In the wake of the uprising in Ferguson, MO and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the United States has witnessed a surge in awareness of police brutality and activist efforts aimed at reforming the police. A wide range of possible reforms have been offered up: body cameras, community policing, citizen oversight, and so on. In contrast to these reform measures and in line with many movement activists and academics, I will here make the case that the modern institution of the police ought to be abolished.
Before I make the case for the abolition of police, it will be useful to lay out what I take to be the primary justification for their existence. This justification comes from liberal democratic political theory. Ideally, a democratic state should be an expression of the will of the people. Whether directly or through their representatives, the people in such a society enact laws to govern their life in common. The state executes these laws and, therefore, relies on a police force to ensure that individuals comply with the what the people as a whole have chosen. Thus, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, individuals in a democratic society may be “forced to be free.” In a liberal society, however, there are limits to the power of the state. These limits are — within the most popular versions at least — the natural rights of persons, rights which must be respected by the state. In the broadest outline, these rights protect the liberty of persons to act as they please in matters that do not interest or, more particularly, harm others. Thus, in the United States citizens have constitutional protections against unwarranted search and seizure, for example. The role of the police, then, is to execute the will of the people; in so doing they must protect and respect the rights of individuals.
All of this no doubt sounds wonderful. However, it remains a mere ideal, and one that works as much to obscure reality as to reveal it. As an alternative, we should seek to understand the historical dynamics that have served to produce the modern police as they actually exist, particularly in the United States. To understand this history, we have to begin by rejecting such abstractions as “the people.” The individuals composing society are real, material human beings with needs and interests. More importantly, they do not form a unified whole but are divided into groups which do not possess equal power and which are in conflict. To put it bluntly, our real society is divided into unequal groups by class, race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, etc. And the real historical record shows that dominant groups have exercised their power to exploit and oppress those without it.
If we return to the question of the role of the police, we may ask whether the institution of the police truly acts as the enforcer of the will of the people and protector of individual rights or whether it is not instead the enforcer of the will of dominant groups within society against those who are subordinate. Such a question is easy to answer when we look at brutal totalitarian regimes. It is not difficult for anyone to discern that the actions of Nazi secret police, for instance, were executing the will of a small powerful elite against nearly everyone else. Yet, the question is much more difficult when we consider the case of modern liberal democracies such as the United States. After all, in these societies, legislation is enacted by elected representatives and there are significant checks to the executive powers of the government, whether local, regional, or national. Surely, police forces in these societies could not be compared to Nazi secret police without straining credulity beyond its limits.
Certainly. But the larger point remains: namely, the police within these societies execute the will of dominant groups against subordinate groups. This is evident, for example, in widely disparate rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration for people from racially subordinate groups and poor people. But it also appears clearly in the use of police for purposes of strike busting or in the repression of protests. Likewise, we can see it in police raids of LGBTQ bars or hangouts. Even when subordinate groups do manage to win victories for “hate crimes” or similar legislation, it is rarely a true victory. As Dean Spade has written,
The fundamental message of hate crime legislation is that if we lock more bad people up, we will be safer. Everything about our current law enforcement systems indicates that this is a false promise, and it’s a false promise that targets people of color and poor people for caging and death while delivering large profits to white elites.
Can we imagine the police acting to prevent, rather than enforce, the subordination of transgender people, for example? There is a reason why such musing feels like a nearly utopian dream: The role of the police is not to “protect and serve” subordinate groups, but to carry out the orders of those in power.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this thought implies that interactions with police are less the products of criminal behavior and more an essential element in the exploitation and oppression of subordinate groups by dominant groups. This explains, then, why black people in the United States, who use drugs at a similar rate as whites, are arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for drug offenses at widely disproportionate rates. In a similar vein, one may deduce that police violence and brutality are not so much matters of “unfortunate circumstances” or “bad apples” as they are basic elements in the enforcement of unequal power relations. And, in fact, comparisons to Nazi secret police may not be as far fetched as formerly suggested. After all, U.S. police have been known to operate “black sites,” and the FBI seems to believe that US police agencies have been infiltrated by white supremacists and other right-wing extremists. Not to mention that their actions have resulted in the imprisonment of more than 1 in every 100 Americans, a prison population that now exceeds 20% of the world’s total.