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.

11 Comments

    1. Scott, The criteria is whether or not a police agency serves the interests of all citizens whom they serve. It’s up to the community to decide. That’s why we have the protests we do today and why we need to have such a discussion. From what I am hearing, many citizens of color feel their police do not serve them. So we need to have a deep discussion in many cities about this.

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      1. I think that the calls to abolish the police are not legitimate. There always exists some type of call for police reform. Yet 4-5 months ago there wasn’t this demand for police reform and there certainly wasn’t a call for abolishing police. So then the question is what is driving this and what are the true motives.

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      2. What does the community want? All of the community. This includes the people who historically are not vocal and support the police.

        Justin Nix PHd tweeted (https://twitter.com/jnixy/status/1293891268704120838?s=21) a survey on police that shows that the public has good regard for the police. This is surprising seeing that the police are beat up daily in social media and by the news media. All the major news stations show snippets of video where the police are at their worst day after day. I don’t know how the public can see this and reach an unbiased or favorable conclusion while not seeing all the good things that the police do day in and day out.

        It is dangerous to react to that small and loud group demanding for abolishing the police when there is no other evidence supporting it.

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      3. That’s true. Overall trust in and support of the police is quite high. The problem is that the groups of people who have the most contact (people of color) do not rate the police high in terms of trust and support. It is a demographic that needs to be addressed and why we have such disruption in many of our cities. Having been a cop for 33 years, I know they are capable of much better, fairer, and more equitable work; that is, protecting and serving all of us.

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      4. I’m closing in on your tenure. You have me by 4 years in policing.

        My point is that asking for the abolition of the police is absurd. The measure that the citizens support the police supports that abolition of policing is a fringe illegitimate idea.

        Police leaders, academics, and politicians shouldn’t stand by and let a small group with an anti-America agenda advance the police abolition rhetoric.

        It is a disservice to the community because we know that the Police and policing is an important function to the Safety, Health, and Vitality of a community or neighborhood.

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  1. Chief, as always you bring a sensible and honest perspective to the conversation. I agree with you that professional organizations have always undergone reforms and moves to further “professionalize.” You correctly ask the question that I and many others have asked: Why do so many promised reforms across decades fail? Why do communities of color still suffer so many indignities and higher rates of abuse? Every decade or so, comes another upheaval, an event that shocks the conscience of the country. Law enforcement expresses regret, assures the public the behavior is an aberration, and promises to do better (reform). It is no wonder the public becomes frustrated, and communities of color do not trust us. One of the things I’ve warned my police peers is that after these incidents, we can either change ourselves willingly or the change will be forced upon us–and we will not like that option. Seems in 2020, we have finally arrived at that juncture. And yet, daily, there continues to be active resistance to change our culture and truly embrace accountability and a new (better) way of doing business. If a law enforcement agency defies public outrage, they might have to be abolished. If that happens, we have only ourselves to blame.

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    1. Yes, you are so right. I think of our old street strategy with disorderly folks — “Well, we can either do this the easy way (comply) or the hard way. Your choice.” It seems many police leaders are not going to take the “easy way” and, instead, resist. Eventually, you and I both know, the community will win. And when it does without police participation, forced laws with no police input or abolishment will soon follow. The collective response I see greatly puzzles me. Why not fix this?

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