Police Do Not Protect, They Respond (Sometimes With Force)
Across the United States, police have killed nearly 1,000 people in the past year. This striking loss of life exists in direct contrast to the myth that police “protect and serve.” The idea that the police are heroes is a product of propaganda and misinformation; the reality is that not only do the police fail to do what they claim to do (protect people from violence) but they perpetrate the violence themselves.
Among the many reasons that an expansion of policing does nothing to protect people from harm is the fact that the police do not have a constitutional duty to protect someone (NYTimes). For example, In Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the police department of Castle Rock, Colorado, did not have a constitutional duty to enforce the restraining order Jessica Gonzales had in place against her abusive husband, who went on to kidnap and murder their three daughters. In this instance, the police who claim to intervene in violent situations actually enabled future violence.
Warren v. District of Columbia is another example of police failing to prevent harm. In this specific court case, Carolyn Warren, Miriam Douglas, Joan Taliaferro and Wilfred Nichol sued the city and members of its police department after responding officers refused to provide assistance during a burglary at Warren, Douglas, and Taliaferro’s residence. Nichol joined the lawsuit because of a separate incident; he was beaten by assailants at a red light and the responding officer did not obtain identifying information about his attackers, leaving Nichol unable “to institute legal action against his assailants.” Ultimately, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled in 1981 that the police do not owe a specific duty to provide police services to specific citizens based on the public duty doctrine: “Public duty doctrine is a tort law principle maintaining that a government entity (as a state or municipality) cannot be held liable for the injuries of an individual resulting from a public officer or employee’s breach of a duty owed to the public as a whole as distinguished from a duty owed to the particular individual or employee’s breach of a duty owed to the public as a whole as distinguished from a duty owed to the particular individual.” Essentially what that means is that the police are obligated to protect the “public” as a concept but aren’t obligated to protect the individual people who make up the public.
Police Don’t Do What You Think They Do
Along with the myth of the police as necessary interveners in the midst of violence is the idea that the primary function of the police is to fight violent crime. Actually, police officers spend an overwhelming majority of their time responding to non-violent crime (NYTimes). In this graph culled from police departments’ open data portals, one can see that in three major police departments so far this year, officers have spent roughly four percent of their time on serious violent crimes.
Thus, not only do the police not do what they claim to do, which is protect people in violent situations, but they also don’t actively prevent crime in the first place. Cops do not address root causes of crime, such as poverty, systemic racism and lack of access to safe and affordable housing. Angela Y. Davis wrote about prisons, of which the police are an extension.
“In many ways you can say that the prison serves as an institution that consolidates the state’s inability and refusal to address the most pressing social problems of this era.” ~Angela Y. Davis
Reducing harm and violent crime should start by addressing the root cause of the issue, not by locking away individuals who have been caught in the cycle of the state’s violence. To that end, in her collection of essays, Mariame Kaba writes “Increasing rates of incarceration have a minimal impact on crime rates. Research and common sense suggest that economic precarity is correlated with higher crime rates. Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized.”
On top of what the cops fail to do, is the fact that cops actively perpetrate violence, most of which is disproportionately against black, brown, and indigenous people. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people. Most police perpetrated killings start in response to a non-violent instance, like a traffic stop or a mental health call. The notion that the police protect people from violence is in direct contrast to their own actions and history.
What Actually Keeps Us Safe?
So, what does keep us safe? If we recognize violence as a public health issue, we can begin to approach it in a preventative, restorative fashion. Kaba (and the abolitionist perspective in general) purports that the only way to reduce harm and violence is to imagine solutions to our problems that do not involve “disposing of people by locking them away in jails and prisons” and instead involves requiring community accountability because everyone is cared for by the community and has their needs met. In other words, harm won’t ever totally dissipate, but most violence stems from unmet needs and disconnection from community care.
If everyone has housing, nourishment, a sense of safety in their neighborhood, a strong social network, access to education, access to opportunities, etc., then evidence and common sense suggests that crime and harm will both be reduced. The bloated police budgets and ever-expanding police forces not only result in police-perpetrated violence, but take money from the kind of social services that would provide for all those needs.
When it comes to defunding the police, it’s important that those funds are instead put toward community-building initiatives and social welfare. Results from studies on the expansion of access to Medicaid revealed that, “The main estimates for the implementation of HIFA-waiver expansions suggest that a significant crime-reduction effect is present in three subcategories, namely robbery, aggravated assault, and larceny theft (Tables 2–4 upper panel: row 1). HIFA-waiver expansions reduced the robbery rate by 0.02 per 1000 residents, reduced the aggravated assault rate by 0.04 per 1000 residents (Table 3 upper panel: column 7 row 1), and reduced the larceny theft rate by 0.14 per 1000 residents annually.” Similarly, the impact of greater access to substance abuse treatments resulted in “…evidence that county-level expansions in treatment facilities significantly reduce both violent and financially motivated crimes and that the effects are concentrated among more serious types of these crimes….” Even more evidence to the benefits of providing for needs rather than over policing communities can be seen in the effect of introducing more after-school programs: “The estimates suggest a marginally significant 0.004 percent decline in crime associated with an additional SAT facility. Considering all felony-type crimes in the second panel, which excludes simple assault and larceny, the estimates indicate an effect of 0.010 percent… These estimates indicate that an additional SAT facility reduces social costs attributed to all crime by 0.14 percent annually, which corresponds to approximately $700,000.31.”
The evidence is clear: cops are not correlated with safety. We must reimagine what we can do as a community to address the root causes of crime, and then allocate our resources and attention to those systems instead of the cops.
In the words of Mariame Kaba, “Changing everything might sound daunting, but it also means there are many places to start, infinite opportunities to collaborate, and endless imaginative interventions and experiments to create. Let’s begin our abolitionist journey not with the question ‘What do we have now, and how can we make it better?’ Instead, let’s ask, ‘What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?’ If we do that, then boundless possibilities of a more just world await us.”
For more information, check out MPD150’s “Police Abolition 101” collaborative zine.