Across Texas, more than two weeks of protests have led to conversations about police reform. But some activists want the complete abolition of police departments.
Lexi Qaiyyim is an organizer with the San Antonio-based group Young Ambitious Activists, which has put together multiple protests in recent weeks. The group supports incremental changes, like de-escalation training, some reduction in funds and the dismantling of the police union.
“Because I think that (the union is) the main part in why, you know, police officers are fired, but they're the reason why they get rehired into departments,” Qaiyyim said. “So we want the police union to be gone.”
At a recent city council meeting, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus outlined the various protections provided to officers by their collective bargaining agreement with the city. More than half of all terminated officers in San Antonio get their jobs back through the contractual arbitration process.
“This is an issue for me. This is problematic for me. There has to be consequences for misconduct,” McManus said. “And there are right now, but they have to be certain, and they have to be final.”
Certain reforms are already being put in place throughout Texas. Austin City Council passed some measures around use of force, the Houston mayor announced an executive order banning chokeholds and Dallas passed several reforms, including a requirement that officers intervene when another officer violates a policy.
In San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg has expressed interest in what’s known as the 8 Can’t Wait campaign. It aims to reduce police violence by 72% by tracking where police departments stand on eight key policies. They include a ban on chokeholds and a ban on shooting at moving vehicles.
There is also movement at the federal level to pass similar reforms.
“You wouldn't say that you want to reform slavery. And you wouldn't say that you want to reform slave patrols. And yet, policing in the United States, as many people often note, grows out of slave patrols,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, a Visiting Scholar with the Decolonizing Humanities project at the College of William & Mary. His book, A World Without Police, will be published next year by Verso.
“And so once we understand that the function of the police is not public safety, but it is the control of certain populations, and it is the control and the support of private property and wealth, then we can realize that you can only reform that system so far,” Ciccariello-Maher said.
He credited Angela Davis, a co-founder of abolitionist group Critical Resistance, with bringing attention to the abolition concept in the ’90s.
The recent history of major police reforms dates back to the late ’60s and early ’70s, when civil unrest spurred by police brutality, racial inequality and the Vietnam War swept the nation.
Mike Smith is a professor and chair of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He said protests in 1967 — many of which were sparked by police use of force — led to calls for reform.
“So out of that summer came the President's Commission On Law Enforcement: calls to reform the police, to professionalize the police, to raise education standards for the police, for example, require college degrees or at least some college,” he said. “And really a call for police to be better trained, better equipped, and just sort of generally improved all the way around.”
Smith said he considers police abolition to be unrealistic and that police departments have slowly evolved and improved over time from their English origins in the early 1800s out of metropolitan London.
But Ciccariello-Maher said police have been “rotten” from the beginning.
“You do have the English model, but we should be clear — absolutely clear — that the English model was about the control of dangerous subjects — as well as dangerous people and dangerous classes — and controlling the poor,” he said. “In the United States, this model fuses with the model that is existing and growing out of the slave patrols.”
Police abolition advocate Mike Lowe said previous police reforms have failed. He lived in San Antonio for many years and now resides in Fort Worth.
He said he knows what it’s like to be profiled by police, and has grieved for community members killed by the San Antonio Police Department.
“And those police had a total disregard for their lives and their safety of these members such as Marquise Jones, Norman Cooper, Antronie Scott and the latest, Charles Roundtree. And these officers not only killed violently, but they did so with impunity,” Lowe said.
For Lowe, reforms to police departments will be ineffective.
“And until we abolish them, we'll still experience the greatest acts of domestic terrorism in our communities, across the state and as a country,” he said. “And this nation will continue to have unrest until we see changes take place, and that change comes in the form of abolition.”
But the abolition movement faces an uphill battle, according to Ciccariello-Maher.
“Policing, white supremacy and capitalism are really bound up with one another from the very origin of the United States. And so disentangling them, pulling them apart, isolating them to deal with them separately is very, very difficult,” Ciccariello-Maher said.
Opponents of complete abolition ask what happens in extreme cases, like an active shooter situation.
“You need a state-sanctioned entity with some authority to compel people to do things,” said Bill Sousa, a professor of criminal justice and the director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
He said police abolition is unrealistic.
“While abolishing police or de-funding has some political appeal in the current climate, in some cases, at least, you'd be inviting vigilante justice, and if controlling state-sanctioned police is difficult, then controlling non-sanctioned, vigilantism would be extremely difficult,” Sousa said.
Some activists argue that defunding police will allow for the treatment of the root causes of crime. For Moureen Kaki, that means reassessing what is and isn’t a crime.
“The bottom line for me is that we live in a society where we can acknowledge that laws have not always been just, and they are not just,” she said. “And it's not about individual police officers here or there. It's about the fact that the police were designed to protect wealth, to protect property and to protect white supremacy. That was the origin of their formation.”
Marlon Davis is an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America. He said the abolition model does require development of a community-based response to certain extreme situations, like that of an active shooter.
“But also, we will ask the wider question of why — why did that person go about shooting? What were the motives,” he said. “Where can we find that underlying condition in society so that we can treat it at its root and this doesn't happen again?”
But that treatment will take time.
For now, police abolition appears politically untenable in Texas. Experts say Minneapolis will provide an interesting case study, if the city council follows through on their promise to go down that road. But in Texas and across the country, more incremental reforms and contract negotiations with police unions will determine the immediate future of policing.
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