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Police abolition ‘looks like Palo Alto,’ says professor Hakeem Jefferson at race, criminal justice panel

‘Best and brightest’ scholars of race and criminal justice draw 1,642 webinar attendees

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“Is the system too broken to fix?” political science professor Hakeem Jefferson asked nine leading scholars of race and criminal justice at a virtual webinar that drew more than 1,600 attendees on Thursday.

Jenn Jackson, a political science professor at Syracuse University who described herself as an abolitionist “uninvested in reform,” gave a clear answer: “Yes.”

“The idea of reforming the police is almost like hustling backward,” Jackson said. The institution of police “is created on a foundation of anti-Blackness, racism, inequality and systemic structural differences.” 

“To me, we should not be thinking about ways to puzzle together” over reforms, she continued.

On Twitter after the panel, Jackson elaborated, “Divesting and investing is work that will have to be done iteratively, starting with removing funding for police. Specifically, rather than funding more police, taking those monies and investing them directly in life-sustaining processes for vulnerable communities.”

Several panelists endorsed the two-pronged strategy of smaller, short-term reforms with an eye toward the ultimate goal of abolishing the police and dismantling the American carceral system.

“Before we get [to abolition],” key actors can “meaningfully intervene in policing,” said Vesla Weaver, a professor of political science and sociology at Johns Hopkins. “The first place we need to intervene is to radically scale back police contact with American youth,” Weaver contended. “Why aren’t we making policing of young children an absolute last resort?”

Megan Ming Francis, a political science professor at the University of Washington, expressed less optimism about the potential for meaningful reform, but agreed that incremental reform to policing in America must include the “end goals” of abolition and “the end of the system.” 

“If this system has never worked for Black people, why is there any point in reforming it?” Francis asked, pointing to the “utter failure of reform” to fundamentally change a system that “has never worked for Black people,” nor “treated Black people as full citizens.”

Allison Harris, a political science professor at Yale University, concurred. “The police system in the United States is working exactly the way it’s supposed to work, the way it’s always worked,” she said. 

Until — if ever — abolition is achieved, “We focus on the end of cash bail [and] expanding mental health; we disarm police; we stop funding any more jails and prisons,” Francis said.

In contrast, Jonathan Mummolo, Princeton University professor of politics and public affairs, expressed concern about abolitionist sentiment discouraging incremental, “near-term changes [that] can help people.” 

“I try very hard to understand the inclination to toss the system and start over,” said Mummolo, whose research involves the efficacy of police reform.

Ayobami Laniyonu, a professor of criminology and socio-legal studies at the University of Toronto, expressed the opposite concern: that pursuing reform might harm the longer-term movement for abolition. 

“I’m personally increasingly concerned about the ways in which the language of reform legitimizes a system that we know will adapt in the tools that it uses to harm, exploit and ultimately kill people of color, poor people, homeless people, people with mental illnesses,” Laniyonu said.

Mummolo and Laniyonu both noted variability in police departments’ receptivity to reform and intervention.

“There is a lot of variation in the attitudes among police administrators toward adopting, say, different practices with an eye toward reducing inequity,” Mummolo said. 

While Laniyonu pointed to what he called “spectacular failure” in some departments with which he worked while performing field research, he also noted that “the best part of that experience was learning and meeting police officers and police chiefs who seemed to have more passion for reform than I did.”

Laniyonu called his experience working alongside reform-minded police “encouraging” but concluded that he does not consider it a “good use of my time” to work on “piecemeal reform that may not be effective in the long-term, given all we know about how efficiently, effectively and rapidly these agencies will adapt to deploy new techniques of violence, coercion and harm.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of political science Ariel White identified herself as white before saying, “in a lot of ways, I personally already live in a world with local abolition of a certain kind.”

“When I walk out the door, we have very low rates of crime [and] incarceration, and we have minimal police presence,” White said. “And no one comes to my neighborhood and says … ‘How will you be safe without the police?’” she continued, referencing what Jackson had previously quoted as a popular concern about abolition. 

“We already know what at least partial abolition looks like,” White said. “It’s my lived experience and that of millions of Americans in communities not marginalized and criminalized on the basis of race and class.”

Jefferson added, “When people ask what abolition looks like — it looks like Palo Alto!”

“There are a lot of people who live in places where the police presence is more minimal than it is in places like the ones where I grew up,” he continued.

One method of reducing police presence, suggested University of Denver political science professor Laurel Eckhouse, is to separate and reassign to other authorities various problems currently delegated to the police, such as “the problems of people who don’t have housing … mental health issues … [and] even things like traffic.”

“If you start thinking about those as their own problems,” Eckhouse said, “I don’t think anyone would start from first principles and say what we should do is send in armed agents of the state.” 

“We can have all kinds of changes to these systems that actually address problems without exposing us to the risk of coercion and violence and force, and without exposing race/class-subjugated communities to the disproportionate power of those agencies,” Eckhouse said.

University of Michigan political science professor Christian Davenport suggested two frameworks for considering reform and the future of police: legacy and coercive power.

“We think, ‘Well, let’s change the purpose of the institution, let’s change the practices of the institution, let’s change the membership of the institution, let’s change the spaces within which the institution comes into contact with the population,’” Davenport said. “What about the legacy of the institution?”

“As we talk about reform of the institution … legacies need to be included in that discussion,” Davenport continued. “What kind of life would we like to have, and what kind of role — if any — do these institutions that have coercive force play into it?”

Davenport also noted the intersection of “coercion, force and power” in guiding the future of the institution: “Who wields weapons on behalf of the state and political authorities, for whom and towards what end?”

The panelists, whom Jefferson called “leading experts on issues of race and its intersection with policing and the criminal justice system,” also discussed the role of academia in guiding policy reform.

“Truth and justice are inseparable,” Mummolo said. “We seek the truth because we know that without it, we’re not going to get justice.” 

“The best scientific evidence we have shows that police exhibit substantial bias toward civilians of color, especially Black civilians,” he continued. “The more data we get and the smarter we get about analyzing it, actually, the more bias we uncover.”

Mummolo added, “historically, social science has devalued policy-relevant research, especially as it relates to marginalized communities.”

“We need to show the study of race the respect and care that it deserves,” he said. 

Weaver said that academia itself has devoted insufficient attention to artistic and activist expressions of marginalized communities’ lived experiences. She pointed to Malcolm X’s statement that “a Black man in America lives in a police state; he doesn’t live in any democracy,” as well as Amiri Baraka’s characterization of police violence as “white cop, Black death syndrome,” calling for more attention in academia and public policy to these and other speeches, art and oral histories of marginalized communities.

“Somehow, academics missed it,” Weaver contended. “Somehow, policymakers didn’t hear. And somehow, America went on living.” 

Collaboration between academics, activists and policy-makers was also featured prominently in Jefferson’s explanation of the intent of the panel.

“Though the real work of reform will likely be carried out by activists and everyday citizens who petition their government for a redress of grievances, our job as scholars is to help clarify and to provide context for the horror we are bearing witness to at this moment,” Jefferson wrote in a statement to The Daily before the event.

“I hope that our conversation will help folks better understand how deeply entrenched racism and racial violence are in this country, while giving them a sense of what is possible as we build a future that is much brighter and more just than our present,” Jefferson added.

Contact Jackie O’Neil at jroneil ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Jackie O'Neil '21 is a senior staff writer and the former Managing Editor of the Grind for Volumes 255 and 256. She's a Richmond, Virginia native who loves constitutional history, pretending to be a serious triathlete, waking up at the crack of dawn and Gilmore Girls – in no particular order. Contact her at jroneil 'at' stanford.edu.