Imagine a restaurant with lousy service where people keep getting food poisoning. Eventually you fire a couple of cooks and waiters and put up a sign that says “Under new management.”
If after a couple of months folks are still getting E-coli from the salad bar you sell the restaurant to a new owner. They remodel the place, but we all know it still looks like a Pizza Hut even if the name out front is New China Dynasty.
The problem is no matter how you change the name or the menu, the restaurant is built on a toxic waste dump, and you can’t fix it without tearing the whole thing down and starting up somewhere new.
American policing is a bad restaurant, built on a lousy foundation, that’s been killing the Black folks it’s supposed to serve for over a century. We can’t just slap a new name on it, reform or defund it, America has to abolish policing and start all over if we truly care about Black lives.
I’m not a political activist, revolutionary or radical by any stretch. I’m a political analyst and professor who thought America wasn’t ready for an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders type ‘revolution’ (they weren’t), who knows that most change in America happens slowly, and that while reparations are morally warranted, they probably won’t happen in my lifetime.
However, after watching and participating in protests over the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks (a name that was literally added to this list in the two weeks since starting this article) and conversations with activists, politicians and police officers it’s become obvious that modern American policing just isn’t working, and the only solution is to abolish policing as we know it.
For the last 20 years, we’ve had politicians call for abolishing the IRS and defunding the Department of Education. During the 2012 election Mitt Romney threatened to defund PBS and put Big Bird out of a job because kids weren’t learning fast enough. So, let’s not pretend that abolishing a government agency that isn’t working, in this case the police, is some radical or revolutionary idea. It’s just common sense, and it’s time for the rest of America to reach that same conclusion.
Black Americans have been protesting about police and white vigilantes killing us without consequence with renewed vigor since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement about 7 years ago. In the wake of hundreds of viral videos of police abusing peaceful protesters now even a large swath of White America sees what African Americans have been saying all along. Now that the problem is obvious, what is the best solution?
“We need to stop training police like a paramilitary organization” Rodney Jacobs, a military lawyer and assistant director of Miami’s Police Civilian oversight committee, tells theGrio. Police are trained like an occupying army, he explains, when a large part of their job is actually customer service.
Many cities have tried re-training and reforming the police, and that hasn’t solved the endemic violence against Black bodies. Laws have been passed requiring body cameras, the use of non-lethal weapons and outlawing chokeholds.
Cops just turn off their cameras, innocent people still get blinded by rubber bullets, and you can hire anyone from an MMA coach to yoga instructor to claim that a chokehold isn’t actually a chokehold in court (and that’s only if the victim is lucky enough to get the choke caught on camera).
Defunding the police, which is really just a provocative way to say re-distribute funds to programs that have a greater track record in reducing crime, like social workers, after school programs and drug intervention, is a good start but it has a fatal flaw.
Tishaura Jones, city treasurer of St. Louis, says she’s always preferred “being smart on crime,” which is a mixture of funding changes and new approaches to policing because defunding as a method of police reform is only as powerful as the next administration.
All it takes is a new mayor, city council or budget, and all of that money to after-school programs goes right back into building a new police academy. The value of abolishing the police is that it recognizes that funding a broken system, at any level, is basically spending more cash at a restaurant with an “F” health rating.
The two biggest concerns about abolishing the police are that the streets will run wild like The Purge without cops and, as my colleague Tiffany Cross said on a recent Instagram Live for theGrio, “[Abolishing the police is nice] but I’m a single woman living alone, who am I going to call if somebody is breaking into my house?”
These are real fears but they’re based mostly on myth and propaganda. First, there isn’t much of a correlation between the number of police on the streets and crime reduction. In fact, recent studies show fewer police and less aggressive policing actually lowers the crime rate.
Next, police rarely stop crime BEFORE it happens; over 60% of sexual assaults and robberies go unsolved by police and in many major cities less than 35% of homicides are ever solved. Hollywood would have you believe that most police work is Bad Boys‘ Mike and Marcus knocking down doors and fighting cartels when it’s really directing traffic and getting cats out of trees.
If the police aren’t stopping crime from happening, nor solving crimes that have happened, and are routinely brutalizing Black people what do we replace them with? A multi-layered agency composed of social workers, mediators, drug intervention specialists and a small cadre of people specifically trained to use force when absolutely necessary.
These agents will be trained to integrate not occupy communities, and promotion will be based on customer service evaluation from citizens as opposed to the number of arrests they make per month. This is not a crazy idea. There have been pilot programs all over the country that show many of the 911 calls police respond to could be solved by other local government agencies.
If you are a single woman living alone who thinks her home is being broken into there is still a specialized force officer available to help, however, in all of the other instances that we used to rely on the police to intervene, there is a better way.
Which works better? A cop showing up to a domestic dispute, escalating conflict because he’s got a gun and a bulletproof vest, or a street trained social worker who can talk down both parties and call for force back-up if needed?
Which is less likely to end up with dead Black bodies? A trained drug intervention officer showing up to tell a bunch of teens to stop smoking on a front stoop, or a duo of armed cops who know that their next promotion depends on how many drug arrests they get per month? You can call them Peace Officers, Public Safety Force, even Watchmen, doesn’t matter.
What does matter is a new public safety model that actually solves crimes, is accountable to the public and is less likely to result in dead Black men, women and children. What do we do with all of those former city cops? City police could be phased out over a 3-5 year plan with preferred hiring for other city jobs, early retirements or buyouts based on seniority.
They should not be allowed to join the new Watchmen Units, anymore than you’d hire a former Enron executive to head up a new regulatory agency. Trust me, police would still be getting a better deal than the thousands who get laid off from Verizon or Wal-Mart with no warning.
America needs to stop going to the same terrible restaurant with lousy service, aggressive staff and a history of killing its customers thinking this time it’s going to be different. Black Lives Matter, justice is on the menu and we know unless we abolish modern policing we’ll never truly get service.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Politics and Journalism at Morgan State University, a Political Contributor at MSNBC and SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio. Notorious comic book and sports guy with dual Wakandan and Zamundan citizenship.
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