If we just disbanded the NSA on the grounds that it’s overstepped its bounds and isn’t providing sufficient value, I doubt we’d notice. But the police are more integrated with society. They handle issues that are more likely to affect us.
Police in the US have started killing people for their skin color. They rape sex workers as if it’s their job — and according to their police chiefs, it is. They are explicitly told to make drug arrests in predominantly POC neighborhoods — primarily black, also Hispanic. They’re subject to no effective oversight. The public in the US has the patience and attention to see one or two officers tarred and feathered per year, but the primary effect is to force the officer in question to move to another county and get another job on another police force.
To be clear, not every officer is killing black people. Not every officer is raping sex workers. Not every officer is targeting black kids for drug arrests. But it’s easy to find a department to support you after you’ve murdered an unarmed black man. Every officer who is assigned to vice is raping sex workers or actively assisting with the process. Police departments are assigning cops quotas and patrols specifically to ensure that it’s mainly black kids being arrested for recreational drug possession.
The problems are too widespread, and many of them are baked into the political structures of policing. At this point, it would be a herculean task (or possibly sisyphean) to root out the corruption and outright evil in police departments. It’s much more efficient, much cleaner, to tear them to the ground and replace them with something else. Something designed to protect people from itself above all.
So what are police good for, and what should they be good for, that we want a replacement to handle?
Help people obey the law
The police as is don’t help people to obey the law. They will inform you that you are violating the law and process you so your punishment can be assigned. In routine cases, this means they will enact a fine. In less routine cases, they will transport you to a jail to be reviewed by a judge, possibly with jury involvement.
Ideally, we will provide people to help you obey the law.
Traffic safety provides a lot of tickets. Part of that is vehicle maintenance. If you have a busted tail light, a police officer will pull you over and talk to you about it, tell you to get it fixed, maybe issue a fine. How about hiring traveling auto mechanics instead? You drive around and see someone has a broken tail light, so you pull them over and ask if you can fix it for them. You see that someone has an expired inspection sticker, so you schedule an inspection for them — and you can even offer to drive the vehicle over if they’re having trouble getting to the shop.
You need licenses to do a variety of things. Selling certain items, for instance. A police officer would close down your store, issue a citation, maybe arrest you, depending. We want people who will instead walk you through the process of getting that license. We want roving ombudspeople.
Police are sometimes called in, in places where they’re still respected (or at least feared less than someone who’s presenting a more immediate threat), to resolve disputes between people. The median required training duration for conflict resolution among police schools that require it is eight hours. One in six schools don’t even require it.
We need mediators.
We need neutral mediators who are not going to threaten to send you to jail for calling them to help you get away from an abuser. (It’s becoming increasingly common for police responding to domestic violence calls to simply throw all adult parties in jail.) The mediators need to be able to bring abuse victims to shelters and remove abusers from homes. For situations that aren’t cut and dried, they need conflict resolution training, and probably more than a one-day seminar packed in the middle of combat training.
Since these cases can turn violent, these mediators have to be able to avoid injury. They might need defense training beyond avoiding injury. I don’t know. It’s a bad sign if that sort of training is often called for; it means the mediation portion of the training isn’t sufficient or isn’t right. Maybe we can start out with people working in pairs: a mediator who goes in first and a bouncer as backup who stays outside unless called for.
Crime will still happen. We need people with the necessary training and equipment to track down criminals in cases where tracking them down is important. Beat cops don’t help much here. It’s detectives and crime scene analysis people and the FBI. We could incorporate it all into the FBI. However, that might simply turn the FBI into today’s cops.
This is a hard problem. I’m still looking for options.
Stopping crimes in progress
Police attempt to stop crimes as they happen. In the case of violent crime from a determined perpetrator, that requires equipment and training to enact violence on people. Insofar as such people are needed, we should not conflate their roles with the other roles that cops are or should be fulfilling today.
Preventing crime is not a goal for police.
Crime prevention is difficult to attribute to individual officers. If a district patrolled by twenty cops sees a 5% reduction in crime year-over-year, that might net a bonus to the officers who patrol there. But nobody gets to police chief by seeing a reduction in crime. They get promotions for more measurable and attributable actions.
They get rewarded for sending people to prison.
That’s the opposite of what we want. We want fewer criminals. We should rejoice if the NYPD didn’t find anyone to arrest for a week. But our incentives are perverse.
Crime prevention in general is a multifaceted thing, and a police force or the equivalent isn’t going to stop all crime. But there are some obvious things we can do to reduce violence.
Ban automatic and semiautomatic firearms, institute a buyback program, and we would likely see a strong reduction in firearm-related suicide and homicide. (Australia saw a 70% reduction in firearm-related suicides following their buyback program. Their homicide rate was insufficient to see statistically significant reductions, even with a 50% drop, because they just don’t have that much murder.)
Improve education. There’s correlation between dropping out of high school and committing crime. The Alliance for Education estimates that a 5% improvement in education rates would drop felonies by over a hundred thousand per year, at an overall savings to states on the order of $18 billion.
Reduce poverty. There’s a strong link between poverty and likelihood to commit crime. Education helps somewhat, but as we move to more automation (which is good!) and as our outsourcing trends continue, we will see more widespread poverty as jobs disappear. In January, for instance, there were 160,000 Uber drivers. In ten years, when driverless cars become widespread, Uber’s employment rates will plummet, their operating overhead will drop, and we’ll see more concentration of wealth. This doesn’t help to reduce poverty. There are 3.5 million truck drivers. Highway driving is a simpler problem to solve than city driving, so in ten years we’ll start seeing a lot of automated long-haul trucks. That will drop decent wage jobs that tend to support small towns throughout the country.
Institute consent education in all schools, from preschool to grad school.
Cops enforce traffic laws. Or rather, they turn breaking traffic laws into a lottery.
Driverless cars will follow traffic laws. Everyone tends to follow a compromise between safety, speed, and obeying laws. The people who tend to speed a lot also tend to buy cop detecting devices.
Regardless, traffic violations are a short-to-medium term consideration. In fifty years, driving might be illegal — or merely accompanied by so large an insurance premium as to make it unjustifiable for most people. And even today, traffic safety isn’t a police objective; traffic patrols are primarily a revenue source. Perverse incentives again. We can probably just eliminate this function entirely.
Medical first response
Police get a modicum of medical training — the median is about three days’ worth. It’s valuable to have more people in a community who have medical training and can be called on quickly to deal with medical emergencies.
I have wilderness first responder training. Everyone should have wilderness first responder training. It should be a required part of high school. We should encourage more people to become EMTs. We should have a Medical National Reserve like the Army Reserve. People who get EMT training and equipment, and they’ll occasionally be called on to handle medical emergencies nearby, but they can have other jobs.
Or we just hire more EMTs.
We could even have a draft, if necessary. I’d be much happier about drafting people as EMTs than as soldiers. It’s a high-stress job and physically demanding, so shorter terms would be better.
Enabling more complex laws
With a dedicated law enforcement staff that punishes people for violating laws, you can have more laws and more complex laws.
Ordinary citizens must be able to understand the law. They should be able to predict as much as possible and easily memorize the rest. It is a bad thing to have complex laws. But insofar as complex laws are necessary, we will employ specialist ombudspeople.
Ingesting people into prisons for cheap labor
In the United States, slavery is legal as a punishment for crimes. This is mediated through prisons, many of which are for-profit companies. Most prisoners do get paid for their work, but the rates are usurious — it’s unheard of to make even half of minimum wage as a prisoner.
The police serve as a means to induct people into prisons, largely via the “war on drugs”. They choose people who are unlikely to have resources — or relatives with resources — to object or fight back. People with zero political clout.
Prisons should not be slave barracks. Some few people need to be kept apart from the rest of the population; prisons should hold them securely and humanely. Some people commit crimes and need to be taught so they will not do so again.
Slavery could be used as a deterrent, and we could debate the effectiveness. But we’re hiding the fact that we’re using slavery, so we’re not even doing that.
We will not continue to use slavery. We will instead halt the war on drugs and try to decriminalize the nonviolent activities that are used to promote slavery.
How do we get there?
This is, unfortunately, a radical undertaking. We need it, but it’s a collection of sweeping changes, it requires us to allocate a ton of money, train a bunch of people — even getting qualified teachers will be difficult — and then we end up with a lot of former police officers who are disgruntled, probably have firearms, and probably want to prove to America that traditional policing is necessary and we’ll have anarchy without it.
One early step is a firearm buyback program and firearm restrictions. Then we need to reduce the police force’s armaments. We also need to reduce poverty in a significant way — a basic income would reduce crime and, with it, the need for police. We also need to end the war on drugs as soon as possible, forbidding for-profit prisons at the same time.
Unfortunately, legal simplifications will be outrageously difficult to enact. Laws aren’t passed just to make lives difficult; they each have their own reasons and histories. And the transition from a paid lawyer model to a public ombuds model will not be particularly well received.
We can make large inroads on the number of police and police power. It’s within our reach. It just won’t be easy.