Structural Alternatives to Policing

As the events of the past few days have shown police departments in every city in America need to be dramatically reduced in size, power, and authority.  Police brutality and racism have been a longstanding problem in the U.S. and coupling that with the increased militarization of the police has lead to catastrophic consequences.  The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th has sparked nationwide protests that have been met with unimaginable police violence.  All this signals the need to dramatically reduce the police presence in this country.   This will obviously be a multi-generational project but nevertheless is one of urgent necessity.

There are many such multi-generational struggles that are required to make the U.S. and the world a more hospitable place where everyone can live a life of dignity, and it is not uncommon to feel despair at the thought of how we are going to change a system(s) that seem omnipresent and unmovable.  In light of the difficulty it will take to dismantle the police state in America it might be useful to make the analogy to another extremely difficult struggle – dismantling the fossil fuel economy.  In their book, Active Hope  Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone describe what they call “The Great Turning” which is a, very nascent, move from a fossil fuel extractive economy to a more sustainable renewable economy.  The image below highlights the three elements of this “Great Turning”


Holding actions are those that defend the earth – protests against oil pipelines, divestment campaigns, etc. etc.  Life-sustaining systems are practices are the creation of alternatives to our current fossil fuels extractive based economic systems which can include everything from renewable energy resources to new modes of economic and social life. Finally, the third element is shifts in consciousness which are changes in our perceptions, thinking, and values regarding the natural world and our place in it.  I have always thought of this threefold model of the “Great Turning” as a more general model of large scale change and I believe it can serve as a useful template for thinking how to dismantle militarized policing in the U.S.

We can view the current anti-police violence protests as holding actions.  These along with the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent social movements have brought the issue of police violence to the forefront.  I think most people are rightly appalled by the murder of George Floyd and many (although not all) will acknowledge police violence and racism ,but the idea radically diminishing the role of police in American society is still a fringe issue.  This tweet basically sums up the problem:

Screen Shot 2020-06-01 at 3.46.34 PM

The question is – if you dramatically reduce the size, power, and authority of police what will take their place?  This is assuming that the presence of police does not actually lead to an increase in crime which I am not sure it doesn’t (we certainly know that the militarization of police leads to more violence).  Nevertheless, police are required to do a lot more than simply “enforce the law” they are to be domestic violence counselors, social workers, mental health professionals, and in some instances surrogate parents.  These are not the tasks police are trained for nor are they the tasks they should be doing.  Additionally, treating drug abuse as a public health issue as opposed to a criminal one would go a long way in diminishing the need to police officers.  The New York Times had a great opinion piece the other day from Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris that makes many of these points.  They write:

The only way we’re going to stop these endless cycles of police violence is by creating alternatives to policing. Because even in a pandemic where black people have been disproportionately killed by the coronavirus, the police are still murdering us.


The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public. We can do that by reinvesting the $100 billion spent on policing nationwide in alternative emergency response programs, as protesters in Minneapolis have called for. City, state and federal grants can also fund these programs. Municipalities can begin by changing policies or statutes so police officers never respond to certain kinds of emergencies, including ones that involve substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness or mental health. Instead, health care workers or emergency response teams would handle these incidents. So if someone calls 911 to report a drug overdose, health care teams rush to the scene; the police wouldn’t get involved. If a person calls 911 to complain about people who are homeless, rapid response social workers would provide them with housing support and other resources. Conflict interrupters and restorative justice teams could mediate situations where no one’s safety is being threatened. Community organizers, rather than police officers, would help manage responses to the pandemic. Ideally, people would have the option to call a different number — say 727 — to access various trained response teams.

So one answer to the question of “what do you replace them with” would be to drastically reduce what we ask police to do and shift those responsibilities to entities that are better trained and cannot, and will not. react with violence.  Another answer is for communities to handle public safety issues themselves.  There is a history of the anarchist movements arguing for such tactics and implementing them at local levels.  More recently a nascent movement suggesting people refrain from calling the police except for perhaps the most extreme circumstances.  The above link has a multitude of steps from how to implement these programs but fundamentally at the core is community and neighborliness.  Simple, (probably too simply) it comes down to the idea if you know your neighbors well your much less likely to think about calling the police on them.  Of course, for these policies to work as we would hope also requires structural change attacking the twin demons of white supremacy and wealth inequality.  Obviously, dismantling the police state must be part of a broader left agenda.  Nevertheless, the key here is that there are structural alternatives to policing and after the events of the last few days reveal they are needed  now more than ever.

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