The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Police Abolition Principles

This piece is by Jonathan Korman and Reprinted With His Permission


With Twitter imploding, it is long past time to name something about my long thread there featuring a recurring refrain:

Fire every cop.

Raze every police station. Salt the earth where they stood.

Start over. No guns. No one who was a cop before.

We cannot reform institutions which do this. We can only replace them.

The legitimacy of liberal democracy is at stake.

The thread captures hundreds of examples of horrors perpetrated by police in the US. I refined my refrain over time.

Fire every cop.

People protest that there are good cops who should not be punished.

But I am not talking about punishment. I am talking about remedies. However many “good cops” there may be, sifting them out would be difficult … and I have cause to doubt it is worth doing …

Raze every police station. Salt the earth where they stood.

Policing in the US demonstrates profound institutional failure, baked into all of its systems. We must reject every part of that inheritance, both pragmatically and symbolically.

Start over.

What should we try to achieve? What institutions and practices suit our purposes?

I imagine that we need some rough equivalents to things we have in existing policing; I think something like homicide detectives are a good idea, for example. But for most of what we ask from policing — addressing “crime” — we need social welfare delivered by entirely different means. Police abolition asks what society we would need in order to make it possible to do without police.

We must avoid legacy assumptions. We must think and work from a clean slate.

No guns.

Guns in the hands of police create a host of harms. Their mere presence deforms our systems and processes for the worse. We must simply eliminate them from whatever new institutions we devise.

No one who was a cop before.

I take institutional knowledge seriously. I hesitate to sacrifice it, but dread even more carrying it over from a monstrous system. Even the best people are bent by their adaptations to the old system.

Moses could not enter the Promised Land.

We cannot reform institutions which do this. We can only replace them.

My original Twitter thread shared countless examples of horrifying policing. I shared them not to indict the examples but to indict the systems which produced them. We need a clean break.

The legitimacy of liberal democracy is at stake.

Hobbes calls for a state monopoly on use of force. The liberal democratic ethos — that is, not “liberal” as in not-conservative or not-leftist, but as in Locke and Mill and Jefferson and Berlin — legitimizes the state’s power with democratic accountability and a driving purpose of securing universal rights. If agents of the state directly contradict those libdem principles, as they do in the US, it indicts not just policing but the state itself and the state’s animating principles.

I desperately want to rescue the libdem ethos because I have no better alternative. Radicalism about police abolition is necessary to preserve the institutions and ideas we have which are worth saving.


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Open Thread


  1. StewartM

    My first thought about reading this is that Jonathan Korman needs to re-think what laws he wants to see enforced and which he doesn’t. If in the liberal tradition does legitimize the state’s use of force within democratic accountability, I remind him of that word “force”. What if a court issues a subpeona, or issues an arrest warrant, and that person just thumb their noses back at you, then if you need to enforce the law. Moreover, the “no guns” policy for the police would be dandy if the US population wasn’t armed to the teeth.

    I get it. The police do a lot of bad things. They are reflection of what we are. Moreover (as Ian has said) we have doubled down on the problem by taking away the ‘good jobs’ that once existed for the people of this socioeconomic class and left them with only not-so-good policing jobs. Plus we accept people who have worked jobs (like bar bouncers) which clearly indicate a desire to have a ‘free ticket’ to beat people up.

    There are some things we can do easily. One is (and I say this from the recent example in my neighborhood) “no unannounced raids where there is no suspicion that any human life or well-being is at risk”. This by itself would eliminate a host of abuses and also lessen the number of scenarios where police violence can occur as a consequence (most of these raids are for either drug cases or child porn raids). We also need bail reform, we need to stop jailing poor men who can’t pay spousal or child support, and we need to scale fines/penalties according to the defendant’s wealth/income (we stick the poor with fines they cannot hope to pay, which are a laughable joke for the rich).

  2. Soredemos

    I have to smile that the liberal admits to having no alternative.

  3. Willy

    I read somewhere that temperamentally speaking, the same people attracted to careers in law enforcement are the same people attracted to criminality. I dunno. Maybe considering the additional variables of the particular economic age they find themselves in, their own personal economic circumstances, and the crowd they fell into. But it’s true that both career choices present opportunities for the modestly talented unempathetic to leverage power for money, at a relatively modest level.

    So maybe there’s a place for the empathetic who’s talented at interpersonal problem solving, without the use of guns.

    Liberals might be the best at mediating the closest ‘sweet spot’ for the power which citizens would allow law enforcement. Communists and Libertarians are far too ideological and oblivious to concentrations of power which can quickly get out of control for the common citizen.

    And IMHO, it’s all about limiting concentrations of power. At least until humans learn how to successfully do so for the long term, in our overpopulated, overconsuming technological age.

  4. Feral Finster

    Like a lot of anarchist thought, “abolish the police” has some valid insights into the nature of state and power, but doesn’t propose any practicable alternatives.

  5. mago

    Anthony Burgess’s prescient novel “A Clockwork Orange” was published around 1964.
    A little bit of the old ultraviolence anyone? One’s droogs becoming the state’s enforcers?
    If you’ve read it you know.
    Too much to dissect and explain.
    Anyway gfl in reforming or eliminating the ruling class’ established enforcement arm.
    The Police was a good band, however.

  6. NR

    Of course, there are alternatives to our current system of policing, if one is interested in looking for them and not just acting smug. Some of them have even been tried successfully in the United States. Like Camden, NJ:

    Despite stiff pressure from the union and an outspoken group of residents, the Camden Police Department was formally disbanded in 2013.

    The new force was led by the existing Camden police chief, Scott Thomson. He moved to remake the ethos of the department.

    “We were going to have all of our officers have the identity of guardians and not warriors,” Thomson said in an interview.

    Thomson said all new recruits were told on their first day that their jobs would more closely resemble those of Peace Corps members than Special Forces operatives. “There were a handful of people that did an about-face and left,” Thomson said. “And as far as I was concerned, that was addition by subtraction.”

  7. StewartM

    What NR posted:

    Thomson said all new recruits were told on their first day that their jobs would more closely resemble those of Peace Corps members than Special Forces operatives.

    For my part, I have thought of this too–that we should require years of some other kind of ‘community work’ first as a prerequisite for becoming a police officer. Let recruits spend time in a community and get to know the people, and you have to work out in that role first before you can get any badge.

    The catch here would be that putting this training/prerequisites in place makes policing more of a long-term career than a short-term job. So you’d have to pay them a lot better.

    The other thing I have thought of is the dysfunctional nature of law and policing in the US, how we are both over-policed and under-policed simultaneously. Despite the raids and traffic stops and (sometimes violent) interventions, the police never seem to be able to actually help most people when it comes to crime. Generally, if you’re victimized by a crime, you file a police report and that’s the end of everything. If you’re involved in a case and have all the paperwork and orders from a judge in-hand to show them that you need something, *they still won’t do anything*.

    What the police usually are in effect are revenue collectors for their community; their departments are motivated only to seek out transgressions where they can fine someone (usually poor who can’t fight back) with the proceeds going to their department or community at-large. Another necessary reform should be that all fines get donated to charity, not to the government paying the police and certainly not to the police department. Law enforcement should have no monetary incentive to stop, arrest, or fine anyone and neither should the courts. The proper way to raise money for government is to start actually taxing rich people again.

  8. Joan

    One thought I had was to send new recruits to countries with less police violence and have them train and work with them, so they can experience firsthand how to effectively diffuse situations rather than escalate. I have lived in countries with less police violence but I feel like that’s something that can’t be conveyed in a training manual. You have to experience the society on the ground because there’s so many contributing factors.

  9. Trinity

    The HBO series The Wire was so effective at showing how ineffective the police actually are. And how policing is also highly political (and partly why it is so ineffective).

    Social workers in general make less than police officers, sometimes much less. And yet they essentially work with the same or similar segments of the population.

    I still believe that the main role of the police is to protect the interests of the very rich, politically as well as procedurally. They also control the narrative about crime. When I worked for my local high school, the principal in conjunction with the “school safety officer” spent most of their time looking for “crime” (students skipping class) rather than actually managing the school. Columbine hadn’t happened yet. The principal was let go after just one year, but then again he was also having an extramarital with one of his assistants. I’ve often wondered which one was the reason he was let go. He and his walkie talkie developed quite a swagger over the year.

  10. somecomputerguy

    Let’s remember the author is not saying abolish the police, he’s saying disband and start over from scratch.

    When you have massive institutional failure or particularly, corruption, some social scientists believe this is the only effective approach. Some departments seem to have corruption scandals on a ten-year schedule.

    Since, as far as one can tell, we are experiencing record-low levels of crime, and police departments have almost no effect on levels of crime to start with, this is an excellent time to do this.

    Failing this, at least eliminate SWAT teams or consolidate that role at the state police level (not necessarily because they will become any more useful there, it will just get the role out of the hands of local departments).
    Real-life hostage situations are vanishingly rare, and almost all ‘SWAT’ teams are incompetent for their intended mission anyway;
    Very few police departments have the budget to pull officers off of patrol duties so that they can train full-time, and if your SWAT team is not training full-time, is not a competent SWAT team.
    The reason SWAT teams are used routinely instead of rarely, is that otherwise their would be no way to justify the expense.

  11. different clue

    In American English, the word “fire” is punitive. You get “fired” for something wrong that you specifically did against the company or agency.

    American English has another word for “dejobbing” people without personal punitive intent. That word is ” layoff”. If the author of this article were thinking less punitively, he would say ” lay off” every police-person. That would answer the argument about how it is not fair to the “good police” to fire the “good police”. It would also precisionise our own thinking about the difference between vengeance and social health-rescue. If we said ” lay
    off” every police-person, that would indicate that we regard the current departments as posing a non-fixable danger to society which could only be removed from existence by removing the departments from existence.

    I also suspect the article did not call for no future policing of any kind, no matter how non-contaminated. It called for a different kind of policing with different people. And not a single one of the same ones.

    About police “reflecting” society, many police in America are worse and more vicious than the surrounding society they are imposed upon. If all the police departments who make a living by the organized highway robbery known as “civil forfeiture” were abolished , I don’t think all the citizens in those areas would decide they missed the police “civil forfeiture” extortion /shakedown rackets and institute their own citizen extortion/shakedown rackets to take the place of the extortionist/shakedown-racketeering police departments , for example.

    I don’t think the black communities where anti-black policefolk kill black people for sport and fun would miss those police departments no longer existing, nor would they institute their own ” random black-citizen-killing death squads” to make up for the steady racial death-squadding on the part of the police which I doubt those black communities would miss.

    And yet; if, lets say . . . . your friendly local neighborhood business decides to fill the community’s water-source with cancer juice for fun and profit. I suspect the community-members would want some way to make their friendly local neighborhood business stop pouring its cancer juice into the village well. I suspect they would want a group with the ability to shoot the cancer-juice-dumpers dead if that was the only way to stop the cancer juice dumping.

  12. different clue

    A problem occurs to me about ” lay off the police”. What do they do if society just lays them all off at once? They won’t starve to death and die quietly without other jobs. What will they do?

    Some will probably become local crime gangs and mafias. ( Some may become very proficient and highly elite and dangerous mafias, like the Zetas in Mexico). They already know eachother and are loyal to eachother. Others will join local existing mafias. Others will hire themselves to local or regional or even “national-scale” rich people as private death squads to defend rich-people wealth and power and privilege.

    How do we avoid that happening if we ” lay off the police”? Don’t “lay them off”. Give them immediate full retirement with full benefits on the condition that they never ever do any work of any kind again. And if they ” get a job” or ” go into business” of any kind, they lose their retirement-for-life which we would give them as their reward for quietly leaving the ” law enforcement business”. Because if they got a job of any kind or started any kind of business, we would risk having them bring their caustic corrosive police values into whatever job they did or business they started, thus spreading the decay which giving them full total retirement is supposed to bribe them to keep to themselves.

    And short of doing that all at once at the national scale, one could do smaller experiments with versions of this in a few local places, as NR described above, and see if it could be spread to other willing localities.

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