The riots: We need to reform the police. Should we abolish them?

The need for police reform

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day has sparked, among other things, a much needed debate on policing in the United States. It is not being ‘anti-police’ to point out that encounters between police officers and civilians end in death much more frequently in the U.S. than they do in other comparably rich countries. Out of 57 countries for which numbers are available, the U.S. ranks 4th on GDP per capita, sandwiched between Norway and Hong Kong. But on killings by law enforcement officers per 10 million people, the U.S. ranks 20th, between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq. Our rate of 46.6 killings by law enforcement officers per 10 million people compares with 1.9 in Norway and 1.3 in Hong Kong. The police exist to protect the public and it would appear that there is room for improvement.

There are things we can do. Experience and research shows, among other things, that more restrictive state and local policies governing police use of force are associated with significantly lower rates of police shootings/killings by police; that police departments that get more military weapons from the federal government kill more people; and that cities with worse police union contracts – in terms of purging misconduct records and reinstating fired officers, for example – have higher police violence rates. These are the beginnings of a practical agenda for police reform.

One solution: abolishing the police?

One of the greatest threats to this practical agenda are those, like Minneapolis city council, who want to respond to the death of George Floyd by abolishing the police. On Sunday, Fox 9 reports:

Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council announced their support for de-funding the Minneapolis Police Department and replacing it with a community-based public safety model at a rally in Powderhorn Park Sunday afternoon. 

At the end of the rally, the councilmembers and some community activists committed to ending the Minneapolis Police Department through the budget process. The group also announced its intention to engage every willing community member to ask what safety means to them and create a “new transformative model for cultivating safety.”

Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender, Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, and Council Members Alondra Cano, Jeremiah Ellison, Steve Fletcher, Cam Gordon and Jeremy Schroeder joined activists from Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block for the announcement.

With the support of the nine councilmembers, they have created a veto-proof supermajority in support of disbanding the police department.

Bender went on to say she and the eight other councilmembers that joined the rally are committed to ending the city’s relationship with the police force and “to end policing as we know it and recreate systems that actually keep us safe.”

Councilmember Ellison said frankly, “This council is going to dismantle this police department.” 

Similarly, Councilmember Cano said the council would “abolish the Minneapolis Police system as we know it.” 

The council might not get its way

The nine votes constitute a supermajority, which means it can override any veto from Frey. Even so, abolition of the police might still not happen. Fox 9 reports that:

…to make significant changes to the department or funding for the department, they will likely need a public vote to change the charter.

And, with violent crime rising in the city last year, a poll found that, far from abolishing the police, 63% of Minneapolis residents support expanding the city’s police force to 850 patrol officers by 2025. According to Fox 9:

Along racial lines, 61 percent of white residents supported the expansion and 65 percent of people of color did the same.

In addition to the department expansion results, the survey showed 42 percent of residents believe crime in Minneapolis is a serious problem, with 41 percent believing there is more crime in the city now than a few years ago.

Concerns over crime in Minneapolis are especially high among people of color, with 54 percent saying it is a major problem. 49 percent of people of color say there is more crime now than in recent years.

Most Minneapolitans added that they feel safer in the presence of police officers (65 percent), which includes 59 percent of people of color and 69 percent of white residents.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.