What’s in a Slogan?

Democrats may reach consensus about the future of policing more easily than they reach consensus about what to call that vision.


If the demonstrations set off by the murder of George Floyd (and now possibly extended by the killing of Rayshard Brooks) are going to be more than just a way to blow off steam, they have to lead to substantive change in the ways America enforces its laws. As I laid out last week, some reforms are already happening. Cities and states across the nation are banning chokeholds, instituting new procedures for reporting incidents of excessive force, and making it easier to identify and prosecute police officers who step over the line.

Is that enough? While those reforms are welcome and overdue, it’s hard to be confident that they will solve the problem, which goes to the heart of how police function in America: They are heavily armed, are inclined to escalate conflicts rather than de-escalate them, and reflexively cover for each other when rules are broken. Making more rules may not help, as long as police are motivated to help other police get away with breaking those rules. The pseudonymous author Officer A. Cab of “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop” testifies:

“All cops are bastards.” Even your uncle, even your cousin, even your mom, even your brother, even your best friend, even your spouse, even me. Because even if they wouldn’t Do The Thing themselves, they will almost never rat out another officer who Does The Thing, much less stop it from happening.

… I really want to hammer this home: every cop in your neighborhood is damaged by their training, emboldened by their immunity, and they have a gun and the ability to take your life with near-impunity. This does not make you safer, even if you’re white.

Police also cost a huge amount of money. Bloomberg estimates:

Over the past four decades, the cost of policing in the U.S. has almost tripled, from $42.3 billion in 1977 to $114.5 billion in 2017

The number of violent crimes peaked in 1993 and is down by more than 1/3 since then, but police budgets have continued to eat up about 3.7% of all state and local spending. That figure does not include the estimated $81 billion spent on prisons or the $29 billion spent processing people through the criminal courts. Some large cities spend considerably more than 3.7%: New York City budgets about $5.9 billion, which is more than 6% of its total spending.

Given all that, a surprisingly wide range of people are proposing a very simple idea: What if we just had fewer police?

The predictable backlash. That suggestion is easy to exaggerate and demonize.

Here’s an obvious attack ad to run against any politician who endorses it: Some white woman reenacts her totally true story of hiding in the closet with her toddler and calling 911 while strange men ravage her home. The invaders run away when they hear sirens approaching, and she and her boy emerge unharmed. She expresses her perfectly genuine gratitude to the helpful and reassuring officers who arrive on her doorstep. (I’d make one of the cops black, just to insulate against charges of race-baiting.)

Then a male narrator says: “Julie and Luke escaped their harrowing experience without a scratch, and the damage to their home was soon repaired. But if Senator Liberal Democrat had his way, no one would have answered her desperate call.” [A busy signal gets louder and louder as the camera slowly zooms in on the window the invaders broke to enter.] “Far-left politicians like Senator Democrat want to fire Officers Good and Noble, and slash the budgets of their departments. Let’s fire Senator Democrat instead, before the call that goes unanswered is yours.” [visual fade to the sound of an annoyingly loud busy signal]

It’s no wonder that people planning to have their names on ballots in the fall — people like Joe Biden and Jim Clyburn — have been running away from the “Abolish the Police” or “Defund the Police” slogans. A recent YouGov poll (scroll down to page 58) says that only 16% of the public favor cutting police budgets, while 65% oppose such cuts. So it’s also no wonder the Trump campaign is already running this ad:

 

But think about it. The fewer-police proposal isn’t just that we get rid of police and do nothing else. The point is that interrupting crimes in progress and arresting dangerous suspects is a very small part of what police do. If we let them concentrate on stuff like that, and didn’t load them down with every public problem that their cities don’t have covered some other way, we wouldn’t need nearly so many of them. Minneapolis Councilman Steve Fletcher explained the council’s pledge to “dismantle” the MPD.

What we’re trying to change is how we answer 911. So many of the calls that we currently send police officers with guns would actually be better served by mental health professionals, by social workers, by outreach workers, by conflict resolution specialists.

This already happens in certain cases: If you call 911 and say your house is on fire, they don’t send police, they send a fire engine. If you say somebody is having a heart attack, they send an ambulance with EMTs. If a bear is rummaging through your garbage or a rabid raccoon is in your driveway, you might get connected to an animal-control department. There’s no reason cities couldn’t also have specialized emergency responders for many situations they currently handle by dispatching police: drug overdoses, domestic arguments, loud parties, homeless people camping out someplace they shouldn’t, and so on.

Friday night’s shooting of Rayshard Brooks is a case in point: The original problem was that he fell asleep while his car was parked, partially blocking a Wendy’s drive-through. Did someone with a gun need to handle that? If someone without a gun had been sent — the kind of plan San Francisco is rolling out, and a few smaller cities are already trying — Brooks would probably still be alive.

Even most criminal investigation doesn’t really need a policeman, or at least not an armed one. Typically, police show up in the aftermath of a crime: Your car has been stolen, or you came home to find your house had been burglarized. The perpetrators are long gone. Armed police come, but what the situation really calls for is someone with the skills of an insurance adjuster — someone who can take your statement, shoot some photos, collect some evidence, and write a report. Guns shouldn’t be necessary until it’s time to make an arrest, and maybe not even then.

The Washington Post assembled this graphic summary of what police do in a major American city:

In short, the fewer-police proposal is also a more-people-to-handle-stuff-the-police-should-never-have-been-asked-to-do proposal. And police departments’ funding gets cut, not to punish them, but because the money for those other specialists has to come from somewhere.

Some of that work would be preventive rather than responsive. For example, if a city put real resources behind finding each homeless person a home (like they do in Finland), police (or whoever) wouldn’t have to answer so many calls about them. (The homeless are probably a large chunk of that “suspicious person” block in the graphic.)

And one final point from Georgetown law professor Christy Lopez:

Once we begin to undertake this inquiry [of rethinking public safety], we quickly see that there are some things that police are doing that nobody should be doing, such as enforcing laws that criminalize poverty and addiction, arresting people instead of issuing citations, writing tickets to raise revenue rather than protect the public, and using armored vehicles to evict women and children from a home they have occupied to protest homelessness.

Political activism vs. electoral politics. “Abolish the Police” is probably a great slogan if you want to raise energy for a protest, but across most of the country it would be a suicidal slogan for a political campaign.

A good issue-activist slogan is provocative in much the same way that online clickbait is. It draws your attention, maybe shocks you a little, and pulls you into the discussion if only to argue against it. Once drawn in, you may consider ideas you had never thought of before, and the activists may elaborate their proposals in ways that make them more reasonable than they originally sounded.

To a large extent, that’s working. I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve read explaining that “Abolish the Police” and “Defund the Police” don’t really mean “abolish the police” or “cut their funding to zero”: Somebody would still answer 911 calls, and if the needed response was for armed warriors to show up — say, in an active shooter situation — the city would still have some on the payroll. As Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing told NPR:

I’m certainly not talking about any kind of scenario where tomorrow someone just flips a switch and there are no police.

(Then again, some people really do mean “Abolish the Police”.)

Would I have read those articles and considered those ideas if they had just been labeled “police reform” or something equally bland? Maybe not.

But while it makes sense for an issue activist to shock you with a slogan and then explain the nuances later, that’s an insane strategy for a politician trying to get elected. Ronald Reagan was right: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Issue-oriented activists tend to underestimate the importance of low-information voters in electoral politics. But those voters are why every campaign works hard to oversimplify its opponents’ positions to the point of absurdity, and then to get those simple absurdities into the minds of voters who can’t be bothered to consider the complicated details.

In 1988, for example, Mike Dukakis had a huge lead in the polls after the Democratic Convention. But George H. W. Bush caught up and won handily on the strength of two “issues”: Mike Dukakis hates the Pledge of Allegiance, and Mike Dukakis will let big black dudes rape your wife. Both were nonsense, but explaining why they were nonsense derailed Dukakis’ whole message. He had to keep explaining, and so he lost. Bush’s 53% of the vote is more than any presidential candidate has gotten since.

Trump and Biden. You can already see Trump pushing a similar oversimplification on immigration policy: Democrats want “open borders“. None of the Democrats running for president in this cycle endorsed “open borders”, and I can’t think of a single Democrat in Congress who has even said the phrase. But nonetheless it’s a staple of Trump rhetoric: If Democrats take over, the Mexican border will be left completely unmanned and unprotected.

He has been helped in this effort by liberal activists who pushed the slogan “Abolish ICE”. Now, “Abolish ICE” doesn’t mean “leave the border unprotected”, but it sounds like it does. If you tell low-information voters that Democrats want open borders, and illustrate with demonstrators waving “Abolish ICE” signs, they’ll be convinced.

Similarly here, “Abolish the Police” or “Defund the Police” doesn’t mean “You’re on your own if a criminal attacks you.” But it sounds like it does. If I tell a low-information voter that Joe Biden won’t protect him from criminals, and then cut to a video of Biden saying “Abolish the police”, he’ll be convinced.

And that’s why Biden will never say, “Abolish the police.”

Rep. Jim Clyburn elaborates:

If you’re talking about reallocating resources, say that. If you mean reimagining policing, say that. If you’re going to reform policing, say that. Don’t tell me you’re going to use a term that you know is charged — and tell me that it doesn’t mean what it says.

California Governor Gavin Newsom explored the limits of how far a mainstream politician can go:

California Governor Gavin Newsom [said] Wednesday that while he’s not interested in “eliminating police,” he’s open to considering how a police officer’s role in a community could change.

“If you’re talking about reimagining and taking the opportunity to look at the responsibility and role that we place on law enforcement to be social workers, mental health workers, get involved in disputes where a badge and a gun are unnecessary, then I think absolutely this is an opportunity to look at all of the above.”

Is there any good electoral slogan here? Personally, I’m frustrated that no simple English verb expresses the idea I want. No everyday verb means “Expand other things so that one particular thing gets crowded out.” I can’t even think of a good metaphor to express that notion.

I agree with the abolition supporters that “reform” is too tepid. We’ve been reforming police for a long time now, and yet we still have George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. I can’t claim that nothing has changed, because Floyd’s killer is charged with murder when so many killer officers have previously gone uncharged. The Brooks incident has already pushed the Atlanta police chief to resign, and charges against the officer are expected soon. Stuff like that didn’t used to happen. But the unnecessary deaths continue, and (even assuming the reforms currently on the table become law) I can’t say when they’ll stop.

What is stronger than “reform”, but doesn’t have the unfortunate implications of “abolish”? I don’t have a good candidate. Some people are saying “dismantle”. “Reconstitute” might work. I’m tempted to steal a word from the business world, and talk about “downsizing” the police.

Another option might be to talk about “the police state” rather than just “the police”. Americans have ambivalent feelings about police, but nobody likes a police state. (Trump loves to defend the police, but defending the police state would be a gift to his enemies.) “Police state” would capture the idea that black neighborhoods are over-policed, and would also tie in to the idea of mass incarceration. It points to the observation that we currently deal with all kinds of social problems (like homelessness or addiction) through the police rather than through more appropriate institutions.

Downsize the police? Dismantle the police state? End policing as we know it? None of them strikes me as an election-winning slogan, but they’re the best I can do.

Do activists and politicians need to say the same words? Another way to look at this is to let activists advance issues and let politicians win elections. Activists could keep saying “Abolish the police”, and no electoral harm would be done as long as they understood that no national figure could say it with them. The redefinition of police and of public safety is going to have to happen locally anyway. Maybe the best thing the federal government can do is stay out of the way.

Maybe it could be enough for Biden and other major Democrats in the fall election to say things activists could interpret positively, while still holding back from “Abolish the police”, as Governor Newsom did. Maybe it would be enough if Biden could say something like “The beauty of our federal system is that cities and states are free to experiment and try new things. If some of them want to find creative ways to deliver public services, and if they want to develop a new vision of how to ensure public safety, then a Biden administration will try to work with them.”

But maybe it wouldn’t be enough. Trump won in 2016 by pounding two wedges: a “corruption” wedge between Hillary Clinton and the center-right, and a Bernie-was-robbed wedge between Clinton and left. He’s going to try the same thing again. “Abolish the Police” works for him either way: If Biden agrees with the slogan, that becomes a wedge separating him from the center. If he doesn’t, it’s a wedge separating him from the left.

So that’s the question activists will be left with: Is it enough for Biden to indicate a general sympathy with their movement (when Trump is steadfastly against it), or does he have to repeat their words?

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Comments

  • Nancy Minter  On June 15, 2020 at 10:18 am

    Take a load off the police.

    • David B Dean  On June 15, 2020 at 11:43 am

      Yes…”Give Cops a Break” – “Fight Crime, Not People”

    • Guest  On June 15, 2020 at 1:45 pm

      Cull the police?
      Protect, serve, or get out of the way?

      Critiquing slogans has a history. To Doug’s last point, I do not think that Biden needs to parrot the more divisive slogans. MLK was upfront, clear, and detailed about his misgivings of the “Black Power” slogan, even as he saw the benefits and agreed with its higher aims, for instance.

      However, I hope we see Biden give more than an indication of general sympathy, which sounds about as effective as “thoughts and prayers” is coming from the right. Stand unequivocal on substantive policy, like ending the drug war, ending stop and frisk/broken windows policing, ending the tolerance of “bad apples” with real accountability and democratic oversight, ending the use of chemical weapons and militarized approaches, etc, and a lot of the left will overlook Biden dancing around phrasing. Substance over slogans.

    • nicknielsensc  On June 15, 2020 at 9:55 pm

      Abolish the police state. Reinvent the police.

  • Dave  On June 15, 2020 at 10:43 am

    The word you’re looking for is “reinvent” and you need to do that to the action, not the noun — “Reinvent Policing” – change the how and the what, not necessarily the who

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Tom  On June 15, 2020 at 12:01 pm

      Dave, Good word. It’s simple and does not seem to carry any negative baggage. Can’t imagine too many people misunderstanding what it is getting at. It is in fact what we actually need to do.

  • Anonymous Poster  On June 15, 2020 at 10:50 am

    One suggestion I’ve heard for a slogan is “Reboot The Police”, which is probably the best of the few serious suggestions I’ve heard. A significant number of people these days know what the term “reboot” means – if not from computers and similar devices, then from discussions of popular media – so applying the idea to policing wouldn’t be a huge leap. The idea of “rebooting” the “system” would get to the heart of discussions about how the “system” trains and funds police, too. “Reboot The Police” also implies that we can “reboot” the “system” again if the cops fall back into bad patterns of behavior. If I could/had to pick a replacement slogan, “Reboot” would be it.

  • Rebecca Stith  On June 15, 2020 at 10:54 am

    Redefine the police or redefine policing.

    >

  • Dennis Maher  On June 15, 2020 at 10:55 am

    Great column. “Re-imagine the police!” “Professionalize the Police!” “Re-think Safety. Do guns make us more safe?” How about armed police response in reserve as the British do it? How about “Re-imagine ‘Serve and Protect?'” A police service coordinated with all other helping agencies and responders would look radically different. Biden surely has sharp staff people who can create kick-ass slogans. As it is, this quote tells it as it is: “every cop in your neighborhood is damaged by their training, emboldened by their immunity, and they have a gun and the ability to take your life with near-impunity. This does not make you safer, even if you’re white.” How about international standards? Here is the Red Cross; the UN Human Rights office has them too. https://www.policinglaw.info/assets/downloads/ICRC_the-use-of-weapons-and-equipment-in-law-enforcement-operations.pdf

  • Gendebien  On June 15, 2020 at 11:29 am

    Let’s refocus the police. Let’s let the police focus on protecting our communities, while using other resources for those tasks that don’t make us safer and take too much of their time and energy.

    Something like that?

  • David B Dean  On June 15, 2020 at 11:41 am

    slogans:
    (police reform)…
    “STOP THE POLICE STATE”
    “MAKE PUBLIC SAFETY SAFE”
    “BUST POLICE UNIONS”
    “REALLOCATE FOR HELPERS”
    also,
    “RETOOL for CLEAN FUEL” (infrastructure)

  • joycemocha  On June 15, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    Fair Law. Fair Order.

  • Anonymous  On June 15, 2020 at 1:05 pm

    I would suggest Transform the Police. It’s a positive term and carries that idea of substantive change.

  • Nancy Browning  On June 15, 2020 at 1:33 pm

    I have been a reader of your blog for many years and love your insights. I also wanted to mention that in this article, you used “policeman” and “unmanned.” If possible, I think that non-gendered language is best (e.g., “police officer”), even if most of the police we are discussing now are men. Thanks.

  • susanmbrewer  On June 15, 2020 at 2:14 pm

    You found the verb, you just didn’t recognize it: “The redefinition of police and of public safety” — i.e. Redefine policing.

  • susanmbrewer  On June 15, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Now that I’ve read all the Comments, I see there are much better verbs than Redefine. I especially like Reinvent, but Reboot, reimagine, and others are all solid. And Policing, not Police, absolutely.

  • donslloyd  On June 15, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    Expand 911!

  • melissawarner3  On June 15, 2020 at 3:55 pm

    I like Reimagine Public Safety. Melissa Warner, Racine

    >

  • carlajbradford  On June 15, 2020 at 5:55 pm

    I like Newsom’s “reimagine the police”. The police still exist, but their functions (and the functions they shouldn’t be performing) are really-invented

  • Anonymous  On June 15, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    I believe the O in CHOP is intended to stand for Organized.

  • Graham Thorburn  On June 15, 2020 at 9:14 pm

    Not exactly the same thing, but still semantics – in Australia (and I presume the USA) Police Forces were originally called Police Services. The change seems tiny, but I suspect is subliminally significant.

  • orionblair  On June 15, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    Transform is a great word!

  • MaryPaul Kirkpatrick  On June 16, 2020 at 8:04 am

    I still like “Fight crime, not people” in comment #2. And why can’t a pair of cops drive a cooperative chap like Mr. Brooks home in his car, put it safely in his driveway, and leave him with a handshake and a verbal warning? When I was a kid in the 50’s, the cops in the “Dick and Jane” books did kind things like that…

  • Lionel Goulet  On June 18, 2020 at 6:03 pm

    “I want better policing. Fix the Police.”

  • David Maier  On June 22, 2020 at 8:33 pm

    Replace the Police?

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