What is Police Abolition and Why is it Important?

“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police, it’s to fund the police. Fund them!” President Joe Biden exclaimed to a standing ovation this March 1, during the most recent State of the Union. Amid political disunity within the American government over problems such as climate change, economic concerns, and immigration, this standing ovation was one of the small moments of bipartisan unity during the State of the Union. As President Biden elaborated, he has pushed for the installment of body cameras, stopping the use of chokeholds, and investing more government money into police training and resources.

For many, the recent push for abolishing or defunding the police seems illogical: how would removing a government-installed force that prevents crime, reduce crime? Derecka Purnell, the author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Search for Freedom, and Harvard Law School graduate, was once a skeptic. “The first time I heard about abolition, I was just like what?…Y’all haven’t been to the places I’ve been. You haven’t lost the friends that I’ve lost.” She explains that those most skeptical of police abolition are often those most vulnerable to violence. After conducting years of research, however, she is convinced that the answer to lowering crime does not lie in policing, but rather in supporting and investing in communities with high crime rates. 

St. Louis, a large city within Missouri, is known to be one of the most violent cities in the U.S. In a 2016 report by the St. Louis Metropolitan police department, it was found that 9,367 residents were victims of violent crimes. Furthermore, the violent crime victimization rate per 1,000 residents was 18.0, third in the U.S. When Ms. Purnell began to take legal actions against a jail within St. Louis, she was frequently asked by citizens what would happen to the criminals that produced such a high crime rate? Her primary response was that her aim was the proactive prevention of violence, not the punishment of people after. For Ms. Purnell, her goal of defunding police departments directly lies in reinvesting those funds into violence prevention programs and community responders. For instance, in St. Louis, “…organizations like Action St. Louis and CAPCR” work within the community to prevent retaliatory violence and provide resources for victims of violent crimes. She argues that for many, going to the police to settle conflicts or for protection isn’t a viable solution. By installing these organizations within these communities, she hopes to lower crime rates and end the cyclical nature of violence, prison time, and poverty. 

For some, combating violence with a militarized police force seems far more logical than investing funds into community service programs, but what must be understood is the root problems of why this violence exists in the first place. Ms. Purnell explains that much of the crime in St. Louis is rooted in poor education systems, a lack of economic opportunities, and general poverty, all of which are systemic problems. Furthermore, in a city where Black citizens are 2.5 times more likely to be killed than White citizens, this is recognized by activists such as Ms. Purnell, as an issue strongly connected with racial inequality. As protests and movements sprang up in the summer of 2020 against these systemic issues, police defundment quickly amassed a following, fighting in many ways for the same social and systemic equality for Black Americans as other movements. With the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, many began to question the role of police in America’s law enforcement.

Police defunding movements grew, and began to call for the reallocation of police funding to community infrastructure: resources such as schools, healthcare centers, and social welfare programs. In cities like St. Louis, Ms. Purnell and others within the movement theorize, violence and crime that has persisted for decades would decrease with the greater financial support of community infrastructure. They hope these solutions can bring people out of poverty, assist the homeless population within St. Louis, and lower incarceration rates. 

In Ms. Purnell’s opinion, a total abolition or defunding of police within the U.S. is not feasible within the decade, especially considering the novelty of the concept and the lack of political support of it from figures such as President Biden. Still, she sees a future America in which the role of police in law enforcement and community assistance is reduced or removed entirely. 

Sources (not in formal citation):

  1. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1060069264 
  2. https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/mayor/initiatives/resilience/equity/opportunity/health-safety/violent-crime-victimization.cfm 

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