The death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other high-profile cases in America has instigated a fervour to defund the police and in turn abolish them.
Abolitionism is the campaign to disband, disempower, and disarm the police in answer to numerous cases of police brutality in the US.
It’s not a far-sighted dream, considering that – as a result of sustained global protests – the Minneapolis City Council aims to disband the city’s highly-criticised police force.
Abolitionists believe that the policing system is inherently flawed and that even reforms will do little to address the institutional bias that places extra scrutiny and violence on Black and people of colour.
The concept of abolition might seem pretty drastic but the goal is simply getting to a place where the police aren’t needed.
Defunding the police isn’t about firing police departments en masse but strategically redistributing resources, funding, and power away from the police and into community-based models of safety and prevention.
Because at the moment, many feel that the current criminal justice system isn’t working for everyone.
In addition to quelling stop and search powers, disarming officers of guns and tasers, the aim of abolition is to also decriminalise drugs, sex work, migration, poverty,
But much of the discussion on abolition has been US-focused where an average of three people are killed by police every day – with 99% of the police killings resulting in no conviction.
Racial campaigners have pointed out that the UK also has its own problems relating to the police especially given the deaths of Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Sheku Bayoh, Simeon Francis and others who have died in police custody.
So what would abolition in the UK actually look like – and what would it mean for public safety?
The obvious questions around abolishing police powers are what happens to murderers, rapists, stalkers, and generally violent people?
The abolitionist alternative seeks for qualified individuals only to deal with victims – detectives who will tread sensitively in cases of rape, mental health first aiders who will have the victim’s interests at the forefront, counsellor support, de-escalation experts where necessary.
For example, if you’re experiencing domestic violence, you would be able to call a crisis prevention specialist who is able to meet you in a safe place or take you to one.
The move involves trained urgent responders that are unarmed, mental health specialists, trauma-informed crisis prevention teams, community activists and more.
Abolitionists argue that the current system isn’t stopping crimes anyway.
Hajera Begum, who works with Abolitionist Futures, a collective feminist abolitionist movement, says the police system was created to control, not protect.
She explains: ‘If the police were keeping us safe, we’d see crime numbers falling.
‘Institutional structures come with all the biases and injustices we see in the world in terms of race, gender, religion, all of that is embedded in police structures which makes things worse.
‘The policing state, counter-extremism strategies like Prevent aren’t good for anyone who’s dissented but it’s worse for people who are Muslim. It targets Black and brown people first and for the worst.
Hajera adds: ‘As a woman, rape is a real fear, however, rape still goes on despite having a police structure in place.
‘The conviction rate is so low for rapists anyway (3%) and that’s only in cases where people report it. And the current system is unlikely to do anything for historic rapes.
‘It doesn’t make sense, the sentences rapists get, the low numbers of conviction. We need to move money away from police and give it to people who specailise in sensitively handling rape cases, and people who can put victims at the centre.
‘In domestic violence cases, our instinct is to call police but will that keep the victim safe? We’re so reliant because we have no alternative. But we need someone to make that person safe, for a place for them to go, in a sustainable way. We need to give money to the right people to handle the situation, deescalate where necessary, provide refuge for the victim.’
Hajera also adds that it’s important to not think of abolition as unattainable but something we need to start making changes towards now.
‘The fact that we’re even discussing it and trying to enact it is really positive.’
While a lot of the discussion centres on the US, people who have felt the effects of Britain’s institutional problem want others to know how insidious the problem is here.
One such person is Ajibola Lewis, whose son Olaseni was killed in 2010 after 11 officers restrained him in hospital, where he admitted himself for mental health treatment.
His brain was starved of oxygen and he died four days later.
Ajibola explains: ‘The idea that this is an American issue is simply not true. It is very real here. In America they have guns, but here in the UK, the police kill people up close and personal, choking the life out of them in some of the most brutal ways imaginable.
‘Seni admitted himself to hospital voluntarily, what he needed and had asked for was help and care. There was no need for the police to be involved and they added nothing to the situation. Had they not been present Seni would still be alive today.’
Because of cases like these, abolitionists want to move away from police and instead work on empowering qualified mental health first aiders and de-escalation experts in times of personal crisis.
“Abolition is about one thing, which is everything” – Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Advocates of the cause stress that abolition is a gradual, long-term goal and if we defunded police right now, we would still have crime due to growing inequalities.
An abolitionist future fights to not only understand why crimes happen – which usually occur when a person’s basic needs aren’t met – but also prioritise the victim and make sure they’re able to survive and live a happy, fulfilling life.
The movement has also been backed by anti-racism campaigner and ex-Met police staffer Adam Pugh.
Adam believes that the cause isn’t really about abolishing the police, but rather abolishing the social conditions and inequalities that exist.
He tells us: ‘Abolition is about getting to the root of the problem rather than simply responding or reacting to this problem.
‘When you ask people to close their eyes and imagine the safest place on earth, whether it be real or made up, nobody ever imagines the presence of a police officer.
‘So we don’t actually require the police to make us feel safe and for many the presence of the police actually makes them feel unsafe. It isn’t simply about defunding and reducing the police and that is it. It’s about using that money and those resources to invest in other areas that make our communities safer.
‘Policing does not keep our communities safe and fails to get to the root cause of the issue. As such, I believe that abolition is the only credible way forward.’
Of course, if we’re talking about funds then we have to mention that Britain has been affected by austerity measures, leaving police departments with budget cuts over the years.
But part of the reason why the police appear to be overstretched is because of answering calls to incidents – which involve homelessness, mental heath crises, substance abuse – that may be better solved with well-funded, community-based health experts.
i cant wait for abolition. i cant for empty police precincts to turn into community gardens and free housing for anyone in our community who needs it. i cant wait for police cars to be repurposed and given to moms taking the bus from one job to another. i cant wait for abolition
The premise of abolition is based on contesting the very concept of authority.
Professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California Dylan Rodriguez has written about and studied abolition extensively. He thinks the problem – which he believes is global – lies within giving power to individuals.
He says: ‘To execute fatal violence in on the basis of your own judgment is an inhuman practice, to inhabit that power is inhuman.’
And there’s precedent for the misuse of power: people will administer violence if they think the authority calls it. In a Yale study by psychologist Stanly Milgram, results showed that subjects will enforce violence (no matter their personal conscience) if they feel they are required to ‘do their job’.
Abolitionists argue that the police system is set up in a way that gives them unmitigated power to do as they wish (something that may be related to the higher rates of domestic abuse cases among police officers).
Have you ever seen a copâs uniform? The whole thing, including every accessory, zipper, and badge, is designed to intimidate and easily inflict violence. Itâs like they canât help themselves. Their uniform makes it so easy for them to consider a violent solution.
The fight isn’t just to contest white-on-black crime but to also challenge police brutality as a global struggle. The misuse of extra powers given to the institution is also felt in Nigeria and Kenya where a man was recently beaten to death by an officer for breaking curfew.
The move to abolition may seem idealistic to many but Professor Rodriguez is certain it’s possible in our lifetimes.
He said: ‘It is not only possible, it is clearly necessary.
‘To think of police abolition right now, not only in this lifetime, but in this breath, is to plan for other ways of protecting ourselves, loved ones, community, and place. We could begin, perhaps, by redistributing resources away from militarised domestic warfare (policing) and toward housing, feeding, educating, and nourishing the most vulnerable and disfranchised people in our midst.’
In response to the race row police departments find embattled themselves in, some say that reformation is better than abolition.
However, many abolitionists argue that reforms have been tried and tested but the problems still endured. Notably, the Minneapolis police attempted to reform in the past by implementing training on implicit bias, mindfulness, de-escalation, crisis intervention, and diversity. And yet the George Floyd killing happened a few years later.
Professor Rodriquez says that to go toward the destination of abolition means a complete overhaul on how things operate and an active effort to dismantle capitalist, racist and classist systems that deny the humanity of the most vulnerable i.e low-earning Black, Asian, Latinx, queer, trans, disabled, homeless people.
Some member-led organisations have already begun the work to look out for their communities while holding the powerful to account.
Some of these include the United Friends and Families campaign, 4Front, and Account Hackney.
Account Hackney initially began to investigate the number of stops and searches – which disproportionately affect Black and Asian youths – in the borough and expanded to encomass a range of issues faced by the youth.
A spokesperson said: ‘If young people have been mistreated by police, they don’t have avenues to represent themselves or have a voice.
‘Young people have low trust in the complaints system. Policing systems aren’t seen as trustworthy
‘The people being over-policed lack political power i.e travellers, vagrancy laws, poor working-class people, young Black men.’
The youth network is also about allowing these communities to begin the process of healing from generational trauma.
‘Part of that healing is an acknowledgment of the history and their injustice. There needs to be a space where they can lead to change. Abolitionism needs to involve the people most affected by these issues.’
There’s certainly power in community – we’ve seen the impact of people-led efforts to not only curb the spread of coronavirus but to keep ourselves sane during the pandemic.
Abolitionists want to show that punishment is not the natural response to crime, in the way that a chair is not the opposite of a table (the opposite would be something without legs),
Rather, policing and punishment is an unsustainable solution that takes away the opportunity to weed out the problem at the root.
And, they argue, spaces where people are not over-policed and able to enjoy their lives with appropriate funds, have been enjoyed by white suburban communities.
Now, abolitionists want the money saved to be used towards youth centres, mental health provisions, community spaces, support for young mums, relief for people impacted by violence, affordable health care.
We reached out to the Metropolitan Police regarding the Olaseni Lewis case.
Here is their statement in full: ‘The death of Olaseni Lewis was a tragedy which raised a number of important issues, and resulted in lessons being learnt and improvements to policies and training in this area.
‘The officers were sent that day into a very difficult and challenging set of circumstances. Over the ten years that have passed since Mr. Lewis died, the way in which the Met would respond to someone in mental health crisis in a medical institution has fundamentally changed.
‘Mr. Lewis’ family has helped us bring about further improvements; working closely with both the MPS and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust to ensure that compassionate and high-quality care is at the heart of everything we do.’
In regards to the comments about Prevent, we’ve reached out to the Home Office for comment.
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘It is wrong to suggest that Prevent is focused on any one community or leads to anyone being criminalised.
‘Prevent protects vulnerable people from all kinds of terrorist recruiters and almost half of those it supported last year were referred for concerns around far-right extremism – more than those referred for Islamist-related extremism.’
We’ve also reached out to The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the National Police Chiefs’ Council for comment and will update the article once they respond.