Strategy toward a world without cops: police accountability vs. abolition

Over the past fifteen years, I have consistently written about policing from an abolitionist perspective, but the great majority of my actual political work would fit more or less comfortably in the police accountability framework.

I begin with this point because I believe it is quite a common situation, not only for police abolitionists, but for revolutionaries of all various kinds.

There is a common – and, I think, mistaken – technique for wishing away our discomfort about the distance between our hopes and our actions. It is to assume that every reform is a step on the road to abolition; that they are all “moving in the right direction” and ought, therefore, to be supported.

The problem is that not every reform is really a step in the right direction. The history of criminal justice reform is a sobering study in the law of one step forward, two steps back. It was reformers, remember, who created the modern prison system. It was reformers who argued that the police should prevent crime, and reformers who helped establish their autonomy from partisan politics. Community policing – which has only increased the police involvement in social affairs, and has not reduced levels of police violence – has been sold to the public under the banner of reform. Reformers have even added to the police arsenal – giving the cops tasers and less-lethal weapons in an effort to reduce shootings, for an example.

Thanks to the work of reformers, the cops today are better trained, better paid, more well armed, and better organized than at any other point in history. And shouldn’t this, after all, be what we expected? Isn’t the point of reform to improve the institution, that is, to aid its work? As Foucault argued, reform is “part of [the] very functioning” of the criminal justice system: “it constitutes, as it were, its programme.”

With all that on the ledger sheet, one might be tempted to just refuse to participate in any reform or accountability efforts at all – that is, to refuse to have anything at all to do with any project that does not have abolition as, not only its final aim, but as its immediate aim.

But this, too, would be a mistake. Obviously, we do not at present have the power to simply disband the police force. So if abolition is our goal – and not merely a moral precept that we organize our daydreams around – then that leaves us with the hard work of building an oppositional political movement that is capable of eliminating the existing criminal justice system. That movement, of course, will have to engage in other action while it is building its strength; to a very large extent, it will build itself up by engaging in other action.

A resolute insistence on “nothing short of abolition” would in effect make us irrelevant to political processes as they unfold. We can, and should, make forceful arguments for abolition. But if the only thing we can say is that there should be no police, then we become, in a sense, neutral as to any and all immediate questions concerning the powers or practices of police as they presently exist. It’s pretty damn embarrassing to have no relevant opinion as to whether the police should carry tasers, or on the issue of racial profiling, or on the question of whether killer cops should be fired.

But of course no one really is neutral in quite the way that I’m suggesting. The point is, that to be strictly consistent in an absolute “no reforms” stance would require us to act as though the smaller immediate controversies were of no importance to our larger cause. In reality, the situation is quite different. If we are ever going to be able to build an effective police-abolitionist movement, we have to be seen to be addressing these immediate concerns, and doing so in a way that connects to a broader social vision.

The difference between the police accountability perspective and the abolitionist perspective is not a question of reforms or no reforms. The difference is, in fact, much deeper. The two views suggest fundamentally different visions of society, and correspondingly, different logics of political action. Accountability and abolition are not merely different goals, but different strategic orientations.

The “police accountability” framework suggests, necessarily, that policing can be improved simply by bringing it under the control of the community, or if not the community, then at least its elected representatives. This approach suggests, of course, that the institution will survive, albeit in a more friendly, more lawful form. The view of policing implied in this perspective is that it is legitimate and necessary, and that the problems it presents are the effect of individual misconduct or organizational dysfunction.

The abolitionist critique, on the other hand, is that the problems of policing – the racism, the class bias, the violence – speak to the real character and the deepest purpose of the institution. The answer, then, is not to create better, smarter, more sensitive, skilled, and law-abiding cops; the answer is to get rid of the institution altogether and put in its place something that genuinely does meet our needs for public safety and dispute resolution. As it happens, that requires a totally different kind of society, one without the inequalities that the cops preserve, and the hope is that by going after the cops we bring that new society closer to existence.

Now these are very different ways of looking at our society, and thinking about the police. But they are not so divergent as to make cooperation impossible: For while abolitionsists want to eliminate the police, so long as they exist we also want to limit the abuses they can inflict.

The challenge is to pursue only those reforms that lead us closer to the goal of a world without police. That means avoiding reforms that help police institutions to repair themselves, that extend their lives or increase their power, that bolster public confidence in the criminal justice system, or that expand the cops’ reach into or influence over community life.

Unfortunately it is impossible to create two stable lists of good or bad campaigns. The decisions here turn on questions of strategy, which means they are bound to change as conditions do. What is daring and radical today may seem tame and conservative in a year; and what would represent an unconscionable concession in one part of the country might actually be a signal victory in another.

So I’m not going to propose a concrete agenda. But I can offer some criteria that will help us set our priorities. Worthwhile campaigns should do at least some of the following: Discredit the police in the public view. Isolate the cops politically; divide them from potential sources of support. Suppress officer morale; impede recruiting; and promote whistle-blowing. Reduce the resources available to the criminal justice system. Frustrate the police in the pursuit of their own agenda; publicly demonstrate that the law-and-order agenda can be defeated. Present the case for abolition. Situate our demands as part of a larger movement for freedom and equality. Undercut the cops’ sense of impunity. Exacerbate rather than mitigate the crises in our opponents’ organizations. Give the community a sense of its own agency. Draw increasing numbers of participants, and show a greater depth of commitment and an increase in activity over time. And in general, shift power away from the police and toward the community.

In short, we need to pursue reforms that make further changes more, not less, possible. And we need to do so in ways that expand rather than restrict the opportunities for further struggle. If we succeed in all that – while also avoiding the dangers of co-optation and surviving the repression we will inevitably face – then we can win reforms that do genuinely build toward a world without police. We can work for accountability and abolition simultaneously, but we can only do so with an abolitionist


Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (both from South End Press). He is a member of Rose City Copwatch, in Portland, Oregon.