Community Control Won’t Fix What’s Wrong with Cops

There’s no reforming an inherently violent, white supremacist system. We must abolish the police.

Carl Williams and Christian Williams August 25, 2020

(Photo via David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

This arti­cle is a response to To Trans­form Polic­ing, We Need Com­mu­ni­ty Con­trol” by Jazmine Salas.

Centuries of attempts to “correct” or “reform” paramilitary policing have not changed the fact that racism is at its core.

The Unit­ed States has built a sys­tem of mil­i­tary-style, white suprema­cist polic­ing for near­ly 200 years. Since it began, this police sys­tem has served as the country’s pri­ma­ry engine to uphold white suprema­cy by destroy­ing the lives of Black peo­ple — via the death penal­ty, life with­out parole, three strikes laws, felon dis­en­fran­chise­ment, cash bail, the war on drugs and, per­haps most dra­mat­i­cal­ly, police impuni­ty. Instead of war on pover­ty they got a war on drugs,” Tupac Shakur said, so the police can both­er me.”

Some still think we can fine-tune our police sys­tem in just the right way to make it not racist. We believe this is mere­ly tinker[ing] with the machin­ery of death,” as Supreme Court Jus­tice Har­ry Black­mun deemed efforts to reform cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. The oppres­sive impact of polic­ing is not a mis­take” and the sys­tem isn’t bro­ken”; the sys­tem is work­ing as intend­ed. Cen­turies of attempts to cor­rect” or reform” para­mil­i­tary polic­ing have not changed the fact that racism is at its core.

There­fore, we call for police abo­li­tion. In toto.

Any pol­i­cy that does not direct­ly move us toward abo­li­tion should be viewed with sus­pi­cion, includ­ing pro­pos­als (pop­u­lar even on the Left) for com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over police. Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol would not fun­da­men­tal­ly trans­form the role of the police because we can­not reform the unreformable.

Reformists have long called for some civil­ian struc­ture to police the police, whether an elect­ed board (such as Jazmine sug­gests) or an appoint­ed body with more lim­it­ed pow­ers. Either way, any such struc­ture would add to polic­ing bud­gets or police-adja­cent bud­gets— the oppo­site of defunding.

While some argue a civil­ian board could choose to defund or abol­ish the police, the action is far from guar­an­teed. In fact, such a body would be depen­dent on (and demand) the exis­tence of robust police struc­tures, because a com­mu­ni­ty con­trol board needs some­thing to con­trol. Just in terms of sim­ple self-preser­va­tion, such a board or com­mit­tee would actu­al­ly be resis­tant to abo­li­tion, rather than an ally against policing.

Jazmine argues a civil­ian account­abil­i­ty board could inves­ti­gate com­plaints and dis­ci­pline offend­ing offi­cers. Ver­sions of review boards already exist across the coun­try in such cities as Boston, New York, Berke­ley, Calif., and Pitts­burgh. In 2005, schol­ars at North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty sketched out var­i­ous forms of civil­ian review that have been imple­ment­ed. While none of these forms fea­tured elect­ed boards, some includ­ed exter­nal civil­ian bod­ies empow­ered to con­duct inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tions — not so dif­fer­ent from what Jazmine advo­cates. Inde­pen­dent review boards either lacked the resources to ade­quate­ly pur­sue com­plaints or they demand­ed sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing, which again seems at odds with the push to defund police infra­struc­ture. What’s more, many police depart­ments refused to coop­er­ate in inves­ti­ga­tions. Nation­wide, many civil­ian over­sight bod­ies lack pow­er, and there is no firm research show­ing they are effec­tive in achiev­ing less police vio­lence, few­er com­plaints and more sat­is­fied complainants.

The idea that the boards could (or would even have the abil­i­ty to) effect real change is one of the main flaws in this reformist argu­men­ta­tion. Like many com­mon­ly pro­posed pol­i­cy fix­es (such as ban­ning choke­holds and using body cam­eras), it is doomed to fail because it does not fun­da­men­tal­ly change what polic­ing is. And, of course, once board mem­bers become part of the state appa­ra­tus, they are no longer grass­roots advo­cates (if they ever real­ly were). The exis­tence of the board only serves to give a veneer of legit­i­ma­cy to police in the eyes of the public.

Past efforts to build such legit­i­ma­cy show how futile these new efforts are. Many police depart­ments have pre­vi­ous­ly attempt­ed to address issues of crime and dis­or­der by build­ing trust and rela­tion­ships with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, for exam­ple. It sounds like what we want: Offi­cer Friend­ly walk­ing a beat, chat­ting with neigh­bors and help­ing folks out. But that dynam­ic is idyl­lic and impos­si­ble to achieve from where we are.

In real­i­ty, com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing efforts can increase police pres­ence, increase bud­gets and cul­ti­vate dis­trust among neigh­bors. They plas­ter over the vio­lent harms of shoot­ings, beat­ings and stop-and-frisks. Some abo­li­tion­ist cir­cles joke that com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing just means the cop beat­ing your ass now knows your street name. Putting com­mu­ni­ties nom­i­nal­ly in con­trol of the police would have sim­i­lar results.

In short, civil­ian con­trol is just anoth­er cos­met­ic vari­a­tion. It makes us feel as if we are mak­ing a thing bet­ter when, in fact, we are only mak­ing it look bet­ter. Ulti­mate­ly, what we need is to defund the cops and dis­band them. We are in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary moment; we can do far bet­ter, and we will.

For a response to this arti­cle, read Want to Abol­ish the Police? The First Step Is Putting Them Under Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­trol” by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.

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