What if we eliminated the police?

Deep-seated problems demand radical change

I HATE the PO-lice.

This is not an easy thing to admit and will certainly generate a great deal of heat, but it is past time to do so. To be clear from the beginning, this hatred is not directed at individuals, whether rank and file or leadership. It is directed at the institution and practice of policing in the United States, born as it was from the practices of slave catching, which has served as an instrument of social control over black people for far too long.

So, I hate the policing. I have to keep saying it. It’s more important than repeating the name of someone who has been killed or any other chant we might invoke in protest. It conveys a truth, hard to come by, but once arrived, so very cathartic.

It is a complicated admission and it actually feels like a confession. I have always told my son “hate is a strong word,” and urged him to use it sparingly. Sunday night when he returned from marching and protesting on the streets of Boston and we were watching the policing of the city on television, I had to say it out loud, though in a muted voice. “I hate the police,” I whispered.

My son has grown up in the era of cellphones and social media. He has been bombarded but also socialized by social media reports of police atrocities. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, we have talked about policing at length and in those conversations, informed by his couple years of college, including a course on the Red Summer of 1919, we talked about police abolition. I told him how happy I was to know that he had been listening to me for all the years I have been telling him police are not a natural phenomenon, that society existed and survived for millennia without them.

George Floyd pinned on the ground by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.

The history of policing in the United States is tied to the institution of slavery, so its very roots were focused on subjugation and control of blacks. For many of us, that has continued to be its legacy to the current moment – displayed horrifically by that police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. Understood in this broad context, as radical as the idea may seem, police abolition looks pretty rational to many black Americans. Alex Vitale in 2017 wrote a book on the issue entitled The End of Policing, which argued that the country needs to rethink what police should be doing and if they should be doing anything at all.

It is commonplace to speak of “The Talk” we black parents are all reputed to have with our children, especially our sons. It is almost comical the way this notion has been reported as a kind of folklore. It’s up there with the “birds and the bees,” as we warn them how to conduct themselves in the presence of police. There is safe sex and there is safe blackness. Such talks obviously occur with great frequency and are sadly a central part of responsible parenting.

After the murder of Philando Castile I was invited to be a guest on a radio show to discuss “The Talk.” I remember admitting to having had a different talk with my son, who had left my wife and me a note before going to bed one night. The note said: “It happened again. Google Philando Castile.” We looked it up and realized our son had gone to bed having seen video of that murder. We realized that “The talk” could not protect him from the police. It was not time to talk about how to protect himself from the police, but from policing as a system of subjugation.

The police are a constant in all of our lives, but policing, like so many other things in the United States, is differentially distributed.  Study after study has documented the fact that policing is concentrated in communities of color and targeted at black people. It’s not only the ACLU saying this. Our own Supreme Judicial Court has acknowledged in Warren that a black man could understandably flee an encounter with Boston police to avoid “the recurring indignity of being racially profiled.” Racial profiling, so prevalent throughout the country, grows directly from the practice of slave patrols, which were the very definition of black people being “out of place” without permission.

We have an incredible blind spot in this country that reminds me of what Leon Festinger so brilliantly documented in his groundbreaking book, When Prophecy Fails. Festinger had studied a space cult that expected an apocalyptic event on a specific date and its members had organized their entire lives around being prepared for that ending. As the date came and went with no end in sight, Festinger found an astounding thing. Rather than give up the notion and go home, the members redoubled their belief and increased their proselytizing. Festinger argued that this was a common response to extreme cognitive dissonance.

Festinger’s insight came to mind the other day when I read an open letter sent by Harvard University president Larry Bacow. In his letter, entitled “What I Believe,” Bacow was trying to process the complex emotions he was experiencing in light of George Floyd’s murder. His letter was an eloquent reaffirmation of his beliefs, but it included the statement “that our strength as a nation is due in no small measure to our tradition of welcoming those who come to our shores in search of freedom and opportunity.” It seemed like such a strange, almost tone-deaf thing to say at a time we are wrestling with the nation’s racial past, a racial past that involves people who are distinctly not part of that “tradition” of voluntarily seeking refuge on these shores.

In making these affirmations, Bacow is actually following a long tradition of resolving dissonance with increased proselytizing. It is a tradition as old as the nation, dating back to the Constitution itself with its elegant and eloquent invocation of “We the People.” This, of course, was never true and is what I have long called our founding lie. The document itself was built on exclusion. The practice of democracy it outlined was always deeply flawed, excluding from the outset not only enslaved and native persons, but women and those without property.

We often read on the side of squad cars that the police are at the ready “to serve and protect.” We also recognize this as a big lie. It has become a cheap trick comparison, but Amy Cooper – with her 911 call from Central Park in New York City after a black man who was bird-watching asked her to leash her dog – certainly defined for us the meaning of that term, laying bare just who is to be served and protected, and from whom.

So when I say I hate policing, some will say, “Okay, bud, who you gonna call when you need help?” That, of course, is a problem black people have faced forever in this country because for many the police are often the problem and not the answer.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the streets of Boston Sunday night. Although public officials want to have us believe there were two events, the peaceful and the violent, this is not true. After my son left to go downtown, a colleague who works in trauma for the city told me pepper spray would likely be used. I texted my son to that effect and told him to beware of police in military formations. He assured me he was at the back of the crowd and I responded, half joking, to make sure he didn’t get run over by a retreating crowd.

It was, of course, no joke. I had warned him that there would almost certainly be “trouble.” While the world can debate whether provocation came from the left or the right, from bigots or “thugs,” the lesson of Amy Cooper obtains here. Police academies condition and police departments expect their police forces to respond in certain ways. Some of them might have taken courses on de-escalation, and others might have taken a knee with protesters, but the weapons of crowd control were still in plain view.

Police car burns on Tremont Street. (Photo by State House News)

We watched the coverage of Mayor Marty Walsh saying he was “angered… by the people who came into our city and chose to engage in acts of destruction and violence, undermining their message.” Well, I was angered when I read in Monday morning’s Globe the rest of his statement: “If we are to achieve change and if we are to lead the change, our efforts must be rooted in peace and regard for our community.” I am angry that the only acceptable way to protest state-sanctioned violence is by public quiescence.  Responding to or protesting patterns of police violence which are far outside the bounds of the law, cannot be confined to the State House steps or managed neatly behind yellow tape.

I am not condoning violence or vandalism here, but neither was Attorney General Maura Healey when she spoke of forests growing from what burns. I am suggesting we need to get over the angels and villains narratives our mainstream media curate.

When it comes to policing, options offered for radical change are extremely limited. Police forces are trained and socialized in a particular way. They are equipped in a particular way. They have at their disposal laws and practices formulated in a particular way. They come with an arsenal rather than a tool kit; their purpose begins with enforced order rather than repair.

We don’t have to subscribe to the notion that what we had on Sunday was a “riot,” but I will join so many others invoking Dr. King: “a riot is the language of the unheard.” We should also recall the rest of that quote, that asks “what is it that America has failed to hear?” The answer is the nation has failed to hear that policing has lost any legitimacy it may have had for people. And it is important to know our history, a history of “race riots” in the United States written by whites in black blood.

Political scientists tell us police exercise the legitimate use of force and it is considered part of our social contract to abide by this. But if recent events are about anything it is about the lack of legitimacy policing has in the United States. Was it right, proper, or good judgement for some to respond to orders from armed police with water bottles, rocks, fireworks, or whatever was at hand? We can and should discuss this; hopefully we will. But I am also hopeful readers will see the inherent unfairness in condemning those who responded this way. We are talking about “peaceful” protesters being subjected to orders from those considered illegitimate. That should have been recognized as an obvious provocation. What was the urgency to dispersing?  This is far from a fairy tale in which all the peaceful will turn into pumpkins if they don’t go home. Why are there time limits on protest?

I repeat I am not condoning vandalism and theft or what others have labeled looting. Rather, I am asking that we open ourselves to interrogating and understanding the terms of engagement between an armed force and unarmed or barely armed demonstrators. My point is that the response that occurred was entirely predictable; when you wear riot gear to a party you’re more likely to find – or provoke – a riot.

I often ask people to think about what justice means to them. It can prove a difficult but enlightening exercise. My only condition is they cannot use the word “criminal” in reference to justice. What we call “criminal justice” is actually law enforcement – policing, prosecution, trial, sentencing — and we would do well to keep the distinction in mind. I have come to adopt a definition of justice as being made whole.  Justice is required when our social fabric has somehow been torn; it draws from law and public health. In the legal realm it often involves some sort of payment or compensation, but in the realm of public health it means healing.

Although I believe there is a debt owed to communities, I know there is a need for healing. For that reason, we eschew the use of “criminal justice” in favor of “safety and healing.” Policing has absolutely no role to play in that healing which, for me, means it has no role in the justice that must precede peace.

If we are to achieve any semblance of the “peace and regard for community” to which Mayor Walsh referred, we must seriously reconsider the institution of policing. That reconsideration must include the prospect of abolition. For most Americans that is a frightening if not impossible consideration. But radical change will only come from radical ideas.

Think about what we want our police to do rather than what they do and have always done; and then think about whether there are other ways to achieve that. To the extent that we have come, as some claim, to expect social work functions from police, why not divert funds from law enforcement to social work? If we adopt a notion of being made whole as the basis of justice, why not fund programs that make our communities and their residents whole?  If this pandemic has taught us anything, it should be the need to adopt and implement a comprehensive public policy based on addressing the social determinants of health.

Even if we shy away from full abolition, we are seeing increasing calls to defund the police as an essential first step. If they didn’t have so much riot gear, they couldn’t show up that way. There are also calls to disarm them, which might be even more horrifying to some folks but could at least lead to fewer weapons on the street. We have arrived at a point where we have to begin to contemplate solutions that go beyond body cameras, review boards, prosecuting and convicting individuals, or adding implicit bias training. After all, there is nothing implicit about a knee on the neck.

As I would tell my son, I must confront my hatred and confessing it publicly has been the first step. My work is guided by a desire to create what Dr. King called the “beloved community,” where hatred, when it occurs, is met with compassion and understanding. It is time for the nation to dig deep in its soul and heart to find and act on such compassion by reconsidering the role of policing in making us safe and healthy.  We have arrived at a time to abandon the comforting belief that tinkering and reform can transform policing and admit the truly brutal reality that policing is the problem.

Those who think we can or should pursue the promise of “We the People” with patience, obedience, and compliance would do well to consider the wisdom of Langston Hughes, who famously pondered: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Meet the Author

David J. Harris

Managing director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice Harvard Law School
Or does it explode?

David J. Harris is the managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.