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Dissecting policies and practices, offering solutions informed by scholarship and lived experience.

Overpolicing breaks Black and Brown communities. What can we build instead?

So-called ‘public safety’ practices protect White affluence, making oppression of others ‘justified and reasonable’

A police line tape sticks out of a trash bin at a park in Boston.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

The biggest lie in modern policing is “reasonable suspicion.” If police can express just a little bit of so-called objective reasoning behind why they thought someone might be involved in criminal activity, they can initiate a stop. The smallest details of a person’s behavior are painted in a suspicious light, anecdotes become patterns, and the overpolicing of Black and Brown communities turns those communities into “high-crime neighborhoods.”

This lie reinforces the White supremacist mindset at the heart of policing by selling it as a reasonable response to the desperation of oppressed people. Rather than confront the difficulty of reconciling late capitalism’s cast-offs with the promise of a supposedly egalitarian society, policing demands we think of marginalized people as less worthy, criminally inclined, and dangerous.

White supremacist policing in a purportedly race-neutral constitutional regime demands standards so loose as to approve of nearly any suspicionless stop as justified and reasonable. Sure, many jurisdictions have backed away from roving stop-and-frisk policies in light of years of protests demanding police accountability, but that just opens the door for a focus on high-crime neighborhoods. With an uncritical look at historical crime rates, a court can rationalize systemic racism without asking fundamental questions about the police-first approach to public safety.

These methods create a self-fulfilling prophecy when police have such latitude that they can play a game of finding something or other that would give them authority to pull over any given car. The people they surveil, harass, and arrest are the people they target, Black people, in the name of public safety. If they profiled professors, we’d fill the prisons. But Black people have long been the canary in criminal procedure’s coal mine, and we demand the courts and the public ask two questions: “Which public?” and “Whose safety?”

Anyone outside of comfortable White America can answer those questions. Money speaks for money, and the cops speak for the oligarchs. Is it any wonder that the White supremacists who controlled our country from its foundation would seek to preserve themselves, thus creating two Americas?

Policing didn’t create the problem of the two Americas, but it exists to re-enforce it. Even if policing didn’t attack and control Black and Brown people, it would still exist to serve and protect property. Mass incarceration, as a tool of the police, isn’t just awful because of its racist application; it unnecessarily deprives people of liberty and creates cycles of poverty wherever it’s applied. Police reform and prison abolition, then, aren’t just about racial justice. They are about liberty and justice for all.

To be an abolitionist is to philosophize with a hammer. It is not enough merely to call for the oppressive institution to be torn down. Without active efforts to replace it with just and life-affirming institutions, the power vacuum would only invite back in the old injustices in new forms. Abolitionists must advocate for the establishment of new institutions with the same fervor as they advocate for the destruction of the old ones.

JaKyrah Pires, Dara Bayer, Bethzaida Otero, Nubian Meehan, and Gwenhwyfar Sadie are members of Cambridge HEART, a community-driven advocacy group dedicated to alternatives to policing. Local citizens are doing EMT training and learning how to respond to crisis calls to keep their communities safe, solve conflicts, and coordinating mutual aid where needed.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

So what do the institutions of abolitionist public safety look like? It looks like transformative justice, responding to violence nonviolently with the goal of making things right rather than settling scores. It looks like acknowledging harmful behavior often stems from desperation, and harm prevention and reduction often require addressing people’s material needs.

Abolitionist public safety requires a broad reimagining of society, and building new forms of economic support, education, media, political participation, and justice. We can — and should — eliminate police and prisons, but we need to be prepared for the fact that it will require big, structural change. Radicals have organized around that concept for more than a century, while governments have rarely given it more than lip service.

Abolition calls for democracy, not just as the act of voting for representatives but as the meaningful participation of all people in decisions affecting every significant aspect of their lives.

We can have a better world, but we’ll have to make it together.

Brandon Hasbrouck is a Washington and Lee University School of Law associate professor who researches and teaches in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure, movement law, and abolition. His recent paper on abolitionist public safety is available in the Northwestern University Law Review. Find him on Twitter at @b_hasbrouck.