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Black Lives Matter: Arguments for and against abolishing police

William Frazer, 9 September 2020

Arguments for and against abolishing police

As we found in the research related to our earlier post, abolishing police is a common outcome sought by BLM advocates. Abolishing police is perceived as highly political and seems to be a concept that most people don’t fully understand. Internationally and in Australia there is very little discourse about abolition and the arguments for and against.[1] Given this lack of information, I wanted to dig a bit deeper to understand abolition and both sides of the argument for and against.

Here’s what I found:

The main arguments for abolition

  1. Police are killing people

The BLM movement and the current calls for abolition stem from the killings of unarmed black people in the United States and people of colour around the world. Over 1,000 people have been shot and killed by police in the last year in the US alone,[2] and disproportionately these deaths are minorities, highlighting discrimination within the police force.[3] And, while many of these deaths are deemed ‘justified’ from a legal perspective research suggests they are usually preventable with better strategies of police de-escalation.[4] This argument for abolition reflects the public outcry at the current abuse of power and overuse of lethal force by police evidenced by these statistics. A similar story can be heard at home. BLM advocates in Australia cite the unfair and often lethal targeting of Indigenous Australians by police. Even after a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to die in custody and continue to be grossly overrepresented in the criminal justice system.[5]

  1. Reinvesting funds can reduce crime and save money

BLM and abolition advocates cite the high cost of imprisonment and benefits of justice reinvestment as the second reason for abolishing police. For example, in Queensland it costs over $100,000 annually to imprison one woman.[6] BLM advocates suggest reinvesting these funds into other areas that better our community such as education, healthcare or social housing. Additionally, BLM advocates argue that these reinvestments target the root causes of crime and can actually be more cost-effective at reducing crime than a police force. A current example can be found in one of the USA’s biggest police forces. The New York Police Department has had its budget decreased by one billion dollars with the money being funnelled into initiatives such as renovating recreation centres and hiring social workers to monitor the homeless population rather than police. The city states that this is primarily an economic decision, highlighting another reason why cities and governments might think about defunding the police.[7]

There is also an example of reinvestment in Australia in the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment project which has taken money out of prisons and directed into community initiatives. An independent impact assessment found a 23 per cent reduction in domestic violence, a 31 per cent increase in year 12 retention and a monetary impact of 3.1 million dollars.[8]

  1. Police are not suited to be social workers

Building on the above points, academics and advocates alike suggest the goals of policing can be more effectively realized if police are not fulfilling community roles that they have neither the training nor capacity for.[9] Suggested examples of what an improved approach might look like include introduction of specialized roles such as social workers or mental health first aiders into front line care, replacing police. The reasoning behind these suggestions is that this approach would address the root sources of crime and reduce the use of lethal force, which can result from situations in which police have to straddle the line of “violent enforcer” and “community worker.[10]

Advocates in Australia also understand that different communities require different programs to reduce crime, and having police move out of these social roles would allow for the creation of specialized and more flexible community programs. One such specific need identified is that Aboriginal people in Australia require culturally informed healing-based programs, catered to community, to solve issues in crime,[11] something that an overarching state police force would struggle to administer.

Arguments Against abolition

  1. Police officers do reduce crime

It seems clear that crime reduction is a primary function of the police, so it is no surprise that data suggests more police officers in a community will result in lower crime rates.[12] A study by Steve Young published by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that extra police significantly reduce property crime but importantly had little to no impact on arrest rates.[13] This point is important to BLM advocates knowing the issues in Australia with overrepresentation of Indigenous people in our prison population. This study also speaks to cost effectiveness, as the price of a police officer for one year is offset by the savings from crime reduction.[14]

  1. Abolishing police may lead to a surge in use of (less accountable) private security services

There is a noticeable trend showing the private security industry is on the rise, with individuals and organisations hiring security guards for protection and even governments contracting private security firms for militant operations. Those cautious about abolition suggest that the lower standard of regulation and training these firms have compared to police pose a risk. One risk suggested is that it will be simply transferring the lack of accountability in our current law enforcement system to less accountable operators.[15] Another risk proposed is that the increase in use of these services has seen danger dramatically rise for those working in private security as they take on an expanded role, sometimes resulting in death.[16]

  1. Abolishing may increase vigilante justice and reduce reporting of crime

Some evidence suggests that where the police force is weakened, vigilante justice will increase.[17] This may create even more issues of accountability and risk to public safety. In the city of Camden, NJ, where the police force has been rebuilt, many residents suggest the reformation of the police force has decreased reporting of crime.[18] The community has vocalised a warning questioning if people should place the trust they have in police, to stand on the side of justice and help the community, so eagerly in vigilante replacements?

In conclusion, there are some important and compelling reasons presented by BLM advocates as to why abolishing the police force may be beneficial for our community. That said, risks must always be kept in mind - we may see less accountable substitutes or an increase in crime. These considerations must be noted if we are to have an informed debate about what the future of policing may look like. At present the research shows a movement along an abolition continuum where successful measures are being implemented to change the nature of police, without a full abolishment. This approach balances the calls and concerns for a reformation of the police whilst working on the fundamental issues BLM advocates are trying to solve, both a lack of community safety and discrimination against people of colour. This new nature of policing seems to be focused on a suite of preventative, support and reinvestment initiatives, examples of which across jurisdictions will be explored further in our next post.

[1] Osman Faruqi, ‘Policing as part of the national psyche’ The Saturday Paper, August 8 2020, [online] https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/opinion/topic/2020/08/08/policing-part-the-national-psyche/159680880010226#mtr [2] Mapping Police Violence, 2020, Mapping Police Violence Database, [Online] https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/ [3] Susan DeGue, Katherine Fowler and Cynthia Calkins, ‘Deaths Due to Use of Lethal force by Law Enforcement’ (2018) 51(5) American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 173. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6080222/#R2 [4] Ibid [5] Ella Archibald Binge, ‘Indigenous arrest rates are a national crisis, says Marcia Langton’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 2020 [online] https://www.smh.com.au/national/indigenous-arrest-rates-are-a-national-crisis-says-marcia-langton-20200804-p55ihu.html#:~:text=%22The%20denial%20of%20rights%20of,national%20crisis%2C%22%20she%20says. [6] Debbie Kilroy, ‘Imagining abolition’, (2018) 60 Griffith Review. https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/imagining-abolition-sisters-inside-debbie-kilroy/ [7] Dana Rubenstien and Jeffery Mays, ‘Nearly $1 Billion Is Shifted From Police In Budget That Pleases No One’, New York Times, 30 June 2020 [online] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/30/nyregion/nypd-budget.html [8] KPMG, Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project, [PDF] http://www.justreinvest.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Maranguka-Justice-Reinvestment-Project-KPMG-Impact-Assessment-FINAL-REPORT.pdf [9] Leah Donnella, ‘How much do we need the Police?’, NPR, 3 June 2020 [online] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2020/06/03/457251670/how-much-do-we-need-the-police [10] Ibid [11] Isabella Higgins and Loretta Florence, ‘Professor Marcia Langton AO calls on governments to listen to Black Lives Matter protesters’ ABC 2020 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-08/marcia-langton-dont-ignore-black-lives-matter-protests/12332408 [12] Steve Yeong, ‘Effect of police on crime and arrests: Are police deterring or incapacitating criminals?’, (2019) 223 Crime and Justice Bulletin. https://www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au/Publications/CJB/2019-Report-The-effect-of-police-on-crime-and-arrests-CJB223.pdf [13] Ibid [14] Ibid [15] Marcus Hedahl, ‘Unaccountable: The Current State of Private Military and Security Companies’, (2012) 31(3) Criminal Justice Ethics, 175. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0731129X.2012.740907 [16] Mark Townsend, ‘Death on the door: how security industry risk has grown as police numbers fall’, The Guardian, 2019 [online] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jan/05/private-security-industry-risk-grows-as-police-numbers-fall [17] Keith Benson, ‘I live and work in Camden, the New Jersey city that disbanded and rebuilt its police force. We've been upheld as a model for cities like Minneapolis, but there's a lot more to the story’. Business Insider, 11 June 2020 [online] https://www.businessinsider.com.au/camden-new-jersey-police-disbanded-but-theres-more-to-story-2020-6?r=US&IR=T [18] Ibid

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