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A Brief History of the Police

And an Argument for their Abolition

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GEO Original
December 17, 2020
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To Serve and Protect (if we feel like it)

The slogan of police forces everywhere in the US is “to serve and protect.” It’s a good slogan because it succinctly summarizes what your average Joe thinks the police do – or at least what they are supposed to do: protect the citizenry from harm. However, as Joe Lozito discovered one fateful day in New York City, technically – legally – that’s not actually part of their job description.

As detailed in a recent Radiolab episode, Joe was assaulted and almost killed by a knife-wielding assailant on a New York City subway, while police officers – who were specifically looking for his attacker – hid behind a door just few feet away. They didn’t feel the need to come out and doing any serving or protecting, despite being called on to do so, until Joe had disarmed the man himself. One of the officers testified “I started to come out, but I thought he had a gun, so I closed the door and stayed inside.”1

When Joe decided to pursue legal action against the police department whose officers had so manifestly failed to perform their duty, endangering the lives of 20 people on that subway car, he found that while the facts were undisputed, it was also the case that

“No direct promises of protection were made to Mr. Lozito, nor were there direct actions taken to protect Mr. Lozito prior to the attack. Therefore, a special duty did not exist.”2

It turns out that just as I am under no legal obligation to intervene, and put my safety in danger, if I see you being assaulted on a street corner, neither is any officer of the law under any obligation to act to protect you or anyone else...unless of course they have previously made direct promises of protection to someone, who subsequently relies on those promises and then gets injured by the thing the police had promised to protect them from. In other words, US courts up-to-and-including the US Supreme Court have found that “there's nothing...that says the police have to protect you from other people.”3

So if the police have no special duty or obligation to protect anyone from harm, what exactly are they for? That’s the question this article seeks to answer. The take-away point from that exploration is, for me, that our systems of policing and prisons are not fit for purpose – at least not if our purpose is to actually serve and protect the people of this (or any) country. I’ll sketch out one possibility for what a system designed from the bottom up to fit that purpose might look like at the end of this article, so stick around for that – or just skip to the end now – but first, let’s try to answer our initial question. What purpose where the police created for, if not to protect people?


Private security, public expense

A look into the history of policing offers a very different answer to that question than the one I think most people would assume. And it’s one that does much to explain the current anti-police sentiment among large portions of the populace.

Police forces were historically – and I would argue still are – organizations meant to serve and protect the interests of the ownership class. That is to say, the interests of those who own the means of production, as opposed to the working class whose labor makes those means productive. Or, to put it more succinctly, the police exist to serve the capitalists, and to protect them from the workers.

In the Southern US, the first police forces evolved from antebellum slave patrols. According to historian Dr. Gary Potter,

Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice…4 [emphasis added]

In the Northern states, modern police forces emerged in conjunction with the growth of large urban centers, starting in the 1830s. In these growing cities, political power was held by the mercantile interests, i.e. the owners of the factories and mills that drew in masses of people looking for work. Professionalized, public police forces arose because

The emerging commercial elites needed a mechanism to insure a stable and orderly work force, a stable and orderly environment for the conduct of business...These mercantile interests also wanted to divest themselves of the cost of protecting their own enterprises, transferring those costs from the private sector to the state.5 [emphasis added]

In both the North and South, the police were never intended to provide protection to the citizenry at large, but rather to serve as a mechanism of control of the working population, whether free or enslaved, on behalf of the owners of capital – and to do so, moreover, at the public expense. In neither case were police forces created to combat crime or to protect the general populace from harm. Quite the contrary, police were used to suppress the unrest caused by the exploitation of workers in the “dark Satanic Mills” of the emerging factory system, and were even known to organize “professional criminals, like thieves and pickpockets, trading immunity for bribes or information.”6 Both through their suppression of movements for social and economic improvement, and their control and sanction of criminal activity within their precincts, police actively worked to harm the interests – and often enough the bodies – of the average citizen. Though much has changed in the intervening centuries, this fundamental dynamic has not.


Some things never change

Police are still regularly deployed to harass and intimidate striking workers, as well as anyone else protesting social, economic, or environmental injustice. To cite just two recent instances of police acting as strike-breakers, in August of 2019 police arrested 58 striking workers at the headquarters of American Airlines, where they were demanding an end to poverty wages and prohibitively high-priced healthcare. Their so-called crime was blocking entrances to the building (otherwise known as forming a picket line).7 And in February of this year, police arrested 17 striking graduate student workers, and beat several others, at UC Santa Cruz, as they demanded a pay increase from current less-than-poverty levels (which are $200 per month below the average rental price of a one bedroom apartment).8

Cases of police brutality and incarceration of protesters at Black Lives Matter protests are almost too numerous to need mentioning. I will here simply direct the reader’s attention to this report from Amnesty International covering a mere 11 days of protests earlier this year:

Amnesty International documented 125 separate incidents of police violence against protesters in 40 states and the District of Columbia between 26 May and 5 June 2020...Among the abuses documented were beatings, the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray, and the inappropriate and at times indiscriminate firing of “less lethal” projectiles, such as sponge rounds and rubber bullets.9

As for involvement in criminal activities, this is another area in which not much seems to have changed since the 19th century. In 2010, the New York Civil Liberties Union obtained internal reports that showed the number of “tips” regarding police corruption had “tripled since 1992,” while over that same period, “the number of investigations pursued...has dropped by more than half.”10 According to The New York Times, the documents showed that “Officers rob banks. They collude with drug dealers. They pilfer credit cards from prisoners to buy groceries, and they take payoffs from street peddlers as protection money.”11

More recently, 25 officers with the Baltimore police department were charged with corruption, with prosecutors saying that they “used their authority to rob suspects of drugs and money.”12 And this past August, the Los Angeles Times reported on the existence of several “police gangs” embedded within the LA County Sheriff’s Department. Regarding one of these 17 gangs, the appropriately named Executioners, a legal claim filed against the county by a former deputy alleges, “Members become...‘Executioners’ after executing members of the public, or otherwise committing acts of violence in furtherance of the gang.”13

Besides these overtly criminal activities, police also engage in a “legitimate” practice that amounts to legally sanctioned robbery of the public. This practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, “grants law enforcement officers the authority to take possession of property simply because they suspect that the property was used to commit a crime.”14 Police are empowered to confiscate property even if the owner has not been charged with, or even suspected of, committing a crime.

As the ACLU reports, “Cops are incentivized to seize property and prosecutors are incentivized to litigate to keep the property because 95 percent of the money they collect through forfeiture goes straight into their own budgets.” Meanwhile, “These relatively low-value seizures put property owners in a Catch-22 because hiring a lawyer to fight the forfeiture case will cost more than the value of the lost property.”15 16


But what about the “good apples?”

At this point, some readers might think I’m being unfair, cherry-picking my examples by making much of the fraught historical beginnings of the police and overemphasizing the actions of a few “bad apples.” But surely, I imagine them saying, the police do some good. What about the crimes that they solve, or even prevent?

While I’ll admit that it’s likely that some police officers have done some good, the data on policing as a whole do not paint a very favorable picture. For one thing, police solve a shockingly low number of the crimes reported to them. For another, the number of police officers on the job and the incidence of violent crime is directly correlated. That is to say, the fewer police officers we have, the less violent crime we experience (of course why this correlation exists is a topic for debate).

As reported in USA Today, between 1997 and 2016 the number of police officers per 100,000 residents declined from 242 to 217, an 11% reduction. Over that same 19 year period, the national violent crime rate dropped by 37% (from 611 per 100,000 to 386.3 per 100,000).17 While correlation is not causation, one can perhaps be excused for wondering if perhaps further reductions in police numbers (perhaps to zero?) might lead to further reductions in violent crime.

As for the serious crimes that do happen, the best estimates are that only around half are actually reported to police. Of the felony crimes that are reported, police make arrests in only about 22% of them. And of those arrests, only about 4 percent lead to convictions, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Taking into account that half of all serious crimes are not reported at all, we can conclude that police are successful (if locking someone up in a cage is your definition of success) in addressing only about 2% of actual crimes.18 That’s a shockingly low figure, given that in many cities police budgets take up 30-40% of all local government spending.19


Chart from Shima Baughman showing percentage of crimes reported to police, arrests made, and convictions obtained.

And about those cages…

Policing isn’t the only part of our “criminal justice” system that is not at all suited to it’s supposed purpose – the prison system, as well, is a massive self-inflicted wound on our society. It would take another article to go into any kind of depth, but it's something I want to hit on a little, here.

It should be no great revelation that, as the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.” Now try explaining how locking someone in a cage for several years, and making it nigh on impossible for them to find legitimate work or housing after they’re released, is not a method of punishment guaranteed to increase our problems, rather than prevent them. There is no explanation because, like policing, the prison system was never intended to create healthy communities or heal injustices and so, unsurprisingly, it has failed to do so.

Restorative Justice practices and organizations have proven highly effective at addressing community justice and protection needs, accomplishing things our prison system has show itself to be utterly incapable of20 . When it comes to prisons, we need a whole different approach to the issue – not one centered on discussions of what kind of reforms to make to prisons, but one based on creating solutions to the problems we wished the prison system solved, but in fact only makes worse. In short, it’s the same treatment I think we need to give to policing. Neither system works (or was even designed to work) in our interests as residents of our neighborhoods and citizens of this country.


Maybe we’d be better off without

In short, the argument I’m trying to make goes something like this: the police and prisons were designed from the outset as a mechanism of social control, not as a way to ‘fight crime;’ the police continue to be use their authority (both licitly and illicitly) in ways that are directly harmful to the majority of the population; and the police are singularly ineffective at preventing or redressing actually harmful activities (as opposed to “disturbances of the public order” like strikes and protests).

Police are hugely ineffective at the one task that most people would take to be their sole legitimate objective: protecting the citizenry from harm. And as we saw at the outset of this article, they are under no legal obligation to even try. They are, however, highly effective at performing their original purpose: keeping a disgruntled populace from interfering with “a stable and orderly environment for the conduct of business.” Given these two realities, I hope that it is now clear why many of us are of the opinion that it is high time we consigned the institution of policing to the dustbin of history. This may seem like an unobtainable goal, but as Angela Davis writes in her seminal book Are Prisons Obsolete? should be remembered that the ancestors of many of today's most ardent liberals could not have imagined life without slavery, life without lynching, or life without segregation.21

The abolition of policing may seem like a pipe dream, but so have many movements for human liberation and dignity that we take for granted today. If we want a future that is more just than the present, we must not be afraid to advocate for what we know to be right, no matter how unlikely its realization may seem. And we must be ready to put forward our creative solutions for alternatives to the injustice we suffer under right now. In that spirit, here is one way I think we could organize things so that protection from harm, justice, and healing are likely outcomes when things go sideways.


What we want, not what we have

Imagine if your neighborhood, and every neighborhood, were tasked every couple years with nominating and electing a few people to be the official neighborhood emergency responders. These community members would be entrusted by their neighbors with intervening in situations that require intervention. One group of these responders could be tasked with taking care of situations where violence is involved, another could be people tasked with intervening in mental health crises, another with family issues, etc. These emergency responders would not be full time city employees, but rather on-call community servants, going about their normal day until called upon to fulfill the responsibility they’ve been tasked with by their neighbors. They would be paid for their service, and receive thorough training, but they wouldn’t be professional law enforcement.

The benefits compared to what we do now would be enormous. Imagine, any time you call 911, someone is there within minutes because they only live a few blocks away; when help shows up they know the people involved, and don’t escalate the situation, because they live there too. And imagine the savings that could be realized by municipalities and counties. When police forces can soak up as much as 50% of municipal budgets (as happens where I live), the amount of money the city would have available for other programs of public benefit would be simply huge. And unlike the current system, this would be one that is actually designed to serve and protect the people of this country, from the ground up, not one that’s designed to keep them in-line for their bosses.

So the next time you see the slogan “Defund the Police” don’t think about it in purely negative terms, but rather as a first step towards creating a future in which our institutions actually do what we expect them to do. Our policing and prison systems are broken – we must do better. And I think that our cooperative imaginations are more than up to the task.


Header images by West Midlands Police and Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0



  • 1Radiolab, No Special Duty, WNYC Studios,
  • 2Ibid.
  • 3Ibid.
  • 4Dr. Gary Potter, The History of Policing in the United States, Part 1,
  • 5Ibid.
  • 6Dr. Gary Potter, The History of Policing in the United States, Part 2,
  • 7Nicholas Sakelaris, United Press International, Police arrest striking workers at American Airlines HQ in Texas,
  • 8The Associated Press, Police arrest 17 during UC Santa Cruz student strike,
  • 9Amnesty International, USA: The World is Watching, Mass Violations by U.S. Police of Black Lives Matter Protesters’ Rights,
  • 10Al Baker and Jo Craven McGinty, The New York Times, N.Y.P.D. Confidential,
  • 11Ibid.
  • 12Josh Girsky, Taylor Romine and Jean Casarez, CNN, Baltimore prosecutor seeks to throw out nearly 800 criminal convictions,
  • 13Alene Tchekmedyian and Maya Lau, Los Angeles Times, L.A. County deputy alleges ‘Executioner’ gang dominated Compton sheriff station,
  • 14Emma Andersson and Susan Dunn, American Civil Liberties Union, ‘Policing For Profit’ Is Alive and Well in South Carolina,
  • 15Ibid.
  • 16See also:
  • 17Simone Weichselbaum and Wendi Thomas, USA Today, More cops. Is it the answer to fighting crime?
  • 18Shima Baughman, The Conversation, Police solve just 2% of all major crimes,
  • 19Luke Darby, GQ, This Is How Much Major Cities Prioritize Police Spending Versus Everything Else,
  • 20See Rupert Ross, Returning to the Teachings, Penguin Random House, 2006,
  • 21Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, 2003,

Josh Davis (2020).  A Brief History of the Police:  And an Argument for their Abolition.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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