March 15, 2017

Private: Is It Time to Abolish the Police?


2017 ACS National Convention, Thomas Nolan

*This piece is part of the ACSblog Symposium: 2017 ACS National Convention. The symposium will consider topics featured at the three day convention, scheduled for June 8-10, 2017. Also, this piece was written in response to the March 9 ACS National Symposium on Policing in a New Political Era. The full video of this event can be found here.

by Thomas Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department

One of the attendees at last week’s symposium on “Policing in a New Political Era,” co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society and New America, asked whether we should consider the abolition of policing in America. My fellow panelist, Cardozo School of Law Professor Ekow Yankah, deftly responded that it may indeed be time to “reimagine” policing in America. And so it is.

An insightful March 12 Washington Post article by Katie Zezima observed “police officers [are] acting as drug counselors and medical workers and shifting from law-and-order tactics to approaches more akin to social work” and that the police now envision their roles as mental-health workers and doctors. In fairness to the police, these are roles into which they have been, unwittingly and perhaps unwillingly, thrust in a societal expectation that the police are the default “responders” with responsibilities for dealing with the social marginalia that they are neither properly trained or qualified to undertake.

The police are deserving of praise for adopting strategies in dealing with the opioid crisis that no longer see enforcement strategies as the only tactics in dealing with drugs and drug abusers, but it is fair to question whether or not policing in this nascent political era should include having police “generalists” providing medical, mental health and social work services to vulnerable populations of people, throwaways whom those charting course in this political era would just as soon see disappear. The police are filling voids here in professional disciplines and in providing medical and mental health services that will almost invariably be inadequate to the task. Reimagining the role of the police recognizes that these vital services need to be provided to those who need them the most by professionals trained to treat the sick, the broken and the mentally ill.   

The March 4, 2015, Department of Justice report on the city of Ferguson, Missouri and its police and municipal court department found that one of the primary responsibilities of police officers in Ferguson was the generation of revenue through the issuance of citations and fines for offenses relating to trash removal, overgrown vegetation, loud dogs, jaywalking and failing to rake leaves. And Ferguson and its police department are hardly alone in using police as twenty-first century “revenuers,” a role that is entirely inimical to contemporary community policing principles that value trust, respect and relationship building between the police and their constituent communities. Reimagining the role of the police demands a recognition that revenue generation is not an appropriate or even legal role for police in this new political era.

And as reported in The Atlantic “City Lab” on Feb. 8, local police departments across the United States are acquiring “spy” tools and technologies to monitor cell phone use by individuals and groups engaged in constitutionally protected activities such as Black Lives Matter protests. And in the new political era of policing, local departments are no doubt using sophisticated technologies to monitor, eavesdrop and surveil those engaged in the thousands of ongoing protests relating specifically to the “new political era” itself. Local police are using so-called “Stingray” devices, “Dirtboxes,” and “Universal Forensic Extraction Devices,” that mimic cell phone towers and that crack locked devices to extract protected information, even deleted information such as texts and photos. Police are using simple court orders under the guise of an “ongoing criminal investigation” to authorize these intrusions (in cases where they actually do seek court authority), and not far more strictly scrutinized search warrants. Reimagining the role of the police sharply interrogates their domestic spying operations and the acquisition of technologies that violate the privacy and civil rights and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens.

So, should we abolish the police in the United States? No, not necessarily—but I believe that we should seriously begin to reimagine and reconsider the role that we want our police to occupy in this nascent political era. (And they are our police; we are not their subjects). My reimagining sees a markedly diminished role for the police in our society, and far fewer of them.

Panelists at the ACS/New America policing symposium discussed how crime actually went down in New York City in 2015 after NYPD officers engaged in a planned work “slowdown.” A convincing argument can be made that fewer police will not necessarily result in a crime wave, and may even lower crime rates.

We do not need state, county and local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration laws; to provide mental health care or medical services; to engage in social work; to teach in schools; to extract revenue from the poor; to engage in domestic warfare, or to spy on us. When we authorize and empower the police to act in these wildly divergent roles we grant them a broad authority to direct, to control and to regulate our society in ways that could hardly have been envisioned at the dawn of policing in the mid-nineteenth century. The juggernaut that policing has become in the second decade of the twenty-first century needs to be corralled, reined in, and re-envisioned. Failing that, calls for the abolition of the police will no doubt become more strident.