Forget Police “Reforms.” Raze and Rebuild Instead.

By Sukyi McMahon

In the aftermath of the uprising against racism and the outcry against the state-sanctioned killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Michael Ramos, many politicians are doing their “baby step” reform dance. Proposals are already flowing to reduce harm yet still require the Black community to maneuver through oppression. They include calls for more frequent police training, revised protocols for conflict resolutions, civilian oversight, a national misconduct database, a strong national use of force standard, a duty to intervene, and reform of qualified immunity. None of these would be bad things; however, the current movement calls for a wholesale rethinking required to replace the existing policing system with something new.

What’s needed goes beyond a re-evaluation of police academies, street patrolling, uniforms and vehicles — beyond the ways we find, hire, and fire officers — even beyond how we “reimagine policing.” The leading voices in the protests on the streets and on Twitter have been hammering the point that the existing police structure (and the entire criminal justice status quo) is a symptom of racism, a deliberately engineered “disease” built side-by-side with chronic poverty, insubstantial healthcare, crumbling schools, and workplace cultures that too often wall out qualified Black and brown people.

What’s needed is to start with the endpoint and to work backwards from there. And while that endpoint is on the far side of the horizon and beyond the boundary of racism, we ask you to imagine the landscape over the skyline. We ask you to reimagine justice. As Bryan Stevenson opines, the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice, and this provides solid grounding for the thought exercise we’re asking of you. In this reverie, one envisions families who are secured by social policy supports and services to help make their daily lives consistent. This looks like communities where poverty and all of its adjacent social problems have been eliminated because we’ve stopped relying on policing for public safety and reinvested in social and community services. This looks like community-led participatory justice.

If we look to initiatives and programs of local grassroots organizations around the country, we find there are roadmaps to this new vista of justice that’s based on community representation. Many of these groups have demonstrated how to civilianize safety. To name a few, there’s Detroit Life Is Valuable Everyday (DLIVE), Common Justice, SAFE Alliance, Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (HAVI), Designing Justice and Designing Spaces, Man Up!, and CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), who are taking on violence intervention and prevention, restorative justice, family violence intervention, community-based support programs, and mental health first response.

And the policy supports to build economic equity, increase safety, and narrow the scope of policing through well-funded community-led efforts indeed exists. Historian Elizabeth Hinton suggests we unshelve the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 that placed people experiencing poverty at the forefront of the solution and decision making process to liberate them from racism. Of course, there’s plenty of policy between 1964 and 2020 to pull from, and we could look to such groups as Alliance for Safety and Justice, Just Leadership USA, United We Dream, and Impact Justice for leadership.

While this change may not happen in a month, city leadership around the country are examining ways to reduce the footprint of policing. The Minneapolis City Council is discussing how to disband their police department, with Ward 5 City Council member Jeremiah Ellison proclaiming, “and when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together. We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called for a $250 million budget cut “so we can invest in jobs, and health and education and healing.” The Austin City Council passed resolutions expressing their lack of confidence in the police chief and public safety leadership, divesting from the Austin Police Department (with some supporting a $100 million reduction proposed by the Austin Justice Coalition), investing in alternate means of public safety, and demilitarizing the department.

Transformation is happening in real time and we’re capable of navigating this shift. Yes, there will be much trial and error but the fact that our goal is no longer to make do with racism and death and damage, and is instead to journey together to the uncharted territory of equity is fuel for generations.


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The Square One Project is a multi-year endeavor of @CUJusticeLab to reimagine justice policy in this country. #reimaginejustice