Research on What a World Without Policing Could Look Like

I know so many of us are diving into research about what it would mean to defund or abolish the police. Like you, I’m pretty new to this conversation (like only two weeks in), so I’m doing lots of reading and listening. Luckily, there are a whole lot of people who have been studying this topic for years, and we can look to them as experts.

For this post, I’ve collected some writings and sources for anyone who wants to take a serious look at what American might look like without policing. If your immediate reaction is: That could never work! That’s crazy! I ask you to dig in to these links with an open mind. I think we all agree that the current system is incredibly harmful to millions and millions of people, and there’s no need to preserve or defend the status quo. So why not use this moment to take a serious look at other options?

Please remember: no voice advocating for defunding or abolishment has suggested we get rid of 911. Already when you call 911, the person who answers the phone might send an ambulance, or the fire department, or the police. So the idea that there might be other options to send to someone in need (in lieu of the police) is not far-fetched or unusual.

1| Take a look at this chart which compares reform to abolition.

The chart was made my They seek to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. Their website is FULL of helpful information. Don’t miss their resources page, and their projects page. You may want to get involved with a local chapter in L.A., Oakland, New York, or Portland.

2| AOC was asked what a defunded America would look like, and I appreciated her answer. She said it would look like the suburbs, and then explained what she meant. Here is her full response:

The good news is that it actually doesn’t take a ton of imagination.

It looks like a suburb. Affluent white communities already live in a world where the choose to fund youth, health, housing etc more than they fund police. These communities have lower crime rates not because they have more police, but bc they have more resources to support healthy society in a way that reduces crime.

When a teenager or preteen does something harmful in a suburb (I say teen bc this is often where lifelong carceral cycles begin for Black and Brown communities), White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to “protect their future,” like community service or rehab or restorative measures. Why don’t we treat Black and Brown people the same way? Why doesn’t the criminal system care about Black teens’ futures the way they care for White teens’ futures? Why doesn’t the news use Black people’s graduation or family photos in stories the way they do when they cover White people (eg Brock Turner) who commit harmful crimes? Affluent White suburbs also design their own lives so that they walk through the world without having much interruption or interaction with police at all aside from community events and speeding tickets (and many of these communities try to reduce those, too!)

Just starting THERE would be a dramatically and radically different world than what we are experiencing now.

3| Rolling Stone published a short article titled A Practical Guide to Defunding the Police. The author describes defunding as taking money from policing to put toward crime prevention, and taking non-violent crime responses away from police, so that they only need to focus on violent crime.

Not everyone agrees this is what defunding the police should look like, some advocates want to replace police forces for the violent crimes too. It’s okay if not everyone agrees on what defund or abolish should mean. Not everyone agrees on the importance of public schools either — but we still discuss it and try to come to a consensus.

4| Here’s a 4-part illustration that walks you through the thinking behind this movement.

5| Learn about Alternatives to Policing from MDP150. MPD150’s Five Essential Findings:

  1. The police were established to protect the interests of the wealthy and racialized violence has always been a part of that mission.
  2. The police cannot be reformed away from their core function.
  3. The police criminalize dark skin and poverty, channeling millions of people into the prison system, depriving them of voting and employment rights and thereby preserve privileged access to housing, jobs, land, credit and education for whites.
  4. The police militarize and escalate situations that call for social service intervention.
  5. There are viable existing and potential alternatives to policing for every area in which police engage.

Please pay attention to number five. Remember, in these discussions, alternatives are always suggested and explored. If you see someone saying “defund the police means you can’t call 911 and there would be chaos and no one to defend law and order” they have no idea what they are talking about. No one has suggested creating a vacuum. Current police systems would be replaced with effective alternatives.

6| MPD150 has a helpful FAQ section where they dig into these questions:
-Won’t abolishing the police create chaos and crime? How will we stay safe?-But what about armed bank robbers, murderers, and supervillains?
-But why not fund the police and fund all these alternatives too? Why is it an either/or?
-What about body cameras? What about civilian review boards, implicit bias training, and community policing initiatives?
-This all sounds good in theory, but wouldn’t it be impossible to do?
-Where can I learn more about this?

The answers are available in several shareable formats.

7| The early research of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom has really good data that shows over and over again that a smaller police force with less funding is better. You can get a quick overview about her police research in this thread. Or take a deeper dive in this article.

Does her work hold up? Many people say yes. But not everybody. “A recent study reevaluated some of Ostrum’s claims and found that community policing as currently imagined has not been successful in part due to militarization of the police and federal and state control of the process.”

8| A twitter thread where she is very patient toward people who are upset or overwhelmed by the idea of defunding the police. She starts by saying: I am deeply deeply uninterested in categorizing police (or people more generally) into good and bad. Its not a useful binary for me, and it allows people to escape accountability. that’s just a personal practice of mine. people are complicated. police included.

9| A twitter thread with dozens of specific and practical ideas on what it could mean to defund the police.

10| A twitter thread describing how defunding is one step toward abolishing the police state. I found it very interesting because she also goes into why it’s inconsistent to call for defunding, but also call for Breonna Taylor’s murderers to be arrested (which I have done).

11| In Whitehorse, a pilot project is trying to do policing differently.

12| Indigenous citizens of Chéran, Mexico threw out the police and took community safety into their own hands with great success.

13| In Rojava, Syria, each neighborhood has its own civil protection volunteers, which have to be 40% women. Conflict is resolved through community mediation.

14| A town in New Jersey disbanded their police force 11 years ago. And it’s doing great.

15| Some people call abolition The Transformative Justice Movement. Here’s a thread with resources about that.

16| The Guardian has a good overview of the buzz around defunding.

17| My friend, artist and activist AddyeB, a Black woman who served in the military, has also become interested in this movement and she’s doing a lot of research and learning too. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram and you’ll see the sources she shares.

18| What will happen to cops after defunding? I’m not sure. One person suggests: “I fully expect that, once the police are abolished, many former cops will find their non-conflicted calling as firemen, paramedics, nurses, or simply good citizens.

In case you’re curious, my current preference would be to defund as a first step, with the ultimate goal of abolition — but I’m the first to admit I’m still learning about this and my opinions may change. Let me know if any of these resources stand out to you, or if you have something else you’d like to add to the list.

Image by Joe Burbank for The Guardian.

12 thoughts on “Research on What a World Without Policing Could Look Like”

  1. Eleanor Frances

    This posting was very well researched and informative. Thank you. I learn so much from reading your blog and appreciate your open mindedness, creativity, intelligence and energy. I am a 70 yr old grandmother, and I feel so happy that you have the talent to influence other people and make our world a better place.

  2. Here is a first hand example of the police being used inappropriately. When my husband and I lived in Harlem, NY, our upstairs neighbor tried to jump off the fire escape right in front of our dining room window, where my husband was sitting. He immediately went out and got her off the fire escape and brought her into our apartment. Meanwhile, people on the street below had called 911, and the police arrived. They immediately put her hands behind her back and cuffed her, TIGHTLY. This was a woman in distress, who needed compassion, and instead she was treated like a criminal. After she was released, she came over to thank Steve for saving her life. The bruises and cuts on her wrists were still visible and the trauma of that day must still be with her. THIS is why policing needs to be completely changed.

    1. Thank you for sharing this story! If that is how police respond to someone in distress, policing does need to be changed.

      1. This happened to my son, too. He’s still traumatized from the experience and now states he just won’t tell anyone if he’s suicidal again because of that experience, he’ll just do it. The police made his situation 10000x more dangerous.

        I’m so glad you were there for your neighbor.

  3. My job is to tutor researchers in philosophy and social sciences, to write essays, papers, articles. I wish I could use your blog as an example of a thorough research and a well presented state of the art! (but they’re not english speakers). This is so clear and calmly argumented. The case of Cherán is not unique in Mexico; in some states, villagers have the right to follow their “habits and customs” (usos y costumbres), it means they can do their own justice (if it respects the federal law; for example, ina village where a man killed another man, the village choses the punishment that oculd be that this man has to earn money for the family of the victim, for as long as he lives). So it’s not only the police but a whole series of indigenous laws, some are fair, some are very unfair to women. But it’s quite interesting. Cherán has managed to get the narco out of their village, and ro reforest the area. Sorry that was too long.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you! One of our local councillors is putting forward a motion to reduce police budget. When I wrote to express my support, the mayor responded clearly indicating he was not in favour. Basically, “we live in Canada, things are different here”. It’s so infuriating to see that argument, because the state of policing in America is horrifying, and I really don’t agree with accepting the status quo because we’re not seeing people die at the hands of police at an alarming rate. Not to mention municipalities all across the province have been expressing frustration at the rising cost of policing for at least a decade. I’m working on a letter to the editor and really appreciate this list of resources as a place to start from. Thank you so much for doing the work to put it together so comprehensively, and including examples that aren’t exclusive to the US.

  5. I am ALL IN on this idea. Abolishing policing is going to scare, anger, and prompt some pretty strong reactions in a lot of people, but honestly the idea has made me feel more hopeful than I’ve felt in months.

    Here is an essay I found particularly interesting.

  6. My favorite thing about your blog is that you never avoid tough topics – you dive right in to the most relevant and interesting things on everyone’s mind & you do it with curiosity rather than judgment. I learn so much from you, not just from what you say (which has been super informative, recently and historically) but also how you say it. You’re a class act and the Internet/world needs more of you.

  7. Thank you for bringing all this thinking into one post. I’m also new to the idea of defunding/abolishing the police and am learning as fast as I can. I’ve got all this queued up to read.

    I also want to recognize your ongoing efforts to use your platform to make the world a better place. I appreciate you using your privilege in this way. You’re fighting the good fight!

  8. Yet again you’ve created a resource I will be referencing and sharing in my ongoing conversations around this issue. We and the internet are so lucky to have you!

  9. I would really like to know what communities would do regarding domestic violence. Where I live (the suburbs, California), police apparently spend a whole lot of time on domestic violence house calls.

    I do think community investment in ending domestic violence and finding ways to curtail the current numbers of women and children living in fear in their own homes could be better than policing….but how would it happen?

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