Our current justice system is not equipped to give justice to victims like Breonna Taylor. The only way to bring meaningful change to our communities and prevent future police violence is through the abolition of police and the prison industrial complex.
Breonna Taylor loved to sing the blues with her grandma. She was an EMT who enjoyed her job and dreamed of becoming a nurse. She had plans to buy her own home, get engaged, and start a family. Her mother called the 26-year-old “the glue of the family.”
On March 13th shortly after midnight, Louisville police used a battering ram to enter Breonna Taylor’s apartment unannounced. Breonna’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, believed her ex-boyfriend was trying to break into the apartment and fired a gun in self-defense. The police responded by firing over 10 rounds into the apartment, striking Breonna Taylor 5 times while she slept, killing her. The police refused to give Breonna medical attention for a full 20 minutes after shooting her. In a 911 call, her frantic boyfriend can be heard saying in despair, “I don’t know what’s happening. Someone kicked down the door and shot my girlfriend.”
Since her case gained national attention, Breonna Taylor has become a household name. “Justice for Breonna Taylor” has been the rallying cry of anti-police brutality protests across the country. Her name has been used in Twitter hashtags, Instagram infographics, T-shirts, and stickers. Her case was the subject of a documentary on Hulu. Instagram influencers and celebrities have profited from her death while her family and friends have been left with an enormous amount of pain and trauma. Despite the national outcry her death sparked, a grand jury declined to indict the officers who killed her, instead only charging officer Brett Hankinson with “wanton endangerment” for firing indiscriminately into a nearby apartment. Hankinson has pleaded not guilty.
Many people are rightfully appalled by the outcome of Breonna’s case, which they see as an example of the irreparably broken justice system in our nation–but our justice system isn’t broken, it is working exactly how it was designed. Our criminal justice system functions as a protector of the state and the ruling class, not as a protector of marginalized communities. Our current system is incapable of giving Breonna Taylor justice because it was built to oppress people like her.
Within the confines of our current system, arresting and charging the officers who killed Breonna Taylor seems like reasonable justice. But close your eyes for a moment, and imagine the alternate reality in which her killers are convicted and imprisoned: What healing does that bring to her community? Would her killers change their attitudes, express remorse, and be rehabilitated during their time in prison? Would her community be safer from the hands of police violence? The likely answer to both of those questions is no.
Arresting and charging killer cops serves no purpose other than to further uphold the carceral complex that has gravely harmed many of our communities. We’ve seen the same cycle repeat itself endlessly: An innocent victim is killed by the police. Communities are outraged; they protest. The cops evade punishment, or in an extremely rare moment, they are convicted and punished. Either way, nothing changes. Another innocent victim is killed by the police, and the cycle of trauma continues.
True justice for victims of police violence means breaking this endless cycle and reducing police violence in our communities. True justice for Breonna Taylor means defunding and eventually abolishing the police department that murdered her. Arresting the cops who killed her may give temporary vindication, but it would not protect Black and brown people from being murdered by the police in the future. Abolition is the only solution that seeks meaningful change and healing in our communities. If we wish to finally end the pain that the endless cycle of police violence breeds, abolition is the only way forward.
Do you seriously mean abolish the police? How will our communities be safe if there are no police?
First, yes, the goal of police and prison abolitionists is seriously to abolish the police and the greater prison industrial complex. Abolition is not a singular moment in which we fire all the police officers across the nation and open all the prison doors, it is a complex process aimed at dismantling oppressive structures while building new systems of community safety. Defunding the police and reinvesting their money into community programs is a key step towards the ultimate goal of abolition.
Second, in order to imagine safer alternatives to policing, most of us need to unlearn the assumption that police keep our communities safer from violent crime. Thanks to the proliferation of crime TV shows such as CSI and Law & Order, many Americans have the mental image of police officers as superheroes: We imagine that cops are spending their time hunting serial killers, catching drug kingpins, or busting down doors in the nick of time to save hostages—but this isn’t the case in the real world. Studies show that most police officers make only one felony arrest per year. This is partly due to the fact that the majority of police officers’ time is spent on routine, noncriminal calls: traffic violations, noise complaints, and other nonviolent situations. Unfortunately, police training programs do not reflect the reality of the job: The majority of police training time is spent on weapons training and defensive tactics, with some police departments spending as little as 8 hours on de-escalation tactics. Despite the fact that the majority of their days are spent responding to nonviolent situations, their training primes them to respond to most situations with violence.
When police do respond to violent crimes, they don’t do it effectively. Police solve less than half of all murder cases and a mere 17% of property crimes, and that doesn’t even include the 57% of violent crimes that people don’t report to the police. We can’t reasonably argue that police make society safer when they don’t solve most crimes and the majority of the public doesn’t even trust them enough to report crimes. We also cannot reasonably argue that police make our communities safer when they are the ones committing the violence. In addition to the thousands of murders and physical assaults committed by police each year, sexual assault is the second most-common form of misconduct amongst the police. Additional research suggests that domestic violence is two to four times more prevalent in law enforcement households than the general public. How can we expect police to protect us from murderers, rapists, and abusers when they themselves are the ones committing these crimes?
Once we deconstruct the illusion of safety created by police presence, it is easier to explore alternatives to policing. Denver has developed an alternative to 911 that responds to calls with a paramedic and a mental health expert, and so far not a single call for police backup has been requested. San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that San Francisco police will no longer respond to noncriminal calls, including neighborhood disputes, reports on homeless people, and school discipline issues. Crime prevention education and harm reduction strategies can also be helpful for communities by addressing the problem before it begins, unlike our current system which only reacts to harm already committed. Restorative Justice methods are becoming more popular in schools and even some juvenile detention programs, and we should develop ways to implement these methods in our communities as an alternative to police and prisons.
As Derecka Purnell writes in How I Became a Police Abolitionist, “Rather than thinking of abolition as just getting rid of police, I think about it as an invitation to create and support lots of different answers to the problem of harm in society, and, most exciting, as an opportunity to reduce and eliminate harm in the first place.”
But what about reforms? Can’t we just pass laws to reform police departments instead of getting rid of them entirely?
We must look back and examine the history of policing in the United States in order to fully evaluate the question of police reform. In the South, the first modern police departments originated as slave patrols whose purpose was to return captured slaves to their owners, violently discourage slave revolts, and maintain discipline on plantations. After slavery was abolished, Southern police forces served to enforce Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that were created to criminalize Black existence and return freed Black slaves to the confines of prison labor and chain gangs. Considering the fact that police forces were from their very inception designed to oppress Black people and enforce racism, we must ask the questions: Is it possible to reform an institution that is inherently racist and oppressive? If we truly wish to rid our society of racism, can we allow the continued existence of racist institutions?*
Regardless of your personal answers to those questions, it’s worth examining the evidence about the effectiveness of police reform. The first investigation of police misconduct was undertaken in New York in 1894, after public complaints of police officers bludgeoning citizens with their nightsticks. The Wickersham Commission investigation of 1931 examined the rampant corruption amongst local police, who were regularly hired by city politicians to help rig elections and persuade public political participation, in addition to committing violent physical assaults on citizens. The Commission recommended reforms aimed at professionalizing the police—refocus police departments on responding to and preventing crime, and improve hiring and training standards, to name a few. Although the nature and methods of policing have shifted over time, the cycle has remained relatively unchanged. Police misconduct, public calls for reform, and subsequent investigations continued into the 1950s, 1960s, all the way into the 1990s, and still, the violence and corruption continues today.
Modern calls for police reform have included a variety of efforts aimed at changing police training and/or instituting stricter regulations on police behavior. One popular reform campaign that appeared this summer was the #8CantWait campaign, which recommends 8 “data-backed” reform policies such as banning chokeholds, requiring a warning before shooting, and instituting more comprehensive reporting. While these policies seem appealing on paper, many large police departments (including the LAPD and NYPD) have already implemented over half these policies, and police misconduct and violence still run rampant in these cities.
Rules and regulations are worth nothing if the police don’t follow them, and evidence shows us they don’t. Police officers have no incentive to follow the rules because they are comfortably assured that if they break them, they will experience little to no consequences. Police unions have tightened their grip on local politics in order to block reform efforts, and qualified immunity guarantees that police can’t be held accountable for violating the constitutional rights of the citizens they supposedly protect. Reforms continue to fail because there is no accountability system.
Do we really believe that after over a century of failed reforms, we can transform policing in America? Is it realistic to expect that an institution built on foundations of oppression can be converted into an institution that protects and serves oppressed peoples? I don’t believe so. Police forces in the United States were created by the wealthy white ruling class to protect the interests and property of the wealthy white ruling class. It is impossible to reform an institution whose original purpose was (and still is) to maintain a class and race-based social order. Proponents of police reform may be well-intentioned, but they are asking the wrong questions.
Abolitionists recognize a blind spot that many reformists miss: Crime does not exist in a vacuum; it is the direct consequence of the conditions created by society. Most crimes are not the result of the inherent evil of humanity, but are instead driven by the oppressive structures of our society: poverty, poor education, community violence, and lack of opportunity. People want to believe that police and prisons are the best way to deal with crime, because it removes the burden of addressing the problems that create crime in the first place. It is easier to toss “criminals” away into cages than it is to do the difficult and often-exhausting work of grappling with the systemic problems in our country.
Abolition is a movement that believes we can achieve a safer society by taking away the billions of dollars spent on tanks, riot gear, and taser shields for the police and instead spending it on affordable housing, universal health care, and better schools for our children. Abolition is not a movement that forsakes our communities and leaves them to anarchy**, it is a movement that believes we the people have the power to create safer communities for ourselves by investing in valuable social resources, and most importantly, in each other. It is a movement that rejects capitalistic attitudes of individualism and instead believes in the collectivist power of community.
Abolition envisions a world where someone having a mental health crisis is met with a trained social worker instead of a police officer with a gun. Abolition envisions a world where a disabled person is given medical attention instead of shot by a police officer, which happens far too often in our current system. Abolition envisions a world full of community gardens, co-ops, and food banks. It envisions a world where every person—yes, even the ones who do bad things—are treated with dignity and seen as human beings. Abolition does not seek to burn down our current institutions in an act of vengeance, but instead it hopes to build a world where police and prisons aren’t needed. It is a movement of radical love, radical peace, and radical forgiveness.
So you still think I’m crazy?
If after reading this you still think I am crazy for wanting to abolish police and prisons, just remember that there was once a time in our society when abolishing slavery was considered a crazy, radical idea. For hundreds of years, the majority of people in the United States could not envision a society without slavery; they saw it as an immutable structure that would forever be the economic foundation of our existence, even if they did not personally approve of it. Today, it is difficult for us to imagine a world without police and prisons, because we have never lived in a world without them.
Most slavery abolitionists never saw the fruits of their labor; they died long before they could see the slaves freed. I realize that, as a police and prison abolitionist, I will most likely die before police and prisons are abolished. This doesn’t deter me, if anything, it encourages me to fight harder to build a better world. We must be willing to explore radical ideas if we wish to change our circumstances for the better.
Even if you don’t agree with my stance on police and prison abolition, hopefully we can agree on this: What we’re currently doing is not working. Police and prisons are not improving our society. They are not addressing society’s current problems in a meaningful way, and I believe it’s worth the effort to explore alternative solutions to these problems that don’t include violence delivered by the hands of the state.
I hope that the next time an innocent person is killed by the police, we remember all the times that police reform failed. I hope we remember Breonna Taylor, the beautiful, bright 26-year-old whose life was stolen too soon. I hope that when we seek justice for her, we seek radical solutions that will prevent other young lives from being stolen and prevent other families from feeling the insurmountable pain her family feels. We can’t bring Breonna back, but we can honor her by fighting for a better future. I choose a future of justice, of community, of hope. I choose abolition.
*The second question is a paraphrase of a line from Dr. Angela Davis’s book, Are Prisons Obsolete?
**Here I am using the dictionary definition of anarchy, “a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority.” This is not to be confused with anarchism, which is a legitimate political theory that advocates for “the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion.” I am pointing this out because of the recent media attention that has created confusion about the difference between anarchy and anarchism. If you are interested in learning more about anarchism, specifically Black anarchism, you should join Noname’s online book club (@nonamereads on instagram).