Calls to “defund the police” reverberated throughout communities across the US in the summer of 2020, when millions took to the streets to protest a brutal, unchecked, and racist system of police violence and control. Then came the backlash. Since the initial push by activists and protestors to get the public to consider alternatives to endlessly increasing police spending, a forceful chorus has pushed in the opposite direction, demanding more funding for more police who should be given more power over our lives. “Defund the police” has been criticized for being not only a “bad slogan” but a political pipe dream that fails to reckon with the messy realities of maintaining “public safety.”
However, as Geo Maher argues in his latest book, A World without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete, America’s policing system is a demonstrably terrible way to keep people and communities safe. In fact, Maher writes, police “don’t prevent violence, and they don’t make any measurable contribution to public safety… The police have wormed their way into the very foundations of American society and work every day to make themselves—and their bloated budgets—seem indispensable.” In this special conversation for the TRNN podcast, Police Accountability Report Host Stephen Janis speaks with Maher about his groundbreaking assessment of American policing and the practical necessity of collectively devising better models for communal safety.
Pre-Production/Studio: Stephen Janis
Post Production: Stephen Janis, Stephen Frank
Stephen Janis: Hello, this is Stephen Janis. I’m the host of the Police Accountability Report. Now, usually when you listen to our podcast, we’re talking about some specific police action or some sort of malfeasance on behalf of law enforcement. But today we’re going to do something a little bit different. We want to broaden the conversation about police and include some critical context and history. And to do that, we’re going to be speaking to some people who’ve written books about policing; critical books, historical books, to give a different perspective on how policing can be reformed. And even in this case, how policing can be abolished. And today we’re going to do that by talking to an author named Geo Maher, who has written a book, A World Without Police.
It’s a fascinating look at policing, not just the flaws of policing and some of the misconceptions and the mythology that surrounds policing, but actually looking at what a world would be like without police. I mean, let’s remember, policing is a recent invention of governance. It didn’t really exist till the mid-19th century. So it’s not something that has always been part of human communities. And Geo really takes an interesting historical perspective and looks forward and says, what kind of community could we have without policing, and is there an alternative? And so today I’m going to discuss with him his book and some of the ideas he has about what a world is like without policing. And also just what we don’t understand about the critical conversation about policing, and how it’s been improperly framed and controlled and in some cases manipulated by what I would call the law enforcement-industrial complex. So Geo, I want to thank you so much for joining us.
Geo Maher: Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Stephen Janis: So I guess what I wanted to start out with, what’s so fascinating about your book, is that you probably have the most complete step by step or point by point reputation of all the arguments made of why we need policing. And it’s very interesting to read. And I was wondering just from the top, you’re dealing with, what I’ve noticed with policing is there’s this sort of… You’re either for or against it, it’s a very ideological sort of dialectic that comes up. You’re either for policing or you’re against policing. You’ve laid out a very strong, I would say, policy case against policing. Why do you think policing kind of ends up in this different… Taya and I always joke. We always say, no one says, are you for or against public works or for or against sanitation? Those are government processes that happen without the ideological rhetoric. First off as a person who has sort of broken down many of the arguments, why do you think policing is always couched in this ideological spectrum of discussion?
Geo Maher: I mean, on the one hand, of course, you’ve got the fact that the police commit so many brutal abuses every day. That of course there, there’s a great deal great deal of voices in this course against, right? Against police abuse in particular, and increasingly against policing as a whole. Before, though, I think is an under-recognized piece, which is the fact that policing expands, justifies itself, legitimizes ever-expanding budgets through systematic bullying.
It bullies cities, it bullies municipalities. It attempts to cow the public as a whole into this you’re with us, or you’re against us kind of line. And that has worked for the police over more than a century. We’ve seen police power increase. We’ve seen police claim control and domination over ever broader spheres of society, schools, public transit, public libraries, places that never had police before. And so, one of the things I try to argue in the book is that policing is an expanding force, but it expands precisely through this kind of for us or against us rhetoric. And the ultimate horizon of that, I argue, is fascistic, right? It is no oversight. It is the police get whatever they want in terms of resources and pay nothing in terms of public oversight from the people as a whole.
Stephen Janis: Now also, one of the things that’s interesting that runs throughout your book is the idea that policing and capitalism are critically intertwined. Do you think one can exist without the other? I mean, do you think in this idea of coming up with an alternative policing, first you have to address capitalism, or is this something we can address simultaneously, or can policing exist without capitalism? It’s a very interesting thing. Could you expound upon that a little bit.
Geo Maher: For sure. And the question is a very basic one, right? If you have dramatic inequalities of wealth in society, there’s going to be someone to patrol that wealth, to patrol the borders, the boundaries, the segregated territories and cities that it presupposes, you don’t have rich people who don’t look for support through the armed wing of the state, and if not, their own private police. And this extends to beyond what we understand as capitalism strictly understood to the broader category of racial capitalism, right? In other words, the deep intertwined relationship between white supremacy on a global scale, colonialism, and capitalism.
And so not only do we have a society marked by economic inequalities that need police to patrol them, we also have racial hierarchies that also generate their own fears and anxieties that provoke police response. So you’ve got the police throughout US history, in particular, responding both to the demands of the rich, demands of the wealthy, demands to protect the holders of private property. But you’ve also got the police being to assuage white fear, to deal with this kind of white anxiety, particularly anytime Black Americans make gains when it comes to liberty, mobility, and when slavery is abolished, after the civil rights movement. When more demands for equality are made, once segregation is broken down in the city, suddenly you have the police there to guard, patrol, and uphold those inequalities.
Stephen Janis: Which brings me to one of the really interesting points that you make that I think is not heard enough in the police debate, which is do police, and this is something I’ve always wondered in Baltimore, covering policing in Baltimore, do police actually stem violence or do they cause violence? I mean, I think that’s an interesting point you make in the book. Can you talk about that a little bit? Because I don’t think people fully understand the implications of that argument.
Geo Maher: Yeah, so I mean the one question is a very debated statistical question. Does policing correspond to, and indeed have a causal relationship with reductions in crime on the one hand, but violence more particularly. And we even… I find myself slipping into the question of phrasing things as crime, when ultimately I don’t care about crime. I care about violence in communities and whether or not communities are safe places to live. Do the police contribute to that in any measurable way? Even on a very basic level, the answer is no. There are small statistical correlations between if there’s a cop standing on the corner, do you commit a crime right in front of that cop or commit an act of violence in front of that cop, there is a reduction there. But all that means is that outdoor, visible crime might be reduced.
And that’s a small fraction of what we’re actually concerned with. Indoor crime, crime behind closed doors, crime when there are police not on the corner is not reduced. And you can see this through a bunch of different statistical approaches. You can look at different cities with different police staffing levels. Do you see a difference in terms of violence? No, you don’t. You can see cities over time where policing either goes up or down and look for whether or not that corresponds to a reduction in violence. It does not. And you have these amazing moments like when the police go on strike in New York and crime doesn’t go up, it actually goes down and people are happier and people are reporting fewer instances of violence.
And so police, even on that basic level, do not prevent crime. And many analysts, criminologists, professionals have shown this, have argued this, no one wants to hear it, as it were. The flip side of that is even more convincing, which is the fact that we simply don’t know what a society would look like counterfactually if the police didn’t exist. If all of that money was dedicated to building actually strong communities, to preventing violence, to building institutions that are actually meant to make communities safe, when from the very beginning, Americans have been dedicated to the task of destroying communities and upholding violence.
Stephen Janis: Yeah, you know it’s really interesting, because when they started to roll back on stop and frisk in New York, the homicide rate actually went down significantly. But I think you also ask a really fundamental and crucial question, which is not asked enough: We have this definition of crime, but what does it mean? And I think it’s interesting. Maybe if you don’t mind discussing that a little bit, because you said I… You said something very interesting, I don’t really, I don’t know if the word is acknowledge, but the word ‘crime’ is not as meaningful as we might think it is. What, do you mind kind of talking about that a little bit, because I think it’s kind of fascinating.
Geo Maher: I mean, I just think we need to be incredibly careful about slipping into a law and order mindset. Again, I have really no interest in precisely what policing has been obsessing over for the past 30 years, which is small, so-called quality of life, crime broken windows, policing, all of which is a different way of phrasing the systematic harassment that police put communities of color and poor communities through every day. These are not what concern us, right? And they shouldn’t be used as a leverage point for expanding policing, for expanding the police grip on communities. What we are concerned about, and I think this is shared by many people is, what is actually for example, today in the year 2021, what is actually causing this apparent increase in violence in the nation?
Again, we need to be super skeptical of the statistics and the way the data’s being leveraged, especially because it’s being used to argue that defunding is a dead end, or that this is even caused by defunding, which is absurd because there has been no defunding to speak of. Instead we need to think very hard about what is happening under COVID and the absence of economic opportunities in a situation in which many young people are being forced back into their homes with their parents and essentially have no outlet for what they would be doing normally, and no economic opportunities. Of course this has huge implications for the way that violence can expand.
And these are the kind of questions that we need to be asking, because again, these are questions that we are concerned about. And the reality is that, and this is why I phrase the project as making police obsolete, building on what Angela Davis and many others have said about prisons, namely the police and policing and prisons will not go away until we have the kind of society that does not call the police into being. Again, that’s a question of abolishing capitalism. It’s a question abolishing white supremacy and patriarchy. But it’s also this question of thinking hard and taking very seriously the reasons that people bring the police into the community because they feel vulnerable. Because in a world of police, in which the police are presented and understood as the only possible solution, that is who they call when they’re feeling vulnerable. We need to change that equation.
Stephen Janis: That’s really interesting because you said something in the book that really stuck out to me, you called it a form – Because I live in a community that’s beset by violence – and you called it a form of blackmail, in a sense, of blackmailing these communities like ours, like Baltimore, which is extremely violent. But on the other hand, we have this horrible police department. Why did you use that, I guess, metaphor for the relationship between violence and community and policing?
Geo Maher: Yeah, I mean, and police engage in straightforward blackmail all the time. Even before George Floyd when the Minneapolis city council and the mayor tried to divert a small amount of resources away from the police and toward early intervention anti-violence programs. People were calling 911 and when the phone call was transferred they would say, don’t call us, call your city council, right? And don’t report crimes to us, talk to city council. That is straightforward blackmail and what’s really interesting though is, and I also call the police a protection racket, again, classic definition of a protection racket. If you don’t give us what we want, violence will be unleashed.
Now on the one hand, the police are not necessarily the ones that are unleashing it, but they’re contributing to it significantly. And then the reality is that you have situations in which the police do inflict this violence on communities. If they don’t get what they want, they see their role as to step aside, allow violence to flourish, and that justifies their power, their role. This has been a bullying tactic that’s been used for decades, if not the greater part of a century. And it’s been incredibly successful.
Stephen Janis: It’s interesting because I have always had sort of the thought, just covering policing in Baltimore, that police actually, in some ways… We’ve had this famous group, the gun trace task force that robbed residents, stole drugs and then sold them, and all sorts of stuff. And I almost often thought that, is it possible that police are responsible for setting off a chain of causality that creates more violence? In other words, in the community, because they’re so disruptive in places like Baltimore, where we had zero tolerance, where a hundred thousand people were arrested. Are police actually causing the problem they purport to solve?
Geo Maher: Oh, most definitely on many levels, right? The most fundamental one is by arresting people and tearing them out of their communities, by putting them in prisons where the only skills that they learn are not reintegration skills, they’re skills for participating in the black market economy. And when they’re returned to communities without any job opportunities in which the only possibilities that remain for them, especially if they’re felons, is to continue to engage in illicit activity, which puts them at a greater risk, of course, of being re-incarcerated of being engaged in violence on all of these levels. This is the main overarching way that prisons and policing contribute to and deepen violence and make our societies much, much less safe.
What would it look like to take those resources, to use them to build communities, to give them to actual organizations like intervention organizations? There are organizations across the country doing this work block by block, where they intervene in potential conflicts and prevent them from becoming violence. Where they treat everyone involved, including possible perpetrators, as valuable community members. Because these are nieces and nephews and grandchildren and cousins of people in communities, and they need to be treated as such. They don’t simply out and destroy their possibility of becoming a valuable community member in the process.
Stephen Janis: Will you talk about a wide variety of alternatives? We have one in this city called Safe Streets, which is sort of the peer intervention model where people who are former offenders are paid to intervene in violent situations. It’s been expanded, it’s been touted, it’s been criticized. What do you think about that model based on your knowledge of all the different models of a Safe Streets model? Do you think that’s an effective alternative, or what do you think about it?
Geo Maher: It’s difficult because you’ve got… Most of these models exist on this broad spectrum, right? And if we’re speaking generally, you could say that models that function better are the models that are most rooted in communities, in grassroots organizations and organizing. And in so far as these models become incorporated either by the mainstream nonprofit sector or by, ultimately, city governments, they may continue to have a positive effect, certainly a better effect than the police themselves, but they do lose that sort of edge as an alternative to policing, as an alternative to the state that they once had. I mean, you find this in Northern Ireland, you find it in South Africa, you also find it with organizations like rape crisis centers in the United States and bad date lines and other grassroots attempts to reduce violence that have been since picked up, institutionalized, stripped of some of their community building possibilities and incorporated into either the nonprofits or the state.
Stephen Janis: We had a lot of conflict here because the police department, I think, viewed Safe Streets as a competitor almost, and tried to discredit it by arresting members. And have you, do you see that sort of same dynamic with policing, where community solutions of being seen as a threat to the political economy policing?
Geo Maher: Absolutely. And for old people like myself, you may remember the fact that during the LA riots, the Bloods and the Crips called the ceasefire. They said, we are putting down our weapons. We are offering a rebuilding plan for the city of Los Angeles that we ourselves will help to direct. We will help keep the city’s streets safe. We will not fight each other, and we will participate in building community. And the first thing that the LAPD did was to sabotage that, to destroy that, to pick people up, inflict violence on them, dump them in enemy territory, all in an attempt to provoke the breakdown of this historic gang ceasefire. And so again, one of the best opportunities for Los Angeles to really develop peace on the streets and really build the community was destroyed and sabotaged by the police because they are a gang, because that is their territory. They want to be the biggest gang on the streets.
Stephen Janis: I want to ask you a very practical question because I live in the neighborhood, pretty middle class, mostly African American. I think if I went and talked to my neighbors, a lot of them would say, we want more police, not less police. How would you advise people to start a conversation about this idea that there are alternatives? Because it’s very hard, in a city – We’ve had homicides right outside our front door – And how would you recommend for people who – Other than giving your book to people, which I’d like to do – Is just starting that conversation about this idea of alternatives to policing?
Geo Maher: Yeah, no, it’s a complex argument, right? And there’s no… and despite maybe what people assume, poor communities have no single line on the police, Black and Brown communities have no single line on the police. The rifts are deep, they’re ideological rifts, they are generational rifts between older people and younger members of the community. And these are rifts that have been deepened consciously by decades of the destruction of Black communities and the sort of splitting off of a sort of middle class segment. Again, this is a strategy of power, and part of what the alternative means is to rebuild community again in a way that older members of the community do see younger people on the street as potential allies, as community members, as valuable, that’s difficult. You can start though with things like having conversations about whether or not the police are actually making them safer.
The last time their house was broken into, did the police prevent that from happening? Did they recover any goods? Do they think that the police do more than a local community organization? If someone on the block is acting up, is there a way for the community to build a local, rapid response text thread that people can participate in to prevent the police from coming in to speak to them, to deal with these and deescalate these tensions. That happens informally all the time, but what would it look like to have conversations with people about the fact that that could be a generalized model for preventing the need for police in their communities.
Stephen Janis: Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting because we had, I mean, I’ve been a victim of multiple crimes and not one of them is solved, but we had local neighborhood burglar going to cars and we all kind of got together and we chased him out, so to speak, because we just watched our cars and collectively worked on it. No violence was necessary, just communicating. And that’s really fascinating. Is there any of… I mean, your book has a wide breadth of examples. Is there anything that you see in what you’ve written about in your book that provides the most hope for an alternative model now that really struck you as something that might be viable now?
Geo Maher: I mean, I think the reality though, and maybe what’s most in encouraging to me, is the fact that the world of the police, the world that the police create for themselves, the way they ensconce themselves in the heart of American society and make themselves seem essential, tries to crowd out any other horizon, any other possibility. And part of what I argue that is optimistic in the book is that the world without police already exists, right? It exists in our families, in our communities, on our blocks. And it also exists in thousands, literally thousands of organizations across the country. It exists in anti-violence organizations for people of color, for queer and trans people that exist throughout many cities. It exists in diversion programs like, as we were talking about, to keep people out of prison, to keep them out of the system. It exists in sort of organizations and models like the CAHOOTS model, which seeks to keep 911 calls out of the hands of the police and send intervention and mental health teams.
And these things have been expanding, especially in the past year. And so this world already exists. It’s not a utopia, it’s not a distant horizon. It’s something that we can build today. And we can build as this kind of active, breathing, living alternative to the world of police, which is an ever-expanding and fascistic world.
Stephen Janis: Well said. I know I promised to keep you only for 20 minutes. I want to ask you one last question. Are you surprised, and what do you make of the fact that police unions and police officers are now at the forefront of this anti-vax movement? What does that tell you about the culture of policing, and you as a person who have written extensively about it, what do you make of this?
Geo Maher: So, I mean, it’s really unsurprising in a lot of ways, the [fraternals] argue in the book, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Police Patrolmen’s Benevolent Associations, the various police associations are some of the most right wing organizations in the country. Not only did they support Trump twice, the FOP, also the Border Patrol union, also the ICE union, they supported him twice and they tried to push him to the right. And they handed him a wishlist of right-wing reforms that they hoped for. And so this is, in a way, not surprising at all. And I make a long argument about why they should be abolished, why they should be expelled from the labor movement, because they’re not really unions, but also we need to understand that they are the vehicle and the spearhead of police power. Which again, is a fascistic power, which is a power that’s tied directly to many white supremacists organizations, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers. And so in a way it’s not surprising at all.
I guess the only upside of course, is that it’s decimating their ranks at this point. I mean, these people are dropping dead of COVID left and right, and it’s almost as if they don’t realize what’s happening. Of course this makes many police superspreaders in our communities and gives us just one more argument to try to limit any contact between police and the public.
Stephen Janis: It’s interesting. I know it was my last question. You bring up one last question. When I read your book, I’m thinking, if someone read this in the future a hundred years from now, they’d be like, what kind of insanity have we created here? When you go through all the step by step that you go through, all the atrocities of policing, is this something we’re going to look back on a hundred years and say, how did we even have this institution? What on earth were we thinking?
Geo Maher: Absolutely. I mean, one of the first things that kind of critical, radical, all thinkers need to do is to historicize. And when you historize, you realize we literally have not had police for that long. In so far as we’ve had them, they certainly have not occupied all of the spaces of society they occupy today. Schools should not have police, universities and colleges should not have police, libraries should not have police. This did not exist until very recently. And so this hopefully will be simply a blip in human history, but it won’t be unless we transform society. And you could abolish the police tomorrow, and there would be private policing immediately because you still have massive gaps of wealth. You still have white supremacist structures and inequalities. And so when you just said about reshaping and transforming that world.
But part of it is the fact that you say people would be shocked, looking back. People would be shocked if they looked around them today, people would be shocked if they knew what police unions do. People would be shocked if they knew what was in these closed door meetings and negotiations between police unions and cities. Special rights, rights above and beyond the everyday citizens. And I think that’s something that would scandalize a lot.
Stephen Janis: Well, I promise I’ll only keep you for 20 minutes. This has been a fascinating conversation. And I love the book. I’m still going to be reading. There are parts of it that I just haven’t absorbed yet, but it’s called A World Without Police. Geo, I recommend to everybody who follows the Police Accountability Report, because it raises questions that we really can’t raise. And I think it’s a conversation that has to occur if the goal is to have a better community. Geo, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and appearing on our show. We really appreciate it.
Geo Maher: Of course, thank you so much for a great conversation.