Abolish — and Restart!

“I believe that abolishment of a police agency which does not perform in their community’s overall interest is a logical step forward.”

One of the cries coming out of the protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was “to abolish the police as we know it.”

I have long argued for police reform — for the continuous improvement of its methods — raising the standard for using deadly force, developing a system and style of policing that is truly community-oriented, raising up leaders who can creatively think beyond the status quo and grow young officers, and putting real-time “customer feedback” into operation.

But now I have to admit that, given what I know about reform efforts during the past sixty years, they all have failed miserably.

How does this happen, year after year, cry after cry? What prevents reform from ever taking place is the power of the police subculture, its self-serving protectionism, resistance, distain of community input, cantankerous police unionism, “old school” training officers, and the need to maintain white supremacy. These roadblocks have always countered any effort by a community to significantly improve their police. Their hope is not unrealistic. They simply want police who are fair, equitable, emotionally intelligent, and law-observing.

That is why I think more today about the abolishment argument; that we need to stop, disband, and start with a new kind of police. We need to create organizations that truly serve the public’s interest; that is, staffed by police who are educated, well-trained, open to feedback, willing to be accountable, representative of those they serve, controlled in their use of force, and serve as paradigms of our foundational values.

Impossible? Stay with me. If a free, diverse, and democratic society such as ours is to work in the interest of ALL of us, I believe that abolishment of a police agency which does not perform in their community’s overall interest is a logical step forward.

Abolishment is not a new idea. It happened, for example, in the field of medicine and other occupations we call “professional.” Barbers once performed minor surgeries until organized physician groups had laws passed which limited barbers to cutting hair and shaving faces. These new “professionals,” physicians, organized and made sure the practice of medicine required specific education, training, residency, and licensing to be able to practice their craft.

The same could happen today with police. A group of organized practitioners who identify themselves “professional” and their supporters could lobby for new laws regulating who can practice policing; level of education, training, licensing, and oversight by a board of peers.

To accomplish this will take great courage and an unyielding persistence along with deep passion for what policing should be in our society.

How do we begin? It starts by encouraging community leaders to re-think the police function. For example, in 1969, a young city manager, Patrick McInnis, in the newly-established and growing community of Burnsville, Minnesota, asked me to be their Director of Public Safety. He wanted to create a new organization of professional public safety officers to perform both police and fire fighting functions.

In response, I outlined what i would do to make this happen. It was, essentially, a bold move to abolish policing as we both knew it; he as a young manager and I as a cop with experience in a big city.

We both knew we had to abolish the old and bring in the new. Those years, with civil rights and anti-war protests, were also times of turmoil and crisis. What we did then was more than reform, it was to re-start — to abolish the old way.

It was a way in which we outlined a new way forward, asked for a commitment from current police to join in, cast our vision, and replaced those who left with new officers. After a few years, everyone began to see themselves as the “new breed” — Public Safety Officers.

Those who stayed were trained in both police and fire duties, new officers must hold a 4-year college degree, all must be community-oriented, fair, respectful to everyone, and wear “non-military” uniforms.

Some years later, police and fire functions were separated into two separate organizations and the non-military uniforms turned into the popular military style we see today. But some things stuck over the past 50 years.

The baccalaureate degree requirement remained. Burnsville is one of the few (1% ) police agencies in our nation which requires a 4-year degree for entry. Secondly, a new, community-oriented attitude (culture) was created. Police in Burnsville continued to see themselves as a high-quality, community-oriented, professional police department; an organization committed to service above self. Those two ideas from the first experiment remain today.

It began with “thinking outside the box” and the courage to experiment with the function of public safety — to abolish the old ways.

It can happen again today.