Americans have a hate-love relationship with the police. The idea of “the police” predates us. Sir Robert Peel created the first professional force of what came to be known as “Bobbies” in early-nineteenth-century England. But American police, like any American institution, represent our own invention, created above all to protect our property, including enslaved people (though protecting in this case meant keeping them enslaved). With our invention came radically mixed feelings. The police are pigs; the police are heroes. They are corrupt racists or, alternatively, selfless pillars of the community. Much like Victor Frankenstein, some of us would prefer to do away with our invention. When Victor became disenchanted with his modern Prometheus, dismemberment of the creation was his prescribed cure. In America, in 2020, it is to abolish, or at least defund, our police.
Some jurisdictions have already moved in that direction. The Minneapolis City Council abolished its local police department by legislative fiat last June. New York City officials have proposed cutting a portion of its budget for police. But as demands to abolish or defund police waft through the courts of public opinion and public policy circles, people for and against each proposal might consider the deeper lesson of Mary Shelley’s 1818 book: The behemoth we call Frankenstein is only a creature—the monster is the person who gave it life.
So who are we?
To be in hate-love with the police is not unique to Americans. But what certainly is American about our hate-love relationship is how it unfolds in our entertainment and play. Children play cops and robbers; adults can go to nightclubs for police-themed stripteases. The very first R-rated film to win an Academy Award for best picture was The French Connection, a story about a corrupt, bigoted New York City policeman. And then there’s TV: According to Nielsen ratings, NCIS, FBI, and Blue Bloods nabbed the top three slots for most viewed TV shows during 2019–2020. Their combined number of viewers is 40 million. As the historian Jill Lepore writes in her essay “The Invention of the Police”:
Two kinds of police appeared on mid-century American television. The good guys solved crime on prime-time police procedurals like “Dragnet,” starting in 1951, and “Adam-12,” beginning in 1968 (both featured the L.A.P.D.). The bad guys shocked America’s conscience on the nightly news: Arkansas state troopers barring Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School, in 1957; Birmingham police clubbing and arresting some seven hundred Black children protesting segregation, in 1963; and Alabama state troopers beating voting-rights marchers at Selma, in 1965. These two faces of policing help explain how, in the nineteen-sixties, the more people protested police brutality, the more money governments gave to police departments.
Speaking realistically, we will never abolish the police. Even Lepore ends her piece with a call for reform only. The private property that is the economic foundation of our pursuit of happiness requires a police force. According to FBI statistics, an estimated 7,196,045 property crime offenses resulted in $16.4 billion in losses in 2018. Victims of property crimes accounted for more than 70 percent of all serious crimes committed between 2014 and 2018. According to 2018 FBI statistics, a car was stolen every 42 seconds. You may believe that property crimes are not necessarily serious crimes—an increasingly fashionable way of thinking about these issues. But loss of a car, even for three days, can have a devastating impact on job security and childcare. This is particularly true for lower-income adults, poor families, and the elderly. Not every victim of property crime is wealthy. Much to the contrary.
Well before 2020, leaders in some cities disbanded or defunded a police department for reasons other than brutality. In 2010, Camden, New Jersey laid off half its city police force to deal with city’s $14 million deficit. Three years later the city council approved a resolution to disband its 141-year-old police force. Politicians in three California cities—Half Moon Bay, Millbrae City, and San Carlos—voted to disband their police departments for financial reasons in 2010 and 2011. Still, none of these actions deprived those cities of police. The Camden County Police Department was created in 2013 through a partnership with Camden city officials and a surrounding jurisdiction. The three California cities that disbanded their police departments partnered with a Sheriff’s Department to take on the duties of their defunct forces.
As it turns out, many police abolitionists do not really call for the “abolition of the police.” Sociologist Alex Vitale, whose book The End of Policing has become one of the surprise hits of the moment, scrupulously avoids doing so: “Rather than giving police another $50 million for body cameras and training,” he remarked in an interview with The Nation, “I say let’s take $200 million away and get them to shut down some of what they do, and take some of that money and put it into things like community-based mental health services and community-based anti-violence initiatives.” In a different interview, with The Intercept, he goes further: “I think of abolition as a process rather than an outcome. I don’t explicitly go around saying ‘abolish the police’ or ‘abolish prisons.’ Instead, I say that if we understand police and prisons as inherently coercive and punitive and stained with a history of reproducing inequality, those institutions should always be used as a last resort.” What Vitale proposes is rather that the police be replaced with social workers, mental health experts, welfare programs, and other, non-punitive solutions meant to address material needs.
This is all very well. But even to fix the police in this way would be ultimately to ignore the reasons that we, like Victor Frankenstein, created our monster. As the social critic Jessa Crispin observed in a piece critical of the idea of replacing the police with social workers “People do not enter the system as individuals, they are messes to be cleaned or covered up.” The logic under which our police operate—suspicious, property-oriented, immune to recourse, and coercive—is not going to end just because we employ more social workers tasked with raising our children, instead of more uniformed public servants who may, for whatever reasons, end up pointing guns at them. America’s police are made in America’s image. To remake them will require something deeper than reshuffling a budget, however much that might accomplish.