Don’t abolish the police. Reimagine law enforcement.
For a different perspective on this topic, see “Reforms don’t work. The police must be defunded.,” by Dwayne David Paul.
On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed in Minneapolis during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. When I saw the video of the white police officer Derek Chauvin holding his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes, as Mr. Floyd echoed Eric Garner’s plea, “I can’t breathe,” I felt appalled. As a former correctional officer, reserve police officer and police ethics instructor, I have never seen such a callous act by a fellow officer.
Not even a deadly pandemic could occlude the subsequent protests proclaiming “Black Lives Matter!” This righteous refrain is clearly justified, but less clear are the movement’s expectations for policing in the United States.
Earlier incidents of violence against Black persons prompted calls to reform the police, but this time there has been talk of “defunding” or “abolishing” the police. Michael Jaycox, a Catholic ethicist, wrote, “We must imagine a world without policing,” and the journalist Josie Duffy Rice wrote in Vanity Fair that it is time to “eradicate this Jim Crow system of public safety” and “policing as we know it.”
Although much or even most of the history of U.S. policing can be tethered to anti-Black racism, there is more to the story.
These and other writers claim that policing cannot be reformed because its origins and history in the United States have been about upholding white supremacy. The genesis of policing in the horrific slave patrols of the South is rightly highlighted to support this argument.
But I would emphasize the part about policing as we know it. As it currently is, or has become, it must be changed, even transformed. Although much or even most of the history of U.S. policing can be tethered to anti-Black racism, there is more to the story.
The police as a modern institution began in 1829 with Sir Robert Peel and the “New Police” of Metropolitan London. (It is from “Robert” that police officers there are called “bobbies.”) Prior to this, night watches and constables were deemed ineffective in dealing with new conditions from industrialization and urbanization, and the military was used—usually quite violently—to quell riots. Earlier, Peel had developed the Irish Peace Preservation Force as an alternative to using the British Army in occupied Ireland. According to the criminologist Alex S. Vitale, “He used it as a proto-police force, embedding them in local communities so that they could preemptively put down what they called agricultural outrages—peasant uprisings against British landlords starving them to death.” The phrase “put down” illustrates how they were occupiers still using force as their primary method.
In London, though, where people were moving in search of jobs in the new industrial sector, Peel wanted to avoid any association with militarism, insisting on a more subdued uniform of a blue coat with white buttons, rather than the British military’s red coat. In addition, Peel emphasized that the police were to use persuasion, keeping physical force as a last resort to prevent a crime. Because of such restraint, the Metropolitan Police came to be accepted by the citizenry.
Peel emphasized that the police were to use persuasion, keeping physical force as a last resort to prevent a crime.
It helped that the police were fellow citizens serving within the community. Unlike in Ireland, they were not an occupying force but were already “embedded” within the community. A considerable part of their patrol duties included directing traffic, preventing cruelty to children and animals, finding missing persons, caring for the poor and destitute, extinguishing fires, inspecting weights, bridges and buildings, and even waking people up for work.
This model of policing was transplanted to the United States, beginning in New York City in 1845 and followed by Boston and Philadelphia. No doubt a thorny part of the reason for their inception was protecting the wealthier class’s property. I agree with those critics of policing who highlight its association with economic exploitation and neoliberal capitalism. Still, police in Northern cities remained unarmed, and departments maintained a civilian orientation.
That changed after the Civil War, when a surplus of firearms found its way into the hands of the police. During the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s to deal with well-armed gangsters such as Al Capone, the police increasingly armed themselves, paving the way for the militarization of the police in the 1970s. It is also true, as Ms. Rice writes, that “Northern police often parroted their Southern counterparts” during the Jim Crow era and were not “unsullied by white supremacy.”
My point is that not all policing was founded on anti-Black racism and white supremacy. “Policing as we know it” neither had to be this way nor has to continue so.
Although some abolitionists call for a world without policing, not all police elsewhere are armed like American police, not all departments are organized like the decentralized ones in the United States, and not all recruits are as lacking in higher education and training in de-escalation techniques as their U.S. counterparts. Of course, there are also such things as “police states,” so not all policing elsewhere is good either.
Alternatives to the crimefighter model
For years criminologists have imagined and encouraged models of policing other than the military or crimefighter model. The philosopher and criminal justice ethicist John Kleinig, in his book The Ethics of Policing, has argued for the “social peacekeeper” model, which retrieves Peel’s community-oriented approach and “acknowledges the nonnegotiable force at police disposal without transforming it into the police raison d’être.” Other models include Howard Cohen’s “emergency operator” or “firefighter” model and Joseph Betz and Egon Bittner’s “social enforcer” model, each of which aim to streamline the role of the police to, as Mr. Bittner puts it, addressing “human problems when and insofar as the problems’ solutions may require the use of force at the point of their occurrence.”
Thus I am more supportive of the calls for defunding the police when it means the reallocation and redistribution of funds. In June, The New York Times estimated that police spend roughly 4 percent of their time addressing “violent crime.” So more resources could be devoted to non-crimefighting matters. The collaboration between the police department and the mental health first-responders organization Cahoots in Eugene, Ore., is a prime example. Cahoots still needs the support of police in dangerous instances, including suicide attempts and domestic violence cases. Moreover, there will also continue to be instances when there is no time to call for a “time out” to defuse a situation, as when there’s an active shooter.
Reducing the police’s responsibilities to the use of force could ironically reinforce the view that this is their raison d’etre. But involving the police in other community and social peacekeeping activities serves to contextualize, moderate and restrain that use of force, ensuring that it is a last resort. According to Mr. Kleinig: “[T]he peacekeeper model is broad enough to encompass most of the work that police do, whether it is crimefighting, crime control, or interventions in crisis situations. But what is more important is the irenic cast that it gives to police work.”
Involving the police in other community and social peacekeeping activities serves to contextualize, moderate and restrain the use of force, ensuring that it is a last resort.
Other policing reforms are moving in the right direction. The city of Louisville passed a new law earlier this year, named after Breonna Taylor, that rightly bans the use of no-knock warrants. Other significant reforms include: banning choke holds; prohibiting racial profiling; establishing citizen police review boards; providing officers housing credits to live in the neighborhoods where they police; designating that the state’s attorney general be the one to investigate police shootings; and reconsidering the legal doctrine of qualified immunity as law and policy. My Saint Louis University colleague, retired law professor Roger Goldman, has also encouraged police licensing to help prevent officers, who have been fired or who resigned for using excessive force, from getting hired at another police department elsewhere. As he puts it, “If the state can take away the license of a barber for misconduct, surely it should be able to do so for a police officer.” In addition, we must reverse the Trump administration’s reversal of the demilitarization of U.S. police departments that began under the Obama administration.
Getting the police on board is crucial, though, and Mr. Jaycox correctly notes that police unions are an obstacle at present. Although Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to organize through unions against economic exploitation, I do not see how police unions have anything to do with that anymore, assuming they ever did at all. Instead, they serve and protect the power and interests of the police status quo.
Some abolitionists might say that police reforms are only “surface-level remedies,” as Mr. Jaycox writes. I agree that the deeper problem is cultural and systemic. Recently, when called to jury duty for a criminal case involving the testimony of three police officers versus a Black female defendant, the prosecutor said to me during the voir dire, “As a former law enforcement officer you know that there’s always some bad apples, right?” “This may be the case,” I replied, “but sometimes the tree itself is diseased.”
This does not necessarily mean the entire orchard is so diseased. The pathological roots, though, at least in the United States, are the racism, militarism and “gundamentalism” coursing through the veins of society. And the police reflect all this.
In 2017, at an audience with Pope Francis in Vatican City, Italian police officers were thanked for their service. The pope emphasized to them, “Your vocation is service,” and he highlighted how their mission as police officers “is expressed in service to others” through their “constant availability, patience, a spirit of sacrifice and sense of duty.”
To reimagine and cultivate such a culture of policing, one that bends toward what Gerald Schlabach and I have labeled “just policing,” will require significant changes in academy and field training, as well as recruiting from the community. The social peacekeeping model, in my view, is consonant with Catholic social teaching on protecting human dignity and the common good. A key ingredient, moreover, would be inculcating the virtue of solidarity among those—whether they are still called police or, I think better, peace officers—who pledge to serve and protect their fellow citizens. I believe that reforms guided by this vision can uphold that Black lives matter.