Police in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, following the fatal officer-involved shooting of Sylville Smith on Aug. 14, 2016. (Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/'Chicago Tribune'/TNS via Getty Images)

To Stop Police Brutality, Do We Need to Stop Policing?

Black Lives Matter and other groups are pushing for community-based alternatives to public safety that don't involve putting more cops on the beat.
Sep 1, 2016· 10 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile.

Anyone paying even casual attention to the news is probably familiar with the grim roster of African American boys and men who have died at the hands of police, under questionable circumstances, over the past two years. The grieving cities and communities where the deaths occurred—Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, Cleveland—have become a kind of shorthand for the killings within the Black Lives Matter movement, which put the issue on the national agenda.

But even if the names, the cities, the circumstances, have become familiar, they aren’t the sum total of the Black Lives Matter movement’s agenda. Obscured by the heartbreaking cycle of breaking-news headlines, angry protests, and demands for change is a radical-sounding proposition. It’s an idea that proponents say can transform entire communities where police seem less like public guardians than like an occupying force—and if more places adopted it, the risk of armed, potentially deadly confrontations between law enforcement and the people they’re sworn to protect could be drastically reduced.

The proposal: To end police brutality, we have to end police.

Ronal Serpas, the former top cop in New Orleans and Nashville, Tennessee, sums up this complex idea in one short phrase: collaboratively producing safety. “I’ve seen it work in very distraught neighborhoods,” said Serpas, who studies law enforcement issues and teaches at Loyola University in New Orleans. Paradoxically, he adds, “you need a strong police presence to get there. But once the community gets its footing underneath it, it’s powerful.”

Calls for ending the police are not calls for anarchy, Wild West law and order, or vigilante justice. It’s not about dismantling, or even disarming, law enforcement. Rather, the concept involves ending the confrontational, us-versus-them police culture—and the anti-cop, snitches-get-stitches ethos that exists in some neighborhoods—by both encouraging and empowering communities to police themselves. It involves using ancient social practices like restorative justice—bringing crime victim and perpetrator together to work things out—and modern ideas, such as hiring gang members and ex-convicts to stop street violence and keep the peace. At its heart, it involves changing the unhealthy but accepted societal norms at the root of street crime—which leads to heavy-handed law enforcement, which leads to mistrust of police.

“The way we do policing in society makes certain people feel like they have no control over their lives,” said Delores Jones-Brown, an expert on the nexus of race and criminal justice and the director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “At the end of the day, that’s all they want: some control over their lives.”

Providing such control was at the center of the so-called Boston Miracle, which helped stem a tide of violent crime and neighborhood desperation during the 1990s. The turnaround was miraculous both in scale and approach, which did not rely on the usual methods of increased patrols, roundup of suspects, or other strong-arm policing tactics.

By studying crime data, David M. Kennedy, a renowned antiviolence crusader who pioneered the program, found that a small, hard-core group of repeat offenders was disproportionately responsible for most of Boston’s violent crime. Working with police and community leaders, they took a proposal to the perpetrators: Keep killing one another, and the police will make your lives miserable—nightly raids, mass arrests, a cop watching every corner. But if the gunfire stops, you’ll get access to housing, jobs, and other services to make everyone’s lives better. They chose the latter.

Kennedy, who is now the director of the National Network for Safe Communities, is widely credited with exporting the “cease-fire” model to Boston, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and other tough urban areas. Today, his ideas are getting a fresh look in the wake of the police shootings over the last two years. The data, he wrote in an email interview, speaks for itself.

“For example, a Group Violence Intervention strategy in New Haven, Conn., produced a more than 70 percent reduction in shootings in a steady decline over about five years,” Kennedy wrote. “Oakland, Calif., which people had pretty much given up on, is seeing historically low levels over about the same period. Nothing else so far can produce that sort of result.”

The successes aren’t limited to poor, high-crime neighborhoods—suburbs are kept safe without heavy policing too. Residents have good schools and stable households and call 911 when they see someone breaking the law, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You don’t see police cars cruising up and down the streets in the suburbs.”

“The question is whether we care enough about all communities to actually do it,” Butts added.

With growing public outrage over mass incarcerations and pressure from groups like Black Lives Matter over police deadly-force killings of black men, however, it’s increasingly clear that the status quo—aggressive police, mistrustful residents, zero-tolerance law enforcement, seemingly intractable crime, and poverty—isn’t sustainable. If there’s an alternative to police, he said, “I think it does have to be neighborhood based and has to be credible.”

Skeptics argue that public safety is anything but a DIY matter—especially in poor, high-crime neighborhoods. Just as alternative public safety programs have had their miracles, they have had failures too.

In 2013, tensions between cops and former criminals undermined a violence prevention program launched in Chicago a year earlier. The fewer-cops concept Baltimore adopted in the late 1990s struggled after Martin O’Malley was elected mayor in 1999, and his tough-on-crime approach clashed with Kennedy’s antiviolence program. Police advocates contend the questionable use-of-force deaths that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement are the rare exception, not the overhaul-everything rule.

“It bears repeating: Unjustified shootings by police officers are an aberration, not the norm, and there is no evidence that racism drives police actions,” Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The War on Cops, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in July.

“Every year, officers confront tens of thousands of armed felons without using lethal force,” she wrote. Of the 987 people in the U.S. killed by cops last year, Mac Donald contends, “the overwhelming majority were armed or threatening deadly force.”


During the Great Migration of the 20th century, when vast numbers of African Americans moved from the countryside to the cities, blacks replaced European immigrants as the face of the urban poor in the United States.

The increase in urban black populations led to white flight, and racist assumptions about inner-city crime ensued in big-city newspapers, mayor’s offices, and police headquarters—particularly in the wake of riots after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in the 1960s, heroin and crack cocaine epidemics in the ’70s and ’80s, and the rise of street gangs in the ’90s. As neglected neighborhoods decayed and crime spiked, even African American activists demanded city leaders do something, and that usually meant more police.

“During the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. police force’s per-capita strength increased yet again; in recent decades, it grew more rapidly in cities with a sizable percentage of African Americans,” according to a paper coauthored by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond and Nicol Valdez of Columbia University.

“Around 1990, and in sharp reversal from previous years, cities began proactively and persistently policing disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Desmond and Valdez write. “The experience of being stopped, questioned, and frisked, cuffed, arrested, and convicted, would become commonplace for young and poor black men.”

“As long as there have been free black people living in an urban setting communities of color had to deal with violence that was an offspring of the socioeconomic challenges we lived under,” said John Jay College’s Jones-Brown.

Rather than represent law, order, and public safety, she said, cops in poor, mostly black neighborhoods are agents for “a historically racist and oppressive system” whose job was “to control and contain us” and protect more affluent whites from crime.

Yet with generations of poverty as a common denominator among most residents in such neighborhoods, “all they have is their personal autonomy or their bodies, or maybe their sneakers,” Jones-Brown said, and police don’t always understand or respect that.

“If there's any affront to that minimal level of status,” she continued—perceived disrespect, property damage, even stepping on someone’s sneakers—a dispute between residents can get out of hand. Violence follows, police storm in, and a “no snitching” neighborhood code of silence, rooted in generations of mistrust of law enforcement, makes it hard for cops to sort things out. As the cycle repeats, stereotypes on both sides calcify: Police define black men as criminals first, citizens second, while black men believe a badge and a gun are tools of oppression, not justice. Those factors are considered to be unseen but common ingredients in the rash of use-of-force deaths of African American men.

Consider this: Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old, was shot after a white cop, Darren Wilson, confronted him for jaywalking, a rarely enforced misdemeanor in most places but an offense that often led to fines and jail time for black Ferguson residents. New York police officers locked Garner, 32, in a banned choke hold while trying to arrest him—again—for illegally selling individual cigarettes, an everyday hustle in poor black neighborhoods. In Baton Rouge, officers caught Sterling selling bootleg CDs, another common street-corner scheme, and fatally shot him when they realized he had a gun without a permit, even though that’s legal in Louisiana. Castile, a beloved elementary school cafeteria worker, had been stopped by Minnesota police dozens of times before a suburban Minneapolis cop shot and killed him during what was a routine traffic stop—until Castile said he was legally carrying a weapon and reached for his ID.

Meanwhile, in 2013 the American Civil Liberties Union found that African Americans were three times more likely than whites to go to jail for marijuana possession—even though they use the drug at about the same rate, and even though a wave of states has decriminalized pot. A Washington Post analysis found that black men and boys are more than twice as likely as whites to die during an encounter with police.

What if these men, who were suspected of committing petty, largely victimless offenses—if they were breaking the law at all, as in the case of Castile—had not been met with lethal force? Or if they hadn’t encountered police at all?


Earlier this month, several organizations affiliated with Black Lives Matter issued a list of demands to stop the deaths and overhaul policing of poor neighborhoods. The agenda calls for a “radical transformation” of law enforcement, including giving residents in neighborhoods “most harmed by destructive policing” the power to hire, fire, and discipline officers—particularly in deadly force or misconduct cases.

But the demands go further, arguing for the kind of post-police approach Kennedy and others say is the key to reducing crime and improving public safety in tough neighborhoods.

The most prominent, and arguably most successful, tool in the collaborative-safety toolbox is unarmed community interventions: training residents, typically gang members or former violent offenders, to patrol their neighborhoods and nip crime in the bud. Groups like Kennedy’s Safe Communities and programs like Cure Violence, featured in the 2012 documentary The Interrupters, are active in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

The concept for Cure Violence and the others is simple: The interventors use their street cred as former criminals or inmates (or both) to build trust on the block, resolve petty neighborhood beefs without the cops or the courts, and steer young, would-be offenders away from a life of crime.

“I’ve spent time visiting these programs. It’s really an appealing idea,” said Butts, who once saw a Chicago interventor stroll into a gang meet-up and ask questions about what was about to go down—a virtually impossible task for police.

Unlike a beat cop, the interventor is not seen as a threat, and “because he’s not a threat, they can share information,” Butts said. “They won’t give up names. But they’ll say, ‘One [guy] is beefing with another, and something’s going to blow up here—things are getting hot.’ They’ll go talk and find out what the issue is” rather than let it escalate into fighting or gunfire.

Those programs can pay dividends for cops too, said Serpas, who was a police officer and a commander for 32 years before making the switch to academia.

“Neighborhoods, in my experience, know who the really bad actors are. They know them by name, in fact,” Serpas said. By working in the neighborhood and helping reduce crime, he said, community intervention teams make it easier for residents to trust police, turn in lawbreakers, and talk to cops when a major crime does occur.

In addition to crime-prevention programs, restorative justice, a centuries-old concept in which residents create an alternative to courts and jails, can help to turn public safety into something more like public healing. The practice, common in schools, establishes accountability as a baseline standard for everyone, and the entire neighborhood—including the perpetrator and the victim—collectively works out conflicts according to the norms of the community.

“They start to get the feeling of control of their space,” Serpas said, likening it to controlling a pandemic by encouraging behavior that prevents a disease rather than using a pound of cure. “It becomes collective.”

These programs are not a panacea. Butts noted that police-free solutions couldn’t be replicated on a large scale because gangs and criminals “operate in a very small area. In order to penetrate that group you have to be from that area. These are small, concentrated worlds.”

At the same time, “there are some neighborhoods where police have to play a very active role to make the neighborhood safe enough” for any public safety alternatives, Serpas said. “A community can not [always] do the ‘collective efficacy’ piece of self-policing because somebody’s got a gun.”

Butts points to another problem: sustainability. While some cities, such as Chicago or Detroit, have successfully used alternatives to police, and neighborhoods have improved, city leaders are uneasy about the potential for things to go wrong and the disruption in the centuries-old status quo.

In Chicago, some police and city officials viewed violence intervention programs as a threat, according to Butts. Citing budget cuts, the city shut down nearly all the neighborhood antiviolence programs in 2013; proponents grumbled that the belt tightening was an excuse to appease cops who were skeptical of working with people they’d once put in handcuffs.

Butts also noted some former gangbangers couldn’t leave their criminal lives in the past, including one who allegedly kept a loaded gun in his desk and lined his pockets with cash stolen from the program where he worked.

“We hear these great stories about this guy who did 20 years, came back to the neighborhood, and now he’s helping guys” keep the peace, he said. “But a program can also be taken down by an anecdote—a bad anecdote.”

“The one thing a state or local policy maker has to hear is a story like that, and they’ll just run away from the program,” he said. “Ask that same person if they [would close] a police department with one bad anecdote—‘Of course not.’ ”

No definitive causal link has been established, but crime and homicides have spiked since the Chicago program was shuttered, and police have launched another crackdown in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Last year, a Chicago cop shot and killed Laquan McDonald, an unarmed 17-year-old, firing more than a dozen bullets into his body even after he lay motionless on the sidewalk.

To counteract the power a bad story has to torpedo a program like Chicago’s, Butts and his colleagues “try to collect information that’s persuasive and makes a point and relies on something other than the conventional [police] model,” he said.

That includes perhaps the most impressive benefit: Participating in self-policing programs changes residents’ opinions of police. Asked in follow-up surveys how they view the cop on the beat, neighborhood trust in police has shown a measurable uptick, according to Butts—a small but important first step in rebuilding police-community relationships and stopping deadly-force shootings of black men.

“We’re not sure,” Butts says, “but there seems to be something there.”