Excerpted From: V. Noah Gimbel and Craig Muhammad, Are Police Obsolete? Breaking Cycles of Violence Through Abolition Democracy, 40 Cardozo Law Review 1453 (April 2019) (315 Footnotes) (Full Document)
As 2017 drew to a close, Baltimore City saw its annual record for per-capita homicides broken for the second time in three years. But on February 5, 2018, residents had something to be hopeful about: a “Ceasefire weekend,” organized by local activists, ended without a single killing the cops were not to thank. Indeed, as community antiviolence organizers throughout the city worked to cool hot feuds in order to prove to the world--to themselves--that violence was not destiny for their city (despite statistical projections to the contrary), the Baltimore Police Department was sinking ever-deeper into perhaps the most shocking police corruption scandal of the twenty-first century.
Eight members of Baltimore's elite “Gun Trace Task Force” were indicted on federal charges including racketeering, robbery, drug trafficking, overtime fraud, and more. Six pleaded guilty, and two more were convicted following very public trials. Every day of the proceedings brought new details illustrating how police brazenly robbed alleged drug dealers, planted guns on innocent suspects, trafficked stolen guns to known criminals, and defrauded taxpayers by submitting phony overtime claims. The criminal conduct of the Baltimore police also undermined the legitimacy of criminal cases against somewhere between 125 and 3,000 defendants who were either in prison or awaiting trial.
The stark contrast between ordinary city residents risking their safety to fight against the violence in their community and a corrupt police force committing and propagating acts of violence in the microcosmic streets of Baltimore raises what may appear at first blush an absurdly radical question: are police obsolete? When Angela Y. Davis asked the same of prisons in her germinal book on prison abolition in 2003, the “prison-industrial complex” was only beginning to enter the lexicon of scholars and activists taking on what was then the fairly recent phenomenon of mass incarceration. Since then, the very foundations of the U.S. criminal legal system have been shaken by a mass awakening to its racist origins and ends. From Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow to Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th; from the mass uprisings and mobilizations of the Movement for Black Lives to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sacrificing his career to protest police brutality, cultural perceptions of policing and imprisonment have undergone a seismic shift in the early part of this young century.
This discursive shift lays the groundwork for a resurgence of what W. E. B. DuBois called “abolition democracy”--the project of building up radical community-powered institutions to supplant oppressive social structures inherited from the legacy of chattel slavery. Angela Y. Davis has used this concept in her advocacy for a positive vision of prison abolition. Far from a simplistic demand to do away with imprisonment in one fell swoop, Davis's abolition democracy calls for “the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete.”
Can the same be done for police? Can the dominant paradigm casting gun-toting cops as the sole guardians of peace and public order still conform to evolving understandings of justice? Facing the twin specters of police violence and street violence, activists and community organizers in cities like Chicago have launched explicitly abolitionist projects, building institutions to replace the police. Public health experts with institutional support from universities, non-profits, and even state and local governments have been successfully mobilizing formerly incarcerated citizens in non-police violence-intervention work for years. Historically, armed professionalized police forces are a fairly recent entrant onto the violence-prevention scene, appearing in a form recognizable to our modern conceptions as late as the nineteenth century, yet they have been endowed with an almost timeless sense of necessity. This Article is the first in legal scholarship to seriously question that sense of necessity, challenging the police's state-granted monopoly on controlling perhaps the greatest challenge to public order--violence.
Violence, when committed by non-state actors, is considered a recourse to the most primitive means of conflict resolution--a failure of reason to temper animal urges. In this worldview, people who commit acts of violence are bad people unfit for or undeserving of life in a civilized society. This understanding of violence as an individual moral failing undergirds the logic of the criminal legal system in the United States, which holds that the only way to protect society from people who commit unsanctioned acts of violence is to forcibly remove them from society. This appears to be the Trump administration's preferred narrative as well; when asked whether easy access to guns played a role in Chicago's ongoing gun-violence problems, current White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders characterized crime as “driven more by morality than anything else.”
At the same time, state-sanctioned violence, whether in the form of military intervention, police use of force, or capital punishment, is not only legal--it is often cast as necessary or even heroic. Armed police officers use or threaten to use violence in the name of the state under the pretense of enforcing the law. Not only does the law authorize police to use unlimited, even deadly force in response to violent conduct, the police are authorized to escalate relatively low-intensity interactions into potentially deadly confrontations, for example when a motorist fails to pull over. Likewise, the use of military force by the United States and its allies can justifiably--in the State's eyes and with the assent of average Americans--take the lives of noncombatants and even children in pursuit of a military objective determined to be in the national interest. This logic imposes a hierarchy of violence wherein legitimate “rational” or “reasonable” police or military violence is necessary to control illicit criminal violence. Such line drawing conceals an explosive contradiction undergirding the mainstream ideology of American exceptionalism maintained on both sides of the political aisle, which has become increasingly exposed by activists and the media, contributing to the extremely divisive climate that characterizes the so-called Trump era.
But this hierarchy of violence is embedded with a long history of racist beliefs in White supremacy and Black and Brown immorality or amorality dating back to the era of slavery and European colonial conquest. It is not uncommon to hear people who have been convicted of violent crimes referred to as “animals” or “super-predators,” evoking images of lawless, subhuman people of color threatening the safety and stability of middle-class life. President Donald Trump espoused this view in a speech to law enforcement officials, urging them to be “rough” with people suspected of criminal activity. Speaking of Mexican and Central American immigrants presumed to belong to the MS-13 gang, Trump expounded:
They butcher those little girls. They kidnap, they extort, they rape and they rob. They prey on children. They shouldn't be here. They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs. They slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives. They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They're animals.
Comparing a racially coded group of human beings to animals is dehumanizing, and dehumanization has observable consequences.
Numerous psychological studies have linked the dehumanization of Black people with increased estimates of Black children's ages and criminal culpability; dehumanization “also predicts racially disparate police violence toward Black children in real-world settings.” The racism implicit in this “super-predator” view of violence is further expressed in the disproportional rates of imprisonment among Black, Hispanic, and Native American men and women, and in the frequency of police killings of people of color--“[y]oung black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015 ....” Critics and activists from communities of color and their allies have long spoken out against the trend of hyper-criminalization and imprisonment. But only recently have mass incarceration and hyper-aggressive policing come to be seen as problems rather than solutions among the White political mainstream. For the Movement for Black Lives, these issues have taken on life-or-death stakes. Calls for reforming the criminal legal system have echoed all the way to the White House under the administration of President Barack Obama, and the dominant logic of our criminal legal system is being called into question across the political spectrum.
As the door to reforming the criminal legal system has begun to crack open, the social meaning of violence and the imagined role of police in suppressing it are being contested. The Obama Administration, along with many policymakers at all levels of government, moved to reframe the discourse of crime-control, order maintenance, and public safety around “community policing.” According to the Department of Justice's Office on Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office),
Community policing begins with a commitment to building trust and mutual respect between police and communities. It is critical to public safety, ensuring that all stakeholders work together to address our nation's crime challenges. When police and communities collaborate, they more effectively address underlying issues, change negative behavioral patterns, and allocate resources.
The administration of President Donald Trump has taken a sharp stance against the reformist position, arguing that restraints on police violence and their advocates have crippled law enforcement and empowered dangerous criminals. In a statement entitled Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community, the Trump Administration lays out its “Law and Order” philosophy declaratively:
A Trump Administration will empower our law enforcement officers to do their jobs and keep our streets free of crime and violence. The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration. President Trump will honor our men and women in uniform and will support their mission of protecting the public. The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.
Whatever actions the Trump Administration ends up taking to effectuate its stated support for police, the movement for greater community control over law-enforcement continues to advance reforms throughout the country. The Trump Administration may swing the pendulum towards greater police autonomy at the federal policy level. But it appears unlikely to paralyze reform efforts at the state and local level where most law enforcement policy is made and carried out, and even less likely to decisively settle deep-seeded disagreements over how to address the problem of violence.
Meanwhile, non-state actors from epidemiologists to community activists to incarcerated individuals have launched a number of violence-reduction projects in violence-prone communities that depend for their success on the non-involvement of the police. By claiming responsibility for maintaining peace and order from within the community, such alternative programs bear some resemblance to the Black radical tradition of community autonomy pursued by the Black Panther Party, the MOVE Organization, and other radical groups of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, with growing institutional support from universities, non-profits, and state and local governments, these initiatives hold the potential to embody the type of collaboration the COPS Office called for. They also hold promise for scholars and activists in the prison-abolitionist movement as community-centered replacements for, or alternatives to, the use or threat of police violence and incarceration as the primary means to control and reduce criminal violence. But the legitimacy and effectiveness of these projects depend on their independence from police whom affected communities frequently distrust, putting them in tension with law-enforcement-centric community policing models. In Part III of this Article, we address that tension and examine how non-police anti-violence work can begin to supplant traditional policing.
Public health- and community-based alternatives to policing should and will play an increased role in efforts to break cycles of violence regardless of their cooperation or conflict with law enforcement. The Movement for Black Lives, which gained national prominence in the wake of high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people in Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, and elsewhere, has made community control over police a centerpiece of its national organizing. Number Three on the Movement's list of National Demands calls for “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people.” The Movement's policy handbook details that this demand requires “[a] reallocation of funds at the federal, state and local level from policing and incarceration (JAG, COPS, VOCA) to long-term safety strategies such as education, local restorative justice services, and employment programs.” Policymakers, legal scholars, and practitioners should educate themselves on the substance of “restorative justice services” as they interact with and shape the creation and enforcement of criminal law and policy. This Article fills an important gap in the legal academic literature on criminal justice reform by shedding light on different types of community-based violence-reduction initiatives offering viable alternatives to (even community-based) traditional policing.
Violence remains a serious problem in poor urban communities across the United States even as the United States has experienced a downward trend in violent crime since peak levels in the early 1990s. Gun homicides dropped by 49% between 1993 and 2010; violent non- fatal crime overall decreased by 72% between 1993 and 2013. Despite this dramatic reduction in crime levels, 82% of Americans believed that gun crime rates had gone up or stayed the same over the two decades since 1993. Indeed, popular perceptions--or fear--of high crime rates are likely shaped by media accounts, and perhaps even by the widespread knowledge of the astronomical incarceration rate in this country. This begs the question--what violence are we talking about in this Article? By focusing on the problem of violence are we playing into the exaggerated, racist fears of a rampant violence that doesn't really exist? These are important questions to bear in mind amidst any discussion of violent crime, and their premise--that we should adjust our thinking to address the present-day realities of violence--guides our discussion. But the reality is that violent crime remains central to the crisis of mass incarceration and racial inequality in the United States. In his recent book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, Professor Paul Butler airs the “ugly fact” that “Black men commit more murders, in absolute numbers, than Latino men, who slightly outnumber them, and white men, who greatly outnumber them,” and presents data showing that “[v]iolent crime, much more than drug crimes, is fueling mass incarceration.” Our discussion confronts this current of the debate over decarceration, focusing on those areas where violent crime, particularly gun crime, has remained considerably high. We perceive the historically low levels of violent crime in many cities today to enhance the plausibility of the non-police alternatives to violence-reduction we describe and advocate here, and to present a meaningful opportunity to reimagine reform with the abolition of punitive policies on the horizon.
This Article seeks to inform and advance the project of prison abolition that has generated a sizeable body of legal scholarship in recent years. By juxtaposing some of the root causes of violence with effective examples of non-punitive, non-violent intervention, we hope to offer a practical resource for abolitionists to build on in their scholarship and advocacy. And while we do present a theoretical framework for understanding the material reality of violence through its causes and potential cures, we consciously limit ourselves to only one type of violence. The type of violence we are contending with in this Article may be understood as “public,” non-state violence. Private domestic violence and child abuse may be susceptible to other forms of non-police intervention including those explored here, but that analysis falls outside the scope of this Article. Similarly, although there is certainly overlap between the violence prevention “cures” we discuss here and restorative justice efforts geared toward reconciliation following violent acts, this Article focuses on violence interruption as a preventive measure against the perpetuation of violent conflict. The abolitionist project must account for all types of violence, all paths to restoring victims, and all means of reconciling communities in order to construct a viable alternative to the force-backed system now in place. Our work here is a tile in that mosaic.
The Article will proceed in three Parts. Part I will trace the cycles of violence faced by marginalized communities of color and identify some of the actors involved in perpetuating those cycles.
In Part II, our focus will shift to non-police models for stopping violence. Perhaps the best known of these is the “Cure Violence” model developed by epidemiologists seeking to address violence as a public health crisis. The other non-police paradigm we explore arises from community activism and empowerment, seeking to address violence as a symptom of overlapping political and socio-economic crises.
After describing a number of organizations that have grown out of these models, Part III looks to both the future and the historical roots of community-based violence-reduction initiatives. In a fundamental way, such projects demand an affirmative answer to the question “are police obsolete?” They challenge the police monopoly on the maintenance of order in the community and must actively resist association with or cooptation by police in order to maintain their legitimacy in the community. Will law enforcement agencies stand down and carve out space for community peace forces? Or will they hold fast to the punishment model and seek to delegitimize and displace non-police alternatives in the name of law enforcement?
Before proceeding, we would like to offer a note on the Article's format. Because this Article is the product of a novel form of co-authorship in legal academic writing, it takes something of an unusual form. One of the co-authors of this Article is a lawyer and legal scholar. The other, Mr. Craig Muhammad, is currently serving a life sentence handed down to him in 1982, when he was just twenty-one years old, at Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI) in Maryland, a few miles outside of his native Baltimore. Mr. Muhammad's voice brings a unique fount of authority in his perspective as an incarcerated person. On one hand, Mr. Muhammad is a product of the warlike dynamic between police and drug-trafficking networks in the poverty-stricken West Baltimore of the 1970s and 1980s. He has transformed himself from that fraught upbringing into a longtime leader in prison-based anti-violence work bridging young incarcerated men with support networks of community activists in the high-crime Baltimore areas from which so much of Maryland's prison population hails. To reflect this difference in perspective, and to highlight the contributions of a voice all but absent from legal academic literature on criminal justice reform and violence, Mr. Muhammad's writings will appear in a different font representative of the prison typewriter on which his writing was done. The rest of the Article represents the collaborative conversations, research, and insights of the co-authors.
[. . .]
This Article has described some of the non-police anti-violence work being done by public health professionals, community members, grassroots activists, and prisoners. Although each approach taken alone suffers from certain limitations, the proliferation of multiple non-police forces with community ties holds great potential not only to reduce violence, but also to empower communities to bring about the type of fundamental change necessary to attack structural and cyclical violence at their roots.
Levels of violent crime may be declining generally, but shootings related to gang feuds, police interventions, and illicit economies continue to bring suffering to some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the country--communities where Black and Brown youth become indoctrinated into a culture of violence at a young age, often by the very police officers charged with protecting them. Incarceration is expected of the young people growing up in these communities, and we have discussed throughout this Article the ways in which the logic underlying the mass incarceration apparatus has its roots in racism. Imprisonment and punishment, then, is not only an ineffective way to reduce violence; it is illegitimate.
There is a pressing need for alternatives to policing, but to meet that need, we must also lower the perceived need for police themselves. This may mean decriminalizing some or all drugs and re-framing addiction as a public health issue. It may mean intervening in cycles of violence through strategic work informed by epidemiology. Or it may mean de-escalating gang violence by engaging with and emancipating gang-affiliated prisoners primed for political action upon release. It certainly means improving the educational and economic prospects of the people most at risk to commit acts of violence and end up incarcerated. And whatever the discrete tactic or policy reform, it should be informed by an abolitionist ethic seeking to supplant punitive responses to criminalized conduct with community-focused restorative justice. It should be rooted in resistance to the systematic oppression meted out on Black people, Latinos, American Indians, and other marginalized groups generation after generation. To question the legitimacy of the struggle against oppression, to cite empirical concerns about controlling crime, is ultimately to blame the victim. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1964 against the segregationist argument that integration would expose Whites to crime,
Criminal responses are not racial, but environmental. Poverty, economic deprivation, social isolation and all of these things breed crime, whatever the racial group may be. And it is a torturous logic to use the tragic results of racial segregation as an argument for the continuation of it .... [S]o it is necessary to see this and to go all out to make economic justice a reality all over our nation.
To abolish today's iteration of segregation, indeed, we must go all out.
Georgetown Law, J.D. 2016.
Craig Muhammad has been incarcerated for over thirty-six years, during which time he has earned a B.S. degree from Coppin State College (now Coppin State University).