Abolish the police: What does it really mean?

In the aftermath of nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a slogan has emerged: “Abolish the police.”

The phrase, predictably, has created plenty of controversy, especially on the right. And it even sounds a tad extreme for people on the left who believe that our way of policing is broken but shudder at the thought of doing away with cops entirely.

Yet there are different ways to think about a slogan like “abolish the police.” You can think of it as a literal policy proposal. Or you can think of it as a rhetorical device designed to shift the Overton window on what’s politically feasible (much like the phrase “abolish ICE” was conceived). If it’s the latter, then the real goal isn’t to terminate the police so much as frame the discussion in a way that makes radical change possible.

One thing is clear: The movement is hardly monolithic. Yes, the thinkers and activists involved with the movement all see the phrase as a serious call to completely rethink the very concept of law enforcement in this country. But they don’t all agree on the meaning of “abolish the police” — they see it as the distillation of a whole host of changes that go well beyond what is typically considered “realistic.” It is, in that sense, an attempt to think big in a moment that cries out for root-and-branch transformation.

This is the side of the debate I wanted to understand better. To be candid, I’ve been skeptical of the idea of “abolishing” the police, mostly because I don’t understand what it would mean to literally eliminate law enforcement. And as a purely political proposition, it seems like a gift to President Trump, especially as we head into November.

But I also knew there were nuances and ideas that were being lost — and that I was missing — in the heated discussions online. So I reached out to seven scholars and activists and asked them to explain, in their words, what they want to see in the world and why they want to see it.

In my outreach, I sought clarity on three questions in particular: What exactly do you mean by “abolish the police”? Why do you deem it preferable to a more pragmatic reformist agenda? And what do you say to the people, including those sympathetic to your cause, who think it’s a politically toxic frame that will boost Trump’s reelection prospects and undercut future attempts to address this problem?

Sidewalk graffiti after an anti-police brutality protest in Los Angeles on June 5.
Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Their responses were diverse and nuanced, with some taking more aggressive stances than others. But taken together, they bring some perspective to an argument that is very easily caricatured. You can read their full answers, lightly edited for length and clarity, below.

What “abolish the police” means

Jenn Jackson, political scientist, Syracuse University

By “abolish the police,” I mean building a world where we do not rely on anti-Black, white supremacist institutions of order to regulate society. This means that alternative forms of order might be embraced, like community care networks and justice structures rooted in restoration rather than punishment.

Yes, defunding police authorities and reinvesting in communities that are most affected by structural inequality is an approach. However, organizers are doing amazing work right now to think through many approaches and methods that might build a freer world and sustain Black futures. A good example is the “8 to Abolition” plan put together by young organizers and scholars. This campaign includes defunding police authorities. It also encourages decarceration, accessible housing, and decriminalizing Black, Brown, and poor communities.

By creating solutions that address police abolition and its relationship to mass incarceration and institutional racism, organizers are developing broad and complex mechanisms to address this problem.

Christian Davenport, political scientist, University of Michigan

There will be some variation here among proponents of the position, but I feel that it is worthwhile to have some advocate for completely eliminating the institution and then recreating something that is deemed to be more just and humane.

I think it is necessary for us to discuss what is being protected as well as who is being served. And I do not believe that this discussion should be separate from one where we discuss the funding, purpose, and use of the military. The two are intricately connected. Free from the Cold War, you would have imagined that the US would revisit how that situation impacted our country, and we would have taken an opportunity to reflect and restructure our priorities — but this never happened. We allowed greed, fear, aggression, and violence to influence our domestic and international priorities without an open discussion about the merits of taking this position.

The desired place of coercion and force in our lives must be addressed, and I, for one, wish to have as little of these present as possible.

Christy Lopez, law professor, Georgetown University

“Police abolition” and “defund the police” are not terms I came up with, and different people mean different things when they use those terms. But a shared objective among most defund proponents, which I also share, is that we need to reset public safety in order to eliminate our overreliance on law enforcement, discrimination, and avoidable harm in public safety, including unnecessary police killings.

For me, the language of abolition is important because it reminds us that there are facets of policing that reflect and perpetuate America’s longstanding use of state-sanctioned coercion, including violence, to control the bodies of black people.

What this means in terms of action items and policy initiatives is that we need to scrutinize our state and local budgets, educate ourselves about what police do versus what we need to be and feel safe, and realign the budget and our social programs to better serve our public safety needs. We start this process by rethinking what we mean by public safety and by questioning our assumptions about when and why law enforcement is the right vehicle to address a problem.

Once we begin to undertake this inquiry, we quickly see that there are some things that police are doing that nobody should be doing, such as enforcing laws that criminalize poverty and addiction, arresting people instead of issuing citations, writing tickets to raise revenue rather than protect the public, and using armored vehicles to evict women and children from a home they have occupied to protest homelessness.

We also see that much of what police do could probably be done better or more cost-effectively if done by somebody else: everything from taking accident reports to responding to persons who are homeless or in mental health crisis.

Finally, we see that if we were to better support social programs, we could likely negate the need for any response from anybody because we could prevent problems from developing in the first place. For example, there is research showing that programs for kids in preschool, combined with family interventions, can reduce crime. It is in everyone’s interest to fix problems at the front end rather than waiting until they result in harm.

Other responsibilities, such as investigating homicides and intervening to stop ongoing violence, could remain with “law enforcement,” although even here some communities may want to change the names on who does this work and should incorporate proven strategies for community prevention of crime/harm.

So yes, it will mean actually “defunding” the police to some extent. I doubt we’ll find we need to shift all law enforcement resources, as some are saying, but in some places, it could be quite a lot, and we may find that some law enforcement agencies are duplicative and don’t need to exist.

Martin Sheeks, member of MPD150, a community organization working to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department

There are a lot of different terms floating around right now — defund, dismantle, disband — but what it comes down to is a call for the abolition of policing. This does not mean that when you dial 911 there won’t be someone to respond to your emergency; it means that the right person will respond with the right skills and tools to provide the care needed. We already have some of this in the form of fire departments and EMS.

As we abolish policing, what we need to think about is what other systems we can put in place to make sure people are getting their needs met. Not having the response be police also means that more communities will feel safe calling for help. I know from the interviews we conducted when creating the MPD150 “Enough Is Enough” report, as well as personal stories from friends, that communities of color often do not call police for help when they need it, because they know police are likely to make the situation worse.

Gwen Prowse, doctoral candidate in political science and African American studies at Yale

Abolition demands that we acknowledge that throughout US history, Black people have been disproportionately subjected to state-sponsored punishment — by design. That despite generations of mobilizing against a state complicit in enslaving, lynching, leasing, and excessively punishing and incarcerating Black people in particular, new incarnations of surveillance and punishment consistently emerge. Abolition demands that we imagine and actualize a state where this pattern finally ends.

Ayobami Laniyonu, sociologist, University of Toronto

Police abolition to me is a framework for thinking about and imagining alternatives to the nation’s current model of policing. My work and the work of many other scholars demonstrate that policing works in part to manage and perpetuate inequality, especially racial inequality. Abolition is an orientation toward changing our current model of policing that puts policing’s role in managing the deep racial and class inequality in the United States at the forefront.

Abolition imagines a world without policing and asks: “What does it take to get us there?” To me, this practice of both imagining a better alternative and asking “How do we get there?” is how we get to defunding as a policy proposal. So to me, police abolition includes proposals to defund the police and reinvestment of that money in otherwise underserved and marginalized communities. Let’s get rid of the practice of managing homelessness, inequality, poverty, the consequences of decades of racial segregation, and the consequences of decades of disinvestment in public health with armed members of law enforcement.

Isaac Bryan, director of public policy of the Ralph J. Bunche Center, UCLA

We are talking about both reallocating funds and imagining a future beyond the institutions of policing that we currently have. Our current model of policing and accountability is rooted in punishment and was constructed as a mechanism to maintain slavery, segregation, and the protection of property rights. All of policing’s historic and contemporary functions have been harmful to communities of color and especially the Black community.

Demonstrators denouncing systemic racism in law enforcement in New York City on June 4.
Scott Heins/Getty Images

Why this isn’t the time for pragmatism

Jenn Jackson, political scientist, Syracuse University

Reforms do not work. In Minneapolis, before George Floyd was killed, police there had already undergone extensive anti-bias training, received body cameras, and engaged in other reformist options for reducing police violence. These methods did not sustain George Floyd’s life. Moreover, as we saw in the NYPD killing of Eric Garner in July 2014, banning chokeholds has done little to end their use. These are not proven methods. They are just digestible for white Americans who still believe that police protect and serve indiscriminately.

Likewise, the 8 Can’t Wait campaign relies on existing methods that have already been proven not to work. It recycles tactics that rely on police judgment and decision-making rather than on building power in affected communities.

Also, the framing of these reforms as “pragmatic” suggests that these deescalation tactics are reasonable and realistic. They aren’t. The only way to end police violence against Black Americans is to ban the police and decriminalize the mere notion of existing while Black in America.

Christian Davenport, political scientist, University of Michigan

I suppose that the impulse to start anew comes from the many years of trying to address the problem piecemeal, or the seeming magnitude of the problem as well as the difficulty that exists with changing institutions and the individuals embedded within them.

Not to focus on the 8 Can’t Wait suggestions, but it is also not really clear where these policy prescriptions come from and why we would think they would work. For example, we don’t have a ton of research documenting police violence, let alone what individual, institutional, and situational factors would reduce it. There’s little discussion of the fact that a great deal of the success of this proposal will depend upon police compliance. And how can the very perpetrators of the violence be expected to fix the problem that they created?

Christy Lopez, law professor, Georgetown University

I don’t think it is either/or. I think we must continue to pursue immediate reforms to policing (some of which can be transformative), even as we undertake this more fundamental analysis necessary to reset public safety. I believe we have a responsibility to do so because these changes can prevent harm and save lives starting now.

I also don’t think the defund/reset approach is less pragmatic, at least as contemplated by the majority (from what I can tell) of its proponents. Resetting public safety is a natural evolution of police reform. We have learned from our reform efforts what they can achieve and what they cannot. We have learned that reforming police agencies and changing laws is necessary, but not sufficient. To fix policing, we have to recognize that, as police themselves have been telling us for years, they are doing too much. We have to look outside policing and reimagine public safety to reallocate responsibilities and authority and resources so that public safety can be more effective and more fair.

Martin Sheeks, member of MPD150, a community organization working to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department

Another lesson from the research MPD150 conducted is that reform does not work. The institution of policing is largely reform-proof. Over the last 150 years in Minneapolis alone, there have been numerous different reform efforts put in place, only to be reversed or circumvented by the institutional culture of policing and the police union. Where we have been able to put reforms in place, they have been ineffective.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have adopted some, if not most, of the reforms suggested in the 8 Can’t Wait movement, but George Floyd, Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, and so many others have still been murdered at the hands of police in our cities. At this point, abolishing the old systems of policing is the only reform left that is pragmatic.

Gwen Prowse, doctoral candidate in political science and African American studies at Yale

Police abolition asks all of us to consider, “How can local governments do more than just punish?” Or, as legal scholars Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler raise in their Atlantic piece, “What is it that police are for?”

The continuous focus on police and the broader punishment bureaucracy squanders our imaginative capacity for considering what else government can and should do for its people, and what people can do for each other. Focusing on police reform obscures the focus on how the state is failing to provide its people the things they need to flourish. It silences the urgent dialogue that needs to happen across all levels of government about how we’re failing to adequately house, heal, and educate those living on US soil.

For this reason, I think that pitting abolition against “pragmatic” reforms is deceiving. It suggests that there aren’t rational policy alternatives to reducing police spending and the scale of their presence while still working to keep people safe.

That said, while I believe reducing the footprint of police and diverting funding to other local expenditures is crucial, local governments still will not have enough resources to adequately provide for their people. Part of abolition will be to figure out federalism: How can federal, state, and local governments coordinate to ensure the people have what they need to thrive?

Groups like Critical Resistance and Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) have been organizing around this concept of abolition for some time. For example, BYP100 has helped to dramatically shift the discourse in Chicago through their No Cop Academy campaign to replace the construction of a police training academy with alternative, community-driven public safety initiatives. Critical Resistance and its founders have devoted decades to working with individuals and communities who are disproportionality affected by the punishment bureaucracy to create a theory and practice for abolition. They have even created practical policy frameworks to pave the way toward abolition.

Importantly, many of the leading organizers of abolitionist movements are black women, trans and gender-nonconforming people who are disproportionately affected by safety deprivation, at the hands of police and their communities. Through their own experiences and that of their comrades, many have come to the conclusion that reforming the police will not mitigate the conditions that create physical and structural violence.

Ayobami Laniyonu, sociologist, University of Toronto

I believe that the movement to defund the police and abolish them as we know it is incredibly pragmatic. To me ensuring affordable housing is a more pragmatic way of reducing homelessness and aiding homeless persons than sending police officers to break up homelessness encampments or jailing folks for sleeping in a public park.

Similarly, it strikes me as more pragmatic to provide a person suffering from a serious mental illness with health care and perhaps a therapist than an armed police officer with little training. Our current model of policing asks police officers to handle situations that they are ill-equipped to handle, don’t want to do, and don’t do particularly well.

I think by now the methodological limitations of the 8 Can’t Wait policy paper are relatively well-known. Though the authors of that study should be lauded for their work collecting the data, the study overstates the causal effect that those eight polices can have on lethal use of force. But in this moment, should we be satisfied with a modest reduction in lethal use of force? What about “nonlethal” use of force, such as those we have seen police employ at protests and public demonstrations? What about harmful and invasive policing practices, such as the routinized encounters that children in poor communities have with police, discriminatory traffic and pedestrian stops, or asset forfeiture?

Administrative and procedural changes do not address the inequality and systemic racism that got us to this point and may actually legitimize fundamentally unjust practices and institutions.

Isaac Bryan, director of public policy of the Ralph J. Bunche Center, UCLA

We are past the point of superficial reforms that do little to change the material conditions for those who have disproportionate, and often lethal, contact with law enforcement. Nothing that has been pragmatic or politically feasible has stopped the unjust killing of Black people. Now is the time to push further in the political discourse, divest from harm, and invest in opportunity.

Police in riot gear watch protesters in Brooklyn, New York, on June 4.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Whether “abolish the police” is politically toxic

Jenn Jackson, political scientist, Syracuse University

Honestly, the idea of removing the threat of police violence from the lives of Black Americans is only “politically toxic” if people are comfortable with the loss of Black life.

For those who are truly concerned about abolition, this moment is about focusing on how our existing status quo delimits and reduces life chances for those most vulnerable. In my research, young Black Americans have repeatedly explained that, for them, they are constantly faced with the fear of being Black in public. They are afraid that white people will see them as criminals while they stand at the bus stop, as they sit with their friends in a local coffee shop, or as they walk home from work. For them, these interactions could all end in their deaths. This isn’t a movement or a cause. This is an ongoing struggle that we have been engaging in for generations.

What we need right now is for people to move beyond sympathy and toward action. Build power. Invest in social organizations doing this work. Build Black futures.

Christian Davenport, political scientist, University of Michigan

I believe that to members of the status quo, freeing the indentured servants and the enslaved, giving women the right to vote, giving unions the right to organize, and ending child labor were all politically toxic at the time they were being considered. We should advocate for what is the most just, not the most practical. What is our objective here: to fix what is wrong or to help people feel more comfortable? Many people were already perturbed — folks are only being exposed to it now. Welcome to their so-called lives.

And, frankly, I hold the civil society to be more important than any political concerns. I’m sorry that the fight for justice and inequality could not be more convenient for political timetables, but it isn’t. Many Americans have waited a lifetime for an opportunity to have the current conversation. Some think that the possibility of a black president was impossible, but I believe that the discussion regarding eliminating the police and their often violent treatment of those subject to their coercive/forceful power is the thing that I never imagined possible. There is no guarantee that either party will adjust the police-military industrial complex. Discussions need to advance when they can.

Christy Lopez, law professor, Georgetown University

I heard Patrisse Cullors [an artist and prison abolitionist] say the other day [on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah] that when activists began having the conversation about defunding the police a little over two weeks ago, “the media was looking at us like we were crazy.” She then went on to say that this has now changed and that almost every call she gets from a media outlet is about this.

Think about that. Within two weeks, a topic that the vast majority of people not doing this work they had never heard of is now a central focus of the national conversation about policing and it is being taken seriously. This is clearly an idea that, once understood, is resonating with people. The response to the op-ed I wrote reinforced my sense that we should all be making an effort to educate others in whatever ways we can on this topic.

I knew from my own path and from talking to people for years about this that these ideas are not only sensible but essential, if we are going to move forward on policing and issues of race in this country. I also knew that these ideas initially can be hard to wrap your mind around (and it’s not just the slogan — it is the idea of taking money from police at all that a lot of people just do not understand at first). I could see Trump seizing the narrative, and I could see the people with the broadest reach on the left and center were not caught up on the issue, and I wanted to do my part to encourage engagement on this critical issue before the moment was lost.

And it’s worth the effort. The status quo is untenable and becoming more unsustainable every year. Police kill over 1,000 people a year and a black man has a 1-in-1,000 chance of being killed by police in his lifetime. Think about how worried you’ve been about Covid and imagine living with that stat for your whole life. How can we not work, now, to really change that?

The status quo is fiscally costly too. We spend over $100 billion every year on policing. One million law enforcement officers make 10 million arrests, and we incarcerate a greater portion of our population than any country on earth. We can do better, and I think the average American voter wants to do better.

Martin Sheeks, member of MPD150, a community organization working to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department

What we are seeing right now across the country is a recognition that policing as an institution cannot meet the needs of our communities. We need to come up with better answers. We cannot let the potential backlash from an administration so clearly ignoring those community needs stop us from doing the work that is necessary. Creating the new systems necessary to meet everyone’s needs is going to be an effort that includes all of us, and that stands in direct contrast to the division and divisiveness of the current administration.

Gwen Prowse, doctoral candidate in political science and African American studies at Yale

Those sympathetic to the cause of abolition but believe it is a politically toxic frame should consider their own imaginative limitations. They should turn to history, as Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor does in her recent piece in the New Yorker, and note that focusing on police reform following highly public instances of police violence in black communities has led to the expansion of the punishment bureaucracy and, in turn, the expansion of punishment.

They should ask themselves questions like, “Why do I think a renewed focus on funding institutions that heal and house is a threatening frame for restoring or strengthening democracy? Who, through my reticence, am I not listening to?” In research with Dr. Vesla Weaver (Johns Hopkins), Tracey Meares (Yale Law School), and Dr. Spencer Piston (Boston University), we find that when we listen to the voices of highly policed communities, we find some of the most incisive critiques of American democracy as well as a radical reimagining of what it would mean to live in a state that truly “protects and serves.” Now is the time to take seriously their critiques and defer to their visions.

Ayobami Laniyonu, sociologist, University of Toronto

Unfortunately, I do not do research on political communication and do not pretend to do so. That said, what I have seen in the past week suggests to me that there is now greater interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, defunding the police, and police abolition than there has ever been. I have seen folks in media go to great lengths to inform the public of what defunding and abolition actually mean. An abolitionist framing got us to this point. Why abandon it now?

Isaac Bryan, director of public policy of the Ralph J. Bunche Center, UCLA

The current administration uses fear to alienate communities, exacerbate racial hostilities, and pass dangerously inequitable policy. Now is the time for hope and courage. We have to hold both major parties and their candidates for president accountable on this issue. Progress has never been achieved without an uncomfortable struggle, and Black Americans have been lethally struggling with our criminal legal system since its inception.

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