We Keep Us Safe: Imagining a Police-Free World
Communities with infrastructure to support the development of whole, healthy people won’t need police.
When Cat Brooks was 19, her husband beat her so badly that she lay bleeding on the floor of her Las Vegas home. It was not the first time her husband had assaulted her. Two police officers showed up, but instead of detaining him, they arrested her. Brooks is Black. Her husband and both officers were white. Brooks went on to face an aggressive district attorney determined to prosecute her, putting her through “months of fear and terror.”
“I never called for help again,” she says. Today Brooks is a police abolitionist who leads the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) in Oakland, California. “What I know now, after being in this work for almost two decades, [is that] wide swaths of the Black and Brown community don’t call ,” she says. “Because we know that when we dial that number, it’s very rarely help that actually comes. What comes are agents of an institution who are trained to suppress, control, and subjugate.”
Black Americans have long known that interactions with police often do more harm than good. The nation as a whole has repeatedly witnessed video evidence of racialized police brutality, from the 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Southern California to the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the deadly assault in 2023 of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee.
Police reformists often cast law enforcement as an inherently “good” institution that simply needs better checks and balances, more sophisticated equipment and training, and greater racial diversity to avoid aberrant incidents of violence. But others on the front lines of movements challenging police brutality, such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, have spent decades calling for policing and incarceration to be abolished altogether.
For abolitionists like Brooks, the Nichols killing was evidence that police reforms haven’t worked. It didn’t matter that the officers charged with assaulting Nichols were wearing body cameras (which they either removed or didn’t use), or that all five of those charged are Black. “All cops are blue,” she says, because “once you put on that uniform, that badge, you have made a decision to join an institution [that] from its inception, its job has been to arrest, kidnap, [and] kill Black folks and Indigenous folks and Brown folks.”
Building Up to Abolition
To most Americans, the word “abolition” is most readily associated with the movement to end slavery in the United States that began in the 1830s. It’s no coincidence that the movement to end modern-day policing has adopted the same terminology. According to the NAACP, “The origins of modern-day policing can be traced back to the ‘Slave Patrol.’” The police’s disproportionate targeting of Black and Brown people confirms these parallels.
Police abolitionism today is centered on demands to “defund the police,” an idea sometimes referred to as a “divest/invest” strategy of transitioning government funding away from policing and toward community resources. Others summarize the notion as “care, not cops.” But the basic idea is the same—a world in which human needs are adequately met is one where police are obsolete. “Whole, healthy people do not hurt people,” explains Brooks. “Traumatized, wounded, desperate people do so.”
Abolition, according to Brooks, is “taking the money that we’ve been putting into bloated police departments all across this country, redirecting that [into] the things that actually keep people safe, that actually keep violence from happening in the first place.” When people are provided with the foundational elements of safety and happiness—high-quality housing, stable employment, education, food, health care, etc.—there is less need for policing.
Brooks says that ultimately abolition isn’t only about tearing things down. “It’s about building equitable, just, and humane systems that will work for everyone.”
Still, fully funding people’s needs may not eradicate all violence. What recourse could there be for a 19-year-old Black woman experiencing abuse from an intimate partner—as Brooks did—in a world without police? In January 2020, APTP launched MH First Sacramento, a project offering police-free options for those seeking help in an emergency. In August of that year, APTP launched a similar program in Oakland.
Brooks frames these projects as mutual aid. When someone’s in distress, they can call a nonemergency number to speak with a “caring, trained volunteer” in order to create what Brooks calls “a participant-determined pathway” to safety. Volunteers can attend virtual community trainings to learn crisis intervention and first aid in emergency situations. She sees such projects as models for a post-police future. “Badges and guns are not what we need to respond to community crisis,” she emphasizes. “It is trained, caring, compassionate community members.”
There’s an App for That
Like Brooks, Cosette Ayele is part of a growing movement of abolitionists who are putting their politics into practice. Ayele, who has worked with the Black Youth Project 100 since 2014, is the organizing director of Raheem, a Black-led team of software developers based in Oakland that “builds infrastructure for the future of community crisis response.” At its outset, Raheem was a project designed in the vein of a virtual “cop watch,” Ayele says.
The project featured a chatbot that could receive and catalog complaints against police, and connect those who filed complaints with community members and services that could provide support, including organizers, lawyers, and therapists. But the team at Raheem soon realized that the platform didn’t directly reduce police brutality, and that, echoing Brooks’ experience, many people in the community were reluctant to resort to police.
“We know that communities have really been providing care for one another even prior to the existence of police,” says Ayele. Raheem wanted to “create a way for people to access that care without having to rely on police and … be exposed to police violence.” So the organization pivoted to creating a new digital tool called PATCH, an acronym for “People and Technology for Community Health,” that helps people access care as an alternative to policing.
The app is an electronic dispatch system for “community-based crisis response teams,” or CCRTs. Ayele explains these teams can use the app to connect the communities they serve with the care they need. For example, “PATCH can be used to coordinate volunteers. It can be used to schedule shifts for crisis response teams. It can also be used to categorize different calls and also texts that … the organizations that we work with receive,” says Ayele.
She calls PATCH “the tech solution to the issue of police violence and community crisis response.” Although the project is still being developed, Ayele says that organizations and small collectives of people wanting to create CCRTs in their neighborhoods, what she calls “care pods,” can sign up to receive training and a demonstration of how PATCH can help them coordinate community care.
“An organization uses PATCH to receive the calls that they get, and then [that organization] … respond[s] in their local area,” says Ayele. “So, it’s really based on people, and people power, and people getting involved, and also people trusting in themselves and in their own empathy to know that they can provide care to someone in need.” Organizations using PATCH can also connect with a broader national network of mobile crisis teams, health and social service providers, and abolitionist organizers.
Ayele cites a common critique of community-based crisis response: “These people aren’t trained. These people aren’t able to answer a crisis call.” That’s why PATCH provides trainings that she says are “in partnership with local community organizations that help any and everybody learn how to de-escalate a crisis, especially one where someone may be in danger,” she says.
Although Raheem is based in Oakland, the PATCH app is intended for national use. That said, Ayele notes that they “really wanted to create PATCH in a way that only organizations and collectives of people that share our abolitionist do-no-harm values can use it.” The Massachusetts-based Cambridge HEART (Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team), a local group led by Black women, has been using PATCH since November 2021. Cambridge HEART’s core values include “no police involvement.”
The Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR), which provides nonpolice support for unhoused people in Colorado, has used PATCH since 2021 as a way to access a nonemergency network of trained volunteers. They plan to launch their rapid-response program that uses the app in July 2023. According to DASHR’s website, the organization believes in “transforming safety to include meeting basic human needs like housing, hunger, and healthcare to be high priorities in ensuring public safety.”
Abolition Goes Viral
Although practical alternatives to police are already in the works, the goal of achieving actual abolition remains elusive. Reina Sultan, one of the co-creators of the website #8toAbolition, says that after George Floyd’s murder, “a lot of people wanted … a taste of what abolition would look like, and very clear demands that they could make to government officials or when they were in the streets protesting.” Sultan and a group of nine others scrambled to capture abolitionist demands that were already in circulation in a succinct and shareable format.
Within a few days the website #8toAbolition was live, and, in Sultan’s words, it ended up “going viral.” Sultan is careful to note that the list of eight steps outlined on the website is not comprehensive. “It’s not incorporating every single element of what abolition could look like.” Still, first on the list is the most well-known abolitionist demand: Defund the police. There’s no mystery behind this oft-debated idea, she notes. “What it means is taking money out of the police budget and diverting it to different things.”
The rest of the list flows naturally from that first step and articulates a reimagining of safety and freedom from state violence. For example, steps 2, 3, and 5—“demilitarize communities,” “remove police from schools,” and “repeal laws that criminalize survival”—allude to the overpolicing of neighborhoods, inner-city schools, and unhoused communities that low-income people of color are disproportionately impacted by. Step 4, “free people from prisons and jails,” references the fact that those same communities are subject to excessive arrests, jail time, and incarceration. “Why should people be punished for their desperation when governments could solve that issue by feeding and housing people?” asks Sultan.
Sultan is quick to clarify that step 6, “invest in community self-governance,” is not the same as “community policing,” a reformist response to police violence. “Community policing is just repackaged policing,” says Sultan. “Community self-governance is when people who live in the community are the ones making decisions about their own communities.” In addition to efforts like organizing tenants’ unions, self-governance can take the form of non-emergency-police projects like Brooks’ Mental Health First in Oakland and Sacramento, and the community-based crisis response teams that the PATCH app’s founders support.
Transitioning away from police requires building up safety and care for all people. “Of course, people need food, and education, and a lot of other things to survive and thrive,” says Sultan. “But it is extremely difficult to do anything if you do not have safe and secure housing.” That’s why step 7 of the #8toAbolition plan is to “provide safe housing for everyone.”
The eighth and final step toward a world free of police is to “invest in care, not cops.” “It kind of brackets the whole thing,” says Sultan. “So, if the first part is to defund the police, then this is what we’re funding. And there are so many things that are underfunded in our communities that people really need.” Those things include noncoercive mental health care, as well as public transportation, community fridges, free education, and more. “We are just not funding any of these things because policing and prisons cost so much money,” Sultan explains. “And if we weren’t putting so much money there, the taxes that we’re paying could go toward making people safe and secure in a way that’s actually meaningful.”
Although meeting basic human needs as an antidote to policing sounds reasonable, “selling” the idea to the public remains a challenge. Brooks laments how “most of us can’t even imagine a world without law enforcement” because of what she calls “copaganda”—the pervasive media narrative that police are a force for good. Luckily, says Sultan, there’s a deep well of information about and work toward realizing abolition. “Most of that does come from Black women, queer scholars, and people who have spent a lot of time ideating around abolition,” she says. Sultan and the co-creators of #8toAbolition drew ideas from these sources to frame their pathway toward a police-free world.
Still, a website alone is not enough to manifest such a world. “The amount of energy and effort it takes for an organizer to have those one-by-one conversations—that, along with the creation of models that can be replicated,” is what Brooks says it will take to end policing. But she’s heartened by the fact that these issues are being discussed more openly now. When it comes to the public embrace of abolition, Brooks says, “I think we are seeing a sea change that, if we’re smart as organizers, we can exploit to create a watershed moment.”