Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to 3/13 on Police Abolition

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Abolish the police. #DefundNYPD. #AbolishICE.

Never before has the country been engaged in such a genuine conversation about abolishing police departments. Of course, there were earlier flashpoints that raised serious challenges to the police—in the wake of the Rodney King beating, for instance, especially after the acquittal there, or in the wake of the Selma March, or the DNC convention in Chicago in 1968, or further back still. There has been protest against the police; but not until now has there been a national debate over abolishing the police. As Amna Akbar correctly observes, “The nationwide protests catapulted abolition into the mainstream and, in the process, unsettled the intellectual foundations of police reform discourse.”[1]

The previous wave of police killings in 2014—of Eric Garner, of Michael Brown, of Laquan McDonald, of Tamir Rice, of Walter Scott, of Philando Castile, of Tanisha Anderson—gave rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The most recent wave of police killings and shootings—of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, of Carlos Ingram-Lopez, of Jacob Blake and so many other persons of color—has prompted an unprecedented questioning about the very existence of policing.

Four Positions

The raging debate over the future of policing has crystalized around four major positions:

  1. Law-and-order: one camp defends the police at all cost. This conservative law-and-order view does not admit any systemic racism in policing. When confronted with police shootings, people in this camp will occasionally accept that there may be a few bad apple police officers, but that they are rare and exceptional, and can be addressed through criminal prosecution. This position includes the police unions, Donald Trump, etc. This is basically the view of the Republican Party.
  2. Mainstream police reform: this camp believes that we need to continue doing what we have been doing for the past decade: more sensitivity training, more implicit bias training, more diversity in the police force. More of the same, in other words. This is basically the view of centrist Democrats and the Biden campaign.
  3. Progressive reimagining and strong reform: this group wants to hold on to a police function, but rethink its scope so as to limit it to its essentials. This camp believes that the police have taken on too many responsibilities and that they need to be trimmed and refocused on what their core function should be. I have in mind thinkers like Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler.
  4. Abolitionists: then there is a camp that wants to imagine a society without police. Amna Akbar, Derecka Purnell, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Rachel Herzing are some of the leading thinkers here. Alex Vitale as well, in effect, although he does not label himself as an abolitionist and sees some value to real police reform.

Now, there is no point in debating the law-and-order apologists. We’ve been doing that for decades and it is getting nowhere. If you do not see systemic racism in policing today, tied to the long legacy of racial injustice in this country, then there is no common ground to discuss reform or abolition.

I would also argue that there is little point continuing with the kinds of incremental reforms we have been doing. Here, Alex Vitale is correct. As he argued in The End of Policing, we’ve tried all these implicit-bias trainings and diversity efforts, procedural reforms, community policing, etc., and they have made no real dent on the problem. As Vitale shows, most of these reforms have little effect and “fail to deal with the fundamental problems inherent in policing.”[2] As everyone today acknowledges, Minneapolis was a model of police reform, and that did not prevent the brutal police killing of George Floyd.

So the only two viable positions are limiting the police or abolishing it.

Limiting vs. Abolishing the Police

Among progressives, the debate has pitted strong reform advocates against abolitionists. The main cleavage has been between those who want to limit the way that the police operate and those who want to abolish the police function entirely. As Jocelyn Simonson writes, “The relationship between abolition (as the goal) and reform (as a means to an end) remains a live debate. Many continue to endorse what Wilson Gilmore calls ‘non-reformist reforms’—in other words, reforms that shrink the carceral system and thus continue to move us incrementally, in the words of abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba, ‘toward the horizon of abolition.’”[3] Simonson catalogues the type of non-reformist reforms that most progressives can agree on: “abolishing solitary confinement and capital punishment; moratoriums on prison construction or expansion; freeing survivors of physical and sexual violence, the elderly, infirm, juveniles, and all political prisoners; sentencing reform; ending cash bail; abolishing electronic monitoring, broken windows policing, and the criminalization of poverty; and a federal jobs and homes guarantee for the formerly incarcerated.”[4]

#Defund the Police

The call to #Defund the police has served as a safe space among progressives. Advocates across the Left have been able to rally around the term, in large part because of a certain ambiguity surrounding the term “defund.”

Some progressives have embraced the expression “defund” as a way to partially cut police budgets. So, for instance, in New York City, a #defund movement succeeded (without really pleasing anyone) in reducing NYPD’s $6 billion dollar budget by $1 billion.[5]

Abolitionists, by contrast, interpret the term “defund” to mean the complete defunding of the police. By “defunding the police,” Mariame Kaba explains in the pages of the New York Times, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.”[6] But even here, Kaba too is prepared to compromise, and argues for a first step of a 50% reduction in police budgets.

The fact that the term can be interpreted in these different ways has helped turn it into a more widespread and common rallying cry.

But the truth is, it does more to mask than to clarify the terms of the debate.

What it masks is the critical point that separates reformers from abolitionists, namely whether there is any core remaining function for the police once you have stripped away what other agencies might be better able to address.

Progressive Police Reform

This is where the progressive movement to reform the police begins. It starts from what it believes to be common sense: some kind of policing is inevitably going to be necessary in society. It begins from this realist premise and then, typically, proceeds in an instrumental public policy direction.

Deploying a traditional systems analysis approach, police reform usually asks first, or simply sets forth, the acceptable purposes of policing, as well as one or more metrics to measure the achievement of those purposes. So, for instance, Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler take that instrumental approach, asking first, what the police is for, what is its acceptable function, and then turn to evidence-based policy analysis methods to reform policing.

In their editorial in The Atlantic, titled “The First Step Is Figuring Out What Police Are For: For reform to succeed, American communities need to have a conversation about what the purpose of police is, and think hard about what jobs could be better handled by other institutions,” Meares and Tyler argue for a straightforward two-step policy analysis. First, the American people debate and choose the policy ambition: what the police is for. “If America is to move beyond its troubled and conflict-laden relationship with its police,” Meares and Tyler write, “it must have a broader, serious discussion about what democratic policing can and should be. What are police for?” Second, once that is established, the American people, through their representatives and experts, can formulate proper public policy. “Once the country has an improved idea about what policing is for,” they write, “then begins the process of developing evidence-informed policies and practices to carry out that vision.”[7]

One of the things this leads to is trimming the sails of the police function: to delegating some of the present police functions to other institutions, such as the mental health system, the sanitation department, etc.

But the core crime-related policing function remains, on this view, something that the police must do—and therefore, something that must be guided by empirically-based research methods.

Community or Democratic Control of the Police

One Solomonic approach that negotiates the space between progressive reform and abolition—and itself has more reformist (e.g., Josh Kleinfeld) and more abolitionist proponents (e.g., Jocelyn Simonson)—involves creating greater or total democratic or community control of policing, or accountability. The propositions vary widely from granting total control over policing to select communities (such as those who have been adversely affected by the policing) to increasing civilian oversight of the police (though civilian complaint review boards, for instance).

Jocelyn Simonson theorizes these approaches through what she calls “the power lens.” She seeks to add this dimension of power into the debate, and formulates three philosophical supports for her position: turning the power to decide about policing to the affected communities can be viewed as a form of reparations, an effort at anti-subordination, or a means to promote contestation and agonism in politics.

One question here concerns the notion of power at the heart of the power lens—which, as Michel Foucault and Steven Lukes showed us, is complex. This raises the question of penal populism and the democratic support for punitive practices—as well as older debates from the 1960s over the reproduction of power.[8] It is hard to know how a community or the people will manage the police function. Unless we work on transforming the way that people in general respond to crime statistics and blotters, unless we work on neutralizing the force of Black criminality in this country, it is unlikely that just shifting control over the institution of policing is going to solve our problems.

Abolish the Police

That takes us, then to the position of abolition.

Abolitionists tend to agree on a certain number of key points.

First, they recount the disillusioning history of the waves of reform commissions and reform projects that were implemented with great hopes, but led nowhere. This is, in part, a direct response to police reformers. The point abolitionists underscore is that the American people have had the conversation about what policing is for many times, to no avail.

This long history goes back to at least 1894 with the Lexow Committee that investigated police misconduct in New York City, and runs through the well-known Wickersham Commission in 1931 and the Kerner Commission in 1967, and most recently, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; but as Kaba emphasizes, “These commissions didn’t stop the violence; they just served as a kind of counterinsurgent function each time police violence led to protests.”[9] The most recent Obama Task Force, for instance, recommended piecemeal reforms in the wake of the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, what Kaba calls “procedural tweaks like implicit-bias training, police-community listening sessions, slight alterations of use-of-force policies and systems to identify potentially problematic officers early on.” Many policing reforms had been implemented in Minneapolis, they emphasize, but none of that stopped the ghastly killing of George Floyd.

Second, they trace contemporary police forces and institutions, historically, back to slave patrols in the South and to the control of freed Blacks in the North. Abolitionists emphasize the long legacy of police violence against African-American and Latinx communities. Brandon Hasbrouk does a remarkable job showing exactly how modern policing reflects the badges and incidents of slavery, originally intended to be abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment.[10]

Third, they emphasize that the actual job of the police officer is far different than what we imagine, and far more mundane. Police officers very rarely make felony arrests, most of their time is spent dealing with trivial matters that do not call for an armed response.[11]

Abolitionist thinkers use the term “reform” at times, but in a coded way. They espouse “non-reformist reform.” They speak of reform toward abolition, not reform toward incremental change. As Amna Akbar writes, “Rather than aiming to improve police through better regulation and more resources, reform rooted in an abolitionist horizon aims to contest and then to shrink the role of police, ultimately seeking to transform our political, economic, and social order to achieve broader social provision for human needs.”[12] The idea is that non-reformist reform becomes a means toward abolition, and not an end in itself. Abolitionist thinkers believe, fundamentally, that in the face of violence, as Purnell writes, “Police couldn’t do what we really needed. They could not heal relationships or provide jobs.” [13]

Common and Uncommon Ground

The abolitionist approach converges on the progressive police reform movement in the need to delegate a number of functions of the police to other institutions, such as the mental health system, housing and homeless services, department of sanitation, drug rehab, traffic department, etc. So Kaba notes as well that “We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.” Also, both reformers and abolitionists agree about the need to find alternative paradigms to punitiveness, such as restorative justice models; harm reduction; or other non-punitive approaches.

But in the end, the rub is crime-related policing. That is, ultimately, the sticking point. The ultimate point where there is critical disagreement is whether there remains, at the end of the day, a proper function for the police.

That remainder is conventionally expressed as “maintaining order,” “preventing crime,” or “stopping violence.” The core function of the police that progressives are prepared to recognize is “public safety.” As Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler write in The Atlantic, their “hope is that policing becomes one component of public safety and vitality.”

One approach is to redefine or think more copiously about the meaning of “safety,” so that it includes social welfare and proper education and well-being. This is an approach that the Square One Project at the Justice Lab at Columbia University is taking under the leadership of Professor Bruce Western. The idea here is to reimagine what safety really means—which ultimately pushes us in a very different direction, most often, then policing.

But even here, there often remains one core function for the police: dealing with violence in society. That is where the progressive reformers and abolitionists ultimately diverge.

Abolishing the Police

I would argue that we can do that function better than through the police. We should use violence interrupters, rather than a traditional police force.

The crime investigative function regarding past reported crime does not need to be performed by armed police officers. The only remaining function, then, is stopping violent crime that is taking place. That would be better accomplished by violence interrupters, who bring to bear prevention, intervention, and community-mobilization strategies in order to deescalate and reduce violence. A lot of research has been done on the CeaseFire model—though we need not embrace that particular approach or provider. It does give a good sense of the approach. Its approach is summarized as follows:

CeaseFire’s program theory emphasized three causal factors: norms, decision and risks. Most CPVP staff members came from a public health background, but in a language common in criminal justice, these were three “levers” that could be “pulled” in order to bring a halt to shootings. First, the program aimed at changing operative norms regarding violence, both in the 4 wider community and among its clients. A second goal of CeaseFire was to provide on-the-spot alternatives to violence when gangs and individuals on the street were making behavior decisions. Finally, the program aimed at increasing the perceived risks and costs of involvement in violence among high-risk (largely) young people.”

There are some really good statistics on the efficacy of the Cure Violence model here. According to statistics collected by Cure Violence Global, these programs have been incredibly effective. After the introduction of Cure Violence in the South Bronx, for example, shootings went down by 37% reduction in shooting injuries. (John Jay report). In Chicago, as well, the analyses showed impressive reductions in violence.

The point, though, is not to tout any one program or provider, but to see the promise of this paradigm, as opposed to policing.

It offers a path forward beyond policing.

It pays more respect to harm and violence. As Derecka Purnell writes, “When people dismiss abolitionists for not caring about victims or safety, they tend to forget that we are those victims, those survivors of violence.” [14]

And it is tied to an ethics of coöperation. As Kaba writes, “People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”[15]


[1] Amna Akbar, “An Abolitionist Horizon for (Police) Reform,” California Law Review 108, no. 6 (2020), 102.

[2] Alex Vitale, The End of Policing (New York, Verso, 2017), 4.

[3] Jocelyn Simonson, Police Reform Through a Power Lens, 130 Yale L. J. __ (forthcoming 2021).

[4] Simonson, Police Reform Through a Power Lens. On “non-reformist reforms,” see Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, and Opposition in Globalizing California, 242 (2007); Ruth Wilson Gilmore & Craig Gilmore, Restating the Obvious, in Indefensible Space: The Architecture of the National Insecurity State 141 (Michael Sorkin, ed. 2007); Amna Akbar, “Demands for a Democratic Political Economy,” Harvard Law Review Forum, forthcoming.

[5] Dana Rubinstein and Jeffrey C. Mays, “Nearly $1 Billion Is Shifted From Police in Budget That Pleases No One,” New York Times, June 30, 2020,

[6] Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.”

[7] Meares and Tyler, “The First Step is Figuring Out What Police Are For.”

[8] Harcourt, Critique and Praxis (2020), p. 499-500.

[9] Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.”

[10]Brandon Hasbrouck, “Abolishing Racist Policing With the Thirteenth Amendment,” UCLA Law Review 68 (July 2020),

[11] See, e.g., Alex Vitale, The End of Policing, 31; Mariame Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” (“The first thing to point out is that police officers don’t do what you think they do. They spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, issuing parking and traffic citations, and dealing with other noncriminal issues.”); Jeff Asher and Ben Horwitz, “How Do the Police Actually Spend Their Time?,” New York Times, June 19, 2020,

[12] Amna Akbar, “An Abolitionist Horizon for (Police) Reform,” 106.

[13] Derecka Purnell, “How I Became a Police Abolitionist,” The Atlantic, July 6, 2020,

[14] Derecka Purnell, “How I Became a Police Abolitionist.”

[15] Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police”; Dana Rubinstein, “De Blasio Vows for First Time to Cut Funding for the N.Y.P.D,” New York Times, June 7, 2020,; Dean Spade, Solidarity not Charity: Mutual Aid for mobilization and survival, 142 Social Text 131-33 (March 2020).

Bernard Harcourt