If the police kept us safe, we would be safe by now
Written by ： Shengxiao “Sole” Yu
It feels like there is not enough space in our collective consciousness to contain the immense pain and trauma in Uvalde. Along with this immensity, there is also growing confusion from conflicting accounts regarding the timeline of events and what the police did or did not do. What we know for sure is that 19 children and 2 teachers died, despite the presence of many armed officers at the scene. What we know for sure is that the Uvalde Police Department receives about 40% of the entire city budget. What we know for sure is that Texas has passed laws in 2019 to arm more teachers, “harden” schools, and train for threats in the wake of the 2018 Santa Fe, Texas school shooting. What we know for sure is that 19 children and 2 teachers died.
Uvalde provides the latest piece of evidence that the police do not keep us safe. For many who have been raised with the idea that the police protect people, it can be tempting to see this as a botched operation. It can be tempting to say that the officers who responded were incompetent. But the truth is, police fail to stop violence routinely. Stopping violence is in fact, not part of their job description. The vast majority of police response happens after violence has already occurred. A 2020 New York Times article used data from 10 cities to conclude that police departments spend only 4% of their time handling violent crimes. Nationally, the estimated cost of policing is $115 billion per year, making the U.S. police force the third largest military in the world. If the police kept us safe, we would be safe by now.
But we are not. The anxiety and precarity with which we live, the structural violence and vulnerability with which we live are fundamental to the American experience.
The tragedy in Uvalde should serve to permanently disconnect for us the idea of policing from the idea of safety. But the deeper problem isn’t just that the police do not keep us safe. The police in fact, create more violence in our communities. They routinely create violence in non-violent settings, such as murdering George Floyd while responding to a call about an issue with a $20 bill. Their charge is to respond to violence with more violence, which means creating more violence is what happens when they are doing their jobs correctly.
In a New York Times article titled “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” Mariame Kaba writes “when people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement — and they shudder.” We have been so conditioned to accept that society has always been and will always be violent. We think that is what a society is: a place of violence that requires us to come up with solutions that involve greater forces of violence that shield and isolate us in order to maintain control.
But that’s not the only possibility of what a society can be. A society can be based on mutual aid, collaboration, and trust - elements that actually give us safety. Our society has the capacity to build communities based on the principle that no life is disposable and that we can and must serve everyone.
When the media wants to show images of safe places, they show tree-lined neighborhoods in quiet suburbs that are wealthy, or sleepy towns on the lake that are idyllic. The places that we think are safe don’t have the most police; they have the most resources. They have well-funded schools and libraries, well-maintained roads and parks, easy access to grocery stores and food pantries, and much more. They are able to have collective safety because the underlying conditions in these communities allow for it.
Scholar and educator Ruth Wilson Gilmore teaches us that “abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which [police and prisons] became the solution to problems.” Abolishing the police means investing in communities. Abolishing the police means not responding to violence with more violence. Abolishing the police means redirecting resources for people to navigate through trauma and to create the underlying conditions that lead to safety.
The tragedy in Uvalde should make us all abolitionists.