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AbolishPolice: The Politics of Public Safety in the Age of Social Media

In the wake of high-profile police killings of unarmed Black citizens in recent years, a movement to “abolish the police” has gained momentum, particularly on social media. The phrase “abolish the police” refers not just to eliminating police departments as they currently exist, but shifting to an entirely new paradigm of ensuring public safety without reliance on armed law enforcement officers. This concept strikes at the heart of long-held assumptions about the role of police in society. It also raises complex questions about what systems could adequately replace police departments to keep communities safe.

While calls to abolish the police have a long history, stretching back to the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, today’s movement has been fueled by a convergence of social media activism, on-the-ground protests, academic critiques of policing, and a racial reckoning in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020. This paper analyzes the contemporary movement to abolish police in the context of 21st century activism, examining how the decentralized, digital-first nature of modern social movements has shaped the debate around public safety.

To provide background, the paper first reviews the origins of modern policing in America, which are deeply intertwined with the legacy of slavery and racial oppression. It then explores how policing has changed from the late 20th to early 21st century, as rates of violent crime declined at the same time that aggressive policing tactics disproportionately impacted communities of color. Next, it analyzes the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and how social media allowed activists to rapidly spread calls for abolishing police following high-profile deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

The paper delves into the details of how activists, community organizations, and scholars conceptualize a future without traditional policing. What systems of community care, conflict resolution, and emergency response could replace police departments? What examples and experiments already exist at the local level? The paper reviews potential frameworks like restorative justice, community oversight boards, mental health crisis response teams, and more.

Crucially, the paper also examines major critiques of police abolition and concerns about how public safety could be ensured without law enforcement as currently constructed. It engages seriously with fears about increased crime if policing is radically minimized. The paper aims to provide a nuanced look at this complex issue, not just rehearsing abolitionist talking points but also giving fair consideration to counterarguments.

Ultimately, the paper argues that while police abolition remains highly controversial as a practical policy proposal, the movement has productively shifted the national debate about public safety. The demand to abolish police compels society to scrutinize the role of armed police officers, examine the roots of mass incarceration and structural racism, and imagine transformative new approaches to community wellbeing. Whether or not a future without police is viable, the boldness of the abolitionist vision has expanded the boundaries of possibility for reimagining justice.

Origins of Policing in America

To understand contemporary calls to abolish police, it is necessary to examine the origins and historical functions of law enforcement in the United States. Modern policing has roots in the institution of slavery, functioned as a tool of enforcing Jim Crow laws after the Civil War, and continues to perpetuate vast racial inequities (1). Excavating this history reveals how deeply intertwined policing has been with upholding white supremacy throughout American history.

During the era of slavery in the South, slave patrols were one of the earliest forms of organized policing. These patrols sought to control the movement of enslaved Africans, prevent uprisings, and return runaways to their masters (2). The salaries of slave patrolmen were sometimes paid by the state, establishing an early public-private collaboration in policing (3). After the Civil War, police enforcement would help reestablish control over freed Black citizens and enforce the racist Black Codes and segregation laws of the Jim Crow era in the South (4).

Meanwhile, in Northern cities in the mid-19th century, the first municipal police departments were established, modeled on the London Metropolitan Police. These new urban police forces were tasked with controlling the immigrant populations flooding into cities and violently suppressing labor protests (5). They harshly enforced vagrancy laws that essentially criminalized poverty. In these early years, police did not function primarily to fight violent crime, but to control marginalized populations viewed as threats to the existing social order (6).

Throughout the early 20th century, police departments professionalized and adopted military ranks and command structures. As African Americans migrated North during the Great Migration, policing continued to be used as a tool of oppression and racial control, now in Northern ghettos. Harlem’s first Black officer was not hired until 1941 (7). During the unrest of the 1960s civil rights movement, police violently cracked down on nonviolent protests and disproportionately arrested activists (8).

The legacy of slave patrols is not just a matter of history, but continues to shape modern policing. Scholar Vitale argues this “persistently racist character of policing in the United States” provides the context needed to understand seemingly excessive uses of force against Black citizens today (9). The racist roots of policing explain why some view it as an inherently oppressive institution that cannot be incrementally reformed.

The Evolution of Policing in Recent Decades

In recent decades, a number of trends have shaped the evolution of police forces across the country, setting the stage for the current debate around abolition.

First, after rising precipitously from the 1960s through 1980s, rates of violent crime fell dramatically in the United States from their peak in the early 1990s (10). Some of this decline may be attributable to changes in policing strategies, along with mass incarceration removing criminals from the streets (11). Notably, the crime decline occurred alongside a reduction in crack cocaine use and changes in demographics and economic opportunities for youth (12). In any case, the major drop in violent crime, which remains near historic lows today, calls into question whether aggressive policing approaches are still warranted.

At the same time as crime fell, police adopted new tactics and technologies that impacted marginalized communities. A landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 found evidence that racial bias existed at all levels of the criminal justice system (13). Black Americans were more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, and imprisoned even controlling for differences in crime rates.

In response to rising homicide rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many police departments adopted the “broken windows” theory of policing (14). This model encouraged crackdowns on minor “quality of life” crimes and aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses under the theory that letting minor infractions go breeds lawlessness and more serious crime. While the broken windows approach did spread widely, evidence about its effectiveness in reducing crime remains highly contested (15). Critics charge it led to vast increases in misdemeanor arrests that disproportionately criminalized poor people and minorities.

More recently, following September 11, 2001, many local police forces received military equipment and funding to fight terrorism. The rise of heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams conducting military-style raids has raised concerns about the “militarization” of police (16). Aggressive enforcement approaches, from stop-and-frisk in New York to military-style responses to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, have been faulted for antagonizing the communities that police are meant to serve.

Racial injustice in the criminal justice system broadly, and patterns of police violence specifically, provided kindling for the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to fundamentally reimagine law enforcement.

The Rise of Black Lives Matter and Challenging Police Use of Force

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 spurred the growth of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and empowered a new generation of racial justice activists (17). Black Lives Matter emerged organically from a social media hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter) created by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi following Zimmerman’s acquittal (18). The networked, decentralized structure of BLM contrasts with older civil rights organizations and reflects how digital technology has transformed activism.

BLM first made headlines protesting police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after a white officer killed unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown without facing trial (19). News of Brown’s death spread rapidly from citizen cell phone videos on social platforms like Twitter and Vine. BLM protesters in Ferguson skillfully used social media to share their own counternarrative and criticize mainstream coverage portraying them as rioters (20).

Focusing public attention on unjustified killings of citizens like Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Freddie Gray, BLM has succeeded in driving policing issues to the top of the national agenda. A study of over 50 million tweets from 2014-2016 identified two critical shifts: (1) increased attention to stories of police violence against Blacks and (2) a shift in attitudes toward the police from generally positive to divided (21). Activists’ ability to drive media narratives on Twitter represents a major change from past police abuse stories that remained localized (22).

Data indicates American police officers kill far more people per capita than in other Western nations (23). One study found American police killed about 1,000 civilians annually from 2015-2020, while non-government organizations put the estimate even higher at around 1,100-1,300 a year (24). Rates of fatal police shootings of unarmed Black Americans were 3.5 times higher than for unarmed whites from 2015-2021 (25).

However, some experts argue comparing raw figures among countries is misleading, since countries track police shootings differently. Adjusting for arrest rates and violent crime rates gives the US a lower rate ratio of deaths to violent crimes or arrests than some other developed nations (26). Still, it remains clear that both the actual rates of police killings and the racial disparities are issues of grave concern in the US.

Prominent Black Lives Matter activists have made a direct connection between high-profile police killings and the much broader demand to abolish police departments altogether. BLM co-founder Cullors has written that the movement’s goals include “acknowledging that police and policing don’t keep us safe” (27). In a 2016 op-ed following a sniper attack that killed five Dallas police officers during a BLM protest, Cullors wrote, “I support the abolishment of the police” (28).

So the precipitous rise of BLM, the decentralized nature of the movement, and activists’ skillful use of social media all help explain how the rallying cry to “abolish the police” has gained potency over the past decade. Next we will examine how scholars, activists, and community groups conceptualize what a post-police future could look like.

Imagining Futures Without Police

Academics and activists calling to abolish police emphasize they do not simply propose eliminating all law enforcement overnight with no plan for what comes next. Rather, they favor a gradual process of building alternative institutions accompanied by a phased diminution of policing resources. While visions differ, most share a core skepticism that police can be meaningfully reformed. They contend achieving public safety, racial equity, and community wellbeing requires a fundamentally new paradigm.

Mariame Kaba, an organizer active since the ‘90s, stresses that growing calls to abolish policing “opens up new possibilities for how we respond to harms,” beyond the narrow options of punishment or surveillance (29). For Kaba, abolition requires building up transformative alternatives like restorative justice programs, mental health responders, and accessible housing and healthcare, while redirecting funding away from police over an extended transition.

Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, argues policing has expanded far beyond reasonable limits, now being asked to solve an array of social problems from homelessness to mental illness that officers are ill-equipped to handle. “The problem is not police training, police diversity, or police methods. The problem is the dramatic and unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last 40 years,” Vitale contends (30). He advocates abolishing most specialized task forces and returning cops to a narrow focus on violent crimes.

Critical Resistance, an abolitionist group founded in 1990, makes a distinction between eliminating particular policing functions that do more harm than good, while recognizing a need for some government response to violence: “We believe that safety for all of us is possible without police and policing. At the same time, we recognize that removal of police alone will not transform our relationships to harm, accountability, or safety” (31). These nuances are sometimes lost in the shorthand slogan “abolish the police.”

There is no single, universally agreed upon blueprint for replacement systems in an abolitionist future. But activists and scholars have articulated a range of possibilities for alternative approaches to community safety and wellbeing that do not rely on police (32). These options include:

  • Community oversight boards and civilian review boards to provide democratic accountability over public safety and hold police accountable. These boards often have limited authority, but some advocates want them to have full investigative and disciplinary powers as community-driven alternatives to traditional police internal affairs units (33).
  • Restorative justice programs that bring together offenders, victims, and community members to discuss harms done and how to make amends in a collective process. Restorative approaches focus on rebuilding relationships and providing support rather than punishment. Police abolitionists see potential to expand restorative justice both inside and outside the criminal justice system (34).
  • Mental health first responders who can be dispatched in place of police for incidents involving people with mental health crises or conditions. Specialized mental health responders may reduce violence compared to traditional policing approaches. Denver’s STAR program offering unarmed mental health response reported resolving almost 800 incidents without arrest in its first year (35).
  • Investments in community-based violence interruption programs to mediate conflicts and prevent violence before it occurs, without involving law enforcement. Studies suggest community responder models and hospital-based violence intervention programs can reduce gun violence and homicides (36).
  • Emergency response teams of paramedics, social workers, trauma specialists or other crisis professionals who can respond to safety emergencies without an armed police presence. Pilot programs testing these alternative responder models have launched in several cities over the past two years (37).
  • Public health approaches to domestic violence that provide services to help survivors leave abusive situations while promoting community education to stop violence before it starts. Police abolitionists argue reliance on criminal justice responses has not created safety for many abuse survivors (38).
  • Transformative justice models that seek to address the root causes of sexual violence through community accountability. Advocates contend the criminal justice system often fails survivors while reinforcing oppressive institutions (39).
  • Increased investments in resources like accessible housing, youth programs, universal healthcare, education, and living wage jobs to address root causes of unequal access to the fundamental prerequisites for community health and safety (40). Police budgets could be redirected to strengthen these social programs.

This list suggests a few ways abolitionists conceptualize replacing the functions police currently serve with alternatives that put power back in the hands of communities. There is also diversity in the movement. For example, prison abolitionists want to eliminate imprisonment and close jails and prisons over time, while other critics argue decarceration could enable violence (41). Debates continue both within the abolitionist movement and in the broader public about how to interpret and apply abolitionist visions.

Critiques and Concerns About Police Abolition

While the bold call to abolish policing has momentum, many Americans still view it as politically infeasible and unlikely to produce safe communities. Critics raise serious concerns about rising crime, accountability, and implementation challenges. Support for abolition remains limited nationally, polling at just 15% in summer 2020 (42). Even many progressives committed to criminal justice reform stop short of calling to eliminate police altogether.

Perhaps the most common critique is that abolishing police departments would lead to frequent lawlessness and violence without any entity able to provide public safety. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, while saying activists make a compelling moral case, argues police abolition is “aspirational and unrealistic in a society beset by racism and greed” (43). Crime data showing lower rates of violence today compared to past decades provides some counterargument. But skeptics say comparing to previous high-crime years sets the bar too low, rather than asking whether police abolition would cause preventable violence relative to maintaining reformed policing.

If police forces were cut back, who could intervene during violent events from mass shootings to hostage crises? Are alternative programs capable of physically stopping dangerous situations? Many worry relying solely on community responders or unarmed teams puts them at risk if encounters unexpectedly turn violent. Pilot programs are working to address these concerns and assess whether alternatives can resolve the vast majority of calls without police backup. Still, critics argue total abolition precludes any law enforcement response even when armed backup could save lives.

Another line of criticism accepts the need to reimagine public safety, but argues police themselves should be part of that reform process. Supporters of this view say painting all officers as racist oppressors and refusing collaboration alienates potential allies. They advocate strengthening community policing initiatives, anti-bias training, demilitarization, ending broken windows enforcement, and requiring de-escalation – while still preserving law enforcement institutions and protections like qualified immunity (44). This perspective holds that partnering with police on reforms will be more constructive than the zero-sum framing of abolition versus reform.

There are also practical concerns about how abolition could be responsibly implemented. Eliminating police departments requires building viable alternatives, probably over years or decades. Yet activists urge cutting police budgets immediately, raising questions about the interim period. Critics argue the sequence should be creating alternative infrastructure first before dismantling existing systems. Rhetoric about immediately “defunding” the police risks taking away current safety mechanisms before new ones are established.

Additionally, many worry abolishing police would disproportionately harm marginalized groups and communities of color that suffer from high crime yet are already often underserved by public safety institutions. Politically conservative African Americans especially tend to oppose police abolition (45). Without careful planning, attempts to reduce police could worsen unequal protection.

Finally, some civil liberties advocates who may share concerns about racialized policing argue abolishing constitutional protections like the Fourth Amendment or qualified immunity for officers would harm civil liberties. They contend reforming policing to strengthen rights has more transformative potential than abandoning traditional checks on government power, even if those checks are currently applied unevenly (46).

So while the abolition movement has compellingly centered issues of structural racism, state violence, and the need for innovation, critics raise serious concerns about the risks and feasibility of fully eliminating existing police departments. However, questioning the most radical abolitionist proposals need not mean accepting the status quo. The debate itself shifts discussions about what keeping communities safe could mean.

Conclusion

The bold demand to “abolish the police” goes beyond modest reforms to challenge core assumptions about how public safety currently operates in America. This provocative idea emerges out of a specific historical lineage: the lack of police accountability for violence against citizens of color, exploitative origins of policing in racist social control, and aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses in marginalized communities. The decentralized Black Lives Matter movement skillfully leveraged social media to focus national attention on police killings, sparking a reckoning.

While police abolition remains controversial and divisive even on the left, it appeals as a moral vision of a society that addresses root inequalities, not just their symptoms. Police represent the violent arm of the state; abolishing this institution means reimagining how communities could achieve collective wellbeing. Even if a future without any police proves impracticable, abolitionists contend striving toward that more radical ideal can shift the parameters of reform.

Importantly, abolitionists mostly do not seek to simply eliminate all policing immediately with no alternatives in place. Rather, they advocate an incremental process of building up restorative justice, crisis responders, violence interrupters, and other community-based programs that lessen reliance on police. Enhanced social services to redress root causes of crime also are part of this vision. The demand to redirect funding from punitive to healing approaches has already impacted local budgets, even where outright abolition remains unlikely.

Of course, critics raise serious concerns about public safety risks, accountability, and implementation hurdles if abolitionist visions were adopted in full. Fears of emboldening violent crime require thoughtful engagement. Yet new pilot projects demonstrate possibilities for reducing police violence and overreach through alternative responders tasked with de-escalation and non-punitive resolution of conflicts. Though limited and imperfect, these early experiments suggest the outlines of other ways to conceive of community safety and prevention.

Police abolition compels society to scrutinize assumptions, reexamine the status quo, and debate how to construct institutional arrangements that best uphold real justice. While the practical path forward remains cloudy, the vision’s boldness has succeeded in expanding the sense of what is possible. Rather than either-or discussions, the question becomes what hybrid forms of keeping communities safe could look like, with more reliance on community care and reducing armed enforcement footprints.

As Mariame Kaba argues, “The demand for abolition invites us to imagine the reallocating of resources, time, and creativity to generate solutions that do not rely on caging people” (47). Even skeptics may agree that reimagining safety in this expansive way — not just reacting after harm, but creating conditions where harm is less likely — points society in a generative direction. While the slogan is jarring, grappling with the promise and critique of police abolition has unleashed a deeper reckoning with what justice truly requires. That conversation urgently needed to happen, and social media helped force it into the mainstream. Whether or not a future without police is viable, the movement has compelled society to engage with these complex questions: How could resources be shifted from punishment to healing? Can peacekeeping power be decentralized? Is justice possible within existing institutions? The answers remain uncertain, but the questions alone signal progress.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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