Bad Cop, No Donut

Author: Dom Rottman

13 August 2020

In my last piece I mentioned how real change with respect to police brutality could not occur outside of “pipe dream reforms such as disarming the police.” However, in that comment, I was practicing idealistic restraint. Letting that go, however, as I will for the rest of this piece, what I meant to say was a dream that not even a drug-induced congress or parliament could even conceive: abolition of the police.

Yes, I mean no police. I don’t mean defund the police a little, I mean defund the police to zero dollars and zero cents. Preposterous!–from a certain point of view. The idea of abolition of the police, like the abolition of prisons, and the abolition of a lot of things, takes its place in the political imaginary outside the realm of “reform,” which is why the notion seems so preposterous to a liberal political imaginary which tends to restrict itself to the realm of reform. There is no abolition of the police in liberalism, there is only room for defunding them. There is no room for abolition of prisons, there is only room for removing privatized ones. There is no room for the abolition of slavery, there is only room for the Missouri Compromise.

So why whole hog and not half? The point always bears repeating: The police is an inherently violent institution. The state requires agents to exert its monopoly on force to maintain rule of law, and the police are among these agents. If one argues for reformed police, the result is reformed violence; if one argues for defunded police, the result is less violence–which is why the call to defund police is rather powerful, as far as reforms go. Yet even defunding the police still does not fix or root out the essential problem with police. It only reduces it, which is perhaps the most the reform-minded liberal political imaginary can hope for. It really is all or nothing.

Yet the very existence of the police seems almost timeless or even natural. On the other hand, some point to evidence that suggests that, in the United States, the police is not very new at all, and in fact has its roots in rounding up fugitive slaves and maintaining that peculiar institution. There is some truth to both of these. There is indeed well-documented evidence (yes, that’s 4 different links) and well-crafted arguments that suggest that in the United States slave patrols had strong influence and were indeed a precursor to modern police. Yet, a cursory google search and Wikipedia browsing session on the subject will reveal everything from the ancient Roman vigiles and that an Englishman named Robert Peel is perhaps responsible for modern policing. Such findings aren’t really mutually exclusive; the key point is that, as long as there has been a state to create laws, there has always been an “arm” to enforce those laws with violent force. This makes reasonable sense if Max Weber’s definition is to hold: if a state is defined by a monopoly on force, there must of course be a way to use that monopoly on force.

There are three obvious objections to the defunding or, as I would have it, abolition of the police. I will address them in order to flesh out the argument here.

Without Police, who will respond to mental health crises, car accidents, vandalism, the homeless, and other (non-violent) issues?

Literally anyone else. Respectively, Social workers–recently employed and deployed with success– Insurance agents or the DMV, a cleaning crew, a homeless shelter (or no one, try fixing systemic issues for once instead of treating the poor as an eyesore). Overall, Institutions or organizations that do or have yet to but can exist. The idea is that while, yes, the police do in fact do these largely good and necessary activities, it could just as well have been another institution or organization. Why? It is because activities like responding to mental health crises, car accidents, vandalism, the homeless are not essentially police activities. What distinguishes the police from any other institution is the capacity and duty to uphold and enforce the law with the state’s monopoly on force. When people want to defund the police, they do not mean to abolish these nonviolent duties, far from it. Indeed, many if not most of these people, in recognizing that these activities and acts of community service can be done by some other institution, desire that police funding be diverted to the development of or investment in other groups to assure the continued support of these kinds of acts. Better yet, some might dare to accept the responsibility of organically organizing something to take on these activities themselves. When people say to “defund the police,” they mean to reduce that essential police activity: violent enforcement of the law.

Of course, despite the lack of harm to individuals, force and violence is often used to respond to things like vandalism, the homeless, and loitering anyway. If morally dubious, it’s consistent with the fact that laws, however unjust, require force to back them up. This is a problem that could be solved only by abolition rather than defunding–and would thus require a fundamental shift in justice. Only abolition would create the conditions and cause necessary to create organizations and other nonviolent means to respond to nonviolent issues. The fact that the police are hardly ever perceived as aggressors against vandals, loiterers, and the homeless–despite such criminals’ lack of violence towards human individuals–suggests that the maintenance of private property and its exclusionary image is just as if not more important of a duty to police than preventing threat to human lives. This is not the time or place for a debate on the matter of private property1. I should hope, however, that one realizes one is more important than the other. Regardless of one’s feelings on private property, however, the point to get across is that it is unjust to respond to private property issues with violence–even though John Locke says otherwise. I understand that this is a more radical and difficult point, but as I said, abolition of the police would necessarily require a reconfiguration of our conceptions of rights and justice.

Without police, who will take care of and defend our communities?

Suspending the golden rule, it is generally considered just to respond to violence with violence. Even the most ardent anti-police individual has trouble complaining about police capturing, shooting, or imprisoning rapists, murderers, and armed robbers. Therefore, this is the most important and central question abolition of the police must face. Indeed, it is not an easy question to answer, but confers on us the responsibility and opportunity to imagine alternatives. It remains more difficult still because we have not been given the time or opportunity, nor has it occurred to us to imagine alternatives. However, as it happens, we might look at various communities in history and in our present time, such as the historical maroon communities, the work of groups such as the Black Panthers, and overall look at a philosophy of self-defense and community responsibility to exercise with the most careful discretion any need for forcible action. Indeed, as individuals, rather than wearing a mask constricted to the avenues of a particular occupation, we would be more inclined to solve problems outside of violence which remain the unique means the police provide as a solution to social issues. With the abolition of the police, the use of force is deprioritized when thrust into the responsibility of the community. There is nothing the police can do now that ordinary people cannot do themselves (theoretically, the state has a rather curious preoccupation with arbitrarily deciding what individuals should have the responsibility of doing) outside of the legal use of force; yet If force is ever necessary, it should fall on the discretion of those same individuals who would use it as a matter of responsibility rather than occupation. In other words, violence is better managed individually than institutionally.

If the response to that is that it is ridiculous to put the responsibility to use or not use violence in the hands of the ordinary people, is it not ridiculous to put the responsibility in the hands of the few who make up police? They’re no more or less human than you or I. In this climate, in this pool of blood spilt by the state, why would you trust a gun in the hands of a policeman any more than in the hands of your neighbor? Training? Fair, but it seems grossly ineffective if recent results are any sign. A college degree takes longer and, in that sense, is more rigorous. Besides, It is not as if a “policeless” society would be arming folks willy-nilly–communities can and should provide proper training for the use of lethal and nonlethal force. The point is that the police are the police because they are authorized to and are themselves the exclusive violent means of the state–I could not think of an easier road to peace than the abolition of an entity whose entire existence is predicated on the active use of violence. Violence is indeed a dangerous thing and a weighty responsibility to have–but think of how many people realize this. If all individuals have this responsibility–which we do to an extent, as regardless of the law we can always choose to be violent–look how disinclined individuals are to use it. If the worry is that “we need police” or “we need established order” then I think nothing would be better than for every individual to themselves take on the heart of the responsibility of what we believe our police to have–to protect and serve.

This reform is simply not possible!

I know. That’s the point. If this is impossible, even inconceivable, then police brutality in America and indeed the whole world will not end. Maybe you can reduce it, but unless the police are abolished brutality won’t be either. By the same token, when it comes to the thought behind defunding, reduction of brutality cannot be done without the reduction of the police.

That said, whether the defunding of the police would in practice actually reduce violence on a linear scale or even at all would depend on the priorities of the state, of which we are right to be skeptical of. It’s entirely possible that a lack of funding would lead to pay cuts, benefit cuts, cheaper and poorly made uniforms, or other corner-cutting measures that would not actually end up reducing state violence as opposed to, say, less guns, less ammunition, the inability for the NYPD to have the potential to conquer a small country, or less men on the force–measures which one would hope defunding would lead to.

Applying a similar line of thought to abolition of the police–where the priorities of the state lie–forces one to contemplate even bigger questions. Recall what I said earlier; that if the state is defined by a monopoly on force, there must be a means to wield that monopoly. Recall further that, despite various evolutionary changes, the art of “policing” in the barest sense can be traced back to the ancient period. Is it possible that not only the liberal state, but any kind of state, cannot exist without the police?

Maybe. But it is for this reason that defunding, and its logical conclusion, abolition, is a particularly powerful, mind-blowing, and revolutionary idea. If the existence of the state and the police are inextricably tied, then the reduction of the police is inextricably tied to a necessary reimagining of statecraft and political society. With defunding, one must come up with various and creative ways to deal with social and political problems heretofore unthought of, as explored briefly above. With abolition, this gets turned up to 11, where problems greater in quantity and gravity must be rethought, rechallenged, and recapitulated. As I said, we have not had the need or the opportunity to contemplate these issues or the possibilities that are borne within them.

I suppose, then, that to an extent one might be right to say that it is foolhardy to think that defunding or abolishing the police would solve our problems with violence. Indeed, it isn’t that simple; yet it is a necessary gateway to not just a less violent world but a totally reformed political society. If that’s not a comforting thought, then defunding the police is as absurd and dangerous as it sounds. It is radical and insensible to a liberal and reform-minded political society. But if society is beyond a few tweaks, defunding, which prefigures abolition, is at least a decent first step to systemic change and upheaval. More importantly, it prepares us to face, contemplate, and engage in political issues in a different, better, and holistic way that is necessary for a new and democratic political society responsible for the duties required.

  1. Understand, though, that there is a fundamental difference between private property–usually a piece of land that excludes the public–and personal property, which consists of personal effects like clothes, computers, and toothbrushes. Taking the latter is generally still considered an act of aggression even for those who do not believe in private property. ↩︎