The Abolish Police Theory: Origins, Critiques, and Policy Implications

The abolish police movement represents a radical rethinking of modern law enforcement premised on its inherent ties to racism, violence, and oppression. Advocates argue that reform is inadequate and the institution of policing must be completely dismantled and replaced with alternative community-based safety and accountability mechanisms. This theory emerged from marginalized groups bearing the brunt of police abuses, but has gained mainstream attention amid protests over police killings of Black Americans. However, critics contend removing all policing is unrealistic and risks increased harm. This complex debate touches fundamental issues around the state monopoly on force, community governance, systemic racism, and conceptions of justice.

This article reviews scholarship analyzing the abolish police theory and contemporary debates over its implications. First, it examines the intellectual origins and historical context from which calls to abolish policing emerged. Second, it outlines the movement’s main arguments and proposed alternatives. Third, it analyzes key criticisms and points of contention. Finally, the article considers policy reforms and areas of compromise that bridge some divides while working toward transformed law enforcement paradigms aligned with anti-racist, egalitarian ideals.

Origins and Evolution

Early Critiques of Policing

While initially shocking to many Americans, the contemporary movement to abolish police builds upon longstanding critiques of law enforcement’s social role and conduct from marginalized groups. In the early 20th century, anti-colonial philosophers like Frantz Fanon interrogated police as violent enforcers of unjust regimes. The Black Panther Party’s 1966 ten point program demanded an “end to police brutality” through citizen oversight and black self-determination. Histories of police enforcement of slavery and racist legislation prompted early Black-led movements to reform or reject policing.

During the 1960s and 1970s, scholars like Kristian Williams, Angela Davis, Stuart Schrader, and Theodore Gordon highlighted connections between modern policing and America’s legacy of social control over minorities. They argued policing’s focus on commanding black populations through surveillance and punishment originated in antebellum slave patrols. Critics contended that after Reconstruction, police served to impose Jim Crow segregation and redeem Southern slavery-based order through racist enforcement. Early policing aimed to control socially marginalized groups rather than promoting community wellbeing, undermining modern legitimacy.

Prison and Police Abolition Thought

Influential radical writings since the 1970s make moral cases for abolishing prisons and policing alongside other oppressive state institutions. Works by Davis, Thomas Mathiesen, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Paul Butler condemned the cruelty, racism, and unrehabilitative nature of mass incarceration and argued its facilities should be abolished and replaced with decarcerating alternatives. Some extended this critique to policing that violently facilitates mass criminalization, particularly of young black men.

Abolitionists cite police’s origins in slave patrols and argue they remain defenders of white property and racialized social control. Greater regulation and diversity in hiring fail to transform inherently racist underpinnings. Therefore, police abolition represents the sole means to correct historic injustice embedded in the institution. While once fringe, police abolition gained wider theoretical grounding and currency amid Black Lives Matter protests and deteriorating police-community relations.

Police Militarization Critiques

More mainstream criticism of expanding police militarization emerged in the 1990s and intensified over the 2000s. Scholars and advocates argued that supplying police forces with advanced military weaponry and equipment to fight the drug war encouraged aggression, undermined community trust, and focused energy on combat rather than solving root causes of crime. Events like the disastrous 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE organization dramatized risks of rising police militarism. Many protested the deployment of counterinsurgency tactics in communities of color that paralleled American wars abroad.

These critiques set the stage for opposing the extreme militarization of police as an occupying force in U.S. cities. Scenes of armored vehicles and heavily armed police pointing automatic weapons at protesters renewed mainstream concerns with overly martial law enforcement cultures. Commentators argued demilitarization should be part of broader oversight reforms. But some took the position that reform could not roll back cultures of violence and control bred by decades of militarization, making abolition the only solution.

Police Violence Movement

Sustained protests over high-profile police killings of black citizens like Michael Brown and George Floyd underscored demands for accountability and transformed attitudes toward American policing. The movement brought renewed attention to police violence rooted in racial bias and dehumanization of minority groups. Data revealing vast disparities in use of force and routine abuse directed against communities of color bolstered the case that these problems reflected institutional rot rather than just a few bad officers.

For many activists hardened by repeated deaths and impunity, reformist measures like body cameras, bias training, and increased prosecution seemed woefully inadequate. If the institution was fundamentally corrupted, only starting over could deliver real justice. These frustrations and demands fueled momentum behind calls to defund or abolish policing altogether. Though initially shocking, abolish police gained legitimacy as a policy option to achieve racial justice amid failed piecemeal reforms and broken trust.

Key Abolish Police Arguments

Contemporary advocates make several interrelated arguments underpinning the intellectual case for abolishing police.

Institutional Racism

Abolish police proponents argue American law enforcement is foundationally entwined with the nation’s history of racist social control, first under slavery and later within a discriminatory criminal justice system. They contend police regulated communities of color to enforce White domination, protect property, and impose racial order. Even reforms have failed to sever these origins in suppressing minorities, necessarily shaping institutional culture toward racist over-enforcement, dehumanization, and violence. Given this legacy, police cannot be modified or regulated into unbiased public servants, necessitating their outright abolition.

Unreformable Culture

Police reform efforts like diversity hiring, de-escalation training, citizen review boards, and enhanced use of force policies have repeatedly failed to curb abuses of power, alter underlying cultures, or increase accountability according to critics. They argue reform is doomed because of the closed nature of law enforcement, powerful police unions advocating for officer protections over public safety, notions of brotherhood that encourage silent complicity with misconduct, and political structures tilting toward police leadership over community concerns. This unreformable reactionary culture built on racism, impunity, and repression necessitates starting from scratch.

Community Harm

Beyond racist violence, critics argue oppressive enforcement of laws governing morality, homelessness, school discipline, immigration, sex work and substance use traumatize vulnerable communities. Criminalizing social problems leads police to continually harass, cite, arrest, and incarcerate marginalized groups including minorities, the poor, sex workers, the homeless, and the mentally ill, imposing systems of control. Aggressive enforcement ruins lives and fractures bonds of trust and cooperation essential to community health, undermining public safety. Removing police allows redirecting resources toward addressing real harms without violence and building alternative communal institutions.


Police budgets account for high percentages of municipal expenditures while critics argue other vital services are chronically underfunded. They contend bloated police spending reflects distorted priorities focused on reactive punishment rather than proactive investments in social welfare, education, health, employment, and opportunity that meaningfully deter crime. Divesting funds from failed, damaging law enforcement models to strengthen communities through public resources and localized initiatives represents a more just allocation.

Each strand of this multi-layered critique builds the case that surface-level reforms cannot substitute for uprooting and radically reimagining current systems maintained through police power. Dismantling oppressive institutions represents a transformative step toward racial equity and community flourishing.

Abolitionist Alternatives

Advocates argue abolishing police can enhance community wellbeing if done in conjunction with developing alternative institutions and crisis response capacities organized around anti-racist values.

Defunding and Reinvesting

The most immediate step is demilitarizing police and defunding their operations, budgets, weapons, and size. Resources saved through abolishing police activities and personnel would be reinvested into social, economic, educational, mental health, and substance abuse programs that address structural drivers of crime by empowering communities. Priority goes to marginalized groups most damaged by overpolicing. Preventing the underlying conditions that facilitate crime and injustice supersedes reacting after harm occurs.

Community-Based Crisis Response

By replacing police first responders with unarmed mediators, social workers, mental health counselors, and substance abuse specialists for appropriate 911 calls, communities can reduce harmful escalations leading to mass criminalization. Having peers and neighbors de-escalate conflicts or guide people to social services provides a humanizing alternative to immediate coercive threats that police pose. Community care workers with life-affirming orientations handle mental health episodes, intoxication, homelessness, or interpersonal disputes through nonviolent conflict resolution techniques. Removing state violence defuses crisis.

Restorative Justice

To address some harms, models based on restorative rather than punitive justice allow participatory processes led by victims and community. Offenders make amends directly to those affected, taking responsibility and making commitments without facing further punishment through incarceration. Truth and reconciliation models emphasize healing over isolation. Where practical, this horizontal justice gives agency to those impacted to seek closure by repairing damage and transforming relationships. It challenges punitive instincts.

Community Self-Governance

Strengthening grassroots community organizations, block associations, cooperatives, advisory councils, resource centers, and assemblies expands capacity for local control over priorities, conflict mediation, resource distribution and crisis response. This decentralizes power from police into communities gaining resources previously hoarded by authorities. It fosters agency, interdependence, and mutual care. Representation for marginalized groups and those directly impacted by crime ensures positive community governance.

While specifics vary, the unifying theme is shifting power from oppressive state institutions into hands of ordinary people empowered to govern themselves through democratic ideals of inclusion, accountability, decentralization and human dignity. Community-based institutions aligned with anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist and queer politics provide paths forward after dismantling policing.

Key Critiques and Counterarguments

Despite growing support, abolish police faces trenchant critiques from multiple angles that highlight risks and implementation challenges. Examining the most salient counterarguments illuminates areas needing refinement.

Unrealistic Departure from Order Maintenance

Critics argue totally abolishing police and leaving no coercive authority for enforcing laws constitutes an untenable departure from modern state sovereignty and criminal justice. They contend abolish police theories underestimate most peoples’ desire for order, containment of dangerous individuals, and impartial rule-based enforcement. Flawed as it may be, abolishing all policing risks a power vacuum and instability until new models can demonstrate effectiveness. Reform appears more pragmatic.

Increased Criminality

An common public fear is removing police will enable spikes in crime, violence and social disorder that threaten law abiding citizens, disproportionately harming vulnerable groups that rely more on collective security. Critics argue abolish police theories neglect human self-interest and egoism that necessitate sanctioning authorities. Weakening consequences could encourage illegal behavior, interpersonal violence, and property crime. They contend abolish police theorists underestimate difficulties in replicating deterrent effects without coercive power, risking spikes in victimization.

Infeasibility of Full Abolition

Even sympathetic voices argue no cities will likely enact total abolition of law enforcement given political constraints and lack of alternative capacities. They contend replace police rhetoric sets unrealistic expectations given normal political difficulties with radical changes. Uncompromising abolitionist talk risks alienating potential moderate supporters. Meetings some demands through major defunding, demilitarizing, or decriminalization appear more feasible starting points. But activists consider compromise half-measures preserving reformist failure cycles.

Reforms More Achievable

Pragmatists argue abolish police cuts against popular opinion supporting police but favoring select reforms based on reasonable expectations of state duties to limit violence. They advocate alternative reforms like limiting police scope, enhancing de-escalation training, tightening use of force restrictions, bolstering transparency and accountability, mandating cultural sensitivity immersions, instituting licensure, and enhancing community policing programs. While difficult, many proven reforms can improve policing within existing frameworks modified to promote justice, making abolition unnecessary.

Insufficient Replacement Capacity

Critics argue abolish police theories significantly underestimate transitional challenges in developing large-scale non-coercive replacement institutions and response capacities. They doubt grassroots groups can rapidly scale crisis intervention services to handle all community disturbances, mental health episodes, violent incidents, property offenses, and interpersonal conflicts without unacceptable disruptions, especially with simultaneous dismantling of current enforcement systems. Sudden abolition risks failing vulnerable groups that alternatives are unready to assist.

Loss of Specialized Capabilities

Modern police have capacities to gather intelligence, conduct complex investigations, deploy rapid armed responses to violence, manage mass unrest, coordinate emergency services, counter gangs and organized crime, apprehend dangerous suspects, remove weapons, deescalate confrontations, and respond to crises that critics doubt community-led services can sufficiently replace. They argue abolishing all policing forfeits critical expertise and resources while new systems develop, necessitating retention of select capabilities even in radically transformed frameworks.

These counter-perspectives highlight how disruptively uprooting the foundations of public order risks instability and unanticipated harms disproportionately borne by marginalized groups. They argue transitioning beyond past failure modes requires cultivating effective community capacities before dismantling existing structures. While powerfully denouncing injustice, abolitionists may underestimate difficulties in wholly replacing police functions that have evolved within modern states. Constructively navigating abolition requires grappling with these pragmatic concerns.

Policy Reforms and Areas of Compromise

Given deeply conflicting diagnoses of problems and solutions, the path forward in transforming law enforcement likely involves selective incorporation of abolitionist ideals alongside major reforms within transitional frameworks. Policing as a singular monolithic function proves far too engrained to disappear rapidly without coordinated replacements. But emphasizing community care while reducing reliance on inherently racist, violent institutions remains imperative. This concluding section considers promising areas of compromise that partially accommodate calls for abolition through radical reform.

Restricted Policing Scope

Rather than attempting immediate wholesale abolition, scaling back the scope and range of policing responsibilities more practically unwinds its dispersed tentacles from communities. Removing police from schools eliminates criminalizing school discipline. Curbing broken windows and public order policing reduces criminalizing poverty and homelessness. Deinvesting from the war on drugs eliminates pretextual over-enforcement in minority neighborhoods. Decriminalizing sex work, migration, and morality offenses ends violent stings. Each reduction in scope chips away at opportunities for abusive enforcement.

Experimental Abolition Zones

Allowing slated neighborhoods to vote on temporarily discontinuing active policing and redirecting funding into community-based public safety capacities provides lower-risk opportunities to demonstrate abolitionist models centered on anti-racism, restorative justice, mutual aid, and grassroots crisis response. Police could be confined to peripheral roles during pilots. After given trial periods, communities can reassess relative to other areas. Where alternatives prove viable, experiments could be expanded into larger abolish police zones with voluntary participation.

Guardian Policing Cultures

In areas desiring continued public patrols, mandating cultural reforms to instill guardianship, service, and protection rather than combat mentalities provides interim improvements. Patrols integrate into neighborhoods as partners, build community relationships, proactively identify needs, transparently resolve conflicts, respect rights, enhance access to social services, and intervene in violence only as last resort under strict necessity rules. Guardianship models enacted with community direction offer transitional stages departing from militarized warriors.

Community Control

Placing enforcement under heightened forms of civilian and community oversight provide avenues to make retained police powers more accountable. Oversight boards with sustained community engagement rather than intermittent consultation set priorities, approve enforcement operations, impose discipline, audit practices, require cultural education, examine grievances, subpoena officers, direct policy, and evaluate efficacy based on community-defined metrics. Still problematic, tightly regulated police at least better reflect democratic input.

Rights Protections

Banning enforcement practices prone to abuse remains vital even in reformed systems. Ending stop and frisk, no-knock raids, warrantless surveillance, profiling, military weapons use, and chokeholds protects citizens from the worst violations. Demilitarizing reserves tools of war for foreign enemies rather than neighborhoods. Reorienting training and rules of engagement toward rights protections and de-escalation inculcates restraint. Where policing continues, rights protections and reversing cultures of impunity provide lifesaving reforms.

Victim Support and Redress

In transitional frameworks retaining some coercive capacity, ensuring victims receive support services, abuse reports are taken seriously, offenders are prosecuted, survivors needs shape outcomes, and victims gain reparations redirects enforcement resources to address harms against the most vulnerable. Police abolition seeks to build hope and mutual care rather than inflict further damage. Transforming legal systems to center victims provides interim improvements as alternative models develop.

Regardless of the pace of change, foregrounding anti-racist values, community empowerment, human dignity, collective support, active listening, de-militarization, de-escalation, proportional response, restorative justice, democratic oversight, strict necessity, harm prevention over punishment, and public welfare provides guidance for moving away from violence and oppression in any form of law enforcement or crisis response. While the ideal of abolishing policing in its totality faces practical difficulties, an abolitionist orientation reorients stakeholders toward transformed futures centered on nourishing communities.


This article provided a comprehensive examination of the contemporary movement to abolish policing emerging from its troubling roots in racist oppression. The analysis reviewed abolitionist arguments contending police are endemically unjust. It analyzed counter-perspectives stressing risks of losing order maintenance capacities. While immediate abolition appears politically infeasible, opportunities exist to accommodate elements of anti-racist, anti-carceral visions through transitional reforms that reduce reliance on policing, build alternative community capacities, enact cultural transformations, and center human dignity. Navigating change requires nuance, long-term commitment and emphasizing restorative values. Policy transformations toward abolishing oppression and nurturing communities remain essential, even if means evolve. Fundamentally reimagining state violence and community care represents the deeper struggle.


Akbar, A. (2018). An abolitionist horizon for (police) reform. California Law Review, 8(5), 1781-1810.

Alexander, M. (2011). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.

Butler, P. (2018). Chokehold: Policing black men. New York: The New Press.

Camp, J. & Heatherton, C. (Eds.). (2016). Policing the planet: Why the policing crisis led to Black Lives

SAKHRI Mohamed
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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