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  • Jim Rather

SBX and Abolition in the Criminal Injustice System

There have been many calls for police reform and police defunding in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Parks Police Department. Overwhelming groups of American voters support police reform, at least in principle, with a current minority of voters supporting reallocating resources away from police departments to social services. Street protests have elevated these proposals to prominence not only in the media but also the very streets of the United States, with varying success in policy passage. However, the most all encompassing position in the public discussion about police brutality has been to abolish the police entirely.

Yet to many voters and members of the general public this proposal is markedly unclear. Typical of many political issues, its exact meaning has often been distorted or outright annihilated for political gain. Does police abolition mean not having anyone to help if someone is trying to harm me? Is abolition something that can happen tomorrow? Simply put, abolition means the ending of so much of public life that has been criminalized, whether that be drug offenses, houselessness or far vaguer offenses like disorderly conduct. The argument goes that when one ends enforcement of the vast majority of the penal code, there isn’t a need for a standing professional force of police that takes up so much of government budgets.

The logic says that this benefits the public in two ways. First it does so in a negative sense by preventing the caging of offenders and putting them into situations where they are influenced to commit more crimes in the future and endure worse mental health outcomes. Secondly, the money freed from the police can now go into the funding of human needs. This means housing, healthcare, food, water, and education. With these valuable aspects of our human existence provided for, the argument states that many of the preconditions for violent crime will disappear. Thus police abolitionists say that this proposal will actually benefit those concerned about violent crime in the first place.

Many abolitionists do indeed differ on the exact nature of what post-police public safety forces would look like. The most common model discussed at present is that social workers would replace the vast majority of police functions given that most police work is dominated by enforcing minor offenses. Then in the places where police officers used to encounter those with mental illness, mental health experts would also replace them.

Given SBX’s diverse staff, it’s progressive worldview, and work with youth and their families, how does this relate to our policy prescriptions and views on organizing? SBX believes in a program of counselors not cops on school campuses. While not adopting a program to abolish the police in general, similar motivations to free up resources for human needs are present in the positions we advocate. For far too many school districts across the country, precious funding dollars have gone to ever expanding school police instead of the vital nurses and social/emotional support services who make a positive difference in student’s lives. When added to broader political concerns about revenue, it is exceedingly common for school districts to have tight and underfunded school budgets. This comes at the expense of school districts with impoverished and historically alienated communities.

Then many of those same school districts face immense pressure to have armed school police departments on campus due to public safety concerns. This is especially so after the notable mass casualty events that occur far too often at our schools. However, this does not necessitate the creation of school police forces as the only method of direct security. If for instance one wishes to prevent school yard fights, the presence of counselors or even security guards trained outside of the law enforcement mentality can do. The traditional police may still be called for violent crime caused by non students and patrol school property at night. This does not require police work and criminalization of adolescent behavior becoming the norm in our youth’s school lives.

What we believe is most damaging about school police forces having school district level departments is their inclination to see the world in the lens of arrests and criminalization. Given the science that indicates youth do not achieve major brain development completion until roughly age 25, many youth will unfortunately engage in damaging behavior. When confronted with human beings who are bound to make mistakes, some graver than others, we do not believe it is good to have law enforcement unconsciously view children as adult offenders.

We see this phenomenon take place in the all too common behavior of school police officers using unnecessary force against children far smaller than them in size. We see this in how law enforcement officers will introduce children to the school to prison pipeline in racially disproportionate arrests and incarceration against Black and Brown youth. This is not a condemnation against individual police officers or even those voters and policy makers who are desperate to avoid violence at schools. No doubt there are many good intentions present.

Yet, it is our reasoning that the school police are a counterproductive use of school budgets at best and methods of racially disproportionate mass incarceration at worst. This is a position that can unite the reasoning behind outright police abolition along with fiscal conservatives and parents of all stripes. After the murder of George Floyd and so many other innocent victims of overpolicing, abolitionist and defund the police sentiments will continue to grow. This is a wakeup call to elected officials and voters to pay attention to these pertinent issues of our times. The prioritization of counselors instead of cops at school campuses is a good start.

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