Abolish Police? Defund? Dismantle? Minneapolis, Camden and the Future

Having finished today’s video I’m almost wondering if it’s too conservative. My sense of what police abolition means is what happened in Camden, New Jersey. Everybody on the old force was fired, the union was broken ( it later reformed), and the new, better police force has a fraction as many abuse claims AND crime has fallen precipitously. But I see on the twitter that people are envisioning all kinds of more radical futures. New corps of non-police officials could be charged with looking after the mentally ill. The money spent on policing could be devoted to any number of different aims, from the plausible to the ridiculous…

People are thinking in much bigger terms than just better, less present policing. It’s weird to find myself in the cautious mainstream on criminal justice… and I love it! It’s a sign of just how far the conversation has moved since my first videos on the drug war back in 2011. Back then many of my friends thought I was nuts. Now I’m being outpaced by people who could plausibly have political power in a few cities across this country. It’s a sign of how quickly things have changed for the better. These are, perhaps surprisingly, very optimistic times here in the United States of America.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

Hey there, have you heard about Abolishing police departments? Or defunding them? Or Dismantling them, which the Minneapolis City Council just promised to do on Sunday June 7th? Now all of these suggestions have very different, very controversial meanings, and just because someone is using them as a slogan, does not mean than they believe the most extreme possible meaning of these words. There are probably like 2000 people in this entire country who seriously think abolishing police forces altogether is a realistic goal, and none of them are anywhere near the leadership of either political party. Heck, I’ve got a 10 year YouTube record of pro-freedom extremism on criminal justice, and even I think abolishing police departments is a silly idea in the short-term.

Unfortunately, there are millions of people who are invested in the current system. From law enforcement to the local news sources and national think tanks whose bread and butter is violent policing, they all want you to believe that any reform at all is crazy. They are trying to get you to think that those 2000 Abolition people represent everybody in this country who wants change. But it simply isn’t true.

To truly improve policing in the United States, there needs to be a great deal of dismantling and defunding. Most countries have one policing policy, and a top-down system where the central government determines how police departments should be run. In the US we don’t have one system. We have more than 10,0000. We don’t even know how many systems we have.

The current estimates put the number of law enforcement agencies in the US at between 18,000 and 19,000, depending on how you count them. I took a quick look at a Wikipedia that lists the agencies in Minnesota alone. It just keeps going. And there isn’t much rhyme or reason here. Minneapolis and St.Paul have their own police departments. So do the counties around the twin cities, and so do a whole bunch of suburban cities around them. All of this involves significant duplication of administrative staff, and conflicting policies. Add to that state and federal, regulation, officers and funding programs and you have a textbook case of government run amuck. This is the system that conservatives are supposed to worry about defunding? What makes all of this worse, is the fact that the past 40 years of politics around has made all these redundant little police departments essentially untouchable.

The crazy thing is that the Minneapolis St.Paul area is probably more straightforward than most. The country is filled with bloated police forces that have achieved a horrific kind independence from the tax payers. They feed themselves through civil asset forfeiture, a practice akin to robbery, and through onerous traffic enforcement fines that disproportionately affect the poor.

Back in 2014 the Washington Post published an article by Radley Balko that is probably still the article I share most often, 6 years later. The Ferguson protests were about police brutality, racism and the killing of Michael Brown of course. But what Balko convincingly documents in this article is the way that the St. Louis suburbs have set up a malign form of Feudalism, where police forces exist mainly to profit from the misfortune of the poor and predominantly black. This system was a key part of Ferguson’s rage. I strongly urge you to read the article, there is a link in the description…

Our thousands upon thousands of law enforcement agencies are horrifically wasteful, but they also provide a unique opportunity. No matter how badly the Republicans want to make abolition fantasies an issue in the presidential election the truth is that the Federal government can really only do things at the margins.

The real action will be in state houses and city halls all over the country. Law enforcement lobbyists are trying to scare us out of it, but I think we are about to see an incredible range of experimentation. Some departments absolutely need to be dismantled and bundled into other ones. Different ranges of defunding will be tried.To be clear, if there isn’t a massive bailout from the federal government for state budgets, some level of police defunding is inevitable.

And you know what? Some jurisdictions will screw up. Majorly. Some of them will go to far and see spikes in crime. But I am far more worried that we could end up with the same half-assing of police reform we have had throughout the country since Ferguson back in 2014. Because in the places it’s been tried, the rewards of dismantling and rebuilding have been extraordinary.

Camden New Jersey is another one of those cities my international audience has probably never heard of. But in the US this city of 75,000 was infamous. It was ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country for years, hitting number one for violent crime in 2012. I ended up in Camden by mistake once. It was the middle of the day and it was terrifying. It was the only time I have ever visited a US gas station without any branding at all. No oil company wanted their name to be associated with Camden. They tried everything, for decades.

Finally in 2013 they abolished the police department. They consolidated policing in the city with the Camden county police department, providing more funding, and stripping out multiple layers of administrative bullshit. Ending the police department meant breaking the Police Union, which allowed for a new healthier culture of accountability and conflict De escalation. A new union has formed, but the department has been so successful that nobody sane wants to go back to the bad old days.

Murder in Camden has fallen by two thirds. Other forms of violent crime have dropped precipitously as well. This is a tremendously optimistic moment in US politics. Real change is already happening. Don’t let Trump and his police union minions scare you away from it because of some poorly worded slogans.

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