Police debate: Reform

This article was prepared as an entry in the debate on the police question for the Winter 2021 issue of The Activist.

Prompt: Whenever and wherever there is police brutality, socialists must stand beside the people who resist. But how do we go from protests to political change? Do we want an end to police violence or to policing itself? What should our slogan be, how do we convince others, and when will we know if we’ve succeeded? The following short articles represent distinct positions on “the policing question,” and we hope they will help you clarify your own thoughts.


There is a relatively new narrative gaining popularity on the Left. Many of us seem to be under the impression that police reform is totally ineffectual. Pursuing it is therefore more of a waste of time than a step in the right direction. But is this true?

Well, not quite. Deescalation training, for example, has been shown to reduce police use of force (Center for Police Research and Policy, “Examining the Impact of … De-escalation,” 2020). But academies tend to favor the “military model” of instruction, which trains officers as if they are soldiers heading into battle. Changing police training to instead prioritize social work and crisis intervention could go a long way toward making cops less violent.

But some insist that we should just get rid of the police altogether. And we should take these people seriously. Indeed, police abolition is a fruitful intellectual exercise. It encourages us to think critically and look beyond the confines of our current political reality. But abolitionism’s biggest strength may also be its fatal downfall: It is too imaginative, and thereby fails to adequately address the problem of violent crime.

Abolitionists tend to roll their eyes when this point gets made. But they have yet to offer a satisfying response. In his book The End of Policing, Alex Vitale expresses intense skepticism that police are limiting crime to any significant degree. Arthur Waskow, quoted in Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, voices a similar sentiment. He claims that “having no alternative [to incarceration] would create less crime” than the present order. To synthesize these two views, all else equal, getting rid of police and prisons would increase safety.

But this defies so much of the established criminological literature. Studies have shown that the mere presence of cops on the beat reduces violence. Yale professor Phillip Atiba Goff is no conservative. And yet, by way of unprecedented data collection through his Center for Policing Equity, Goff found strong evidence that police responsiveness causes violent crime to decrease (“Perspectives on Policing,” 2021).

Policing does, in fact, deter would-be criminals. But it is not the ideal approach to crime reduction — especially from a socialist perspective. What really steers people away from criminal activity is meeting their material needs.

Providing housing to the homeless has been shown to reduce crime precipitously. Increasing access to robust mental health services has a similar effect (“A cure for crime,” Cueller et al., 2006). Any serious approach to tackling crime must directly address the criminogenic features of society: poverty, despair, underemployment, and so on.

This is a long-term project that need not involve police in any capacity. But, as we work to strengthen social programs, there are steps we can take to make cops less brutal. We could start by signing into law Senator Bernie Sanders’s proposed legislation to end qualified immunity. Those tasked with enforcing the law cannot be allowed to live above it.

In addition to the law, police should also be held accountable to those whom they swear an oath to protect. The late former Mayor of New York City and DSA member David Dinkins fought for a civilian oversight committee as a check on the undue power of the NYPD. And, in 1993, he got his wish. Socialists across the country should follow Dinkins’s example.