How the police stand to benefit from abolition

Although extending compassion to police officers might seem like a heavy lift, it is necessary if we want movement work to succeed.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

“All Cops Are Bastards,” or ACAB, is a slogan popularized by some in police and prison abolition movements. The spirit of ACAB is divisive. The sentiment of ACAB reflects the belief by some abolitionists that there are no good police officers and that police are “bastards” for choosing their profession. However, this citizen vs. police narrative makes our movements less viable. Chicago’s most recent high-profile shooting of 29-year-old police officer Ella French illuminates the interconnected systemic losses that both police and citizens suffer. Violence hurts everyone.

A growing number of people feel that policing is a profoundly harmful system. They believe that centuries of systemic racism, abuse of power, cover-ups, lack of oversight, militarization efforts, qualified immunity, and failed reforms have created a toxic, overly punitive adversarial public safety system that does more harm than good. One must only turn on their television or scroll through social media to see evidence supporting this perspective. Body cameras, cell phone video and social media have made the ills of police work more visible, but their impacts on reducing police brutality are unclear. Local governments create police oversight agencies to “police the police,” but they often lack the jurisdiction to create real change and thus have had little impact.

A 2016 study by the Center for Policing Equity at Yale University showed that police use force disproportionately on African Americans even after taking racial disparities in crime into account. From tasers to takedowns, from illegal stop and frisk encounters to shootings, many feel the police are responsible for imposing an unfathomable amount of grief and trauma on citizens. The metaphorical weight on police officers in delivering this trauma requires police to separate from their humanity, either knowingly or unknowingly, to endure the job day in and day out. This disassociation process is harmful to us all.

Whenever someone disassociates from their humanity, we as a collective are affected. The disassociation compounds and the results are detrimental to creating any healthy systemic change. If our community is sick with unhealed trauma and PTSD, we can ultimately not sustain our movements or organize effectively. Gandhi spoke of the need for healing oneself in his teachings on self-purification. And a Kingian nonviolence principle addresses this process as well, directing us to “avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence.” If we are to create and sustain movements for public safety that work for everyone, we must come to terms with the fact that violence, division and separation hurts us all. If our movements are not for everyone (including police officers), they are not for anyone.

Engaging opposing views through dialectical thinking is a powerful tool in movement work. Movement elders like Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs, and Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the value of dialectic thinking for revolution and evolution. I can appreciate this from personal experience, as I have worked in the criminal justice system for more than a decade and am currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Criminology, Law and Justice program. We are a unique criminology program because we study intersectional critical criminology (including critical theories of race, class, gender and disability), as well as abolition and alternatives to incarceration, including the more traditional elements of the discipline such as policing, courts and law. By employing these seemingly opposing lenses at work, school and in movement spaces, I have come to understand how police themselves stand to benefit from abolition.

On Aug. 7, 2021, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown announced that 29-year-old police officer Ella French lost her life to a single gunshot wound to the head during a traffic stop. He also said one of French’s partners was shot multiple times and was in critical condition. However, the unseen injuries to French’s third partner are largely left out of the mainstream narrative. Superintendent Brown said he was shot at but was not struck by gunfire. He was undoubtedly traumatized, being the only “uninjured” officer on the scene, but we will likely never discuss the extent of his unseen injuries publicly. The news surrounding the shooting spread quickly, and French’s death impacted the lives of many. However, French’s death is not unusual. In 2019, according to the FBI, 48 police officers were killed in 19 states, and there were 41 deaths by accident on duty.

Increasing the Chicago Police Department’s budget means more officers, more technology and more senseless death.

The PTSD and lingering grief officers experience are also true for police gun violence victims and gun violence in general, which exact a far larger toll. In 2020, there were 1,021 fatal police shootings in the United States and there were 769 homicides in Chicago alone. Mainstream narratives often focus on the “newsworthy” elements like the criminality of perpetrators of violence and substance abuse issues and overlook the PTSD and grief that lingers long after the shooting is over.

Whether at the hands of police or civilians, the negative impacts of gun violence in the United States and Chicago specifically are staggering. Gun violence negatively impacts each shooting victim and shooter (including police) — as well as their families and the wider community — and the effects from the shooting change both the shooter and the victim’s lives forever.

Chicago has the most police per capita of any major city, and currently spends approximately $1.6 billion a year on its 13,000 officers. The city recently began discussing its next budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she would undoubtedly increase funding for the Chicago Police Department, or CPD. Increasing CPD’s budget means more officers, more technology and more senseless death.

Research shows police have exorbitantly high divorce rates, shocking suicide rates, rampant alcoholism, increased rates of domestic violence, one of the highest job injury rates and more overtime work than Chicago can defend to its taxpayers. This year 38 officers either fired their weapons or were shot at, and 11 were struck by gunfire. Superintendent Brown said French was the first CPD officer to die from an on-duty shooting this year. However, it is widely known among officers that more officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. 

Three CPD officers have died by suicide thus far in 2021. The Department of Justice found that CPD has suicide rates higher than 60 percent of the country. CPD’s first line of defense against officer suicides is the Employee Assistance Program. However, the program has just 12 clinical therapists for 13,000 officers. Chicago police are overworked, physically and mentally exhausted, struggle to maintain critical non-police relationships, and kill themselves more often than they are killed in the line of duty. The injurious effects of policing on the lives of police officers are clear. 

Police officials and unions often negotiate for training, tactics and technology that increases “officer safety.” However, they continue to turn their back on the fact that the costs of the mental injuries to the police — including PTSD, moral injury and trauma — far exceed the benefits of the impact of police on crime, which research indicates is largely nonexistent. Research does not conclusively show that police decrease homicides, violence or crime and has shown no connection between the number of officers and crime rates. Furthermore, the militarization of the police and other current primary police strategies have little or no effect on crime. Therefore, the mental injuries experienced by police officers are ultimately in vain.

The only way to stop crime is to resource individuals who resort to crime out of desperation, fear, poverty and destitution.

Although the results may not happen overnight, alternatives to policing do exist, and they are effective. The Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice reviewed and summarized research on policies and programs that reduce community violence without relying on police. They found seven evidence-backed alternatives to policing: improving the physical environment, strengthening anti-violence social norms and peer relationships, engaging and supporting youth, reducing substance abuse, mitigating financial stress, reducing the harmful effects of the justice process and confronting the gun problem. A 2017 study published in the American Sociological Review supported the findings at John Jay. It showed that for every 10 additional community nonprofits in a city with 100,000 residents, a 12 percent reduction in the homicide rate and a 10 percent reduction in violent crime is found.

Community members are much more reliable at reducing violence than the police. Violence interrupters are credible messengers and respected community members who conduct daily outreach to their communities, de-escalate, prevent and intervene in potentially violent situations, and respond after the fact to prevent escalation and retaliation. For instance, a violence interrupter organization in Baltimore called “Safe Streets” recently celebrated one year with no homicides in one area they cover. In Chicago, the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago and Metropolitan Family Services created Communities Partnering 4 Peace. CP4P collaborates with 15 community groups working in 22 Chicago neighborhoods that are most affected by gun violence. Through nonviolence training, community organizing, street outreach, victim advocacy, case management and re-entry support, from 2016 to 2018, CP4P was able to reduce shootings by 25 percent and homicides by 33 percent in CP4P communities.

Movement organizers have long known that investment in communities is the path out the carceral system. The only way to stop crime is to resource individuals who resort to crime out of desperation, fear, poverty and destitution. This understanding is reflected in the deeply-researched Vision for Black Lives released by the Movement for Black Lives in 2016, which demands “reparations and targeted long-term investments … in our communities and movements.”

Superintendent Brown said French and the other involved officers stopped the vehicle for expired tags in the Englewood neighborhood, one of Chicago’s most notorious “high-crime” neighborhoods. However, the national news narrative has thus far left out that Englewood is a neighborhood with an extensive history of disinvestment, abandonment and violence by the city. It is a deeply segregated neighborhood, almost entirely Black, and its residents lack adequate food, housing and employment opportunities. It is also a notorious food desert where its residents have no viable grocery stores, only fast food.

Further, Englewood youth struggle to access the most basic yet fundamental services like public education. In 2017, after former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed 50 schools in Chicago’s Black and Brown communities, Chicago officials notified parents that all four public high schools in Englewood would be closed by 2018.

We must continue to center movement efforts on increasing support for the institutions that address the causes of crime — the lack of quality and affordable food, housing education and health care — while reducing the footprint of policing by increasing non-carceral responses to crime. Some police agencies are taking the initiative to reduce police-citizens contacts. Ithaca Police was recently “abolished” and is now the “Department of Public Safety,” which includes armed and unarmed public safety workers. Ithaca Police also dispatches social workers to mental health calls.

Berkeley Police recently made changes to traffic enforcement, deciding to no longer stop drivers for minor traffic violations like equipment violations, expired vehicle registration, or not wearing a seat belt. Instead, police will conduct traffic stops only for violations that endanger public safety, such as excessive speeding, running a red light or stop sign, and driving under the influence.

Reimagining public safety options that work for everyone requires first robustly resourcing the communities experiencing houselessness, hunger, poverty, joblessness, over-policing and mass incarceration. Investing in our communities is ground zero. However, we must also acknowledge the havoc wreaked on police officers’ lives and open our hearts, communities and movements to officers and their families who also experience profound suffering and loss in this system.

Although extending compassion to police officers might seem like a heavy lift, it is necessary if we want movement work to succeed. Movements must acknowledge our interdependence and shared humanity to organize successfully against police and prisons. There is no separation between citizens and police, as painful and traumatizing as that revelation may be. Our movements must center our shared humanity and reconcile the losses endured by police in this system to create a container large enough to hold our collective grief. All of our humanity is at stake.


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