More than a Few Rotten Apples: It’s Time to Dismantle the Police
This should have been an easy decision. When footage of George Floyd’s death was released and protests popped up around the country, police forces should have stood with the protesters. “What happened was unquestionably wrong. We stand with those who condemn the actions of Derek Chauvin, and the three officers on scene who helped him as he murdered George Floyd. Were that to happen here, we would immediately fire the officers involved, and ensure they are brought to justice.” Signed, your local police department.
Instead police officers around the country confronted peaceful protests with overwhelming shows of force and intimidation.
The NYPD police union described their activity as engaging in a “war on New York City”. By treating protesters demanding police accountability as adversaries, police around the country revealed their priorities. They care more about retaining their power to inflict harm on the communities they are paid to serve with impunity than serving and protecting them.
This past week was not marked by violent protests. Rather, it was marked by peaceful protests demanding justice for George Floyd (and the numerous other black lives stolen and damaged by police violence and white supremacy). It was marked by violent police riots — lashing out at the idea that a police officer might be brought to justice. In city after city, folks gathered nonviolently to demand that our justice system hold people accountable who inflict wanton and unjustified violence on people of color. Police all around the country responded by indiscriminately arresting, beating, kettling, assaulting, and firing pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets into crowds of nonviolent protesters, and even intentionally driving into them. They did much of the same to journalists, and even elected officials and bystanders.
In many urban police departments, the officers do not come from the cities they police. For example, a 2014 study showed that only 62% of NYPD officers, and fewer than half of the NYPD’s white officers, live in New York City. Many other cities fare substantially worse. Moreover, this study dramatically understates the disconnect between officers and the communities they police. For example, many NYPD officers live in Staten Island, which is part of New York City but separated from the rest of the city by miles of ocean geographically, and seemingly just as much distance culturally and politically. The NYPD, like many other police forces around the country, is effectively, an external occupying force that (1) extracts resources (salaries and pensions) from the community they police, (2) frequently inflicts violence and terror on these communities with impunity, and (3) reacts violently when the communities seek to hold them accountable. Chris Hayes described this sort of relationship aptly in his most recent book as between colonizer and colonized; subjects and rulers.
The relationship between urban communities and their police forces is fundamentally adversarial and irredeemably broken. Police have steadfastly resisted even minor reforms and efforts to establish accountability to the communities they supposedly serve. So, it is time to evict these external occupying forces and restore accountability over those who would enforce our laws. It is time to defund and/or disband police forces. Elected officials in Minneapolis, New York, and Washington D.C. are beginning to sound this mantra.
The idea of cities without police, or with a dramatically reduced police presence, might seem scary. It shouldn’t be. When the NYPD organized a work slowdown — to protest the firing of their colleague, Daniel Pantaleo, for murdering Eric Garner — crime rates actually fell. Moreover, if a significant portion of the money we spend currently on policing is invested instead in building our communities, rather than in terrorizing them, we can address some of the root causes of crime, rather than just treat the symptoms. Finally, there are alternatives to policing. Many functions of today’s police forces can and should be carried out by other institutions. For example, it would probably be better if mental health specialists responded to mental health emergencies, rather than police. Drug addiction should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal one. And so on.
Simply retraining police forces or providing additional oversight or transparency is not enough. Modern police forces are the direct descendants of slave patrols and efforts to protect the interests of the wealthy. From their beginnings, they have attracted white supremacists and authoritarians. White supremacist groups still actively seek to have their members infiltrate police forces. Police departments recruit for authoritarian personalities. They train officers to behave in violent and authoritarian ways. Indeed, Derek Chauvin was chosen by the Minneapolis Police Department to train new recruits, despite a sordid history of community complaints against him. Officers who challenge this culture are ignored and ostracized, fired,or worse. The rot in this nation’s law enforcement is so deep and so thorough that by now, we should presume that those currently employed by the system either are there because they want to perpetuate white supremacy and authoritarianism, are indifferent to it, or are oblivious to it (and therefore unfit to serve).
When an officer commits a blatantly illegal act of wanton violence, many instinctively defend the institution of police by arguing that the offending officer was just a bad apple. This metaphor is far more apt than police apologists appear to recognize. This is because the full saying is that a few bad apples can spoil the full barrel. Bad apples must be identified and removed, or else eventually all the otherwise good apples in the barrel will go bad. To continue the metaphor in the policing context, however, the barrels themselves are moldy (police forces were born from white supremacy and authoritarianism), the apples chosen to go into the barrel are chosen precisely because they are rotten (hiring preference for authoritarian personalities), and then sprayed with mold spores (training for violent behavior). Police then resist any efforts to remove bad apples from the force (refusing to fire violent and/or racist officers and fighting against civilian oversight), and instead remove the few apples who show signs of being good (ostracizing and retaliating against whistleblowers). If the bad apple metaphor is taken at face value, then by now every apple in the barrel, and the barrel itself, has gone bad. The apples must be emptied, and the barrel discarded.
If, despite all of this, you are still concerned that a diminished police presence means there is no protection from chaos and violence, it might be time to examine your privilege. You are privileged enough to be protected by the law and police force. This is not a privilege shared by many. Law enforcement does little to protect communities of color from chaos and violence. In fact, police are often the ones inflicting the violence in these communities.
Ideally, the law should protect everybody, and constrain everybody. In practice, it does not. The law protects the wealthy and white. It does not protect people of color or people without means, nor does it constrain those who inflict violence on them. The Amy Coopers, Gregory and Travis McMichaels, George Zimmermans, Derek Chauvins, Darren Wilsons, and Daniel Pantaleos of the country know that they are not constrained by the law when they commit violence against people of color. Because the law does not constrain their assailants, the Chris Coopers, Ahmaud Arberys, Trayvon Martins, George Floyds, Michael Browns, Eric Garners, Breonna Taylors, and so many more, are not afforded the dignity of being protected by the law. Even if you are not of color, rest assured, if you are victimized by someone wealthy enough and white enough and male enough (the Donald Trumps and Jeffrey Epsteins of the nation are not constrained by the law when they commit sexual violence), the law will not constrain them, and thus, it will not protect you.
There comes a point when the unproven hypothetical benefits of an institution no longer outweigh the very real harms inflicted by its reality. We have reached that point with police. Our cities’ police forces must be disbanded or, at the very least, significantly defunded. What comes after that, I do not know. No one knows for sure, but several organizations have done some excellent work in this space. I can say, however, that if we disband or defund the police, whatever emerges from the ashes of this dystopian era will be an improvement.