Beware of Police “Reforms” That Reinforce the Very System Killing Us

We can’t fix the problem by investing more resources in police. We must defund and disband.

Janaé Bonsu June 12, 2020

A person holds up a placard that reads, 'Black lives matter' during a protest in the city of Detroit, Michigan, on May 29, 2020, during a demonstration over the police murder of George Floyd. (Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

The killing of George Floyd by police sent a wave of right­eous rage through the nation and around the globe. It seems to have been the tip­ping point — fol­low­ing the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Bre­on­na Tay­lor and Tony McDade — prompt­ing a new sense of urgency for major inter­ven­tion on the mat­ter of police. But not every­one is on the same page. There is a broad con­sen­sus that there is a prob­lem with police in the Unit­ed States, but diver­gence on whether the prob­lem lies with indi­vid­ual offi­cers and their respec­tive depart­ments, or with the insti­tu­tion itself.

As long as police have existed, they have operated as the foot soldiers of the social order meant to control, criminalize, and surveil marginalized people while prioritizing the protection of property.

On one end of the inter­ven­tion spec­trum, there are those who want to reform the police: make them bet­ter by imple­ment­ing more rules and reg­u­la­tions, requir­ing more train­ing, invest­ing in tech­nol­o­gy to bol­ster account­abil­i­ty, and gen­er­al­ly chang­ing the cul­ture of law enforce­ment. These actions are what Crit­i­cal Resis­tance, an orga­ni­za­tion that aims to end the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex, calls reformist reforms,” or pol­i­cy solu­tions that make cos­met­ic changes while expand­ing the reach of polic­ing. The two most vis­i­ble and recent exam­ples are the promi­nent orga­ni­za­tion Cam­paign Zero’s #8CantWait cam­paign and the con­gres­sion­al Jus­tice in Polic­ing Act. Both were intro­duced with­in days of each oth­er and gar­nered sig­nif­i­cant media attention.

Non-reformist,” or abo­li­tion­ist, reforms, on the oth­er hand, work to chip away at polic­ing and reduce its over­all impact. Abo­li­tion is the the­o­ry and prac­tice of chip­ping away at a vast sys­tem of for­mal social con­trol, imposed through pun­ish­ment and sur­veil­lance, while also build­ing new prac­tices and sys­tems that affirm people’s human­i­ty. Ulti­mate­ly, abo­li­tion is about striv­ing for a world where police, and the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex in which they oper­ate, is obso­lete because we can build com­mu­ni­ties that are equipped to rely on each oth­er for safe­ty and cre­ate alter­na­tives to punishment.

At a time of mass mobi­liza­tion and upris­ing, when com­mu­ni­ties are demand­ing repa­ra­tion for his­tor­i­cal­ly root­ed and ongo­ing harms, it’s a moment to dream big, fight for abo­li­tion­ist demands, and reject reformist reforms” that will only fur­ther entrench our sys­tem of racist policing.

Crit­i­cal Resis­tance devel­oped a chart that was inspired by orga­niz­er, writer and edu­ca­tor Mari­ame Kaba. Crit­i­cal resis­tance presents four ques­tions to assess and dis­tin­guish between reformist reforms ver­sus abo­li­tion­ist reforms. In the organization’s words: 

  1. Does the solu­tion reduce fund­ing to police? 

  2. Does the solu­tion chal­lenge the notion that police increase safety? 

  3. Does the solu­tion reduce the tools, tac­tics, or tech­nol­o­gy police have at their disposal? 

  4. Does the solu­tion reduce the scale of policing? 

Mea­sur­ing the #8CantWait reforms and the Jus­tice in Polic­ing Act against these cri­te­ria, they sure­ly fail the lit­mus test of trans­for­ma­tive change. #8CantWait seeks to bring imme­di­ate change to police depart­ments” through eight restric­tive use-of-force poli­cies that the ini­tia­tive claims can dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce police vio­lence by 72%. The cam­paign encour­ages police depart­ments to: (1) Ban choke­holds and stran­gle­holds; (2) Require de-esca­la­tion; (3) Require warn­ing before shoot­ing; (4) Exhaust all oth­er means before shoot­ing; (5) Inter­vene and stop exces­sive force by oth­er offi­cers when it hap­pens; (6) Ban shoot­ing at mov­ing vehi­cles; (7) Require use-of-force con­tin­u­um, which guides the appro­pri­ate offi­cer response in par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tions; and (8) Require com­pre­hen­sive report­ing each time an offi­cer uses forces or threat­ens to do so. The ini­tia­tive has since caught a lot of valid crit­i­cism, not only for the method­olog­i­cal flaws of its research under­pin­nings, but also because it is insuf­fi­cient to change the fun­da­men­tal struc­ture of policing.

These rec­om­men­da­tions pre­sume that giv­ing offi­cers more rules and report­ing require­ments means that these guide­lines will be fol­lowed; it does not. The real­i­ty is that many cities — includ­ing those with huge police depart­ments, like New York and Chica­go — have a lot of these poli­cies in place already. Yet, unsur­pris­ing­ly, these police depart­ments are still pur­vey­ors of vio­lence. For exam­ple, the New York Police Depart­ment (NYPD) banned choke­holds in 1993, but didn’t stop an NYPD offi­cer from killing Eric Gar­ner using that very method in 2014. What’s more, 40 NYPD offi­cers have used choke­holds since the begin­ning of 2015. And even with account­abil­i­ty mech­a­nisms to ensure that these poli­cies are being fol­lowed, it is not enough. The mar­gin of error is still too high. On the mat­ter of life and death, one life tak­en by the state is too many. So what do we make of the 28% that #8CantWait leaves on the table?

Five days after the launch of #8CantWait, three mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus and the chair of the House Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee intro­duced what they call the first-ever bold, com­pre­hen­sive approach” to police account­abil­i­ty and reform in the Sen­ate: the Jus­tice in Polic­ing Act of 2020. This 134-page bill seeks to: pro­hib­it racial and reli­gious pro­fil­ing, require body cam­eras, inves­ti­gate police mis­con­duct, hold police account­able in court, change the cul­ture of law enforce­ment with train­ing, improve trans­paren­cy with data col­lec­tion on mis­con­duct and use of force, and make lynch­ing a fed­er­al crime, among oth­er reforms. There is some over­lap with #8CantWait regard­ing a ban on choke­holds, as well as with a demand from local orga­niz­ers call­ing for an end to no-knock war­rants. There is also some over­lap with demands from pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions like Action Cen­ter on Race and the Econ­o­my (ACRE), which has called for a nation­al data­base of decer­ti­fied police offi­cers to pre­vent them from sim­ply mov­ing to dif­fer­ent juris­dic­tions, end­ing the qual­i­fied immu­ni­ty doc­trine that pre­vents police from being held legal­ly account­able, and demil­i­ta­riz­ing the police. It’s worth­while to note, though, that the pro­posed con­gres­sion­al bill seeks to only lim­it the trans­fer of mil­i­tary equip­ment to local police depart­ments under the 1033 Pro­gram with addi­tion­al reg­u­la­tions, while ACRE is call­ing for the alto­geth­er elim­i­na­tion of mil­i­tary trans­fers. Even with this over­lap, the Jus­tice in Polic­ing Act does not get us to the rot­ten core of the prob­lem that is policing.

None of the rec­om­men­da­tions from either ini­tia­tive rec­og­nize polic­ing itself as the prob­lem. As Kaba has said, vio­lence is endem­ic to U.S. polic­ing itself,” mak­ing the notion of police vio­lence redun­dant. It is an inher­ent­ly racist, vio­lent insti­tu­tion born out of slave patrols. As long as police have exist­ed, they have oper­at­ed as the foot sol­diers of the social order meant to con­trol, crim­i­nal­ize, and sur­veil mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple while pri­or­i­tiz­ing the pro­tec­tion of property.

Nei­ther ini­tia­tive reduces fund­ing to police. In fact, core ele­ments of the Jus­tice in Polic­ing Act increase fund­ing for more train­ing and com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing. The lat­ter would allo­cate funds from the Com­mu­ni­ty Ori­ent­ed Polic­ing Ser­vices (COPS) pro­gram to estab­lish local task forces on what they call polic­ing inno­va­tion. The bill would also allo­cate fund­ing to cre­ate train­ing pro­grams for law enforce­ment on best prac­tices” from the reforms pro­posed by the Task Force on 21st Cen­tu­ry Polic­ing. More fund­ing is, obvi­ous­ly, not aligned with the goal of defund­ing and cer­tain­ly not abol­ish­ing the police.

Not only do these solu­tions” fail to chal­lenge the notion that police increase safe­ty, they actu­al­ly fur­ther entrench the legit­i­ma­cy of the notion that police have a monop­oly on pub­lic safe­ty. The afore­men­tioned COPS grants are what Con­gress calls an invest­ment in trans­for­ma­tive com­mu­ni­ty-based polic­ing pro­grams,” but there’s noth­ing trans­for­ma­tive about the notion of a com­mu­ni­ty-engaged arm of the police state. The bill would allo­cate these funds towards com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions to come up with new ways to work with the police when it should real­ly be for com­mu­ni­ty-based infra­struc­ture for account­abil­i­ty and jus­tice with­out hav­ing to use police. Com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing tends to oper­ate as a means to under­mine self-gov­er­nance, and mobi­lizes the com­mu­ni­ty to act as police intel­li­gence gath­er­ers and polit­i­cal advo­cates for puni­tive crim­i­nal jus­tice. Com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing offers, to cite the Chica­go polit­i­cal for­ma­tion We Charge Geno­cide, the promise of blunt­ing griev­ances of rad­i­cal move­ments and co-opt­ing some of their lead­ers.” Fur­ther, mem­bers of Con­gress co-opt­ing lan­guage like trans­for­ma­tive and rein­vest from abo­li­tion­ist move­ments is disin­gen­u­ous and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in a time when recep­tion to the idea of reduc­ing the size, scope and role of the police is at an all time high.

Dis­turbing­ly, the Jus­tice in Polic­ing Act also requires more tech­nol­o­gy in the form of body and dash­board cam­eras, which not only requires fund­ing but could be used to jus­ti­fy police mur­der by peo­ple who look for such excuses.

Thank­ful­ly, reformist reforms are being coun­tered by those who can imag­ine and are fight­ing for a world where police are essen­tial­ly obso­lete, because the ele­ments of real com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty are fun­da­men­tal­ly opposed to what police actu­al­ly do. The demand to defund police is rever­ber­at­ing across the coun­try, thanks to the work of Move­ment for Black Lives (M4BL), the abo­li­tion­ists who put forth the #8ToAbolition response to #8Cant Wait, and the rad­i­cal left move­ment that has been dream­ing of free­dom from the police state for decades.

Defund­ing the police may sound com­plete­ly ludi­crous to peo­ple who are whol­ly invest­ed in the idea that police keep us safe. That belief is, in large part, due to what seems to be a lack of alter­na­tives. How­ev­er, in all spaces that I’ve been in that have engaged in some type of vision­ary exer­cise to imag­ine a world with­out pris­ons and polic­ing, and devise new under­stand­ings of what real safe­ty looks like, this vision inevitably involves a com­mu­ni­ty with sig­nif­i­cant­ly more resources. Polic­ing, pris­ons, pover­ty and prof­it are all con­nect­ed; any dis­cus­sion of abo­li­tion must dis­cuss dis­tri­b­u­tion of resources.

The recent moves towards abo­li­tion through defund and dis­man­tle strate­gies have been excit­ing to see, like Min­neapo­lis Pub­lic Schools sev­er­ing ties with the Min­neapo­lis Police Depart­ment and the sub­se­quent City Coun­cil vote to com­plete­ly dis­band its police force. These are vic­to­ries that were years in the mak­ing by grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions like the Black Visions Col­lec­tive and Reclaim the Block, yet the fruits of this labor is just the begin­ning. There’s much more work to do.

Abo­li­tion is not just about get­ting rid of police offi­cers and brick and mor­tar build­ings full of cages. It is also about undo­ing the soci­ety we live in because the prison indus­tri­al com­plex both feeds on and main­tains oppres­sion and inequal­i­ties. It’s about divest­ing from puni­tive sys­tems, and then invest­ing in sys­tems that care for peo­ple, from men­tal health clin­ics and drug treat­ment pro­gram­ming to uni­ver­sal child­care and after-school pro­grams. A prison abo­li­tion­ist frame­work entails, more specif­i­cal­ly, devel­op­ing and imple­ment­ing alter­na­tive social projects, insti­tu­tions and con­cep­tions of gov­er­nance, and rem­e­dy­ing shared prob­lems — inter­ven­tions that might make police and pris­ons insignif­i­cant and inef­fec­tive to ensur­ing safe­ty and secu­ri­ty over the long term. And crit­i­cal­ly, to move towards an abo­li­tion­ist hori­zon, we must iden­ti­fy and cri­tique those reformist reforms” that threat­en to knock us off our path.

Janaé Bon­su is co-direc­tor of BYP100, a nation­al mem­ber-based orga­ni­za­tion of young Black activists and orga­niz­ers ded­i­cat­ed to jus­tice and free­dom for all Black people.
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