When you listen to mainstream discourse it seems the majority of people view the police as an indispensable institution in British society: the police are seen as integral to maintaining social order through the prevention of crime. Over the last few years, their presence has been increasingly called into question, with whispers of abolition. The shocking displays of police brutality and the global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer have catalysed these debates.
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Even more recently, the tragic abduction and murder of Sarah Everard has shook citizens across the nation, with a serving Metropolitan police officer being charged for these heinous crimes. Last night, Sarah’s vigil in Clapham was met with brute and wholly unnecessary force of the police, who arrested peaceful protestors, simply mourning Sarah’s tragic death. These events serve to reinforce how the police does not serve its function of protecting, but rather the opposite.
Despite this exposing of police force and discrimination, mainstream opinion persists that abolishing the police is an unrealistic idea that would actively encourage crime and anarchy. But this is the problem: we have been conditioned to believe that the police are imperative to social order, something we cannot function without. Why is this?
Alex Vitale’s book ‘The End of Policing’ advocates for abolishing the police, proposing forward-thinking alternatives. These recommendations backed up with convincing evidence made this book difficult to argue with.
Despite his focus on the US, Vitale sheds light on debates around policing and the justice system which are highly relevant to the UK. The police as an institution is rooted in regressive ideas, and has become so expansive that it must be abolished.
‘What is abolitionism?’
At its core, abolitionists advocate for the eradication of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). The PIC is a term which describes the governmental and institutional use of surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to socioeconomic and political problems.
‘Why can’t the police be reformed, rather than abolished?’
Since their formation in 1829, the police has inevitably been reformed to adapt to the modern era.
The majority of such modifications come in the form of expansion, through both increased numbers of police officers, paired with a growth in their powers and responsibilities. Despite this, growth in resources has not led to a reduction of crime, but rather in the exponential increase. The steady increase of police funding, since 2014, has been met with the consistent increase of crime, too. It’s pretty blatant that something isn’t working.
Reform does come in other formats, such as changes in police training. However, these will always be insufficient because, in the words of Vitale, ‘the problem with policing, is policing itself’.
One fundamental issue of policing actually resides in this boundless expansion: the normalisation of police in environments they should have no place in. Roughly 84% of calls to the police are issues not directly covered by their jurisdiction; about 40% of these are mental-health related. Such a sensitive issue of wellbeing should be met with mental health healthcare professionals, as police presence only serves to elevate the situation. This excessive exercising of police power is a trend replicated elsewhere.
Though there are many flaws in policing, one of the most worrying is structural discrimination. Although the main role of the police is to protect citizens, this protection is actually highly selective.
Internationally, racist policing gained significant attention last summer, after the devastating deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Daniel Prude (may they rest in peace). Tragically, they were not stand alone exceptions, but rather, the pattern; these individuals are just a few who have been murdered by bigoted police officers.
Although this did trigger debates around racism in UK policing, it seems the presiding outlook was that US policing is much worse. Gun culture is much more prevalent in the US than the UK, but to consider this as the sole mechanism through which racial discrimination can occur, is to deny the severe and systemic discrimination which ethnic minorities endure here in Britain.
Racial profiling can occur the moment a person of colour steps outside, as evidenced in stop and search statistics. Black people were nearly nine times more likely to be stopped than white people, and BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people in general were over four times more likely than their white counterparts. This over-policing is a consequence of implicit, hateful attitudes which make them more likely to perceive Black individuals as a threat. Despite multiple reform attempts to rid this ‘individual bias’, evidence shows this largely fails. This despicable treatment of minorities extends to the treatment of LGBTQIA+ individuals, and disabled populations, albeit less researched.
The PIC serves to protect white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able bodies. This prejudice, paired with other issues of corruption and excess violence, are just a few reasons as to why the police are not fit for purpose in protecting all citizens. These systemic issues begin to explain why reform will never be enough: the foundations of the institution are built upon these obstructions of justice. Ergo, the PIC must be eradicated.
‘Surely abolishing the police would result in an abundance of crime?’
Those who argue that abolitionism is too radical, tend to confuse the reality of what eradicating the police would mean.By abolishing the police, a vast proportion of governmental funds become freed up. If redirected correctly, this funding will lead to communities and public services being better funded through local initiatives. Consequently, individuals experience higher living standards, negating the need to turn to crime. These measures may come in the form of housing, employment or collaborative welfare schemes. Such mechanisms allow for the financial, social, and emotional empowerment of citizens, consequently decreasing crime from the grassroots.
Crimes are committed for lots of complex and interlinking reasons, so redirecting funds obviously wouldn’t eliminate all crime. But in cases where crime does persist, law and order enforcement would switch from severe methods to more neutral methods, such as community mediators and self-policing.
Similarly, ‘punishment’ would be revolutionised. Instead of intense suffering, individuals would engage with rehabilitative and restorative practices, such as harm reduction and restorative justice. These methods reduce the risk of such behaviours, whilst reforming the mindset of the individual, rather than making them suffer. Individuals are thus able to become responsible members of society again.
At current, individuals are tarnished as ‘criminals’ with a concrete record for life, making it near impossible to gain employment. The repetitive imposing of this can lead to internalisation, resulting in a cycle of recidivism: the consistent reoffending of an individual previously convicted. This phenomenon is rampant in the UK, with 75% of ex-inmates reoffending within nine years of being released. This reinforces how the PIC is flawed, and ineffective at abolishing crime.
So, eradicating the police would result in increased community funding, subsequently decreasing crime rates. For those who do commit crime, rehabilitative techniques change the mindset of individuals, improving their quality of life after they return to society.
It can feel disheartening advocating for systemic change in a country which favours conservatism and maintaining the status quo. But, there are things you can do.
- Educate yourself
Inevitably I can’t summarise all of Vitale’s arguments, so please go read his book. The ability to educate is a powerful one: learn and then share with others. In addition to ‘The End of Policing’, try the following resources:
- New York Times article on abolition of the police
- Activist, Mariame Kaba’s book “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, Abolitionist Organising and Transforming Justice.”
- NBC article on Mariame’s views on abolishing prisons
- Bustle UK article on why women need to care more about police and prison abolition
2. Know your rights
In the meantime, we must inhibit the harmful actions of the police. Know your rights, and be aware of others. There are very specific regulations in regards to stop and search, which are frequently disregarded. Use your privilege: if you see someone being stopped, observe, and, if necessary, ask what is going on.
3. Use your voice
Abolition will not happen overnight, but the first step is stopping the expansion of the police. This coming week, Priti Patel is forcibly pushing through significant amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. These amendments would effectively rid individuals of the human right to peacefully protest, unless the government has approved them. This is infringing upon our freedom to speak out against the government, and must be stopped. As well, the amendment proposes to further expand policing powers. It has now been shown on many occasions, we cannot rely on the police to protect us; this expansion must be halted. To speak up, you should email your MP, protest, and use your voice to speak out.
Once we acknowledge that alternatives would better control crime through empowerment, we equip ourselves with the tools needed to demand that this systemic change materialises.
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