We are at an important moment in the debates over police reform.
With Donald Trump in the White House and Jeff Sessions heading the Department of Justice, many liberals see a profound threat to the push for police accountability. These reformers tend to have the ear of urban mayors, large criminal justice reform organizations, and the media. Their agenda prioritizes new technology for police such as body cameras and mobile smart phones, additional training to reduce bias and deescalate conflicts, more diversity within the ranks, new forms of community policing, and accountability mechanisms such as civilian review boards.
At the same time, there is a growing chorus of voices that question the standard suite of liberal reforms and instead demand more far-reaching changes. Often growing out of the prison abolition movement, these figures see policing as an extension of coercive state power that buttresses social inequalities. Organizations like Black Youth Project 100, Critical Resistance, and The Youth Justice Coalition call for a variety of de-policing measures that would shift funding for police into funding for youth programs and economic development.
Similarly, an increasing number of academics are providing more in-depth analyses of the injustices that underlie modern policing. Andrea Ritchie, in Invisible No More, details the horrible abuses that police mete out on women and girls of color in schools, on the street, at the border, and in the home, and concludes that “true safety for women of color requires an end to the ‘war on drugs,’ broken windows policing, and the ‘war on terror.’” Paul Butler, in his powerful new book Chokehold, insists that prisons and police must be replaced with institutions that actually help communities of color.
For these organizers and scholars, the aim of police reform — as community activist Rachel Herzing aptly puts it — “should not be to improve how police function but to reduce its role in our lives.”
I grew up on shows like Adam-12 that portrayed police as dispassionate enforcers of the law. This was the Hollywood of the sixties and seventies, when, in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, the media industry busied itself manufacturing a professional image for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Today, we are awash in police dramas and reality TV shows with a similar ethos and purpose. While some are more nuanced than others, by and large these shows portray the police as struggling to fight crime in a complex and at times morally contradictory environment. Even when they depict police as corrupt or brutal, as in Dirty Harry or The Shield, the underlying message is the same: police officers are there to get the bad guys.
But this is largely a liberal fantasy. As the veteran police scholar David Bayley argues,
The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime and continually argue that if they are given more resources, especially personnel, they will be able to protect communities against crime. This is a myth.
Liberals’ reform agenda stems from a belief that police are the legitimate mechanism for using force in the interests of the whole society. For them, the state, through elections and other democratic processes, represents the general will of the public as well as any system could; those who disregard the resulting rules, therefore, should face the police.
This is not to say that liberals give police carte blanche. They insist that police officers have an obligation to act in a way that the public respects and is in keeping with the rule of law. That is what separates police in a liberal democracy from those in a dictatorship.
Nor do liberals believe that US policing is without problems: they readily acknowledge that officers sometimes violate the public’s trust. But they see such failings as individual missteps that can be rectified through disciplinary procedures or improvements to training and oversight.
If entire police departments are found to be discriminatory, abusive, or unprofessional, then measures can be put in place to stamp out bias and bad practices through training, changes in leadership, and a variety of oversight mechanisms. Racist and brutal cops can be purged from the profession and an unbiased system of law enforcement can be reestablished. For liberals, police reform is always a question of what steps to take to restore law enforcement’s rightful legitimacy.
Reforming police forces to make them better trained, more accountable, and less racist are all laudable goals. But they leave intact the basic institutional functions of the police, which have never really been about public safety or crime control.
This misdiagnosis has long plagued the liberal reform project. As political scientist Naomi Murakawa points out, it was liberals’ willingness to ignore the profound legacy of American racism that helped yield the inadequate police and criminal justice reforms of the past. Rather than admit the central role of slavery and Jim Crow in both producing wealth for elite whites and denying basic life opportunities for blacks, liberals pushed a few modest social measures — backed up by a harsh criminal justice system that was supposed to transform black people’s behavior so they could better compete in the labor market. Their solution to crime wasn’t a massive jobs program, but a little more welfare spending and a lot more punitive policing.
Meanwhile, there was little discussion about whether the police were being asked to fix problems they were ill suited to solve.
What Police Do
If liberals are wrong-headed about police, what’s a more accurate way to view their role in society?
Simply put, the primary function of the police is to manage (and even produce) inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly controlling the behaviors of poor, working class, and nonwhite people — those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements. Police exist to “fabricate social order,” in the words of scholar Mark Neocleous, but that order rests on systems of exploitation.
American capitalism isn’t organized to represent the interests of everybody — it’s organized first and foremost around profit. Economic elites exercise enormous influence over the political process, and the police enforce the laws that are then churned out. Even with the democratic gains that popular movements have made (for instance, winning the right to vote and the right to unionize), the police still function as a violent imposition in oppressed communities — not as a benign entity, simply enforcing laws that society has collectively agreed upon. Police, Kristian Williams notes, “represent the point of contact between the coercive apparatus of the state and the lives of its citizens.”
When possible, the police aggressively and proactively prevent the formation of movements that pose a threat to this order, but when necessary they fall back on brute force. What’s important is that the prevailing arrangement is maintained.
This dynamic is nothing new. In fact, it accounts for the rise of the police.
As David Bayley has detailed, modern policing emerged in the eighteenth century when political and economic developments produced social upheavals that couldn’t be defused by existing private, communal, and informal processes. Popular demands for justice were met with expanded state power.
While the specific form of policing has changed in response to the shifting forms of resistance — whether slave revolts, general strikes, or crime and rioting in the streets — its basic function has persisted: managing the poor, foreign, and nonwhite on behalf of a system of economic and political inequality.
The past few decades have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the scope and intensity of police activity. More police are engaged in more enforcement of more draconian laws, sending incarceration, economic exploitation, and abuse sky high. This expansion mirrors the rise of mass incarceration, which in turn sprang from a set of economic and political crises.
In the 1960s and ’70s, politicians were anxious to find new ways to harness the support of white voters in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. As Michelle Alexander and others have pointed out, Richard Nixon used “law and order” rhetoric to stoke racist fears and convince many Southern whites to vote Republican for the first time since Reconstruction. Following the resounding defeat of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988 for being “soft on crime,” Democrats came to fully embrace this strategy too, leading to disasters like Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which added tens of thousands of additional police and stepped up the drug and crime wars.
America’s changing economic realities have played a central role in this process as well. In the early 1980s, the deep recession created a new, mostly African-American, permanent underclass, largely excluded from the formal economy. In response, government mobilized at all levels to manage this new “surplus population” through intensive policing and mass incarceration. As unemployment, poverty, and homelessness increased, government, police, and prosecutors worked together to criminalize huge swaths of the population, aided by ideologies like broken-windows theory and the superpredator myth.
For poor and working-class people, particularly in nonwhite communities, police became an increasingly pervasive, and increasingly aggressive, presence.
Crime and Policing
Of course, police do more than suppress social movements and crack down on poor people. Police today are clearly concerned with matters of public safety and crime control, however misguided their methods might be. Compstat and other management techniques are designed to address serious crime problems, and significant resources go into these efforts.
But this crime-fighting orientation is itself a form of social control. From Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, there is extensive research to show that what counts as crime and what gets targeted for control is shaped by concerns about racial and class inequality and the potential for social and political upheaval.
The criminal justice system excuses and ignores the crimes of the rich — even those that produce profound social harms — while criminalizing the behaviors of the poor and nonwhite, including those behaviors that produce few social harms. And when the crimes of the rich are addressed, it’s generally through administrative controls and civil enforcement rather than aggressive policing, criminal prosecution, and incarceration. No bankers have been jailed for the 2008 financial crisis, even though their often blatantly fraudulent actions resulted in mass unemployment, homelessness, and economic dislocation.
American crime control is a system based around managing the “dangerous classes” that masquerades as a system of justice.
Indeed, police today are not that far removed from their colonialist forebears. They too enforce a system of laws designed to reproduce and maintain economic inequality, usually along racialized lines. The most damning example of this is the War on Drugs, in which millions of mostly black and brown people have been ground through the criminal justice system, their lives destroyed and their communities destabilized, without reduction in the use or availability of drugs.
While the police will often go through the motions of crime control — though not always — it is through a lens of class and race skepticism if not outright animus. And while individual officers may not harbor deep biases — though many do — the institution’s ultimate purpose has always been one of containing the poor and nonwhite, rather than producing anything resembling true justice.
Alternatives to Hyper-Policing
It is understandable that people have come to look to the police to provide them with safety and security. Poor people in particular bear the brunt of street crime, and after decades of neoliberal austerity, local governments have no will or ability to pursue the kinds of ameliorative social policies that might address crime and disorder without the use of armed police.
As mental health facilities close, police become the first responders to calls for assistance in mental health crises. As young people are left without adequate schools, jobs, or recreational facilities, they form gangs for mutual protection or participate in the black markets of stolen goods, drugs, and sex to survive and are then criminalized. As poverty deepens, housing prices rise, and government support for affordable housing evaporates, police adopt aggressive, “broken windows” policing.
Any program to reduce crime and enhance social well-being, much less achieve racial justice, must address these conditions. But the answer isn’t more police and jails.
These communities need more political power and resources to develop their own strategies for reducing crime. The money that would be saved by keeping people out of prison could be spent on drug and mental health services, youth programs, and jobs in the community. At the same time, offenders could be asked to make restitution to their victims and the community through community service projects, agreements to stay clean and sober, and participation in appropriate programming.
But not all problems can be solved at this level. Access to decent housing and employment and the ongoing problems of polarized income structures and racial discrimination in housing must be dealt with systemically. Raising the minimum wage, restoring transit links, and cracking down on housing discrimination are big problems that operate largely outside these poor neighborhoods.
The Black Youth Project in Chicago envisions a program for economic development that would substantially improve the lives of people in high-crime communities as an alternative to relying on police and prisons. Their “Agenda to Build Black Futures” calls for reparations and decent jobs that can sustain a family above the poverty line.
The Movement for Black Lives has also outlined a plan for economic and political justice that includes greater investment in schools and communities based on priorities developed by black communities. At the heart of their program is a set of economic justice proposals, including reparations, which would reduce inequality, enhance individual, family, and community wellbeing, and protect the environment. They call for major jobs programs, restrictions on Wall Street rapaciousness, and vigorous protections of workers’ rights.
Rural areas need help as well. The growth in opioid use is closely linked to the downward mobility of the rural poor and the advent of the War on Drugs. While simplistic protectionism and jingoistic anti-immigrant mania are unlikely to bring long-term stability, rural areas could become more economically sustainable and livable with green jobs, infrastructure development, and nontoxic food production. Reducing subsidies to multinational corporations that move jobs overseas to countries with little in the way of labor rights or environmental protections would also be a good start.
Modern policing is largely a war on the poor that does little to make people safer or communities stronger. Even when it does, this is accomplished through the most coercive forms of state power, destroying the lives of millions. Instead of asking the police to solve our problems, we must organize for real justice. We need to win a society designed to meet people’s human needs, rather than one ordered around the pursuit of private wealth at the expense of everything else.