Abolish the police?

It’s too early to say, but the death of George Floyd may actually lead to real policing reform in this country. The outcry has been enormous on all levels with protests in all U.S. states plus many foreign countries. It’s not one time protests either. This thing’s got legs. It’s causing brouhaha even here in Northampton, Massachusetts, about 85% white. Thousands have come out to demonstrate and our virtual city council meeting turned into a seven hour meeting as speaker after speaker called for defunding our police department, or at least redirecting some funds where it might do some good.

Defunding the police though sounds like abolishing the police. It definitely gets your attention, but for the most part those advocating for defunding really mean taking much of the police department’s budget and using it to address social issues instead. The basic issue is that police are first responders, and they are generally poor first responders on lots of the issues they encounter. They can’t do much to solve homelessness, but they can force homeless people to stop sleeping on park benches. Police operate on the assumption that using a hammer solves all problems, because that’s pretty much the only tool they have. The problem is made much worse because people who become cops are generally law-and-order types, who view life through an authoritarian prism. They are also disproportionately white.

So some remarketing is needed because defund the police in the end is likely only to play into the hands of Republicans, whose mantra is always rule of law, except, of course, for people like them. I’m not surprised that so many white people like me are having a hard time getting their minds around the scope of police violence. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been pulled over by a cop, and I’m 63 years old. For a lot of black people, it’s routine. Since my experiences with the police have always been good, it’s hard for me to believe that many of these many officers will behave so differently with people of a different skin tone.

The George Floyd murder though proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that police do murder people of color. It’s unclear why this particular murder may actually change things this time. But you know you are in trouble when, for the first time, two out of three white Americans agree that police use excessive force against people of color.

Clearly, your local police department will never go away. It’s not going to work if I am burgled if I am sent a social worker instead of a police officer trained to protect lives and property. Most policing though does not require a cop with a gun. The most effective policing likely requires police to be perceived as non-threatening and part of the community. That’s why true community policing tends to work well. Probably eighty percent of policing should be proactive rather than reactive. Generally, police with guns should only be called after police with nothing more dangerous on them than a billy club first assess the situation. We need a lot more Sheriff Andy Taylors on the street.

Those calling for police reform are for the most part right. Policing needs to change fundamentally, and many of those who do our policing need to find different professions. Laws that insulate cops from violent behavior need to be removed. Citizen tasks board need to look into police violence and have the power to remove officers. Clearly in many cases, police act as agents of oppression, forcing many mostly people of color to endure lives that are unendurable.

If police routinely treated white people like people of color, there is no question that we would get the kind of policing we need. We would not tolerate being pulled over disproportionately, roughed up or beaten by police. If we had incomes like most people of color, we would not tolerate substandard housing, lack of decent medical care and wages that rarely rise. We don’t see the bubble of privileges we’ve lived our lives in because it sounds like too wacky a conspiracy theory to believe is true. But it clearly exists, and for whatever reason, George Floyd’s death seems to have finally revealed a truth most of us whites have chosen not to see.

But we can’t wholly abolish the police. We need to remake the police and much of our society that is not serving the needs of the people. I strongly suspect that when the backlash to this is borne out in November, it will be clear to even Republicans that the status quo is no longer acceptable.