Time to dismantle the police?

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The killing of George Floyd, on video, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, and the subsequent police brutality against protestors and journalists across the United States, has popularised longstanding calls to defund or dismantle the police. On Sunday, this call was taken up by the Minneapolis Council, who voted to disband its police force and to 're-create systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.'

Woman holds poster 'No knees on necks' while police stand in background  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)It’s a radical approach, but it’s one that is making more and more sense to people who are questioning the purpose of our police forces, after acknowledging that what happened to Mr Floyd, and what is happening to protestors across the United States, is neither an aberration nor something that happens ‘over there’. State violence against Black and brown people is built into the very fabric of our systems, both in the United States and in Australia.

In Australia, our settler-colonial legal system is founded on the dispossession of Aboriginal land and the denial of sovereignty. State violence was used to achieve this dispossession in the frontier wars, and it continues to be used to maintain our inherently unjust claim to sovereignty. As a direct result, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be harassed and brutalised by police on our streets.

Just last week, a police officer was filmed pinning an Indigenous teenager’s hands behind his back before sweep kicking his legs out from under him, leaving him to slam face first into the paving. When asked about the police officer’s conduct, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said he was likely 'having a bad day', while Police Minister David Elliott emphasised that Sydney is 'not Minnesota', before claiming that 'the response from the police was not unprovoked'.

'I was just as disturbed about the threat from a young person to physically assault a police officer as I was with the response from the police officer', he went on to say, before emphasising, 'there are levels of authority there that really command respect'.

Do they, though? Is it reasonable to expect respect for such an unjust system? Is it reasonable to be ‘just as disturbed’ by a teenager swearing and making empty threats, as you are about the systematic use of state violence against Aboriginal people?

It is this very over-policing of Aboriginal people that leads directly to over-incarceration. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most incarcerated people in the world, making up 27 per cent of our prison population, despite being just 3 per cent of the general population. That’s a remarkable statistic and it gets even worse because the violence continues in custody.

 

'In the face of such a comprehensive failure of action, can we have any faith that the criminal justice system, as currently conceived, can operate to keep all of us safe?'

 

In 2015, for example, David Dungay Jr was forcibly restrained by five guards when he insisted on finishing a pack of biscuits. In an earlier echo of Mr Floyd’s killing, Mr Dungay called out 'I can’t breathe' twelve times as he was moved and restrained by guards kneeling on his back. In response, he was told to stop resisting and injected with sedatives.  Moments later, he stopped breathing. No one has been held accountable.

Since the completion of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, at least 432 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody. No one has been held accountable.

It’s been almost 30 years since the Royal Commission and things have only gotten worse, with the Indigenous incarceration rate nearly doubling. Many of the recommendations – such as decriminalising public intoxication, not fining people more than they can afford, and not imprisoning people for unpaid fines — have never been implemented. Most significantly, there has been a complete failure to implement the core recommendation to respect the right of Aboriginal people to self-determination.

In the face of such a comprehensive failure of action, can we have any faith that the criminal justice system, as currently conceived, can operate to keep all of us safe?

On Saturday, thousands gathered across Australia to protest ongoing state violence against Aboriginal people. After having originally granted authorisation, police in Sydney sought to de-authorise the protest, claiming that revised crowd estimates created excessive public health risks. Their application in the Supreme Court was successful at first instance, but the Court of Appeal granted a last-minute order authorising the protest. Despite this, the largely peaceful protest concluded with police cornering protesters inside Central Station and pepper spraying several at close range.

And so, we must ask: are our police forces keeping us safe? All of us?

Poverty, discrimination and disempowerment cannot be solved with more policing. What if we took the money that is currently spent on policing and spent it on supporting the community? Surely, we would all be safer if everyone had adequate housing and enough money to pay for their daily needs. What if we employed social workers and health care professionals as first responders, instead of police, and prioritised diversity and representation in their ranks?

It might seem a little too radical, but the status quo certainly isn’t working.

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a human rights specialist. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Woman holds poster 'No knees on necks' while police stand in background (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, police abolition, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, policing, police brutality, George

 

 

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Further to Cristy Clark's article dated 9 June 2020 "Time to dismantle the Police", I am compelled to express my complete disagreement with the following extract from that article which states as follows:- "Surely, we would all be safer if everyone had adequate housing and enough money to pay for their daily needs. What if we employed social workers and health care professionals as first responders, instead of police, and prioritised diversity and representation in their ranks?" In this regard, I agree 100% that there are now far too many indigenous men and women in prison in Australia. It is a national disgrace and I would be prepared to take part in a peaceful demonstration to advocate the abolition of the various policies and procedures that have led to this shameful situation. However, it's completely irresponsible for anyone of influence to contemplate proposing that the Police should be abolished. I live in Queensland and the Police in this State are not demons or killers 'hell bent' on attacking indigenous people. If you abolish the Police who is going to detect and capture the mainly white criminals (such as ice traffickers and armed robbers) in order to maintain the safety of our families and everyone else's family, especially indigenous families whose safety and welfare is increasingly at risk. Whipping ourselves and the Police for past injustices inflicted on the Australian indigenous populations is not a 'fix' to the problems raised by Dr Clark. A more balanced and well thought out approach is required, and any such approach must include a robust assessment of the pro's and con's of various options being proposed. This is not the time for 'over the top' knee jerk reactions which will seriously undermine better strategies and policies which could be implemented to improve the lives of our indigenous brothers and sisters who, after all, actually own all the land we live on. Yours sincerely Chris Begley
Chris Begley | 09 June 2020


Only someone with the most naively rosy view of human nature could possibly believe dismantling the police would lead to anything other than a massive upswing in crime. If the police are failing to keep everyone safe, the answer is not to create a situation in which no one is kept safe. The mere existence of the police is the greatest deterrent to crime. It's certainly true the police need reform. I was amazed that people were shocked at the footage of the aboriginal kid being swept off his feet by the copper. I've seen cops do similar things dozens of times, and in this respect they are often 'colour blind'. However, I don't see how giving them less money will fix this. If anything, won't the opposite be necessary? They need to be better trained, both in terms of their physical response protocols, but also in terms of their understanding of sociology, psychology, mental illness etc. Perhaps, in order to reform the system, the standards for acceptance into the police academy need to be drastically raised. Perhaps it should be a much more high paying profession only available to those capable of achieving an extremely high degree of physical and mental excellence, and who undergo the most stringent training and ethical formation... But look, now i've ended up with an equally ridiculous utopian suggestion!
Josh | 09 June 2020


I must say I do like the idea of dismantling our police forces. I well remember the day the Victorian Police Force chose to darken their uniforms. To change from the lighter blue to the darker blue. Why? I would suggest that with the change of colour came permission to adopt a tougher stance and appear more threatening. Maybe that was not the whole aim but it certainly appears to me to have had that effect. What if we didn't dismantle the police but allowed them to wear brighter colours?
Tom Kingston | 09 June 2020


Great discussion. Police have changed considerably over the last 30 years and not for the better. They used to be a community support, there to help and diffuse situations that may arise. Police were dressed in a shirt and pants. Now they wear combat attire and are trained to react rather than negotiate. They have become something to fear, rather than a trusted support. If you are white and wealthy, they will not hurt you, but the poor and disadvantaged are abused. This is divisive for our society and terribly unfair. As we've seen there is a tipping point where all community will suffer and the downtrodden will rebel. We demand equity and police need to be part of our community as a support and we need transparency, so that we can build trust. There are many changes desperately needed to regain peace for all.
Cate | 09 June 2020


May I suggest a radical but far from utopian suggestion: encouragement of the self-regulation that comes with living in the Spirit of Christ, which is accessible to all who believe?
John RD | 10 June 2020


Has abolishing the police caught on in Australia? In the USA, socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supports abolishing police, prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Department of Homeland Security. She supports Black Lives Matter (BLM) and a Green New Deal—effectively, a government takeover of the economy. However the modern state claims a monopoly on the use of force, so the abolition of police directly attacks the state as an organization. BLM wants firearms abolished, but an armed militia of themselves to police black neighbourhoods, in effect, becoming a de facto, totalitarian government. Yet the worst cities in the US have been run by “progressive” Democrats for decades. George Floyd was murdered in a city and state run by Democrats where the chief prosecutor declined to bring charges in dozens of cases of police killings. Civil rights veteran Shelby Steele said, “Blacks have never been less oppressed in American society.” Aboriginal Bess Price says systemic racism doesn’t exist in Australia, and that “those who suffer most are routinely ignored” by political activists. For a hundred years, Left-wing extremists have been exploiting Black grievances for political motives. African-American, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, was seduced by communist propaganda. He died in a Siberian gulag in 1939.
Ross Howard | 10 June 2020


This country is not the cowboy, wild west, immature cartoon that is the USA. The obvious need for reform in the USA does not have to apply anywhere else in the real world. To follow in the USA's footsteps condemns those who follow to decline into the depths. Human nature is such that to dismantle the police force would result immediately in violent anarchy as we have seen in the USA over recent days when the police became ineffective. The answer to the title question in any civilised society can only be "No" given Humanity's abysmal record in numerous attempts to create Utopia.
john frawley | 10 June 2020


I do not want to live in a state devoid of police protection! I like reading Eureka Street and donate to help keep it going, but if it is going to shift so far to the Left as to become a mouthpiece for Marxist ideology, you can count me out. For the most part, our police on the ground in Australia do a terrific job, putting their lives on the line for us all every day. Four Victorian police officers gave their lives to the job just a few weeks ago. I find the publication of this article by a magazine produced in the same state quite shameful really. Our police force on the ground should be applauded for the way it has handled Covid-management and everything else thrown at it this year.
Brenda Fearon | 10 June 2020


Regarding David Dungay, the facts as presented leave a lot out and anyone who is interested can read the Coroner’s report online. David suffered from poorly controlled Type 1 diabetes and from schizophrenia. When he died, he was a patient at Long Bay Prison’s hospital. David’s blood sugar had become very high during the day and the hospital nurse had advised prison officers to monitor David’s diet. When the prison guards saw him eating biscuits, they felt a duty to stop him for reason of his blood sugar level. He refused and responded with verbal aggression. The officers then moved David forcibly to a different cell fitted with video monitoring. By then, David was very agitated and was injected with a sedative by the hospital nurse. That sedative was not the cause of his death. The autopsy showed that David died before the drug had entered his system. The Coroner concluded that David died from an irregular heart rhythm. David had two predisposing factors for arrhythmia: high blood sugar and medication he was taking for psychosis. Experts advised that when David said, “I can’t breathe,” he likely did so because his heart was beating so irregularly that he was not receiving adequate oxygen. His difficulty breathing was because this sick man’s heart was failing, not because prison guards had a knee on his neck for nine minutes. Let’s not #MeToo this. Any implication that David was killed by police is simply wrong and does not accord with the Coroner’s findings. David died of natural causes, exacerbated by the stress of the encounter with wardens, who nonetheless appeared to be doing what they thought best. God rest his soul.
Brenda Fearon | 10 June 2020


I think women should be 95% of the police force. As women are known to have the ability to use both sides of their brains concurrently, and at all times.
AO | 10 June 2020


Cristy, From 1967 until 1975 I was an unsworn officer (Public Servant) with the N.S.W. Police Service. I worked with many ordinary Police, both male and female My 'boss' was usually a Superintendent . With a few very rare exceptions, the Police I worked with were dedicated and hardworking as well as decent human beings. They reflected the values of the society around them. I would suggest that rather than singling them out, we should examine our own values. I also saw the incident in Surrey Hills on the TV news . I was shocked. Like the U.S. situation, the Officer concerned should be dismissed from the Force after due process. I grew up in Western New South Wales and soon became aware of the racism in my community.While always courteous to the local Indigenous community, I soon became aware of the disconnect between the white Angelo/Italian community and the indigenous community. As a retired teacher , I firmly believe education of both communities will engender respect and tolerance for ALL cultures and traditions in this Nation. We need the Police Service to protect ALL members of our community. Dwelling on the past is not good for our future;we must move forward together in solidarity.
Gavin O'Brien | 10 June 2020


John Frawley, I think a large part of the problem is the postmodern rejection of the very idea of "human nature" by those who believe that reality is merely a social construct engineered by science and political will.
John RD | 11 June 2020


Dismantling the police in Australia would, I think, be like amputating your leg because you suffer from corns, which can be easily removed by a podiatrist. There was an extremely interesting article in yesterday's Australian by Henry Ergas about the history and causes of Indigenous disadvantage in Australia which is well worth reading. I think that the Black Lives Matter marches were held to express outrage at the current situations many of our Indigenous fellow citizens live in. There is a way out of that as so many, such as the late Sir Douglas Nicholls, Charles Perkins and Marcia Langton and so many others, past and present, have demonstrated. Much work for real person to person reconciliation has been done, such as the remarkable initiatives undertaken throughout the Catholic Educational System in Australia. This issue is not something which can be solved only by initiatives coming from top down, though these are part of the solution, but by everyone using their democratic rights to work through the system. People like the late Eddie Mabo were very practically focussed and ably assisted by the likes of Bryan Keon-Cohen QC. Our situation is not directly comparable to what has recently happened in the USA and the solutions are different and hopefully much more easily achievable but will require real concerted effort.
Edward Fido | 13 June 2020


Edward, regrettably it appears the exercise of "democratic rights to work through the system" is regarded as irrelevant and futile by those who hold that racism is so entrenched as to be "systemic" and that the use of a conflict model and means which include violent demonstration are necessary for attaining justice. I don't think this is what Pope Paul VI had in mind in his prophetic encyclical, "On the Development of Peoples", where he declares: "For peace is not the absence of warfare . . . it is fashioned by efforts directed day after day towards the establishment of the ordered universe willed by God, with a more perfect form of justice among humanity's peoples." Nor do I think it's what the tribal elders of Balgo's Kukatja people in the early 1970s had mind when they identified "grog" and the newly arrived "Black Panther story" from the US as the greatest threats to their aspirations and future.
John RD | 15 June 2020


On joining some peaceful Extinction Rebellion protests in Melbourne last year, I was surprised at the level of over-policing. Large phalanxes of police prevented movement in one direction & another; all of us were extensively filmed by police camera crews; & squad cars full of police watched us during 'off' times, e.g. as having meals. If this is what our tax dollars are paying for, it may we be time to de-fund & re-think the police.
John Macgregor | 19 June 2020


While it might be true that many people have lost faith in the police force we have, I do not think the same number of people have lost faith in the idea of the police force. While it would be ideal if many problems were addressed before they got to this point,I don't think de-funding the police force and seeing society disolve into anarchy is the answer and when a women reaches the point of domestic violence that necessitates intervention, I am afraid a social worker wont cut it. She needs the protection of someone in authority. Lets stick to the model and do it right
geoff Duke | 24 June 2020


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