Section: Opinion

Police reform is not enough. We need to abolish the institution.

When I first started going to protests against police brutality in 2019, I was in a grey area politically. Increased exposure to different perspectives and disturbing facts was rapidly pushing me left of my liberal comfort zone. I had always considered myself somewhat irreverent towards institutions like the police, and I was committed to the concept of justice. What changed for me at those protests, through conversations with my friends and back on the streets last summer, was my idea of what real justice should look like. 

By January 2020, I was all for defunding the NYPD. I’d seen cops brutalizing protestors, argued with officers who refused to tell me where my arrested friends were being held and gradually lost any illusions that the police were actually serving and protecting anyone. But the first time I heard it chanted by the massive crowd surrounding me, marching down the Brooklyn sidewalk at night, one phrase made me inexplicably uncomfortable: “Abolish the Police.” For most of my life, I couldn’t visualize a safe, structured society without police. Now, I can’t visualize a genuinely safe society with them. 

Police unnecessarily arrest people and actively intimidate them. They occupy Black and Brown communities, and break the law with impunity. And they consistently protect each other from accountability and retribution. I could eulogize a countless number of people who died at the hands of police. There are those who are fresh in our memories, like Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and Ma’Khia Bryant. And there are the people whose deaths sparked a global outcry, and rallied the Black Lives Matter movement: Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. There are the losses that are equally impossible to forget, like Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, because of how they devastated half the nation. 

This list of names feels too long for a column, but it’s only a fragment of the full version. It will get longer; it won’t stop growing until abolition has been achieved. I want to note that none of these people died for police reform or abolition, or for a cause of any kind. They lived their lives for as long as they could, and were murdered without warning. The overwhelming, drawn-out wave of violence, and the fact that it clearly targets marginalized communities, should be enough to warrant the abolition of the single, wildly destructive institution behind it. But out of nervousness, or greed, or both, many Americans have refused to consider abolition as a serious, practical response. 

Instead of abolition, one popular response to the laundry list of tragedies is police reform. The issue with the “reform” rhetoric is that it’s vague. How do you reform unfiltered violence? Who gets justice when assailants are allowed to continue operating, with only a few surface-level changes? Reform isn’t necessarily the enemy, but it also isn’t a serious solution. American police officers kill people on sidewalks, in their cars, in their homes and in their backyards. They shoot innocent people in their sleep; they shoot people in the back, repeatedly. The level of brutality — and the systematic nature of it — is impossible to reform. 

It’s become fairly common among the pro-reform crowd to call for “more training” for police officers. That sounds like something that should work. But the training itself is the problem. Officers are taught to literally shoot first and ask questions later. Their training revolves around a simple concept: Hesitation kills. With that in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine why so many Black and Brown Americans are murdered by cops each year. Structural racism seeps into every person’s brain, and unless we actively fight against it, it begins to define feelings and behavior. Police are taught to shoot the second they feel intimidated and, consciously or subconsciously, Black people intimidate them — even when they are unarmed, or underage. Racial bias training has been implemented, but clearly racism and violence from cops hasn’t slowed as a result. 

The rot goes deeper still. Targeting Black and Brown communities is generally understood to be part of American policing. Cops have even been explicitly told to arrest members of these demographics by their superiors. We’ll never know how many times this has actually happened. New Yorkers know that defunding the police, while better than reforming them, isn’t a meaningful solution either. Last summer, Mayor De Blasio committed to redirect $1 billion of the NYPD’s $6 billion operating budget. The main impact was to transfer authority over the school safety program from the NYPD to the Department of Education, which had already been funding the program. Critics have since asserted that the move was highly performative, and the actual financial toll on the police department was negligible. This month, the NYPD is spending a fraction of their budget on “robot dogs,” which cost about $74,000 each to make, cementing the impression that they aren’t particularly pressed for funding.

One more phrase that sometimes pops up in direct response to demands for abolition, is the call to “reimagine” police. That shares the frustratingly vague, light-handed character of reform. But depending on how you interpret it, reimagining might actually be the right idea. Because if we start to imagine a world where communities are strong, where no one is handed a gun and trained to shoot first, and where implicit bias doesn’t translate to murder with impunity, we’ll be left with a world where police abolition has already taken place.

Grace Goldstein ’24 is a columnist at the Collegian. She is an undeclared major, from New York, N.Y. You can contact her at goldstein4@kenyon.edu.

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