A Metropolitan police officer who served the force for two decades has now been found guilty of 49 charges covering 85 serious offences, making him one of the worst sex offenders in modern history. And it’s not like David Carrick was even hiding in plain sight: He had numerous complaints submitted against him during his time as a police officer, and all were ignored; his behaviour was so obviously obnoxious he was universally known as Bastard Dave. No matter: Carrick continued passing vetting procedures and moving up the ranks.
His role in the police is not, as some would have it, some sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde contrast to his violent offending. His police role was what enabled the violence in the first place. Prosecutors on the case say that Carrick exploited his status as a Met officer to “put victims at ease, then, as they tried to leave him, threatened that their claims against a serving officer would be disbelieved”. This evoke chilling similarity to his colleague Wayne Couzens’ fake arrest - and subsequent rape and murder - of Sarah Everard.
Carrick was well aware of how important police culture was to allow him to continue raping and abusing women with impunity. He also told them as much, and the message was simple: he, and any other policeman, can get away with pretty much anything, at least for a while. And he was, and remains, entirely correct.
In the UK, the police claim to operate on a model of ‘policing by consent’, where their powers, actions and behaviour are dependent on public approval of their existence. But an increasing number of cases involving misogynistic, racist, and homophobic violence by the police - of which Carrick is merely the most recent one - is causing increasing numbers of communities to withdraw this consent. Alongside calls for a thorough purging of the Metropolitan Police - officially recognised as “institutionally corrupt” by a recent government review - there is now a growing movement calling for the police to be defunded, if not abolished completely.
To many, these calls appear too radical - even alarming. If we don’t have the police, who will protect us? What will be done to punish or restrain individuals who do cause damage, whether to life or property? Policing has been ingrained into our society and how it functions for so long that it’s unsurprising that many people cannot imagine a world where they no longer exist.
But a world without the police is entirely possible and, as importantly, necessary. First, it is important to acknowledge that police themselves are often the source of violence. Many readers will recall the killing of a 24-year-old Black man, Chris Kaba. On September 5, police officers shot and killed Kaba following a car chase in Streatham Hill after firearms. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) later found that Kaba was unarmed. And Kaba is far from the only one to be killed at the hands of the police. Since 1990, there have been 1,833 deaths in police custody or following police contact but only one conviction since 1986.
Or take Ian McDonald-Taylor in 2019 have been published in a prevention of future deaths report where, upon Taylor’s arrest, a Met police officer was heard saying on the radio: “[Mr Taylor's] currently on the floor playing the whole poor me poor me [routine]. He's going to have to go to hospital though as a matter of course.. He's saying he has chest pains, he can't breathe blah blah. It's a load of nonsense but there we go.” Taylor suffered from severe asthma and died of a cardiac arrest in hospital later that day.
It’s pretty obvious that policing in London - indeed, across the UK - is broken. Even the commissioner of the Met admits as much, although perhaps in not so many words. But alongside calls for reform and restructuring, calls for defunding and abolition need to be considered seriously - and on the merit of what they actually suggest.
So, what do activists mean when they call to defund and/or abolish the police? First, a reminder of the usual response to any police failure in this country: more police. Politicians in the UK from centre-left rightward routinely pledge expanding the police, as a matter of course. Boris Johnson’s government pledged to recruit 20,000 more police officers and introduced several laws that gave the police even more power. Labour politicians, not wanting to be seen as weak on law enforcement, parrot the claim or up the stakes. Defunding calls for the opposite: take budgets away from the police and re-invest them into public services that tackle the root causes of crime and prioritise prevention. Abolition takes this further and argues for the removal of the police as an institution entirely and replaced with community-based solutions, such as transformative justice.
At the same time, defunding abolition are not mutually exclusive - in fact, many see those as stepping stones in the same process. Abolitionist Futures, which calls for gradual defunding of the police with a view to its eventual abolition, is a collaboration of community organisers and activists working “to build a future without prisons, police and punishment.” Hajera Begum is one of their organisers and explains why defunding the police is just one of the strategic demands towards abolition.
“Defund is the tactic, abolition is the horizon,” she explains. “It’s important that we articulate a social and political vision for the type of society we want through abolition, rather than just operating on a simple budgetary logic, of moving funds here or there.” Defunding the police can open discussions around investment into other chronically under-funded public services, such as healthcare, housing, and welfare support. One recent example where investment in healthcare would’ve been the more appropriate response than police intervention is the case of Oladeji Omishore. In June 2022, while experiencing a mental health crisis, Omishore was tasered multiple times by police officers - and fell into the River Thames. He later died in hospital.
“We don’t need the police to visit people who are having a mental health crisis or having a difficult - perhaps even violent - family incident. And in organising around alternatives to policing response to mental health, we would be intervening in a key space of state violence in Britain, and the source of far too many deaths in custody,” says Begum.
Defunding police is not utopian - in fact, elsewhere in the world it’s a process well underway. After murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, more than 20 major US cities have imposed drastic cuts on their police forces, with the money being reinvested into other public services, such as housing, mental health programmes, and food access. This defunding involved cutting ever-expanding police budgets and prioritising this money into other programmes. Practically, it involved removing police officers from schools, leaving vacant positions unfilled, and delegating functions to other agencies. Predictably, there has been pushback from police unions.
To some activists, radicalism is nothing to shy away from: discarding the punitive violent systems so ingrained in our society is, indeed, a radical change, if not outright a revolutionary one. Aviah Day and Shanice McBean write in their upcoming book, Abolition Revolution, “Abolition demands we change not just ourselves but everything. It demands a fundamental transformation and reorganisation of society - and that can only ever be a revolutionary project.” The authors argue that abolition is a radical concept, but that it is exactly what our society needs to move forward with care for all. And steps towards the abolition of the police have already been taken in recent years, with campaigns like the Kill The Bill movement expanding the scope for abolition and sustaining the movement.
Meanwhile, organisations like Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) are working on reducing police powers and laws that can pave the way to a world without the heavy presence of the police. “The key is how an expansion of new laws, extra powers and more police has not made us feel safer, or more able to exercise our rights,’ explains Kevin Blowe, Netpol’s campaigns coordinator. “Quite the opposite. We should instead try, as the first step, fewer laws, reduced powers, and fewer officers stopping and searching young people on a pointless power trip.”
And Abolitionist Futures wants to dispel some of the myths around abolition, focusing on the origins of the police, who they exist to serve, and if they really police by consent. “It’s important to remember that the police are set up to protect property and maintain a very particular type of control. This does not lead to safe communities – certainly not the communities I am a part of – and instead leads to danger,” Begum says. She also adds that for many marginalised communities, the first encounter or contact with the police is very likely to be a negative one - through a stop-and-search or an arrest - leading to a distrust in the police and undermining the very notion of policing by consent so fundamental to the UK police model.
In fact, trust in the police has dropped sharply in recent years amongst racialised people in the UK, with polling showing a fall from 52% having trust in police in 2020 to 44% in 2021. (Both figures were significantly lower amongst Black communities, with a drop from 42% to just 37%.) When compared to 60% of the wider public having trust in the police, there is a stark difference in levels of trust.
Sharing her own experience of this distrust, Begum says, “In my case, it was witnessing a stop-and-search happen in my East London estate, and the deep feeling of helplessness and anger that accompanied it, that made me initially start to distrust the police.” The most recent stop-and-search figures show that people from a Black background were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than those from a white background, and people from an Asian or mixed background being two and half times more likely.
Outright alternatives to police are an evolving field, meanwhile - which is legitimate, considering defunding and abolition are likely to be a generational process and won’t happen overnight. Mariame Kaba, an abolitionist organiser, writes about the power of transformative justice and collective cooperation in her book We Do This ‘Til We Free Us. Transformative justice refers to the ways an individual act of harm can be addressed that relies on members of the community instead of the police or the law. It’s a form of justice that stands against inflicting more violence and punishment on offending individuals and instead turns to restorative methods such as: mediation, negotiation, and community support. Kaba explains that communities that choose a system that shifts away from the prison-industrial complex and instead properly cares for people and ensures access to public services and support for all, then that’s where the root causes behind crime can begin to be tackled.
“Community matters. Collectivity matters. To me that’s the whole thing,” Kaba writes. The police have never been a safe option for marginalised communities, and never will be. As Begum explains: “For many of us, police abolition is simply necessary for survival.”