Over the past few days I’ve seen plenty of demands for police reform across social media, but I’ve also seen a minority of people calling for the complete abolition of the police. A rough translation of my reaction to this is: “Yes, interesting idea, but who do you turn to if your house is broken into / your store is being robbed / you’ve been assaulted.” In short, I’m intrigued by the idea of the police no longer existing, but I have trouble imagining how society functions with that gap.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve realised that the challenge here is to my own perspective. Think about it, from an early age we’re encouraged to see the police as fundamental benefit to society: we have kids TV shows that promote police characters as heroes; we have books that tell us all about how the police are there to help; we have toys so we can pretend to be the police. Even in adult life, we are surrounded by police procedural shows and crime documentaries, the vast majority of which continue to present the police as the ones keeping us safe from all those evil murderers. 

And I will pause here to acknowledge that this view, very hugely, comes from and sustains the position of white privilege; I imagine (and gather from a lot of what I’ve been reading this week) that black people and other minorities grow up with a very different understanding of the police. As a white person I am trained to feel a certain degree of reassurance when I see a police car rolling down the street. As a black person you may very reasonably wonder if this is the police officer who’s going to murder you.

The other angle I’ve been pondering is the concept of justice. The police are here to ‘keep us safe by maintaining law and order’ but they are also the first step on the ladder of justice. And what happens when we catch a criminal? They are punished. Our concept of justice is entirely based around the act of retribution … or vengeance, to give it another word. Someone takes from us and we, in turn, will take from them. It could be their freedom, their money, their life. 

The point is that a type of social violence is directly baked into our concept of justice. With this in place, it’s not a big step to get to the point where the police feel entitled to mete out this justice directly–and violently (and I hope that all the comments I’ve been seeing lately about Judge Dredd are because people have realised that this was *exactly* the point of the character: to show what happens when ‘justice’ is co-opted by an authoritarian state).

And why do the police overwhelmingly target black people? Because, at an equally fundamental level, we’re taught that white people are to be trusted and protected, and black people are dangerous and untrustworthy. This is white privilege. This is structural racism. This is also the culture we consume and contribute to.

So, how would society function without the police? I don’t know. I have huge trouble conceiving it: there’s a block in my mind stopping me from successfully imagining that society. Without the police, people will still murder, and rob, and rape, and generally be bad people. But right now we have the police, we have the justice system, we have prison, we have all of these things that are meant to act as a deterrent but people STILL do terrible things, so maybe our first step is to accept that what we have currently just doesn’t work. I have no idea what the next steps are, but I know that the solution is not an ‘eye for an eye’: punishing people and making them suffer because they have committed a crime is not the answer. We abhor the death penalty because it makes murderers of us all. Meanwhile, the justice system, and the way it works, continues to make criminals of us all.