Over the past several weeks in the United States, Black-led rebellions responding to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have proclaimed that Black lives matter, demanded accountability for perpetrators, condemned white supremacy and anti-blackness, and—notably—called for the defunding and abolition of policing systems. The fact that many local police departments have responded by continuing to employ brutal tactics has only proved the movement’s point: We must imagine a world without policing.
Due to the expansion of policing systems in the U.S. over the past several decades, Catholic ethicists here have largely lost the ability to envision this world. Many of us are willing to endorse police reform, but fewer are willing to seriously consider police defunding and abolition. I will argue that the latter approach is more consistent with a commitment to the common good, and that Catholic ethicists can appreciate the rationale for this position by listening to Black women who have been in the forefront of the abolitionist cause.
Abolitionist discourse and organizing are guided by the basic judgment that the U.S. policing system cannot be reformed because throughout its history, its social function has been to maintain white supremacy and anti-blackness. Angela Davis argues that any incident in which a police officer or vigilante kills a Black person must be understood in the broader historical context of racialized policing: Floyd, Taylor, and Arbery are the most recent victims in “an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extralegal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes.” Davis argues that current calls to defund the police are best understood as an aspect of the much longer process of abolishing the police.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore has contextualized the recent calls for police abolition as part of a critique of our broader system of mass incarceration, of which policing is an integral component. She calls our attention to all the ways our society routinely abandons, surveils, criminalizes and imprisons its poor and Black members, using these carceral techniques “as catchall solutions to social problems.”
Derecka Purnell has been particularly concerned to make sure the energy driving the current movement for Black lives remains focused on abolition, so that it does not get co-opted in service to police reform agendas. She reminds us that police frequently serve private ends rather than the public good, that attempts at reform often don’t reduce the harm that policing does to Black communities, and that the surest way to decrease reliance on policing is to address social inequality.
Taking into account the insights of Black women abolitionists, a credible Catholic commitment to pursuing the common good would have to include, at minimum, ensuring whatever social conditions are necessary for Black freedom from white violence. But their experience shows us that the police themselves cannot be part of how we ensure these social conditions. Policing is not even necessary to protect the common good; in fact, Catholic social thought generally regards the state as the proper agent for protecting the common good, of which the policing system is not an essential or inevitable component. Since the policing system not only enables white violence but also evades legal accountability and democratic control, Catholics who are serious about pursuing the common good should use the political process to defund and reduce the social functions of policing, and transfer those funds and social functions to other professionals, as a means to the long-term goal of abolition.
To be clear, the point is not to shrink the public sector but to reallocate public funds, which in many municipalities are currently disproportionately spent on policing. Under pressure from grassroots organizers, Minneapolis city councilmembers are already moving toward this kind of reallocation in the city budget. Defunding the police means using those funds to support public education, affordable housing, access to healthcare, social workers, mental health clinicians, addiction specialists, and community-based approaches to resolving conflict. For example, if two social workers had been deployed to a Wendy’s restaurant in Atlanta on the evening of June 12, instead of two police officers, Rayshard Brooks would still be alive. Police defunding is entirely consistent with a moral commitment to the common good because it is focused on the redistribution of public funds toward other professionals, community groups, and institutions that more clearly serve this common good.
A Catholic commitment to the common good also entails dissolving police unions, a task which is already underway, and which will be strategically necessary in order to defund the police. The original Catholic argument supporting the right to unionize presumed that unions help working-class people to organize against their own exploitation in the context of laissez-faire capitalism. But sociologist Alex Vitale notes that policing largely functions “as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.” Police unions, which protect the agents of this management system, notoriously make it more difficult to prosecute repeatedly violent officers or even to suspend them without pay, precipitating a crisis of accountability and legitimacy. Since police unions cause and exacerbate more social injustices than they alleviate, the traditional Catholic argument supporting the right to unionize does not apply to police unions in particular and even supports disbanding them as harmful to the common good.
Finally, I’d like to respond to two anticipated objections to this argument. First, one might argue that police reform is more realistic than police defunding and abolition. To their credit, advocates of reform recognize that the current system of policing operates on a military model, lacks accountability, and routinely employs disproportionate and even lethal force in a racially discriminatory way. However, implementing the most commonly-proposed reform measures, like body cameras, community policing initiatives, de-escalation trainings, implicit racial bias trainings, and civilian review boards, would require more funding, not less, to be allocated to the police, which would further increase the power of the police. Reform advocate Tobias Winright is correct when he points to the fact that there is historical precedent in the U.S. for a more community-oriented model of policing, which would be preferable to the now-dominant militarized model descended from the Southern slave patrols. But neither model is a moral ideal, and at no point has any U.S. police department been insulated from a pervasive culture of white supremacy and anti-blackness, even and especially in the racially segregated cities of the North. Reform is therefore not obviously “more realistic” than defunding and abolition. We should not accept surface-level remedies in the name of “realism” if they are not capable of counteracting a systemic, deeply-ingrained culture of anti-blackness in police departments.
Second, one might argue that policing should not be defunded or abolished because there would no longer be a deterrent to crime; criminals would supposedly run rampant and poor communities would bear this social cost more acutely. However, what “counts” as a crime worth prosecuting is largely socially constructed in order to benefit the racially and economically dominant classes. Michelle Alexander proposes the “War on Drugs” as a classic example, in which the Reagan administration used the news media to manufacture a drug use epidemic in large cities and to justify the “war” against it. Practically speaking, the waging of this “war” treated the residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods as the enemy, given the “broken windows” approach to policing that was popular at the time. Police in my own city of Seattle systematically targeted Black dealers for arrest while overlooking white dealers, and they routinely ignored reports of drug sales in predominantly white neighborhoods. The “War on Drugs” did not criminalize drug sale or drug use per se; it criminalized being Black and poor. In this light, it is naïve to suppose that policing functions socially to prevent crime, to “enforce the law,” or to “serve and protect” our communities.
 Angela Y. Davis, “From Michael Brown to Assata Shakur, the racist state of America persists,” The Guardian, November 1, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/01/michael-brown-assata-shakur-racist-state-of-america.
 Angela Y. Davis, “Angela Davis on Abolition, Calls to Defund Police, Toppled Racist Statues & Voting in 2020 Election,” interview by Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! June 12, 2020, https://www.democracynow.org/2020/6/12/angela_davis_on_abolition_calls_to?fbclid=IwAR3HrnkByfYv_Rh78yXrmYSgczX9ZG5P6joGNIJx1iOppv3baYWA-sR5jig.
 Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition,” interview by Chenjerai Kumanyika, The Intercept, June 10, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/06/10/ruth-wilson-gilmore-makes-the-case-for-abolition/.
 Rachel Kushner, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind,” The New York Times Magazine, April 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html. For reference, the U.S. imprisons more of its people than any other country in the world; see Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, “World Prison Brief,” https://www.prisonstudies.org/highest-to-lowest/prison-population-total?field_region_taxonomy_tid=All.
 Derecka Purnell, “What Does Police Abolition Mean?” Boston Review, August 23, 2017, https://bostonreview.net/law-justice/derecka-purnell-what-does-police-abolition-mean; Derecka Purnell and Marbre Stahly-Butts, “The Police Can’t Solve the Problem. They Are the Problem,” The New York Times, September 26, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/opinion/the-police-cant-solve-the-problem-they-are-the-problem.html; and Derecka Purnell and Alex Vitale, “Defunding the Police: What Would It Mean for the U.S.?” interview by Ari Shapiro, NPR, June 11, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/06/11/875311086/defunding-the-police-what-would-it-mean-for-the-u-s.
 Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, section 26, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.
 Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, section 20, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_15051961_mater.html.
 Amy Goodman, “Minneapolis City Council Vows to Dismantle Police Department after Mass Protests and Grassroots Organizing,” Democracy Now! June 8, 2020, https://www.democracynow.org/shows/2020/6/8#; and Dionne Searcey and John Eligon, “Minneapolis Will Dismantle Its Police Force, Council Members Pledge,” The New York Times, June 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/07/us/minneapolis-police-abolish.html.
 Nathan Monk, “Re-Imagine a World Where Rayshard Brooks Is Still Alive: What Defunding the Police Could Look Like,” Charity Institute, June 17, 2020, https://www.charityinstitute.com/post/re-imagine-a-world-where-rayshard-brooks-is-still-alive-what-defunding-the-police-could-look-like.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. County Labor Council, “Resolution Affirming Our Commitment to an Anti-Racist Union Movement,” June 4, 2020, http://mlklabor.org/resolutions/resolution-affirming-our-commitment-to-an-anti-racist-union-movement/; and Elise Takahama, “Seattle Police Officers Guild Expelled from King County’s Largest Labor Council,” Seattle Times, June 18, 2020, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattle-police-officers-guild-expelled-from-countys-largest-labor-council/.
 Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, sections 49-52, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html.
 Alex S. Vitale, “How Much Do We Need the Police?” interview by Leah Donnella, NPR, June 3, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2020/06/03/457251670/how-much-do-we-need-the-police; and Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing (New York: Verso, 2017), 73, https://www.versobooks.com/books/2426-the-end-of-policing.
 Tobias Winright, “Militarized Policing: The History of the Warrior Cop,” The Christian Century, August 15, 2014, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-08/time-another-paradigm-shift-policing.
 Mariame Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” The New York Times, June 12, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/opinion/sunday/floyd-abolish-defund-police.html.
 Tobias Winright, “A Better Way to Serve and Protect,” U.S. Catholic, April 2015, https://uscatholic.org/articles/201605/better-way-serve-and-protect-30656; and Tobias Winright, “Community Policing as a Paradigm for International Relations,” in Just Policing, Not War: An Alternative Response to World Violence, ed. Gerald Schlabach (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 130-152. For the evolution of slave patrols into Jim Crow policing, see W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (New York: Russell & Russell, 1935), chs. 1, 2, 16.
 Jamelle Bouie, “The Police Are Rioting. We Need to Talk about It,” The New York Times, June 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/opinion/police-riots.html; and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
 Jacqueline Helfgott, “The Movement to Defund the Police is Wrong, and Here’s Why,” Seattle Times, June 9, 2020, https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/the-movement-to-defund-the-police-is-wrong-and-heres-why/.
 Michelle Alexander, “Extended Interview,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, January 13, 2012, https://www.pbs.org/video/religion-ethics-newsweekly-michelle-alexander-extended-interview/; and Michelle Alexander, “A System of Racial and Social Control,” Frontline, April 29, 2014, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/michelle-alexander-a-system-of-racial-and-social-control/#:~:text=Michelle%20Alexander%20is%20the%20author,it%20means%20for%20America%20today.
 Shankar Vedantam et al., “How a Theory of Crime and Policing Was Born, and Went Terribly Wrong,” NPR, November 1, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/11/01/500104506/broken-windows-policing-and-the-origins-of-stop-and-frisk-and-how-it-went-wrong. For the criminological theory behind “broken windows” policing, see Vitale, The End of Policing, 18-23, https://www.versobooks.com/books/2426-the-end-of-policing.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2012), 126-127, https://newjimcrow.com/; and Katherine Beckett et al., “Drug Use, Drug Possession Arrests, and the Question of Race: Lessons from Seattle,” Social Problems 52, no. 3 (2005): 419-441, https://doi.org/10.1525/sp.2005.52.3.419.