Marijuana legalization advocates and members of community groups attend a rally against marijuana arrests in front of One Police Plaza on June 13, 2012 in New York City. The New York City Council is set to vote on a resolution that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view. Image: Getty Images
EDITOR’S NOTE: In spite of a massive community push to defund the San Antonio Police Department in the City budget to move more funds into social services, San Antonio’s City Council actually increased the police budget by $8 million for the 2020-2021 Fiscal Year. But a pair of petitions from Fix SAPD would allow a public vote on sections of the Police Union’s contract to deliver more police accountability. Listen to Deceleration’s interview with Fix SAPD Board Member Ananda Tomas on the power the petitions. Give the gift of police accountability to San Antonio this holiday season. Donate now.
Major structural changes — such as the legalization of all drugs and an emphasis on community justice — are needed to create a police-free world.
The police, the prison-industrial complex and the criminal justice system help to form our understanding of what society is. For this reason, imagining a world without these institutions is difficult, not least because they have been framed as essential to progress; in the meantime, those who seek a police-free existence are dismissed as naïve. This world would be based on two core principles: authentic safety and eradication of shame. These principles are guided by two important structural changes: the first is the legalization of all drugs and the second an emphasis on community justice. Survivors of violence, particularly women, are a priority.
In the United States, 46.2 percent of prison inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses; non-white, particularly Black people, are statistically more likely to be punished. While this particularly afflicts the United States, it is also a truth throughout Western society. For instance, police in New South Wales target Indigenous people for minor drug offenses at a far higher rate than non-Indigenous Australians, and 80 percent of Indigenous youth found with drugs are pursued through the courts, as compared to 52 percent of non-Indigenous people. The result is a far higher proportion of Indigenous people prosecuted for minor drug offenses.
To make policing obsolete, we must eliminate certain crimes. Decriminalizing drug use has the power to positively transform society.
Funds would be channeled away from the police and diverted into safely distributing drugs through pharmacies, prescriptions or licensed suppliers. Equally, there would be significantly increased funding for rehabilitation, addiction and mental health initiatives — an important result being the combating of shame and stigma surrounding addiction.
The final stage in this transformative process is rectifying the criminality of those previously or currently incarcerated on any drug-related charge. Granting amnesty or exoneration to those with drug records ensures that they do not face the social punishment of being denied housing, jobs or stability because of the stigma of a criminal record.
Legalizing drugs eliminates both the crime of possession and the crime of supply. This is important as safety concerns are one of the arguments used against legalization of drugs. In our police-free vision of authentic safety, legally supplying drugs eliminates the black market and its associated violence. It also eliminates powders and pills whose exact contents are difficult to verify and potentially lethal.
In Western culture, we glorify drinking. It is looked on with fondness as a mostly harmless activity, with underage alcohol consumption woven into our cultural fabric with nostalgia. But which, ultimately, is more dangerous, someone taking an ecstasy pill supplied to them by a regulated, licensed supplier, or a 15-year-old drinking an entire bottle of vodka in a field? Legalization encourages the cognitive shift that ends the mass imprisonment of people for drug offenses while helping prevent avoidable deaths. That should be, always, our society’s greatest priority.
In 2014, the Guardian conducted a survey about drug use. Of the people surveyed who had tried illegal drugs, 69 percent tried them out of curiosity. While one of the arguments against legalization is that it will encourage increased usage, these statistics provide an important counter-argument, because people who are curious about trying drugs will always try drugs. It does not matter if they are legal or illegal, people will always access drugs and when that happens, it is society’s vulnerable who bear the brunt of the punishment.
Drug legalization is the first pillar of our world without policing. Our second replaces the police with democratic community leadership, designed to support victims of violent crime.
Switching emphasis from policing to community, emphasizes survivor-oriented justice with a focus on women and marginalized genders. Women are not protected by the police. It is a grim reality that police are often unable or unwilling to deal with cases of sexual assault and domestic violence, so reporting violence of this nature is often traumatizing.
Domestic abuse inflicted by police officers often suffers no consequence, and investigations are infringed. In Florida, for example, the New York Times found that 30 percent of the officers accused of domestic violence still had jobs in the same agencies a year later.
A similarly universal issue is violence against sex workers. A 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that globally, police officers often fail to register violence against sex workers. Not only that, this violence is also committed by police along with verbal threats of abuse. Current prosecution also places the perpetrator as its center of concern, and the end goal is narrow: jail time. In this process, the needs of the victim fall into shadow.
This year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that of the 140,000 sexual assaults reported to police between 2007 and 2017, 12,000 were dismissed because police didn’t believe the victim. Also, 25 percent of cases were “resolved” with no legal action — while one out of five sexual assault reports are withdrawn by the survivor.
The policing of sexual assault actively fails survivors. The answer is not more or “better” policing, it is a shift in how we approach violent crime. Replacing the police with community leadership would entail teams primarily consisting of women, with emphasis on those who have experienced police neglect in similar situations. They would be first responders for victims of violent crime, with the core priority being health and well-being rather than recounting traumatic details. This survivor-oriented mentality is focused on immediate nurturing and support, whether that is medical, therapeutic or shelter-based.
In a system like this, the decision to legally pursue a perpetrator would involve discussion with the survivor. Crucially, it is not good enough to simply create an all-woman-police force, as women can perpetrate racism, homophobia and transphobia. Instead, the emphasis is on collaboration where, should they seek punitive justice, victims could have a role in deciding reasonable punishment. Rather than jail time, it may be more therapeutic (and potentially beneficial to society) to instead have an assailant banned from holding certain community or business positions. Restorative justice would also be emphasized, taking the form of sharing and sentencing circles, community reparations discussions and “restorative discipline in educational settings.”
Sexual assaults are most often inflicted by someone who the victim knows. Railing against shame around having been assaulted or abused, allows the victim to speak up against their perpetrator.
The voice of the survivor is then able to play a key role in reducing the level of violence in our society. Voicing individual experiences in a community setting allows others to share, while simultaneously preventing powerful people from acting without consequence. Our existence is already over-policed — yet women are still afraid to walk alone in the dark. They have reason to be. On the issue of women’s safety, it is abundantly clear that we need alternatives.
Both pillars explored above emphasize community accountability and cooperation, by making safety everyone’s concern, everyone’s responsibility. The goal, ultimately, is using these practices to dismantle institutional prejudices and the systems that encourage them to flourish. This world would be an anti-capitalist one, a community-oriented one, an empowered one, and there can be no police in that.
This essay first appeared in Waging Nonviolence.