What’s the Plan Undergirding Police Abolition?

Even the staunchest believers acknowledge that this transformation may not happen overnight.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: A banner mounted by Portland Equity in Action along North Mississippi Avenue. (Aaron Mesh)

I always thought “police abolition” meant replacing the current system with a kinder, less racist force, but my anarchist friend says it means no forcible policing at all. Presumably no one is suggesting we let rapists and murderers run wild, so what’s the plan? —Well-Intentioned Liberal

Thanks for the minefield of a question, Liberal. (I’ll know I’ve answered it properly if, after I’m done, every person in Portland hates me equally.)

Certain Trump 2020 campaign ads notwithstanding, police abolitionists do not advocate letting thugs and psychos murder at will. That said, many believe that civilian-on-civilian violent crime (A) is overstated, (B) isn’t mitigated by policing anyway, and (C) when it does happen, can be solved without resorting to violence.

Roughly 95% of the discussion around a potential post-cop world seems to be people arguing about A and B. C seems most germane to your question, though, so let’s skip ahead: How would a cop-free regime solve the problem of, say, Hannibal Lecter turning up in the back of my ambulance?

There are several schools of thought about this. The most fulsome vision is one in which we reorient society toward eradicating poverty, mental illness, lack of education, substance abuse and the other root causes of crime. In this scenario, Hannibal’s quirks would have been spotted in childhood by caring professionals, who would have gotten him the help he needed long before he could fricassee you or anyone else.

See? Easy-peasy! Still, even the staunchest believers acknowledge that this transformation may not happen overnight. During the transition to this better world (or maybe forever, if you subscribe to a less maximalist vision of abolition), we may need what one source* calls “a small, specialized class of public servants whose job it is to respond to violent crimes.”

I know what you’re thinking. These folks are different from police, however: They’re unarmed, and they’re trained in deescalation rather than violence. Of course, you’d need to recruit caring, compassionate people, or we’re right back where we started.

Then again, we could do that right now. The Portland Police Bureau is short-staffed; maybe more social workers, activists—hippies, basically—should apply. The bureau could tweak its hiring requirements: “HAIR: Must reach collar or below. TATTOOS: Visible at all times. FACIAL HAIR: Mandatory.” I jest, but a critical mass of officers with the right mindset could make the difference. Be the change!

*”Police Abolition 101,” from Minneapolis activist group MPD150.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.