Time to Dismantle the Police

Part XII: A Manifesto for the United States of America

Basketball star Jaylen Brown has said only a few words publicly about the problem of police brutality, abuse, repression and impunity, but they are important words that cut right to the core of both the problem and its solution. He has said that we should stop speaking and thinking in terms of “reform” and begin thinking in terms of “dismantle” and “recreate”. He has said that reform is not enough, that it is not enough to remodel the kitchen, but rather to build a new house from the foundation up.

It is unfortunate that the strike of the NBA players ended so soon, without major consequences. It could have generated sympathetic strikes and similar actions, and potentially stimulated major changes of the kind that Jaylen envisions. Of course, that is precisely the reason it was shut down, and why the heavy hand of Barack Obama had to be the instrument of closure.

Police repression and brutality has much to do with the inequity in our society. In a stratified, inequitable society, with few superrich at the top and most of the masses suffering at the bottom, repression is necessary in order to maintain the privilege of those at the top, and to guard their power. That is why Jaylen’s vision applies not only to the police, but to our entire society. We must “recreate” it to make it more equitable and more just. It is not enough to “reform” it.

This article is the last in a series of proposals for major changes throughout our society, mostly through extension of already existing programs and mechanisms. I have saved the proposal for the police until last because I do not think that changes to law enforcement practices can survive long without changes to the society. This does not mean that any one of the proposed changes must precede any of the others, but rather that they all support each other regardless of the order of implementation, and become stronger and more likely to survive and thrive when they are all present to bolster each other.

Nevertheless, the proposal for the police must be addressed as its own issue. And Jaylen has hit the nail on the head. The existing police system, structure, training and culture must be dismantled and replaced with something new and different.

Background

The U.S. has some of the most brutal and violent police in the world, with the highest incarceration rate, enforced disproportionately upon Black Americans, Indigenous peoples, the poor and minorities, while the wealthy use the system to escape prosecution and punishment for their crimes. U.S. police forces typically use violent, military style techniques of law enforcement, ordering citizens to submit and obey every command, upon pain of beatings and other torture, as well as the use of firearms and other military weapons, with deadly results.

Historically, the police have always been “hired thugs” whose job was to “enforce” the law, i.e. to use force for that purpose. But that role has always been discretionary. Possession and use of cocaine, for example, has always been vastly more heavily enforced in Black, Native and poor communities than in mostly white college parties and upscale neighborhoods. Rich and influential people have connections. Poor people don’t. In societies where the power is concentrated at the top, the police become guardians of the powerful and the scourge of the weak. It’s Sociology 101.

Are there “good” cops? Of course there are, but the system is against them, and even they are inculcated in the culture of their work, taught the “facts of life” and discouraged from “rocking the boat”. Are cops taught to use force as a last resort? Yes, they are. But their first resort is often a threat of force, rather than to hear both sides of the story and to try to act in the best interest of all. Police demand surrender and obedience, and are not prepared to try symmetrical cooperation. They rarely give importance to the views of the target of enforcement. Cops are not chosen or taught to listen to potential suspects.

We are told that policing is a dangerous job and that police risk their lives. Perhaps, but their training and protocol do not usually include manually disarming a suspect with a knife, for example, even when their life is not really at stake, only potential injury. They are authorized to use firearms when they “have reason to believe” that the other person may be armed and dangerous. In such situations they are trained to aim for the trunk, where most of the bodily organs are located, because that is the biggest target and most likely to “stop” the suspect. Despite the fact that hitting the legs or arms might be equally effective and less dangerous to the suspect, they are trained not to take the risk, even though they might be saving the life of the suspect.

Many of us can cite examples from our own experience of unreasonable, threatening and even physically abusive police. Blacks, Natives, the poor and other groups are disproportionately subject to these abuses. Does it have to be this way? What changes are possible?

A proposal

I believe that the entire system must be dismantled and scrapped, as Jaylen has said. It is rotten and corrupted to the core. It has a white supremacist history that is still a dominant element, and the idea that police are hired thugs remains the basis of its mandate and its culture. American films and television show that this view of the police carries over into popular media, where it becomes glamorized.

Many reforms have been suggested, including the following:

  • citizen policing, plaintiff/victim involvement and negotiated resolution/sentencing
  • elimination of cash bail
  • participation of formerly convicted persons
  • issuance of firearms only in exceptional circumstances
  • non-police services for appropriate situations
  • an end to military-style training
  • an end to no-knock warrants
  • an end to mass surveillance of the public, and individually only in response to warrants

These and more are all worthwhile suggestions on their own, but they are reforms, not redesign from the ground up. What we need is to scrap the whole system and rebuild, keeping these reforms in mind, but also an open mind to new ways.

Obviously, doing away with the police as we know them is not going to do away with crime and violence. Inequality, racism, classism, discrimination, stereotyping and similar prejudices have a lot to do with the way police behave toward other people. Creating a more equitable society in general will go a long way to reducing these sources of criminality and violence. That is what the proposals in the prior eleven installments of these articles is intended to accomplish, insofar as possible. They are not a panacea, but they at least create fertile ground for society to address its problems more constructively.

It is too much to expect that we will create a society completely free from crime and violence. We therefore need a means of addressing it. My view is that the existing policing system, its training and recruitment practices and its inherited culture is essentially impervious to reform. It has to be torn down and something else built in its place.

My suggestion would be to look at examples from other societies that are more successful than we are in controlling crime and violence, and incorporate what we can. My favorite proposal is to outsource.

A brief glimpse of what is possible occurred in April, 2015, when four Swedish cops on vacation broke up a fight on a New York subway. Their treatment of the violent combatants contrasted sharply with what we have come to expect from our police. They were polite, considerate and kind, and although they used force, they did not use pain, and they asked the combatants if they were hurt.

One incident is merely an isolated example, but it is at least an illustration of what is possible. Policing in the Nordic countries is very different. It has a very different internal culture, and a degree of professionalism that is reflected by the fact that three years of training is generally required, compared with mere months in many U.S. police training programs.

Can we replicate it in the U.S.? Perhaps not, but we don’t have to. If we are serious about making the necessary changes, we can outsource the policing of an entire city to whatever country we think might provide a good model. Of course, it will require factfinding and negotiation. The foreign organization will want to visit, study and put a plan together, then make a proposal that includes conditions that they consider necessary for success. They may want to work with U.S. counterparts, but we should be cautious about what they learn from the existing police system. The whole point is to undo that system.

The city chosen for this experiment should be neither exceptional nor particularly large – perhaps no more than 200,000, with a crime rate that is neither unusually high or low, and at least receptive to the proposal. Funding will rely in part on the existing portion of the police budget of the city, but also most likely from foundations that are interested in an experiment of this kind, and perhaps federal funds, as well especially during the transition period.

The intent is to create a model program, drawing little or nothing from existing programs, and turning over unprecedented discretionary authority to the outsourced contractors. If successful, it can be used to redesign law enforcement in other locations.

Of course, every effort must be made to assure success. The entire society would need to be involved. Some of the things to be discussed with the foreign contractors would be the reforms mentioned earlier, as well as additional concerns, such as incarceration laws and practices. These must also be recreated from the ground up if policing is to be successful. This is a package deal.

In fact, it is hard to imagine replacing a police force without doing the same with the penal institutions. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. This is disgraceful enough, but it is also a racist system that incarcerates a disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous peoples, Hispanic and other minority groups. This must end, and should be included in the management contract with the outsourced consultants, to the extent that they should be able to set conditions and practices, in cooperation with local communities. Some of the provisions over which they might need to have control are:

    • reduction or elimination of mandatory sentences
    • ending incarceration for most nonviolent and juvenile offenders
    • investigation of unusually harsh or lenient sentencing tendencies by judges
    • provision without cost of all products and services required to maintain health and cleanliness for inmates
    • end routine infliction of pain or isolation in prisons
    • provision of commissary products at prevailing rates outside the prison, not including necessary hygiene items, which must be without cost
    • provision of free telephone service within security guidelines to both inmates and families
    • citizen review of prison practices and prisoner complaints, including abusive practices
    • ending private prisons. All prisons must be publicly owned and operated
    • ending the profit motive for prison labor by assuring that there is no cost advantage in its use.

The American police and penal system needs help, and will not find it internally, where it cannot escape its racist, supremacist, abusive past. We also cannot fabricate its replacement out of thin air. While corporate America is not always an example that we might wish to emulate, it has hired outside consultants and outsourced its failing elements in order to achieve success. A similar effort with respect to our failing public institutions deserves to be tried.

Paul Larudee is one of the founders of the Free Gaza and Free Palestine Movements and an organizer in the International Solidarity Movement. Read other articles by Paul.