Politics

Junk Explained: Here’s What Abolishing The Police Actually Means

“When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is ‘invest in the resources that our communities need."

abolish the police black lives matter

Up until recently, defunding the police sounded like a radical notion to most people. That was before George Floyd.

Since his death the movement to defund (or even abolish) the police has received mainstream attention — but it wasn’t just the loss of one man’s life that triggered the calls.

Advocates have been campaigning for years to redirect funding away from police. They argue the police have become a catch-all for all of society’s problems, which could be better addressed by investing in social services for things like mental health, drug addiction, homelessness or domestic violence. Indigenous activists have been calling for this for years.

This idea, of reimagining the role of police, also seems less radical when considering the deep flaws that exist in our current system — something this weekend’s protests against police brutality brought into stark relief.

So, here’s what the people who’re calling to defund the police actually want.

Why Do People Want To Defund Police?

At its most basic level, defunding the police is about trying to reduce our reliance on them.

Currently, police are treated as a kind of blanket service for a massive range of problems that could be better addressed by people with specialist knowledge, not guns.

Advocates say minimising police responsibilities — and redistributing their funding — would free up resources that can be invested into social services which help reduce crime in the first place.

This could mean investing in professionals and programs that are better suited to meet the needs of the community — things like rehabilitation, intervention, mental health programs, conflict mediation, affordable housing, and education programs.

Researchers says this kind of reform is long overdue.

Alex S Vitale is a sociology professor and author of The End Of Policing. He argues that police are being used to address fundamental problems that could be solved by investing in other areas.

“We must demand that local politicians develop non-police solutions to the problems poor people face,” he wrote in The Guardian. “We must invest in housing, employment and healthcare in ways that directly target the problems of public safety.

“Instead of criminalising homelessness, we need publicly financed supportive housing; instead of gang units, we need community-based anti-violence programs, trauma services and jobs for young people; instead of school police we need more counsellors, after-school programs, and restorative justice programs.”

It’s not necessarily saying police wouldn’t exist anymore; it’s more about reimagining their role.

But talk of abolishing police is also very symbolic. It shifts the focus from talk of criminalising things like addiction or homelessness — not to mention race — to promoting public safety.

So, What Happens To The Criminals Then?

Often when talking about prison abolition, the first question people ask is what happens to all the bad people — you know, all those murderers, rapists, and other violent criminal we don’t want walking the streets.

Unfortunately there will always be bad people out there, but I hate to break it to you — we’re a long way from keeping all of them off the streets under our current system.

In the ten years to 2017, more than 140,000 sexual assaults were reported to Australian police. Less than 30 percent led to some kind of legal action.

On the flip side, Australia’s most vulnerable groups are overrepresented in our current “justice” system. According to the government’s own 2018 report, people in prison usually come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Forty percent of people in prison reported having a mental illness. More than half of detainees expected to be homeless after leaving prison.

And despite making up only three percent of the population, Indigenous Australians make up 27 percent of the prison population.

On top of that, our recidivism rate is shockingly high — 73% of people entering prison have been in prison before.

Are People Taking This Idea Seriously?

Overseas, yes. Over the last four years, the cost of policing in the US has nearly tripled to US$115 billion.

This week, a majority of Minneapolis City Council voted to dismantle their police department and rebuild new model of public safety.

The vote came after council members analysed the city’s 911 calls, and found most were for mental health services, health, and EMT and fire services.

Since then, New York and Los Angeles have both agreed to make some cuts to police funding.

In New Jersey and Oregon some police departments have already been disbanded — in Camden the police department was replaced in 2012, and in Eugene crisis workers are already sent out to all mental-health-related 911 calls instead of police.

This kind of progress is celebrated by those in the Black Live Matter movement.

BLM co-founder Alicia Garza told NBC currently too much police time is taken up by quality of life issues like homelessness, drug addiction and domestic violence.

“When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is ‘invest in the resources that our communities need,’” she said.

Now, Australian activists are calling for similar reforms here.

How Australia’s Racist History Influences Our Modern Systems

It’s no wonder we’re so obsessed with concept of law and order, considering our recent history as a white penal colony.

But we know our justice system isn’t blind when it comes to race — this dates back to the foundation of modern Australia, when Native Police were established to “disperse” any “large assembly of blacks“.

Historical records show they had a brutal reputation for ambushing Aboriginal tribes and murdering men, women and children.

While we may be more subtle about it now, the prejudicial treatment of First Australians is still systemic through our justice system. Just take a look at some of the 437 Indigenous deaths in custody since the 1991 royal commission.

Tanya Day died in 2017 after being arrested for public drunkenness. Ms Dhu died after being detained for unpaid fines. Kumanjayi Walker was shot by police when they went to arrest him for allegedly breaching a suspended sentence.

In a 2010 editorial Suvendrini Perera wrote that despite a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody “a culture of racism, cronyism and cover-up is evident in Australia”.

Perera is a cultural theorist, and was part of the working party that reported on the coronial findings into the death of another Aboriginal man in custody — Mr Ward, who died acter being transported in the back of a hot police van on Australia Day in 2008.

“Its targets are overwhelmingly Aboriginal, but also caught up are young Sudanese-Australians in suburban Melbourne and asylum seekers held in the detention system,” she wrote — ten years ago, just to re-emphasise.

“There is a paradox here. In a recent issue of the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, Paul Amar asks why police practices nearly everywhere reproduce racism even as states adopt explicitly anti-racist, culturally aware and inclusive policies. One answer is that such policies function in a vacuum, floating free of the historical and institutional cultures from which they emerge.

“Public funds would be better spent in educating police to understand our own culture of institutional racism … This does not mean more “diversity” or “social inclusion” training, but a critical consciousness of the workings of old and new racism and of the structural factors that inhibit equal outcomes in our justice-detention system.”

What Would A World Without Police Look Like?

Defunding the police isn’t a blanket approach — it will mean different things to different communities, depending on their needs.

Realistically, this kind of change isn’t going to happen overnight. But while a completely reimagined system could take years to implement, there are examples already taking place within Australia.

Last year, NSW Police attended 55,000 mental health incidents.

This week they announced mental health clinicians would be stationed in police stations across ten Sydney districts to support officers, after a successful trial.

“During the pilot program, police time-on-scene was reduced by an average of 45 minutes, not only supporting first responders to appropriately recognise and respond to psychiatric incidents in the community, but also freeing up officers to serve the community in other areas,” Police Minister David Elliott said.

That gives a tiny glimpse into the benefits that are already being seen by refocusing resources.