• Ashlee Knox

Activists Debate on Police Reform vs Abolishment

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

As tensions between supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and police continue to rapidly increase, civilians all over the world are taking a closer look at their police systems. For those who see something fundamentally wrong with their respective law enforcement agencies solutions including reforming and even abolishing the police have been brought to the forefront of discussion. While the two solutions do attempt at the surface to resolve the same issue of systemic corruption in police departments, their methods of doing so cannot be more different. There are a myriad of questions, issues, pros, and cons to consider when tackling an issue that has managed to extend beyond American borders and into global headlines.

What Reforms are Being Proposed? More Importantly, Which Are Already in Place?

Those who are suggesting reforms for the police system in America often cite from the project “8 Can't-Wait.” This stint formed by Campaign Zero, a platform focused on ending police brutality in America through research-based policy, spread like wildfire through Instagram as activists and allies of the BLM movement alike went searching for a permanent solution to the issue at hand. “8 Can't-Wait” calls for city mayors to adopt police reforms including banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation for tense situations, enacting a warning before shooting, exhausting all alternatives before shooting, requiring officers to intervene when they see another officer use excessive force, banning shooting at moving vehicles, placing clear restrictions on the use of police weapons/tactics, and requiring comprehensive reports that include each time force is used, threatened to be used, and each time a firearm is pointed at someone.

Campaign zero claims that these 8 policies are proven by research to reduce police brutality in communities by 72%, but critics of the program have been quick to question that. In major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, District of Columbia, and Philadelphia at least 5 of these policies were enacted years before protests started. Yet in Chicago where 6 of the “8 Can't-Wait” policies were enacted before, data released by the police department in 2019 based on officer accounts shows that while 47.5% of Black subjects showed lower resistance while 91.6% had higher levels of force used on them. This is compared to the same data which shows that only 44.5% of White people showed lower levels of resistance, yet again only 89.5 received the same higher levels of force that Black subjects did. In simple words, White people in Chicago resist more, but less of them receive higher levels of force (those levels being physical force such as a baton and the highest being the firing of a gun). One must ask if these are still the realities of our police departments how truly effective are these reforms?

The Issue with San Francisco

San Francisco in particular which had all 8 policies in effect since 2016 has experienced a 30% drop in the use of force. While this statistic is somewhat hopeful, Black people have still been the majority population to receive police use of force. In one period between January and March 2020, Black people represented 23% of all police stops, 39% of police searches, and Black men received 31% of police use of force despite Black people only representing 5% of San Francisco’s overall population. Meanwhile, in the same period, White people represented 35% of police stops, 29 percent of searches, and White men only received 20% of police use of force even though White people make up 52% of the city’s population. The data is clear when showing that San Francisco police stop White people more only to search and use force on Black people, men more specifically at an incredibly disproportionate rate considering the demographics of the city. This is just another example of why critics are saying that police reform is not enough to stop police brutality or even the use of excessive force.

In fact, as of June 12, 2020 mayor of San Francisco Mayor London Breed has gone further than reform and crossed into the threshold of abolishing police in all non-criminal calls including those regarding “mental health, the homeless, school discipline, and neighbor disputes.” Instead, police in those situations will be replaced by trained unarmed professionals in an effort made by Mayor Breed to demilitarize the police, address police bias, and divest funding from SFPD to programs promoting racial equity. Although these measures are still technically police reforms they represent multiple of the first steps promoted by those who want to abolish the police system.

What do Protestors Mean by “Abolish the Police”?

More radical than the reforms proposed earlier, the movement to abolish the police is led by multiple organizations believing that the police system is so corrupt, that it cannot be reformed instead it must be dismantled. Supporters of this movement often refer to the website “8 to Abolition” which is a campaign that directly contradicts the previous “8 Can't-Wait” and focuses on encouraging police abolishment over a gradual process. The 8 steps to abolishment include defunding the police, demilitarizing communities, taking police out of schools (ending the school to prison pipeline), freeing offenders from prison, repealing laws that “criminalize survival” (fines in the legal process, sex work, drug trade, homelessness, etc), invest in community-led governance, provide housing for all, and lastly allocating funds towards programs that help the public. The group acknowledges that prisons and police will not vanish from thin air, but that instead, governments must focus on completing “non-reformist reforms”. Non-reformist reforms are defined by experts as “those measures that reduce the power of an oppressive system while illuminating the system’s inability to solve the crises it creates.” These reforms mostly entail gradually reducing the size and power of the prison/police system in America to actively work towards the goal of abolishing prisons as a whole. Cities such as Minneapolis, which is where the George Floyd death occurred, have already crafted a plan to disband their city’s police department.

On June 27th, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted for a proposal that could replace the police department. This force would be titled the “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention,” which would allow for the use of “peace officers” in the city. The department would be mainly focused on public health and ensuring community safety without using the police. Critics of this proposal and others similar to this argue that it is impossible to keep a community truly safe without the police department. Meanwhile, abolitionists are insisting that the use of police is the reason why such violence exists in over-policed black and brown communities.


While activists in the past month have been consistently divided on what stance the government should take in this bloody battle between those targeted by the police and the system itself, one thing is clear. Something must be done. Actions must be taken by both the community and government agencies that work towards changing the historically corrupt system. Whether that is through moderate legislative reforms or radical police abolishment is for each city, state, and national government to decide alongside the pushing force of the entire movement, the people.

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