What If There Were No Police?

Moving past the failed institution of “the police”

Americans have a belief that the police are helping to keep people safe and helping to limit or stop crime.

Though, in recent decades, there have been too many mistakes, where police have harmed innocent people. And many times, the police have even killed innocent and/or unarmed people.

Some examples of serious police failures include: the 2011 shooting of Kenneth Chamberlain, an unarmed, 68-year-old veteran, killed by police in White Plains, who had been called to his home for a medical alert; the police killing of Kevin Callahan of Long Island, NY in his home (where no weapon was found) in 2011; the wrongful arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates at his home in 2009; the murder of Sean Bell in 2006 by The NYPD; The murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999 by the NYPD. The recent police riot against citizens and baby strollers in Anaheim, California is another egregious example of the failure of our current vision of policing.

The relationship between police and demonstrators in the Occupy Wall Street movement reveals more flaws in our current system of policing. There have been many cases of the police, in various jurisdictions, using out-of-proportion force and interfering with people’s right to protest. Some recent examples include: violent police evictions of Occupy Wall Street at Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park; the pepper-spraying of seated demonstrators at UCLA Davis; projectiles the police used in Oakland, which gave occupier and Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen a concussion; and more recent police aggression against Occupy LA at an art show and against Occupy DC demonstrators.

Perhaps there is a better way to accomplish the goals we have for police. What if we re-examine the outcomes we desire, and start from scratch in inventing an entity or organization that could better meet those goals? The task would be something like zero-based budgeting, where we erase all the old patterns and allotments, and only add things that truly make sense for the current situation. Let’s start from square one about law and order: Do we really need police? Can we let go of the institution of police altogether, and fill it up with new programs that will work better?

To start from a zero-based framework, we would look at the ultimate purpose and the big picture. We would make a list of all the duties of “The Police”. Then, we could start creating new organizations and/or new job titles that would meet those actual needs.

What is the purpose of “the police”?

In studying various definitions, and the mission statements of various police forces, I would say that most people agree with all the aspects of the definition at “The Free Dictionary” by Farlex. Those listed duties include: “maintain order”, “enforce the law”, and “prevent and detect crime.” Other roles ascribed to police include purposes such as: to protect property, and “powers…with respect to general comfort, health, morals, safety, or prosperity”.

To accomplish these goals, a police department is given the power to use force, as well as executive, judicial, and legislative powers.

One answer to the question of how to solve our current out-of-control police might be to apply a classic libertarian solution (i.e., the government cannot initiate force). When we realize that the ultimate power of the police is “force”, then we might decide to only use traditional police officers when government “force” is needed and justified.

Under this solution, we might scale back police duties drastically. Perhaps most of the police – or the new kind of government workers we assign to maintain order and enforce the law – would not have weapons of force. Some of these workers would patrol sidewalks to offer help and assistance, or direct traffic, or do crowd control at a parade or demonstration. For these activities, they would not carry any weapon. Or, at most, they would have a simple night stick for emergencies, instead of a gun or taser. If these workers observed a weapon, or a violent crime being committed, they could then call for back-up which would, more appropriately, bring the element of needed force into the situation.

In this day and age, it is easy to respond in a timely way to a situation by using a communication system to call for escalation or back-up. The government does not need 100 armed personnel in the street. Instead, they could have 90 proactive, solution-oriented peace-keepers, and 10 people waiting by their cell phones or computers to bring force where needed.

Another solution to the current problem of our failed institution of police is to think outside the box, and use principles of social invention.

One problem with many police forces is that they operate under the principle that “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” The government and the community expect the workers we call police to respond to problems ranging from bank robbery to speeding cars to domestic violence. It would be difficult to think of any one person who could be skillful at addressing all of these problems. It would be difficult to think of one training system that would meet all of these needs.

So, maybe we need to rethink the entire structure of the police? We could list the various tasks that police are called upon to do, and create separate departments, or even separate entities, to meet these needs.

This idea is not entirely new. In fact, the police have divided themselves into separate units to respond to different problems. Some examples include: the riot police; missing person bureaus; the NYPD Street Crimes Unit; the NYPD Emergency Services Unit; anti-gang units; The SWAT Team, Special Weapons and Tactics to help with high-risk operations such as hostage situations (invented by the LA police in 1968).

It would be helpful if more police forces applied a departmental approach, so that even small towns or villages did not have police serving on the street every day, who are over-forceful and untrained, doing too many things. Another problem is that bigger police forces don’t have enough and the right kind of specialized departments. Where departments exist, they tend to focus too much on violent and high-profile crimes, and create more and more aggressive police units. It seems SWAT Teams are a pathway to invite bigger and bigger weapons into a police force. The NYPD Street Crimes Unit is an example of a department that failed. The Street Crimes Unit was disbanded in 2002, partly in response to the Amadou Diallo shooting. Anti-Gang units often become excuses for profiling of minorities and young people, instead of support and redirection of young people.

What if the police had departments that matched up with common crime patterns, and with the actual needs of the community to preserve order? We might have special police units for the following: protecting and guiding the homeless population; going to scenes of domestic violence; managing large demonstrations or parades in a pro-active way; discouraging gang activity by socializing and nurturing youth and immigrants; creating order and harmony on the sidewalks; and creating order and harmony on the roads. Or, maybe, some of these activities would be better served by government units different than the police taking care of them?

Here are some ideas about potential alternative organizations to the police, who could help to “maintain order”, “enforce the law”, and “prevent and detect crime”:

An Auntie Brigade of volunteers who patrol busy sidewalks of downtown areas. In Russia, under a principle such as “It Takes A Village”, women in the community may consider themselves “aunties”, and give guidance or scolding to young people in the community. What if, in America, we had local governments train “Auntie Brigades” of volunteers who wore a friendly uniform (like an apron) and patrolled local sidewalks? Aunties would not have weapons. They would nip crime in the bud by pleasantly reminding people of manners, scolding people who pushed or shoved, and calling for law enforcement when needed (such as Neighborhood Watch people do). Aunties in cities with immigrant populations could be bilingual, or patrol with translators, so that they could create goodwill among communities, and gently train newcomers about community manners.

Social Work units at sites where day laborers gather. I believe that this idea has been introduced in some places, such as Long Island. If there are problems with large gatherings of laborers at certain sites in the community, address the problem proactively with liaisons. If this were a department of the police, the government would: hire bilingual officers where needed, train police on the customs and manners of any minority groups; use police who do not carry weapons; have police be on the lookout for exploitative or lawbreaking employers. This organization might be set up by a town or locality, separate from police. The unit would: be bilingual if there were different language groups; be trained in the customs and manners of both laborers and employers; be trained in conflict resolution; be allowed to educate and advocate for day laborers; and be allowed to educate employers on their duties.

Domestic Abuse Society. This could be an organization run by a nonprofit or set up by a local government. It would probably need a system to contact the regular police if weapons or death threats were involved. The staff of this organization would be trained in: patterns of domestic abuse; the psychology of domestic abuse; conflict resolution; practical matters about nurturing, speaking with, educating, and physically separating people involved in a domestic situation. The staff would have important knowledge about conveying people to hospitals or domestic abuse shelters if needed. The staff would be trained in knowing when it was important to move from privacy to reporting.

Society for Conflict Resolution for The Mentally Ill. This organization could be run by a nonprofit, a local government, or even a local hospital or mental health facility. If someone with mental illness was involved in a dispute or crisis, this unit would be sent, instead of sending armed policemen, who may not have the training or patience to deal with people who cannot obey orders quickly. Having a department such as this one might have saved the life of Kevin Callahan. When Callahan’s family called the Suffolk County Police for help reaching Kevin fast, the police arrived first, and killed Kevin (who was unarmed), before the family could arrive.

College Peace Keepers. Many universities have their own security or police force. Some of them use local police. It would be better to have a new organization, with a pro-active, weapons-free, vision of how to keep order on a campus. This organization would probably have specific skills with how to deal with young people, alcohol, and social and political rebellion. It would be ideal if some of the college or university students could serve on the peace keeping force. Their participation would be a lesson in duty, and a way to create buy-in.

Elementary or High School Peace Keepers. (Unfortunately, some school systems, such as New York City schools and the Anchorage Alaska schools, currently use the regular police department, on a regular basis, to keep order inside public schools.) Many schools function well using only rules, policies, and rewards to keep students in line. If more control is needed, it would best be created and implemented by people who understand child development. An ideal “law and order team” at a school would probably include staff, teachers, family members, and students, themselves.

Regular police do not belong in institutions designed for children. Very young children are illogical and unpredictable. So, a paramilitary mindset would only confuse children, and create unnecessary chaos. The unpredictability and sensitivity of children also makes it a bad idea to have unnecessary weapons anywhere near them.

When a young child is acting out, what is most needed is understanding. If a young child is acting out violently (without a weapon), there are techniques which make it easy for a properly trained person to physically restrain them. So, no one needs to use guns or handcuffs on unarmed children.

High School students who are unarmed do not deserve to be supervised by people carrying weapons. There are so many other levels of punishment and reward which can control students’ behavior. In addition, the teen years include a sense of rebellion which could be unnecessarily antagonized by having extra authority figures patrolling the spaces where students work, eat, and socialize.

Violence Interrupting Departments in troubled neighborhoods. Violence Interrupter is an actual job title. It is notably used by the Save Our Streets program, in New York City’s Crown Heights. In my ideal proposal for a new kind of policing, Violence Interrupters would not carry weapons. Violence Interrupters would try to keep the peace by circulating in troubled neighborhoods; talking with local gangs and gang leaders to discourage violence and understand concerns; teaching conflict resolution skills; and other proactive measures to monitor and prevent violence.

Re-organize the Police. More details about a multi-layered police force:
If we must keep the Police Departments in similar fashion to how they exist, we could still apply new thinking.

What if it was decided that no one could simply join the police and get a gun right away?

Instead, recruits and new police officers would show their true commitment to community harmony with an interim, apprentice-style, work assignment. So, police would come into a department such as “The Domestic Abuse Department” or the “Conflict Resolution for the Mentally Ill Department”. For their first three years, they would immerse themselves in that program, study strategies of how to serve that population, learn the culture of the community they are serving, and demonstrate their bravery by entering the community without a weapon.

Some police officers might continue in that capacity of serving and patrolling without a gun for their whole career. But, if after three years, they wanted to take a new direction, or immerse themselves in a different level of crisis and danger, they could join a “Department of Weapons Team”. These departments, whose officers would have guns or other weapons, would only be allowed on a scene when a civilian is seen with a gun, or a perpetrator with a known record of violence is involved in a crime. If we had police who only brought weapons when weapons are already present, it would honor the civil liberties and protect the lives of community members.

Police Departments in America are out of control. There are too many stories of police abuse, too many dramatic incidents of police aggression against protesters, and even innocent bystanders. We need drastic action to fix a situation that is spiraling out of control.

One way to address the bad Police Departments we have is by traditional methods of reform. People can demand Civilian Review Boards. Or, the community can demand better training – such as cultural sensitivity — of police. Or, individuals or organizations could fight in court to limit the power of police.

Though, another answer is to abolish the entire problem and start over again. What if we just did away with the police? What if your community, city, village, or state scratched their current system, made a list of actual needs, and created an entirely new system to address the concerns?

There have not been police as we now have them in every society and culture in the world. There must be other ways to preserve order, enforce the law, and prevent crime. Let’s start inventing new ways and new institutions which can truly protect and serve our communities.

Kimberly Wilder has had many hats: performance poet, community organizer, third party candidate, early childhood educator, and temporary office worker. Her main gig now is mother to a toddler. She lives with her husband and aforementioned toddler in Riverhead, Long Island, NY. Kimberly previously published an article in DV titled “What If There Were No Police? Moving past the failed institution of ‘the police’” in 2012. Read other articles by Kimberly.