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We live within institutional arrangements which influence our ways of thinking and responding to the world around us. Those institutions often seem part of the natural order of things – necessary and immovable, defining particular social artefacts as problems and predefining the range of possible responses, reforms, and solutions. The institution of policing is no exception, and its historical weight carries us along well-trodden paths. Instrumental arguments by policymakers, politicians, and police administrators reconfirm the necessity of the police to control crime and to uphold the law, even as a wealth of evidence throws into question the basic claims of these assertions. Indeed, the problems of police violence, ineffectiveness and corruption are as old as the institution of policing itself. It is important to recognise that policing is a socio-historical process that maintains itself for reasons other than controlling crime. The history of policing tells us much about the control and maintenance of social divisions including class, race, gender, disability, and their intersections and about the economic exploitation of labour and political control. The history of policing also alerts us to the use of power, both at the local level and more broadly through macro socio-historical movements of colonialism and imperialism. The history of colonial policing is important to understanding contemporary calls to Defund the Police.
In western liberal democracies the police are viewed as guardians of public safety and enforcers of the law. How accurate is this? Given police violence and the failure of many attempts at reform, attention has turned to other models of managing criminality, including defunding the police and instead funding alternatives to criminalization and incarceration.
This book is the first comprehensive overview of police divestment, using international examples and case studies to reimagine community safety beyond policing and imprisonment.
Showcasing a range of practical examples, this topical book will be relevant for academics, policy makers, activists and all those interested in the Black Lives Matter movement, protest movements and the renewed interest in policing and abolitionism more generally.
There is an absence of systematic evidence internationally on the extent of police violence, including lethal violence, against people with disabilities and mental ill-health. However, we know from individual cases and research data that the problem is extensive. Some of the most well-known police killings in the US which spurred the BLM movement involved Black Americans with disabilities, as has also been the case with deaths of Indigenous, Black, and people of colour in Canada and Australia. There is extensive police intervention into the lives of people with mental ill-health and cognitive impairments, and policing is a key part of the disablist processes of state control. The policing of disability is not a new phenomenon, but it has intensified with the neoliberal contraction of social support and the growth of the carceral state. Further, police decisions affecting people with disabilities compound through the carceral system, often justifying more extreme legal measures. As will be evident in this chapter, it is impossible to conceptualise policing without understanding its dis/abling effects. Centring disability is fundamental to the Defund the Police project and abolitionism more generally.
Chapter 2 provided an historical setting to contemporary policing. How do police see their role today? Police define themselves primarily by their functions, including preventing, detecting, and investigating criminal activities, enforcing the law, maintaining public order, and ensuring community safety. We need to be sceptical of the ability of police to solve crime – rates of reporting crime to police are low and the ability of police to solve crime is limited. A distrust of police and the criminal legal system, an unwillingness to cooperate with the police, and various forms of racism and discrimination by police impact on whether people will report and whether they will be believed. Through the use of discretion, police reproduce the social boundaries of who is problematic and who is not. It is a power utilised at an organisational and individual level that is one of the core attributes of policing. It enables police power to be exercised in a targeted and economical way – it is the filter device of criminalisation. Two examples are drawn on is this chapter: the policing of children and young people, and the policing of violence against people from LGBTQI+ communities. Discretion and the policing of young people highlights the discriminatory nature of many police interventions, and in particular how racialisation becomes embedded in police practice – pushing racialised young people into the furthest reaches of the juvenile legal system. Police discretion also impacts on murder investigations. The research into police responses to the killings of people within the LGBTQI+ community strongly suggests a situation where negative perceptions of victim status reproduce heteronormative assumptions and normalise violence.
Over the last 50 years, there have been numerous high-profile judicial inquiries, presidential commissions, royal commissions, and national reports into one policing crisis after another across a spectrum of countries. While these reports have varied in terms of scope and specific content, there are many commonalities in the broad focus of recommendations, particularly in the need to change police through a suite of internal police reform mechanisms and improved measures for accountability. The key police reform priorities which are often identified (and endlessly repeated from one inquiry to the next) include enhancing community policing, introducing diversity quotas and recruitment initiatives, technical solutions such as body cameras, a greater reliance on evidence-based policing (EBP), and various measures to improve citizen complaints systems and accountability mechanisms. Added to this catalogue is recommended investment in an almost never-ending list of training courses: in de-escalation techniques, in cross-cultural awareness, anti-racism and unconscious bias, in the use of force and physical restraints, to identify signs and symptoms of mental illness, in community policing and community-based crime reduction programs, in responding to domestic violence and sexual assault, and so on. This chapter turns to the failure of reform and the problem of police reformism. The discussion focuses on the limitations of programs of reform in affecting meaningful change. Given the number of inquiries and recommendations and the failure of empirical evidence, research, or practice to show significant improvements, it appears to be a case of not learning from continual failure and instead doing more of the same over again.
Widespread outrage at police violence, fatal shootings, and deaths in police custody created the current international protest movements and calls to Defund the Police. However, as shown in previous chapters, there is a long history to protests against police violence, and there are multiple movements to change policing globally which draw on localised contexts. Police violence is experienced at a local level, however, it has global reach and is pervasive to the institution. It directly costs the lives of tens of thousands of people annually – and many more if we include the numbers of forced disappearances – and leaves incalculable numbers of people with permanent injuries and disabilities. The victims are overwhelmingly from the most marginalised communities whether defined by race, religion, class, Indigeneity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, citizenship, or immigration status, and their various and compounding intersections. One of the main causes of death, disability, and injury for people deprived of their liberty are the acts of violence and use of force by police and other state agents. This chapter sets out what we know about the nature and context of police violence, shootings, and deaths in police custody – including overt violence and the violence of neglect – and it attempts to do so with reference to contexts of both the global north and south. It considers some of the wider drivers which are international but impact on domestic policing such as expanded militarisation, the impact of the war on drugs and the intersection of policing with security forces, border control, and other law enforcement bodies.
One of the core public rationales for policing is that it provides a necessary institutional response to protect citizens from crime and to maintain order. This is a powerful rhetoric that plays on people’s fears and insecurities, even where they have witnessed or experienced police violence or the failure of police to provide protection or assistance. This chapter considers perhaps one of the most contested points of argument in calls to Defund the Police: are police necessary to ensure the safety of women against harassment, violence, and sexual assault, and do they provide these outcomes? It is argued that the evidence shows that police as an institution fail to protect women and this particularly (although not exclusively) impacts on specific groups of women from Black, First Nations, Brown, racialised, poor, and other minoritised communities. Rather than protecting women from violence, there are significant failures by police in taking violence against women seriously – through the failure to record reports, to act on information, to investigate serious crimes and through the use of demeaning stereotypes of racialised women. In addition, police are a major source of violence especially for Black, First Nations, women of colour and other marginalised women. The chapter discusses the problems with carceral feminism which underpins the public policy approach to violence against women and its reliance on stronger policing, criminalization, and penal sanctions.
The demonstrations, protests, and uprisings against police internationally, and the rise of the BLM movement, are inextricably connected to police violence and deaths in custody, and especially the deaths of Indigenous, Black, and people of colour. While there is a long history to policing as the violent arm of colonialism and slavery as discussed in Chapter 2, the more recent history of the struggle against police violence arises in the global revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The anti-imperialist struggles against the US war in Vietnam and opposition to its interventions and support for dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere, the anti-apartheid movement, the civil rights movements, the rise of worker’s and student’s militancy, and the women’s rights and gay rights movements, brought a generation of people into direct contact with the ferocity of state power. Police in various countries were at the forefront of often violent repression of these popular movements. The other important lesson from the resistance to police violence is that the popular movements were not simply oppositional – they were concerned with responding to the needs of communities in areas such as access to health, education, legal services, and housing, and in building solidarity across groups. Taking Australia and the US as examples, the struggle against police and state violence was central to the radical politics of the Black Panther and Indigenous liberation movements. The Chapter also explores the Black struggle against police violence in the UK and the various strategies that developed as a result. The chapter concludes that new forms of community-based organisations and resistance grew out of the activist movements which developed in opposition to police violence and racism.
The Black Lives Matter movement galvanised protest movements against police and state violence around the globe. A common theme in many protests was the demand to ‘Defund the Police’. Increasing attention to the idea of defunding or divesting from police forces is gaining in mainstream politics and media. We need to seriously consider what is required to fundamentally change the way policing operates. The option of divestment opens up this discussion. Defund the Police is not another book about police reform. It is an engagement in the contemporary debate on the politics and possibilities of police abolition. To date, the majority of popular and academic literature in policing studies, law reform, and criminology has been preoccupied with conventional ideas related to top-down police reform. These reforms include efforts, for example, to recruit diverse and inclusive police officers, to implement cultural-awareness training, to introduce technical solutions like the use of body cameras, to place limitations on the use of force, and to introduce police-led programs aimed at cultivating localised or community policing. We have had decades of these types of reforms, and part of the explosion of protest internationally is driven by the profound sense of frustration at the inability of police to reform themselves. This chaper outlines the nature of the international protests and argues that, although local conditions generated what became an international movement for change, there were common themes among the protesters across different countries. The chapter outlines in brief the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement and how in the US there were various responses from local, city, and state governments. The link between Defunding the Police and the broader challenges to mass incarceration and the carceral state is also discussed.
Before we directly address the question, it is important to restate some of the basic propositions from the Defund the Police movement, and abolitionism more generally. The first is that it is about presence, not absence. It is focused on building the type of society that does not require heavily armed police and mass imprisonment. For Ruth Wilson Gilmore, for example, it is both a long-term goal and a practical policy program that requires investment in social goods that enable a productive life. ‘It’s obvious that the system won’t disappear overnight … no abolitionist thinks that will be the case’. Reforms are needed, but they need to be reforms that actually change the order. As Patrisse Cullors acknowledges, ‘we need to have a movement around divestment – to divest from police and prisons and surveillance and to use that money to reinvest in the communities that are most directly impacted by poverty and the violence of poverty’. The second proposition which is foundational to answering the question of what is to be done is developing a movement built around alliances. The Defund the Police movement has brought together a range of groups across differing perspectives and with various agendas. While there may be a common view on the need to take resources away from police and to expand and develop community responses to social needs, there is less uniformity on the question of abolitionism – that is whether the police and prisons should be abolished.