In 2016 alone, the Washington Post counts nearly 800 instances of fatal police shootings. Although most of these victims were white, when adjusted for U.S. population, Black people are 2.5 times as likely to be shot and killed by the police.
Confronted by such perilous odds, activists across the nation have lost faith in the criminal justice system. Nearly 80 percent of Black Americans surveyed in 2014 by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion perceived problems with the justice system due to race. Some have turned to a radical solution: Don’t bother reforming the police. Abolish them.
And yes, it is imperative to ask if this police free world can actually exist, but it is equally important to realize it’s not as unfathomable as it may sound. In fact, the ubiquitous “modern,” professional police forces were born in the 19th century with the creation of the Metropolitan Police of London. Previously, nations often relied on their military, government-appointed authorities, volunteers or privately-funded watchmen to keep the peace.
So a police-free society is not unprecedented, and to supporters of alternative justice systems, nor is it unimaginable in a modern society. According to Erica Meiners, a professor of Justice Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, not only are there viable alternatives to the American punitive justice system, the alternatives are more effective.
“The system we have right now… it’s built exactly as we planned it, but it’s not delivering public safety,” Meiners said. “Locking people away just warehouses the problem.”
For some, the better solution is transformative justice, a method which forgoes police or prisons and instead seeks to “transform” victims, offenders and communities. In addition to restitution, this process aims to improve the wellbeing of all parties involved, and addresses systemic factors contributing to injustice.
Transformative justice requires society to stop assuming crime is inherently harmful, Meiners said. Oppressive ideologies such as racism, toxic gender roles and heteronormativity need to be dismantled to actually address some of the factors causing people to commit offense, or to believe police-intervention effectively resolves those offenses.
“We need to dismantle and work on chipping away at the systems that condition us to call 911 when there’s too much noise in the neighborhood,” she said.
Undoing those systems, however, means completely reimagining justice. Americans equate justice with punishment, but police intervention and punitive measures do not increase public safety in the long term, Meiners said. A more effective mechanism is tackling the systemic and social factors that cause crimes to occur. Rather than investing in prisons or arming the police, Meiners suggests funding mental health care programs, affordable housing and quality education to better remove people from situations that could cause them to commit a crime.
But destroying these forms of oppression can’t happen overnight. Alternative forms of justice don’t have a static formula and their implementations varies in each situation. Furthermore, communities who begin using these mechanisms may not succeed every time.
“It’s an ongoing process, it’s not a finish line,” she said. “The work is to shift paradigms, not to come up with solutions to 110 scenarios.”
Police-free justice is a complex process that yields mixed results. In a 2014 edition of the academic journal Social Justice, California State University-Long Beach professor Mimi E. Kim examined the results of a real-life scenario where a Korean community center eschewed police-intervention to address a sexual assault in their community.
When a visiting drumming teacher assaulted a student, community members assembled to confront the teacher directly. They demanded he step down from his position and attend feminist therapy sessions. Meanwhile, center members attended sexual assault awareness workshops, and held a drum performance centered around healing from sexual violence. During this event, facts about the assailant and his offence were shared publically to ensure that blame for the incident did not fall on the victim.
Although the Korean drumming community was able to unify to address the assault, the results of their actions were less than satisfactory, Kim wrote Following the incident, the community’s cohesiveness wavered, and the victim lacked a “sense of justice.”
“The victim even felt at some point, ‘maybe we should’ve just kicked his ass. Now, I feel like I’ve got nothing. I don’t have the police report. We didn’t throw him into jail…. We didn’t do nothing,’” said the drum center’s president, identified only as “Liz” by Kim.
This incident demonstrates one truth of transformative justice: it is a proactive process. Dismantling toxic systems will take time, and in the interim, offences will continue. During this period, other options must be employed, such as in the case of the community center. Such methods might include restorative justice, a revitalization of pre-modern peacekeeping requiring both the atonement of the offender and participation of the victim in deciding a resolution to the offense.
The resolution may be decided in a “peacemaking circle,” wherein community members, the victim and offender communicate to decide how the offender will atone for their crime. According to lawyer and restorative justice advocate Ora Schub, this practice has roots in historical, indigenous conflict-resolution practices.
Although indigenous groups of the past may not have experienced the variety of crime seen in the U.S.—from misdemeanors, to white collar crimes or mass shootings—restorative justice is nonetheless successful in achieving justice in a variety of situations. When the offender is forced to acknowledge the person or community they have harmed, and the affected parties decide how justice is achieved, they are more likely to feel satisfied with the results, she said.
Although restorative justice is already being used on a small scale, it is not a common practice, and Schub is not totally confident that police abolition is possible. For her, the problem lies not in the power of alternative justice methods or in getting communities to adopt them, but with police themselves.
“Police enforce the laws of society,” Schub said. “I don’t see the people in control giving that up.”