The Real World

Against the Police-Free World That Nobody is Asking For

(1100 words, ~4 minutes to read)

I’ve mostly stayed away from the most extreme discussions going on right now regarding police reform, but it’s becoming difficult to dodge. The slogans “Defund the Police” or “Abolish the Police” are tossed around frequently, with different people apparently meaning very different things by these same words. When asked about it, a friend said:

I was trying to do some reading about it, and this gets into it a little – it’s more about reallocating some of the police budget to other areas (mental health, education) to address systemic issues – and then trying to integrate others besides police into responding to emergencies.

On the face of it, this is something I can get behind. If someone calls 911 because their friend is overdosing on drugs, why should a cop with a gun show up? If someone calls 911 because they are suicidal, why should a cop with a gun show up? It’s not clear that they should. These cases might be productively diverted to paramedics or mental health professionals rather than police officers. And if crime can be prevented way before-the-fact through better community-building, through better educational or job opportunities, or by lifting the least fortunate out of poverty, then absolutely, I’m into it.

All in all, the current police situation in the US seems like a big mess and I’m all for reforms to make it better, including but not limited to shifting money out of police budgets and into other programs.

On the other hand, the friend also sent me this:

Supposed to be read top-right to top-left to bottom-left to bottom-right, in the ancient Boustrophedon format

I had figured nobody (aside from anarcho-libertarian kinds of people) really meant “End police altogether and the world will improve.” This brochure seems a clear counterexample. In the same vein, I ran across this confrontation with the Minneapolis mayor: “We don’t want no more police, is that clear!?” (His answer, “No, I do not support full abolition of the police”, was met with angry jeers.)

And I know, I know, finding some cases of people with extreme views does not imply that the movement as a whole accepts the same. I’m personally doubtful that there really is a united view of a better world that everyone involved would sign up for; there are simply many protesters in many cities with, I expect, the same general goals (“End Racism”) but different specific ones (“Reform [X,Y,Z]”). But given that people with extreme views often have the loudest voices, I’m concerned about whether the best policy proposals will be the ones to emerge from the fracas.

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So, to all those people, of which there are none, who literally want to abolish police altogether, here’s why I don’t agree.

There’s a famous story of Charles Whitman, a mass murderer who killed several in his own family and many strangers before eventually being subdued. Sam Harris describes the case well:

In 1966, he started his [murder] spree by killing his wife and mother, and then he got on the clock tower at the University of Texas, armed with several guns and seven hundred rounds of ammunition, and shot people for two hours until he was killed by police. And he killed 14 people, and injured 32.

He really seemed like the quintessence of evil, and he seems that way until you read his suicide note… he confessed that he found his behavior completely inexplicable, he loved his wife and mother, didn’t know why he was doing any of this. He had been just overwhelmed by rages and destructive impulses for months, that he found it harder and harder to resist. And he recommended upon his death that his brain be autopsied for signs of physical disease.

So, they did autopsy his brain, and they found a tumor in the hypothalamus, pressing on his amygdala, which makes a plausible case for the tumor’s involvement in his emotional state and his impulse control problems.

When you find out this evil murderer has a brain tumor in his amygdala, he suddenly seems like a victim of biology.

In a simplified way, this maps closely to my model of crime. To some extent, violent or murderous people are like this guy: their brains are broken, not by tumors, but by bad genes, environments, upbringing, etc. Sam says as much:

I’m arguing that a brain tumor is just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. If we could perfectly understand the brain of any one murderer, no matter how “evil”, that understanding of the neurophysiology would be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in the brain.

If we could see how the wrong genes were being relentlessly transcribed, if we could see how this person’s life experience since utero onward had sculpted the microstructure of his brain in just such a way as to reliably produce violent states of mind, the basis for placing blame would disappear.

We’d like to “cure” all kinds of criminals, in the way we might have imagined “curing” Charles Whitman before he committed his heinous crimes, and someday maybe we will have the tools to do so; for example, to the extent that we can understand how childhood trauma gave rise to criminal tendencies later in life, we seek to eliminate it and create a better world for everyone. And what’s more, in many cases people would likely sign up right away to be cured, if it were possible! Imagine we invent an “anti-murder” pill, which negates any violent thought or predilection on the spot. Who wouldn’t take that pill?

In the same way that it’s a tragedy that we couldn’t cure Charles Whitman before he did what he did, for his victim’s sake and also for his own, it’s tragic every time we fail to prevent someone from falling victim to the Worse Demons of their Nature. Someday, I hope we have the cure.

Today, I don’t believe we’re there; we know how to solve some problems but not others. From where we currently stand, we could certainly reallocate resources in a more beneficial way than we currently are, and this I support. But given the state of our knowledge about what the true social and biological causes of criminal behavior are, which remains very imprecise, there will still be a place for people with guns having to come and stop the worst violations before they are further inflicted on innocent people. We should, and indeed must, continue to develop the tools necessary to help “cure” criminals, but in the meantime, as tragic as it is, we need police.

The vision of a world with no police is a vision of a world in which we have the tools to help every person with every problem that leads them to violence. It’s a commendable goal, and I hope someday we can get there, but today I don’t see it as realistic.

One thought on “Against the Police-Free World That Nobody is Asking For

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