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What Does Police Abolition Really Mean?

Writing by Phoebe McGowan. Illustration by Antonia Popescu. (amp_aesthetics on insta)

Whilst recent protests have painted our streets with calls to defund and abolish the police, I, like many, have been introduced to the world of theory and research surrounding police abolition. Although this field is vast and multifaceted, this article aims to introduce some key ideas around policing in the UK, its relation to the vital work taking place in the US and to highlight the illegitimacy of policing as a tool of control.

In ‘Broken Windows Theory’, criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling set up an understanding of crime which would go on to dominate policy for the coming decades. The theory states that, according to a behavioural study, a car with a broken window is far more likely to be further vandalised when in comparison with a normal car. The theory then urged cities to enforce the pressures of social norms in order to maintain a crime-free environment. The result of this was an increase in policing low-level crimes, and an increased police presence in neighbourhoods where crime was likely to take place: low-income areas, where there are usually a higher proportion of non-white populations. This way of thinking, notes Alex S. Vitale in his book The End of Policing, is tied to a larger wave of neoconservative thinking, tied up in backlash from the civil rights movement. Wilson’s former mentor, Edward Banfield, claimed that the ‘indifference’ of the ‘lower class person’ means that ‘he is not troubled by dirt or dilapidation [or]... the inadequacy of public facilities’. (The End of Policing, p.5) Essentially, the school of thought claims that there is very little the government can actually do to help the poor.

The theory itself is flawed. Alongside an almost heartbreaking lack of trust in human behaviour, and a complete disregard for the underprivileged, an increase in police force contributes to violence and crime in communities, instead of reducing it. Vitale notes that it paints poverty and social disorganisation as a result of crime, rather than the cause of it. Finally, it enforces the idea that all crime is morally bad, rather than a result of social control. Angela Davis argues in her text Are Prisons Obsolete? that the class of ‘criminals’ versus ‘lawbreakers’ are entirely different. (p.112) Nearly every member of the current Cabinet has confessed to illegal drug use in their youths, although none of them will have faced any prison time for that confession. The same cannot be said for the roughly 13,000 people currently facing jail time for drug offences across the UK, as part of the largest prison population of Western Europe. This disparity helps to prove that a police force does not exist to hold lawbreakers to account, but rather to villanise and criminalise populations who do not serve the interests of the capitalist state.

This idea of police as a tool of social control can be seen from the very roots of the police force. Whilst the American police force partially stemmed from runaway slave patrols, there are a few other sources that are a bit closer to home. Vitale also notes in his book that the creation of the London Metropolitan Police was based in a force called the ‘Peace Preservation Force’, created by Sir Robert Peele. (The End of Policing, p.34-36) This force was seen as a low-cost military who could embed themselves more fully in rebellious localities, then use their state power to threaten and arrest ringleaders. Peele lifted these ideas from his experience in Ireland to make the Metropolitan Police, which was then taken to be used in Boston and throughout the Northern cities of the US. This history reminds us that the UK quite literally taught the US how to police, and that even the ‘original’ police force was born out of illegitimacy: not to cut crime, but to quell a colonised nation. This realisation is only made more acute when we learn of the trigger point for the introduction of a national police force in the UK; the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. A rally caused by hugely increased poverty due to industry taking away jobs quickly turned deadly as a cavalry stormed the crowd. The response to the massacre was not just a force that was needed to stop rebellion against the government without the scandal of mass deaths, but also a force which could act on the new vagrancy laws forcing people into ‘productive’ work (which still exist today!) The insidious connection between capitalism and policing is made all the more prominent here; the police were created in the UK to keep capitalism’s underclass right where they were.

And this is the primary function of the police still today. When we talk about decriminalising sex work, drugs, and homelessness, when we talk about abolishing borders and ending detention for migrants and asylum seekers, we are talking about abolishing a police state whose primary function is to maintain capitalist control. Davis speaks eloquently on the benefits of a police free state, and its effect on community responsibility: ‘The prison… functions ideologically as an abstract site where undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.’ (Are Prisons Obsolete? p.16) Again, the focus is not on the law, but on the removal of those who are seen as unwanted within a community.

We can use the homeless population as an example here; under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which criminalised sleeping rough and begging in England and Wales, it is essentially illegal to be homeless. Whilst Scotland does not have the same laws in place, a Shelter report shows that 30% of people liberated from prison (roughly 6,000 people a year) do not have a home to go back to. A report by the Ministry of Justice showed that, in England and Wales, 15% of prisoners were homeless on arrest, with 44% of prisoners having only lived in their home for less than a year before their arrest. Moreover, more than three-quarters of those who were released without a home to go to were reconvicted in the first year of their liberation from prison. Yet, whilst Expatistan sets the cost of a single person living in the UK at £26,600 per year (an estimate which includes the price of clothes, drinks out and the costs of personal wellbeing), it costs between £35,000 to £55,000 per annual prison place, depending on where you are in the UK. It would be cheaper, and more effective in reducing crime, to simply give every homeless person a place to stay, yet the UK government still believes imprisoning them is the way forward.

However, not everyone that we imprison is being imprisoned just for being homeless, and many people immediately jump to violent murderers and rapists when police or prison abolition is brought up. Whilst nearly 70% of arrests in 2018 were non-violent, it is true that there are some instances where a trained force is needed to keep a population safe from a dangerous individual. However, we can still question whether a police officer is the right person for that. Why would we choose to assign that role to the person who is also meant to respond to calls from sexual assault, to people experiencing mental health difficulties, to drug use? Is the most productive way that our society can really function is just to lock up the most dangerous and move on? We can, and should, push our communities to ask for more than simply removing so-called ‘outsiders’ and instead look to how we can improve our schools, social care, health care and community responsibility in order to make sure no one is left behind.

The US group 8toAbolition outlines 8 steps which would guide us to a police - free society. I’ll link their website at the end of the article, as there is a lot more information surrounding these points, but these 8 steps are as below:

  1. Defund the police

  2. Demilitarise communities

  3. Remove police from schools

  4. Free people from jails

  5. Repeal laws that criminalise survival

  6. Invest in community self-governance

  7. Provide safe, accessible housing for everyone

  8. Invest in care, not cops

As you can see, most of these steps generally focus on reducing spending on police and prisons, and increasing spending in social care. In general, the case for police abolition is often also the case for a safer, more caring society for all. That being said, abolition does not happen overnight, and we all, myself included, have work to do in destroying ‘the cop in your head’, as well as those on our streets. Reading is a great place to start, and there are loads of resources online as well as books that you can try out. Here are some resources I used in making this article:

  • The 8toabolition website -

  • Say More Podcast - ‘Prison Abolition for Dummies’

  • Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

  • The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale

  • This report from Shelter and this report from the Prison Reform Trust

Finally, I want to end with a reminder that police and prisons are not currently under attack. Whilst some important work has been started in the US with the defunding of police departments in some cities, and the breaking of relationships with schools and the police, there is much more to do, and the same work has not been done in the UK. Whilst the Lammy review shows that we actually imprison BAME people more disproportionately than the US, we are building 10,000 new prison places, toughening up on anti-migrant rhetoric by intersecting migrant boats with the navy, and increasing the number of police officers in schools. Our most vulnerable communities are under attack, and supporting police abolition is one of the ways you can help.

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