A short history of abolishing the police
A new department has always risen to take its place
The Minneapolis Police Department isn't going to be dissolved overnight, despite suggestions to the contrary, but in Minneapolis and nationwide, public pressure to overhaul American policing has hit a new zenith.
Some protesters have jettisoned reform demands in favor of polarizing calls to "defund," "dismantle," or "abolish" the police entirely. A look at American history near and far can shed a little light on a conversation that is, so far, all heat.
The meaning of "defunding" and similar anti-reformist talk varies from mouth to mouth. Some plans sound like Campaign Zero's reform agenda, with action items like demilitarizing police, ending qualified immunity and civil asset forfeiture, and revising use of force codes. Others are more like #8toAbolition, which calls Campaign Zero's current emphases "dangerous and irresponsible" and offers instead a broader agenda for remaking housing policy, health-care, and more.
#8toAbolition wants a "world without police." That seems unlikely, even in Minneapolis. Lisa Bender, president of the Minneapolis City Council, said Monday on CNN she can "imagine a future without police." And yet, she added: "To me, that future is a long way away."
Bender pointed to Camden, New Jersey, as an emulation-worthy example of a city "that completely restructured their [police] department." Indeed, Camden has been widely cited as an impressive success story in the defunding conversation. In 2013, the city dissolved its police department and created a new department from scratch. Since then, complaints against Camden police have dropped by an incredible 95 percent; homicides are down by more than half, and other crime rates have fallen too, albeit not nearly so dramatically. Crucially, the new force is not bound by old police union contracts, which again and again have brazenly sided with abusive cops against the communities they victimize.
But Camden's police dismantlement did not create a "world without police." On the contrary, the new department has more officers, not fewer, and most of the officers from the old department were rehired at the new.
And though Camden is the best modern case study for the contemporary debate, there are older examples worth our notice, too. The first police departments in the United States were founded in the mid-1800s in large cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. (Other law enforcement organizations of varying structure and purpose already existed, like slave patrols, sheriff's offices, constabularies, night watches, and for-hire guards and detectives like the Pinkertons.)
These early departments focused on crime prevention and preservation of public order rather than investigating crimes already committed. In present-day parlance, we might say they did much more "broken windows" policing than detection. When investigation was added to police responsibilities, many investigators were deeply corrupt, so much so that Chicago abolished its criminal investigation unit a mere three years after it was introduced in 1861. Boston did the same in 1870, and New York City had its own corruption scandal in 1877. In each case, just as with Camden's entire department, the disbanded divisions were soon reconstituted.
Likewise noteworthy is the history of federal and state law enforcement agencies. Many of these were created in part to bypass corrupt local police — a sort of starting from scratch, albeit without the first step of disbandment. Yet whatever the intent, the result is we are now doubly (or triply or quadruply) policed. It is entirely normal in America to be monitored at once by municipal police, county sheriff's deputies, state police, and, albeit usually at a greater remove, federal law enforcement including the FBI, DEA, ATF, and ICE.
I see three lessons in this history. First, there's a warning in our layered law enforcement for activists planning to create new systems for dealing with public emergencies: If we're not careful, a decade from now we may find ourselves calling for reform or abolition of half a dozen agencies instead of one.
Second, though I doubt "defund the police" is a good slogan for practical politics, markedly scaling down the purview of cops is a vital reform. This means undoing overcriminalization — we need fewer laws — as well as ceasing to make cops the default "solution" to many circumstances, especially minor public disturbances and mental health crises, to which they're routinely called today, too often with tragic results. Likewise, rebuilding police forces from the ground up, as was done in Camden, may be necessary in some cities, particularly those with powerful police unions and use of force policies in need of a full rewrite.
And finally, history suggests neither police abolitionists' rosy visions of a cop-free future nor their detractors' insistence that The Purge is coming are likely to prove true. When the Minneapolis City Council concludes its intended year-long investigation into "what safety looks like for" Minneapolitans, the result will probably include some sort of state agency considered to hold a monopoly on legitimate use of force and tasked with enforcing criminal law. For brevity, we can call them "police."