Minneapolis just took a step shocking many in this country. They’ve voted to disband their police department. And while many cry “iT wIlL bE aNaRcHy!” (I wish, but we’d have a long way to go until we reach anarchy. Maybe instituting democracy, perhaps?) it’s not exactly what people tend to imagine. According to Steve Fletcher, a representative of Minneapolis’s Ward 3, the city plans to “start fresh with a community-oriented, nonviolent public safety and outreach capacity.” This has many asking, “what would that even look like?”
As an anarchist, this kind of change is something my comrades and I talked about at length, and depending on how terms are defined, the argument can go many ways, but this is the place it usually ends up: the institution we now call “police” is irredeemably broken because of systemic racism and military-style responses to regular incidents and must be replaced. Anarchists and other folks who support disbanding our police forces aren’t arguing that no one should enforce laws, even though many of us would agree that many laws and punishments need to be changed as well, but what we are arguing is that we need to fundamentally rethink what our law enforcement system looks like. Right now, armed police respond to drug and mental health crises, which is a bigger problem than you might think.
Imagine this scenario, your house is on fire, and you call emergency services. Ten minutes later and you’re running your belongings into the yard while the fire spreads through the back of your house, a police cruiser arrives. A police officer steps out of the car, one hand waving for your attention, the other on their gun. “Drop it,” they demand, and fearfully you comply.
“Put your hands where I can see them,” they demand, their hand still on the gun. “I… I… My house is on fire!” you stammer.
“I got a call about an arson, and I see you here cleaning the place out. Put your hands on your head.”
“It’s my house,” you plead. In your mind, your thoughts race, where is the fire department?
Can you imagine that scene? There is no fire department. The state responds to fires with armed police, trained only to seek out and respond to criminal behavior often with the threat of, if not use of, deadly force. This hypothetical situation may seem absurd, but this is how we handle a number of life-threatening crises in this country.
In the case of drug crises where the police are called, it’s often a situation of overdose. The incident has to have escalated into a life or death situation before law enforcement is even considered an option. The War on Drugs puts addicts at odds with the police and this makes a potentially fatal problem even worse. Fearing arrest, they too often die alone, scared of how militarized officers will respond to a crisis of the human heart and soul. And even in cases where the police show up, armed and on edge, they may die by the hands of an officer with an itchy trigger finger fearing a “methed out madman.” This dynamic would be very different if we sent an addiction specialist. Someone not only with the medical expertise to be able to save their life but to offer them real help afterward instead of lead, metal bracelets, and iron bars.
Consider a mental health crisis; specifically, consider up to half of the people police kill each year have some form of disability. This number could be considerably higher with the lack of access to healthcare the general population faces leading to many disabilities going unrecorded. Sending armed police to respond to a crisis of mental health is at best like sending a line cook to perform open-heart surgery, and at worst like having a fox guard your henhouse. Even outside of this circumstance, if the victim has any difficulty communicating, hearing, or complying quickly with an order, the police are far more likely to take their life when interacting with them on even a routine call. There are situations where responding to a medical emergency like a stroke has led to the death of unarmed civilians. Wouldn’t it be better to send someone with the training to respond to the crisis through non-violent means?
What about violent crime? First, it’s important to realize that violent crime is steadily decreasing even as we increase the militarization of the police. Our response does not match the needs of our times. If the criminal has left the scene of the crime when the call for help is made, it makes more sense to send detectives and forensics. Neither role requires guns and could be armed with less than lethal weapons, just in case. What if the suspect is still around, but unarmed? For this task, a team trained in de-escalation and negotiation would be best, and again guns aren’t needed, but could perhaps be in the trunk of the squad car, allowing them to retreat and arm themselves if needed.
What if it’s an active, armed standoff? Now you can send in armed police, but even then, they should be trained to use lethal force as a last resort, and they would be investigated for its use in any situation. It must be warranted. We have the 6th amendment for a reason, and each police murder is a violation of the suspect’s right to a trial by jury.
The reality of policing is often very different from this. Police are poorly trained, often with a focus on using violence to resolve conflict, and they often use that training with a little prejudice and heavy bias. Compare the training on the law given to a police officer and the training given to any lawyer. There’s a difference of many years of education, and yet, these are the people we expect to enforce our laws. The reality of the complex job they are asked to do with this minimal training goes far beyond that, though, often delving into the many areas that I have outlined above. If the police aren’t even trained to understand the law, why should we expect them to handle all of these other issues as well?
This change of emphasis on gear to an emphasis on knowledge would create more jobs for our college graduates within their community with good pay, but it would also decrease the amount of the budget spent on the police, in part by focusing on being more reactive than hyperactive. This would also allow investigative units more time and manpower to work on difficult cases, as understaffed police departments across the nation fail to solve them at astonishing rates even with modern tools and technology. This change alone would do more to curb crime than our current model of policing, where instead of spending so much time looking for crime, they could focus on solving the crimes that truly impact their citizens.
The impact on the city budget would have profound effects as well by leaving more money to support the community in unique ways. There could be an increase in the types of community services that would respond to calls listed above, but also, that proactively prevent crime through the improvement of the state of the community to the point where the lifestyle of crime no longer makes sense. Money could be spent to truly better the community – providing housing to the homeless, help to those in need, food to the hungry. Solving these problems would leave less people feeling like they need to commit criminal actions just to survive in a harsh world. Fewer people would turn to hard drugs and fewer people would have mental health breakdowns requiring a call to emergency services.
This impact could be increased by shifting more minor responsibilities to volunteers in different areas. This could include victim/survivor advocates, religious leaders, and in some cases, even calling on the neighbors and friends of those in need.
These aren’t the only things that need to change regarding our current system. Right now, “police chief” is an unelected and mostly unaccountable position. Shifting to a civil service model would create more roles roughly equivalent to the police chief and I would have all of these positions voted into power by the community. Furthermore, there needs to be a mechanism for removing individuals through a public petition if simply voting to change the chief in charge doesn’t solve the problem. To support this, records of their misbehavior must be available to the public, otherwise, how can they make proper and informed decisions about who is doing their job well or poorly?
Also… look, I’m upset I have to explain this but, police having sex with detainees and suspects on duty is never consensual. The power balance here is unequal for the same reasons it is with bosses, teachers, and parents. The power imbalance is so great that sometimes the victims either think they can’t say no or fear the consequences if they do. This is a legal defense that the police can use in 35 states. Which is 35 more than it would be if we lived in an ideal world.
Another issue is police unions. While disbanding the police would also necessarily disband police unions, it is certainly possible that we may run into equivalent problems down the road as the minority of armed civil servants enforcing the law unionize. To solve problems arising from this eventuality, it must be solved proactively. Currently, police unions bargain for regulations that place very different rules on police officers than regular citizens in how they are potentially punished for taking violent actions. This should not be allowed to happen. Unions regulating how an employer may punish its employees is one thing, but when its employer is the one enforcing the law to begin with it creates a real judicial double standard that we have seen time and time again used to shield killer cops from the consequences of their actions. Speaking of double standards, we have to end the practice of qualified immunity, which shields the police from lawsuits in civil court, meaning that in addition to criminal charges often not being brought against the police, civil lawsuits are often nearly impossible as well. Another issue is the concept of a Police Bill of Rights, which police unions have passed in several states, allowing police more rights than the general public, again giving them additional rights that we don’t have.
Maybe this all sounds too good to be true, but it’s already beginning to happen in Minneapolis. However, they aren’t even the first town to disband their police for the benefit of their community. Camden, New Jersey had one of the highest rates of murder back in 2012, with 67 homicides recorded that year alone. In the following year, they disbanded their police department and started over. The changes weren’t revolutionary, they had officers wear and use body cameras, study de-escalation, and involve themselves in more non-crisis events within the community as a means of building mutual trust with the citizens of Camden. To continue their journey from a combative force in the streets to a welcome one, officers were no longer judged on their number of arrests and tickets, instead, they were commended for spending increasing time on community service. In the past 7 years, murders have decreased by two thirds, and violent crime has decreased by half. Perhaps this indicates that the problem wasn’t Camden, after all, it was the police.
During Camden’s Black Lives Matter protests in June, there was reportedly no violence between the police and the protesters. They even participated and helped organize them. This represents an improvement over the status quo of policing in American cities, but it’s not a perfect solution. It does, however, show that disbanding the police can be done to the benefit of the community and what is planned in Minneapolis sounds like it could be even more radical. So, as we move forward into a bright and uncertain future, let’s keep in mind the changes that we would like to see in our communities.
As you can see, there’s a lot of work to be done. Laws to change, customs to break, people to hire for jobs that will help heal our community instead of harm it. The first thing to do is to defund or even disband your local police. From there, we may begin to build stronger, more cohesive communities.