The Path towards Abolition: Dismantling a Broken System and Rebuilding from the Ground Up

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We have reached a point in U.S. history where calling for police reform is futile. This call has historically been met with enormous resistance from police departments — and ultra-powerful police unions — across the country. Every year we see police budgets increase while essential social services and public institutions are defunded. And unsurprisingly, we see no reduction in police brutality and abuse of power. Steady rates of police killings nationwide, despite reforms being implemented, exhibits daily the inevitability and propensity for violence that is inherent within the police institution as a whole.

What we have is a system that prioritizes the elite and their private property at the expense of Black and minority groups, who it disproportionately targets and surveils. A system born out of runaway slave patrols, that harbors racism within its very DNA. A system where violence is inevitable. The concept of modern policing is so fundamentally broken that it must be dismantled. Our society must be rebuilt and reimagined in order for us to ever have a chance to survive and thrive.

I aspire to gradually replace this broken system with something that works. Something that is rooted in community care. Something that is focused on actually preventing crime and violence by addressing their root causes. Something that prioritizes uplifting and investing in marginalized communities. Something that decriminalizes maurijana, homelessness, sex work and minor traffic violations so that we dont see non-violent people rotting in jail. Something that invests in medics, social workers, mental health and substance abuse specialists and those trained in conflict de-escalation. Something that advocates for restorative justice, not the ineffective and inhumane system of mass incarceration that dooms a person for life (causing life-long trauma, broken families and communities, termination of voting rights and difficulties obtaining employment) and only feeds recidivism.

I, and those with me, aim to slowly phase out our reliance on police by defunding, disempowering and demilitarizing officers and departments. We aim to reinvest that money into our communities and prevent crime by addressing issues of poverty. And further, we aim to empower our communities through community accountability programs and community care governance. That’s the movement we’re building.

Disempowering the police and reducing their budget

A crucial first step on the path towards abolition is curtailing the power and influence of the police and related institutions. This includes:

  • Defunding the NYPD. For many years, crime in NYC has continued to decline and the city’s population has remained around 8.3 million people for the last five years, and yet the NYPD’s budget continues to grow, increasing by 18% in that same amount of time. While we may not be able to reduce their funding to zero all at once, we can make progress on this vital component of abolition by continuing to cut from the NYPD budget and divert those dollars towards services that will improve the lives of city residents. Supposed reductions like the $1 billion the City Council voted on in June 2020 are not sufficient, nor do they qualify as “defunding” — a large amount of that money is still being spent on police. We need real, consistent, substantive reductions in the police budget as we work towards abolition.
  • Holding Police Responsible for Misconduct. When a police officer is accused of or found responsible for misconduct, there are many protections in place to reduce the consequences for that person — protections that ordinary people do not enjoy. The use of paid administrative leave for cops under investigation must be immediately suspended, and police officers need to be held liable for settlements that result from civil litigation. New York City — meaning, NYC taxpayers — paid nearly $69 million in misconduct settlements in 2019 from over 1,000 lawsuits filed against the NYPD for excessive use of force, wrongful arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution and more. This is a staggering figure that does not even include the untold costs of out-of-court settlements. Why should the residents of this city bail out bad cops for the crimes they perpetrate against us? Furthermore, police officers who have been found guilty of gross misconduct such as excessive force should not receive their pensions, and should not be rehired. Until there are consequences for misconduct, how can we expect police to refrain from committing it?
  • Demilitarizing the NYPD. The “warrior cop” mentality is pervasive among police forces across the country, as is clearly evident from the ways in which police have been deployed to manage recent protests. Via the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, police departments can acquire military equipment, such as tanks (the NYPD has gotten their hands on two mortar carriers through the program), militarized aircraft, grenade launchers, and more. The NYPD must return any military equipment, withdraw participation in militarization programs, and cap overtime accrual and OT pay for military exercises (as it stands now, the NYPD is expected to overshoot its overtime budget by $400 million this year). Police who see residents of their city as enemies against whom they’re waging some kind of war can never be expected to protect and serve the same population.
  • Reducing the Number of Police Officers. The NYPD is the largest police force in the country, and it continues to grow, with over 1500 additional uniformed officer positions added in the last ten years. Over the last 30 years, crime in the city has dramatically decreased. Yet we still have about 36,000 cops on the payroll, which Mayor DeBlasio says is the “right number…for all the things we’re asking officers to do now, which is much more about day-to-day quality of life.” But that’s part of the problem — cops are expected to perform functions for which they’re not trained. We need to reduce the number of police officers and end all police contracts with social services, schools, and government agencies providing care, then reinvest the funding for their salaries into community services and personnel better suited for these duties.
  • Disempowering Police Unions. There are five police unions in New York City, and they have a completely outsized power over the way the NYPD is run, and entirely too much influence in local politics. These organizations are “run mostly by white conservatives who live in the suburbs”, and they consistently stand in opposition to change and police reform, as evidenced by their outrage over a recent chokehold ban. We need to take away their power by giving them less control over disciplinary efforts, and make union contract negotiations public, so that the residents of this city can see the terms.
  • Discontinuing Police Surveillance of NYC Residents. As the New York Times writes, the NYPD “has one of the country’s most sophisticated surveillance and crime-solving tool kits, with license plate readers, cellphone trackers, drones and facial-recognition software, among other technologies,” much of which they try to hide from the public. These resources can become weapons in the hands of law enforcement, especially among communities that are already overpoliced. The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act passed by City Council back in June compels law enforcement to release information about the surveillance tools they use, but we need to go farther. We need to end police contracts with private companies that provide surveillance services and prohibit the development and implementation of any in-house systems. The NYPD must also discontinue its use of CompStat, the statistical tool they use to track crime statistics and police activity across the city, which has led “directly to abusive police practices in communities of color.”

Redirect money from the NYPD into neglected city services for New Yorkers, and invest in community programs proven to reduce crime

The police and prison system does not work to reduce crime, but thoughtful community services and interventions do. Community organizations foster meaningful relationships and positive engagement, which in turn has been proven to lower crime rates. Abolishing police is not possible without also investing in youth, housing, substance abuse treatment, healthcare and new approaches to conflict resolution. New York City could spend the money we currently give to the NYPD to support:

Existing city agencies already do a tremendous job helping fulfill New Yorker’s needs. If “broken windows” beget crime, let’s get to work fixing those proverbial windows.

  • Parks: High quality public space is more important now than ever. The Parks Department has been crucial to the city’s low COVID-19 case rates, and yet their budget is being cut. With more Parks Department staff we could keep our parks cleaner and maintain a higher level of safe, outdoor, public programming. We could also keep public bathrooms within parks cleaner and open for longer hours, making this important resource better and more accessible to all New Yorkers.
  • Sanitation: Rather than relying on police to “clean up the streets,” we could instead invest more in the workers who actually make New York clean, Sanitation workers. New York’s trash pick-up system has been put under incredible strain during the pandemic and residents are still contending with reduced pick-ups. The city has an opportunity to be a leader in recycling and composting but has not, largely due to lack of investment and attention. By hiring sanitation workers rather than police, New York can move into a cleaner and greener future.
  • Education: New York is currently facing a teacher shortage, and yet education budgets are being cut across the state. Few things are as important as the future of our city’s children, and teachers play a central role in their development. By hiring and keeping more teachers, students would have smaller class sizes and more individual attention.
  • Transportation: For only a fraction of the police budget, New Yorkers could have access to a vastly improved transit system. The MTA estimated that fare free buses during COVID cost only about $150m and helped riders and drivers stay safe. Even in a normal year, fare free citywide buses would cost less than ⅓ of the NYPD’s annual budget, about $2b. In addition to being a lifeline for school children, older adults, and low-income New Yorkers, this would help speed up most bus lines, helping to create a system that everyone can be proud of.

Empowering the community through community accountability programs and community care governance

Everyday, 2.3 million people are stuck in overcrowded prisons, facing inhumane conditions, offered only limited opportunities for transformation, and forever burdened by the lifelong collateral consequences of their prison time. The prison industrial complex is yet another apparatus of the state that is broken and beyond reform. Abolishing police involves abolishing all structures of violence — including prisons.

True transformative justice requires preventing future crime by addressing the root causes of lawbreaking itself, such as substance abuse, lack of healthcare, poverty, and homelessness. If policy makers are really interested in preventing crime, it is essential that they start looking at effective alternatives to incarceration, such as community-based treatment programs and other solutions rooted in restorative justice.

Non-carceral alternatives to prison such as intervention programs can do much more than incarceration can to ensure public safety, and often at a much lower cost. For example:

  • The successful Iowa domestic violence prevention pilot-program called Achieving Change Through Values-Based Behavior program (ACTV) led to a 50% reduction in reoffending compared to the previously existing program created by the Department of Corrections. The difference is that it is a specifically designed program, aimed at skill-based education, identifying what an offender values in their life and using their experiences to build healthier relationships with their partners. And of course the major distinction is that the ACTV program is an alternative to incarceration, not just a mandatory, inadequately designed, addition to incarceration.

Furthermore, an important and keystone initiative towards ending recidivism will need to focus on intervention programs targeted at youth to prevent the increased likelihood of reoffending. Such programs have already been implemented in some states and the results speak for themselves:

  • A summer youth employment program in Boston reduced charges for violent crime by 35%;
  • The mentoring program Becoming a Man, which uses cognitive behavioral therapy to reduce impulsive decisions among youth, reduced violent crime arrests by half; and
  • The youth mentoring program Choose to Change (C2C): Your Mind, Your Game uses trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at addressing past trauma and developing a new set of individual decision-making tools, reduced arrests by 50%;
  • Right here in New York, Avenues for Justice, shows us that we can avoid juvenile detention for our youth and instead redirect offenders to community based organizations, dedicated to counseling, training, education and employment assistance and thus see 90% of program graduates staying out of prison for life. The State cost is over $353,000 a year to put a youth in a New York Juvenile Detention Center, but only $5000 to keep a youth in AFJ.

According to a 2016 survey of survivors of violence conducted by the Alliance on Safety and Justice, most victims of violence in fact desire violence prevention, not incarceration, for their offender.Policy makers cannot ignore the voices of victims who they purportedly legislate to protect. We should invest in restorative justice programs that bring the victim and perpetrator together, along with trained mediators, to repair harm, achieve true justice and engage solutions that are focused on violence prevention. This can be a private discussion or involve the community. Outcomes can include:

  • Community service
  • Restitution
  • Commitments to attend school and work
  • Enrollment in non-coercive drug and alcohol treatment programs
  • Mental health treatment programs, and
  • Specific youth programs and/or violence intervention programs.

Currently, the justice system’s primary response to crime is mass incarceration. We should no longer be reactive, and rather be proactive by redirecting our attention to crime prevention and investing in the health and welfare of our communities and the aforementioned initiatives, which aim to actually, and legitimately, make a significant and long-term impact on reducing crime. Incarceration has been successful only in profiting corporate networks as well as inflicting irreparable mental and physical harm on individuals, families, and communities. Incarceration has simply failed in improving public safety and must be dismantled and abolished. Investing in communities and community programs — rather than billions in law enforcement — means that we address our actual goal, which is to make our communities safer for all.

We, as a community, we can start this process of proactively addressing crime prevention by investing our energies into community care governance through:

  • Community Watch Committees
  • Violence Interrupters
  • Establishing Neighborhood Councils as representative bodies within municipal decision making
  • Organizing ourselves into Tenant Unions
  • Becoming members of Labor Unions, and
  • Creating Small Business Networks and Street Vendor Networks.

Thereby, organically creating local “safety structures” grounded in, and focused on, communal safety and well-being. In fact, the implementation of such community safety measures have already resulted in substantial decreases in crime, specifically right here in New York City.