second most frequently reported misconduct after excessive force. For more on this we encourage you to read Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie. You might not think upholding the patriarchy has anything to do with police brutality on Black bodies, but brutality comes in more forms than just murder—sexual assault, harassment, and rape are all included in the term “brutality.”
It's finally important to point out that racism is a structure built to oppress marginalized groups. Even if everyone acted in non-racist ways, the system will still oppress these groups because that is the way it was built. The police are the model of this rule. We could have a million good cops not being individually racist, yet the system would still condition them into targeting and incarcerating Black bodies disproportionately because our law enforcement was built off of the legacy of slavery and systemic racism, and equates Blackness to criminality.
The myth of "black on black crime"
This argument comes up a lot when conversations surrounding police brutality occur. Black people are said to have higher rates of crime, and many people point to Black on Black crime as an example of how police brutality doesn’t exist. First, using Black on Black crime statistics to deflect away from police brutality is racist. Does one issue make the other acceptable? Absolutely not, yet deniers of police brutality always ask this question to gaslight Black people when they say simply that their lives matter. Why does Black on Black crime represent something inherently wrong about the Black community, but white on white crime not reflect the same about the white community? White people overwhelmingly make up the majority of murder victims (57% of white American victims were killed by other white people), yet the only statistics that are brought up in debates about police brutality are the ones concerning Black on Black crime. Again, the question of Black on Black crime to detract from Black Lives Matter stems from the racist connotation of Blackness to criminality. Using this argument is racist and untrue—we need to present the facts in their full context. When talking about Black on Black crime, statistics cannot be neutral facts because they are racialized and taken out of context and do not make up the entire story, therefore making the problem seem worse or scarier than it is.
More importantly, Black on Black crime is a symptom of the broader disease of systemic racism. Factors that contribute to crime are poverty, unemployment, and over policing—all issues that overwhelmingly and disproportionately affect Black people. Black people’s poverty rate is twice as high as white people, because of government-sponsored policies of redlining, educational segregation and the school-to-prison-pipeline, and bank loan discrimination. People who live in poverty are also twice as likely to commit a violent crime than people in high-income households. Since Black communities are severely under-resourced, residents have to find other alternatives towards survival in a world that puts barriers in every step of their way. These survival methods come in the form of gangs, drug dealing, and crimes that are usually petty thefts and misdemeanors, but charged as felonies due to the perception of Black people being criminals in the eyes of our justice system. The tactics adopted are unsustainable and dangerous, yet it’s the only way to live in a country where everything is against you. If we invested more in communities and gave people the opportunities they need and deserve, crime would go down.
Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by law enforcement than white people. Officers who kill Black people are only tried if they are caught on camera, and only 35 officers have been convicted of crime related to on-duty fatal shooting since 2005, while over a thousand Black people have been killed by police since only 2015. Police brutality does exist, and gaslighting and deflecting from the true issue at hand by bringing up Black on Black crime is racist. This is why abolition is crucial towards moving toward a more equitable America.
What’s the difference between reforming, defunding, and abolishing the police?
The difference between reforming, defunding, and abolishing the police matters in terms of scope and extent of the change. Reforming the police just means keeping the system intact but asking the authorities to hold themselves accountable, as well as improving the relationship between the police and the community. Examples of holding the police to be more accountable of their actions are banning chokeholds, mandating the use of body cameras, and stopping the practice of racial profiling.
Defunding the police means decreasing their budgets and diverting those funds to resources within the community, such as mental health support networks, better transportation services, or community centers. Investing more in communities themselves and less in police are proven methods to reducing crime. However, the police system still exists, which means its entrenched systemic racism is still present. Institutions cannot change because they are built to run a certain way. In order to create lasting change we must get rid of the system entirely.
Abolition means getting rid of the police system as we know it entirely and replacing it with a safer, more effective alternative. It advocates for using non-punitive methods to carry out justice and deal with societal problems. Abolishing the police is the surest way to get rid of some of the most harmful consequences of systemic racism—in removing the entire police system, there is opportunity to build a more restorative and equitable approach to justice. It doesn’t stop there, though. Abolition is about putting in the time to fight the long fight for a more equal society overall—it’s not about simply destroying police and prisons and leaving people of color, women, and other minorities to fend for themselves against possible vigilante groups. These issues that we currently see with policing are not problems that can be ironed out without resolving the systemic causes of injustice, that lead to things like crime and racism. This is why people who call for the abolition of police want to redirect the funding that goes toward policing into community programs and an anti-racist education (because we’ve seen the systemic racism within our education, another goal to accomplish in our fight for abolition). Obviously, none of this is going to happen fast—it will take decades to undo the system entirely. The goal is to undo the ways in which our society creates and maintains a cycle of oppression and inequality for marginalized people through punishment, violence, surveillance, and control and work toward creating an equitable and just one. This may sound like a lofty, unattainable ideal, but already, in the wake of these peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, change has already been accomplished. If we all start working together now, we will be able to make even greater and longer lasting, positive change.
Why abolish and not reform/defund the police?
Reforming the police has proven over and over again that it’s not enough—Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, had reformed already. They had already trained their police on implicit bias, de-escalation tactics, and diversified their department. Yet Derek Chauvin still killed George Floyd, even though he was supposedly trained in de-escalation. Another example of failed police reform is Baltimore in the aftermath of the murder of Freddie Gray, which also tried to reform its police, and ended up with a far different result than Minneapolis. Police officers simply refused to enact these practices, either boycotting the policies by not doing their job at all, or going to the other extreme and violating citizens’ constitutional rights. These officers believed these reforms, meant to protect, generally its citizens, and specifically its Black citizens, were an assault on their jobs and rights. Baltimore’s scenario might be from merely one individual police department, but it is striking regardless how blatantly police officers disregarded reforms people generally view as humanitarian.
Reforming the police has proven over and over again that it’s not enough . . . ultimately, the question of reforming, defunding, or abolishing the police boils down to the fact that our police system is inherently racist by design.
Here’s a specific example of the failures of reform: body cameras. People hold up body cams as a way to “reform police” because they presumably mean both the police and their citizens will feel the pressure of surveillance to do their jobs correctly. In this case, the effectiveness of this reform means extending the reach of surveillance, but surveillance is itself damaging and a symptom of the carceral state’s control. Even though body cameras seem like an effective reform, they in fact exacerbate rather than address the core problem. Again, it’s treating the symptom but not the root cause: the disease. Furthermore, body cams don't actually prevent violence—think about the number of incidents of police brutality that have been recorded and elicited no change, or the number of times police have turned off their body cams before beginning to instigate a situation. Body cameras as a reform are ineffective on both theoretical and practical levels. You can think through other reforms in this way to see how they are all similarly ineffective.
Defunding the police doesn’t work either, because even though this money is instead being invested in community initiatives, the inherent structure of the police system remains; it’s still a system rooted in racism and white supremacy. Furthermore, cutting budgets has not always proven to work. The Marshall Project found in Chicago that defunding the police department’s budgets did not reduce police violence or promote a healthy relationship with local neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the question of reforming, defunding, or abolishing the police boils down to the fact that our police system is inherently racist by design. Not only is it inherently racist, but it is also systemically racist, and reforming a system that has racism as part of its system in an effort to make it less racist does not work, because at its core is racism. This is a systemic problem that we are only able to eradicate by full abolition—a full eradication of a racist system.
The continued existence and expansion of policing and of the prison industrial complex are both constitutive of and symptomatic of much more entrenched systemic injustices. Therefore, defunding and abolishing the police and the prison industrial complex are two of many actions that contribute to the creation of a more equal, just, and restorative society.
The police keep us safe from crime. How will we be safe in a world with abolition?
Safety is a relative concept, depending on your privilege. To most lighter-skinned people, police and other authority figures that uphold the law are considered to be our local heroes that keep us safe. In fact, to a Black person, it’s the opposite—the people that are supposed to keep us safe and uphold the law don’t keep Black people safe (and this is a statement addressing an entire racial group, not individual experiences), as we’ve described above, and nor does the law. In upholding systemically racist laws and institutions, these figures who lead our prisons, military, and government can be some of the most dangerous people to marginalized groups, at home and abroad.
Moreover, police don’t keep us safe. In fact, the police and the prison industrial complex are in large part manufacturers of the systemic causes of crime. The police are designed to protect property interests of wealthy white people; this makes sense because in the past, those pieces of property were Black enslaved people. A court ruled in 1989 and reaffirmed their conviction in 2005 that police are not legally obligated to protect people. Therefore, the police’s job isn’t supposed to protect you, but rather things, and they are not even designed to protect everyone’s things. Supporting the police means believing that some people’s property matters more than some people’s lives. If we believe that everyone has a right to life, then the police exist to counter that right in legally being required to protect property over people.
When we talk about abolishing the police or abolishing the prison system, we are talking about fixing systemic causes of crime, because it’s the system that causes most of the crime in the first place. Take a look at the systemically racist criminal justice system designed to keep Black people oppressed. If we can fix systemic causes of crime, we will negate the need to break the law in order to survive, thus preventing crime rather than trying to resolve it after it has happened. These problems can’t be solved by reactionary measures; we have to have long-term preventative ones in place so they don’t even happen. For example, if everybody had enough money to live on, people who need to feed their families would no longer have a reason to steal or sell drugs to make ends meet. If everybody had access to mental health resources and communities had rigorous networks of care, even violent crime like murder could be more easily prevented. If the motives behind crime vanished, we would no longer need the extent of our prison system or the police to protect our property or our lives. Those who remained threats to society could be contained and given the care they need, rather than being punished in a jail cell that offers no help at all.
Because Black men are between nine and 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other people, in custody deaths in America are 12 out of 100,000 arrests whereas the UK has only 2, and police shoot more people dead (31 per ten million versus the UK’s 3), simply eliminating police and prisons would make the US significantly less violent—which should suggest just how much police and prisons exacerbate and reproduce, rather than prevent or remedy, violence. The US doesn’t even have a national database that catalogues all the people who have been killed by the police, so it’s virtually impossible to know how many people die at the hands of police officers each year, which makes it sounds like we’re trying to hide, not fix, this problem. Furthermore, if we resolved those systemic causes, police would be obsolete anyway, because the world we would live in would be infinitely safer and more capable of meeting out justice in terms of restitution, not retribution.
Aren’t there good cops though? All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB) is generalizing the majority of police officers, which is just as wrong as stereotyping Black people.
We grow up thinking cops are our heroes, the ones who protect our communities from bad people and uphold the law, but the divide between good and evil is not that stark. We are taught from a young age to view criminals as bad people, while cops are our local heroes and therefore good people who protect us. This idea is hammered into us as children so when we grow up and see, in strictly binary terms, the bad criminal versus the good cop, it’s harder for us to first understand the historical complexities of the criminal justice and police system and second unlearn the whitewashing of history. The police system was never good to begin with, unless you believe that protecting property over human lives and oppressing certain people is objectively good. The binary of the good versus evil leads many people to get defensive when others say slogans like “All Cops are Bastards” and “F*** the Police.” In fact, these slogans do not refer to every individual cop, because it is not the individual who is bad. It’s the system.
ACAB is a critique of a system, not of an individual. Whether individual cops are good or bad is not the point. The point is that individual cops have to buy into the workings of the system in order to do their jobs. If the system is flawed, then the only way for cops to do their jobs is by perpetuating those flaws. They may do so willingly or unwillingly. They may believe that those flaws are actually virtuous and morally right, or they might see all of those flaws as problems but decide that they don’t have a choice if they want to keep their jobs.
It doesn’t matter what their intentions or rationale are. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad individuals. It only matters that they are cogs in a harmful machine—and their presence in that machine enables it to continue to perpetuate harm. If they are part of the system, they are upholding flawed, damaging ideologies. Former officers have written articles about how they are discouraged from speaking out. Police officers are therefore systematically socialized into equating Blackness with criminality, and allows them to subjugate Black people at no personal risk or accountability. If a police officer is doing racist and terrible things on the job, and everyone knows about this abuse of power and doesn’t report their colleague, then they are all complicit in upholding racism when they don’t report this one police officer. They are bystanders condoning racist behavior in their inaction. Being neutral in the face of oppression means you have taken the side of the oppressor.
Furthermore, why are we okay with the fact that a small fraction of police is racist? In what other career field is it okay for most of its people to be objectively good but some of them bad, making mistakes they aren’t held accountable for? Doctors who amputate the wrong leg have their licenses revoked. Would you want to have open heart surgery if the hospital told you, “Most of our doctors like to perform the operation correctly, but there’s a chance you can be with that one doctor who doesn’t do it right and kills their patients?” No! We would expect that doctor to be fired. Would you fly on United Airlines if they said only 90% of their pilots liked to land? No! We would stay far away and fly Delta instead. This logic of the good versus bad apple is ridiculous in every single profession outside of the police. Why, then, is it acceptable in an institution that is supposedly there to protect citizens from harm in the name of the law? The police are rooted in a system of anti-Black racism. They are not required by law to protect us. Only in abolishing them entirely will our country be on its way to becoming a more equitable and just place.
Abolition might seem unreasonable and unrealistic, too idealistic and utopic to ever work, but it’s not. Abolition is just the next step in America’s constant journey towards securing rights and safety for all of its citizens. We recognize that abolition isn’t going to miraculously happen on its own, and won’t be accomplished tomorrow, this year, or even the next. We must instead develop and achieve many small goals before we can successfully accomplish our final goal of abolition. The only question you have to ask yourself is if you want to be on the right side of history, and whether you will join us in helping this country finally fulfill its promises.
For more information, we encourage you to check out:
For a World Without Police: https://aworldwithoutpolice.org/
The Marshall Project: https://www.themarshallproject.org/?ref=nav
The ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/
The Equal Justice Initiative: https://eji.org/
The Innocence Project: https://www.innocenceproject.org/
The Prison Policy Initiative: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/