The Existence of Random Dog-Killings Would Seem to Imply the Need for Some Sort of Constabulary Force
defund the police haunts us in confusing and unhelpful ways
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“Defund the police” is now two years removed from its period of greatest fervor. Few people propose outright police abolition, now, and some still complain that the call to defund the police never meant abolition, except when it did. Even most pro-abolition types now see the idea of defunding the police as a distraction they’d rather not have to stand up for. And yet the idea continues to haunt progressive discourse, rattling around in the collective unconscious, in ways that are unhelpful and do not point in the direction of progress.
Not long ago in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where I walk every day, a woman was approached by a seemingly homeless man who screamed at her, attempted to throw urine at her from a bottle, and beat her dog with a stick. The dog’s injuries proved to be fatal. The linked New York Times story lays out the aftermath: a lot of community concern in Park Slope, and a lot of attendant handwringing about whether pursuing legal action against the man responsible would be just. An excitable member of the community attempted to organize a community watch group called “the Park Slope Panthers”; unsurprisingly if you know the neighborhood, a group of four white “disruptors” showed up to the first and only meeting. There are many in the community who seem to feel that any attempts to use the formal criminal justice system to make the park safer and to ensure an appropriate punishment for a dog’s murder would be inherently racist, or otherwise to become complicit in the sins of modern policing.
As the Times story runs, “one of the disrupters, a woman calling herself Sky, said, ‘Crime is an abstract term that means nothing in a lot of ways,’ according to Common Sense.” Perhaps! Perhaps crime is abstract. A dog, though, is entirely corporeal. And I’m sorry to say that so is a stick.
Sad that I need to write this, but here are some things you can believe, without believing that a man who beat a dog to death should go entirely uncorrected:
That we badly need criminal justice reform.
That we are a vastly over-incarcerated nation.
That existing police departments exhibit endemic racism, corruption, unequal enforcement, and impunity from consequences.
That those who are mentally ill deserve special dispensation within the criminal justice system, as their condition complicates questions of culpability.
That ordinary citizens should be careful about when and why they contact the police, and should do so understanding the potential for violence and racism that so often stem from police interactions with people of color.
You can believe all of that, and still also believe that the man who beat a woman’s dog to death for no reason should be arrested and treated appropriately by the criminal justice system. “Treated appropriately” doesn’t mean we lock him up and throw away the key. In fact, if psychiatrists thought it was appropriate, treating that man appropriately might very well involve only compulsory psychiatric care, with no formal legal punishment. (Compulsory psychiatric treatment has a bad reputation, particularly among the activist left, but has saved untold thousands of lives.) But you would need to have some sort of formal system in place through which that psychiatric evaluation would be adjudicated, and you’d need to ensure that the accused was compliant in that treatment. Criminal justice has to be formalized, not only for the good of victims of crime but also for the accused. Without formal systems, there can be no standards, and without standards, there is no possibility of the punishment fitting the crime and of equity in consequences. And what we have here, where you still have the police and the prisons but also have a bunch of guilt-ridden white liberals who think they should never play ball with those systems, seems like a worst-of-both-worlds scenario - no real dent made in mass incarceration, but a lack of immediate personal justice for those who need it, as well as community confusion.
I don’t think we should abolish the police or prisons. And I am resentful of the notion that you have to believe we should to be a good lefty, given that these ideas were fringe even within the radical left up until two years ago. (Few things are funnier to me than defund-the-police tankies.) But if we were going to do it, we would have to actually do it - to make fundamental and far-ranging changes to society. I’ve never been one to call for total police abolition, but I do recognize that there is a tradition of serious people who call for such a thing. The trouble is that in 2020 all of the stronger and more well-reasoned arguments for alternative systems to community safety were subsumed under this witless, directionless call to defund the police. Like, I know serious lefties who believe that we can abolish the police, but only after the end of capitalism. But all of those caveats and provisos from formal arguments for police abolition get lost in the noise of this weird zombie policy idea that people will neither openly embrace nor fully discard. Worse, with no clear definitions or sets of rules, Zombie Defund leads to endless accusations of “no one is saying,” arguments about bad faith or strawmen. But how can I know what no one is saying, when it’s entirely unclear what people are actually calling for?
To me, this kind of attack is a good example of the type of truly random violence that militates against the abolition of formal policing, at least in any realistic time horizons. There’s a whole progressive catechism on the origins of crime, though the claims are tendentious - the idea that all crime is the result of poverty is commonplace, but over the past 30 years we’ve seen a massive decline in crime without a matching decline in poverty rates. But surely even those who believe that crime is the product of social structures and bad incentives would still feel that we can’t let people wander around the park killing dogs. I know how to fight for a more humane, less punitive criminal justice system that incarcerates far fewer people, acts with less racial bias, and provides better mental health and addiction services. I don’t know what the people in that Times article who are against any punishment for that attack want, and there’s far too many like them in progressive spaces now, sucking up the air with their zombie demands.
Removing police and abolishing prisons is the definitional "luxury belief". The people most impacted as victims of crime are those who are already in disadvantaged groups, and it's disgusting how many "compassionate" people on the left are willing to throw them under the bus.
(See also the condemnation of women who want domestic abusers or sexual predators locked up as displaying "carceral feminism". In this case too there seems to be among the responses a vein of thought that the victim should somehow "take one for the team" and ignore the crime, to be a good liberal).
Are there police forces that need cleaning out? 100%. Should some offenders be diverted away from incarceration? No doubt. That doesn't mean there aren't some people who Deserve Prison. The system by which we punish offenders is not just about sticking it to criminals (or enforcing racial systems, etc). It's about the dignity of victims, and showing that we take their suffering seriously - and that we recognise the right of the average citizen to want to be safe.
At least Defund the Police, for all the mess it caused in 2020, never had any lasting impact beyond sucking all the oxygen away from smarter conversations about police reform, mass incarceration, etc..
Prosecutorial reform, on the other hand, is an ongoing clusterfuck with a huge offline impact. Even if cops do arrest people like the piss-throwing dogbeater, it wouldn't make a difference if he simply gets no-bail release within 24 hours. DAs like Chesa Boudin and Alvin Bragg turning the criminal justice system into a consequence-free revolving door is a far bigger problem than ill-advised Twitter slogans.