Updated: Mar 11, 2019
Since May of this year the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has separated nearly 2,500 migrant children from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico. In response, activists opposed to Trump administration immigration policies have called for the abolishment of ICE. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, defeated Joseph Crowley, the chairperson of the both the House’s Democratic Caucus, and the Queen’s County Democratic Party, in the democratic primary for New York’s 14th congressional district, on a platform that included a demand to abolish ICE. The call has gone mainstream since. U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kristen Gillibrand, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others, have joined Ocasio-Cortez in demanding an end to ICE.
Some press outlets, however, see the #AbolishICE demands as little more than sound bite politics. According to NPR, #AbolishICE isn’t a call to actually abolish a federal police agency, but rather merely “symbolizes Democrats' opposition to Trump's immigration policies, particularly the separation of children and parents at the border. It's a shorthand way to remind lawmakers and the public that Democrats don't like how the president has demonized immigrants — whether they entered the U.S. legally or not. It also expresses the fear and outrage among immigrant communities who feel that ICE is terrorizing their neighborhoods.”
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal (D) dismissed the calls to abolish ICE as nothing more than a political slogan, saying in an interview that “abolishing ICE will accomplish nothing.” Abolish ICE, in other words, and some other agency will do the job.
Blumenthal’s not wrong. The separation of children from their parents is not a unique practice of ICE. The Trump administration will have a nearly unlimited choice of agencies that could do the job of separating children from their parents, because separating children from their parents is what police every day, whether on the border or in your town.
According to Rutgers University’s National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated, nearly three million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. And family separation by police is racialized, whether by ICE or any other police agency. One in 9 African-American children has an incarcerated parent as opposed to 1 in 57 white children. To engage in policing, whether by ICE or your local cops, is to engage in the separation of children from their parents.
So Blumenthal is right. Abolishing ICE won’t solve the problem of family separation, but he’s not right about the solution. Police reform is not a tool of transformation, but a means to reinforce the authority and legitimacy of police.
Consider the Albuquerque police department (APD). In 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice forced APD to engage in sweeping court-ordered reforms. This is because APD wasn’t just separating parents from their children, it was killing them. Between 1987 and 1997, APD killed 31 people, more than any other department of its size. Outrage led to reforms in 1997, and then police increased the rate at which it killed people. Between 2010 and 2014, APD killed nearly 30 people, culminating in the bloodiest year of all, 2014, when police committed nearly 21% of all homicides in Bernalillo County, New Mexico.
But there were few calls to abolish APD in 2014, just as there were few in 1997. Instead, it’s been wave after wave of reform in Albuquerque. And the post-2014 reform process looks a lot like 1997’s. Both focused on community oversight of APD, both resulted in new use-of-force policies, and improved training and hiring standards.
Is the current reform process any different than all the failed ones of the past? The federal monitor, the person charged with overseeing the court-mandated reforms in Albuquerque, can’t say. There are new policies, and they’re tougher. But according to the monitor these are improvements achieved “around the edges.” Every new policy is made despite, not because, of APD. “Begrudging progress” he calls it. APD meets every new policy change with “stiffened resistance.” Sounds like 1997 all over again; and is also what we would get at ICE if Blumenthal gets his wish of reform there.
It’s important to point out that this “improvement” at APD is just about policy — just what’s written on the page. What about APD practices? The court requires tough procedures for holding officers accountable. APD must review use-of-force cases by officers. But APD skirts this requirement. The monitor notes “serious” failures among supervisors to even acknowledge that force happens. Cops use neck holds and what they call “distraction” strikes (chokeholds and punches to the head). APD doesn’t consider this “force.” This extends to the use of tear gas and flash-bang grenades, which APD also considers “non-use of force events.”
And what about the use of K9s? In the years between the beginning of court-ordered reforms in 2014 and the end of 2017, police dogs in Albuquerque bit 57 people, nearly 70% of whom were people of color. Six of the people mauled by police dogs were under 19 years old, including a 16-year old child. APD doesn’t just separate children from their parents, it sends dogs after them.
APD has a backlog of use-of-force cases to review, and no plan to do it. The monitor noted recently that APD’s “Force Review Board” was unaware of this problem. This is because, at the time of the monitor’s report, the Board hadn’t met in over a year. Maybe that’s for the best. When the Board convenes, it operates as a rubber stamp for officer misconduct. In one report the monitor described “a serious use of force involving a handcuffed prisoner.” The Board accepted the “deliberate attempts to rationalize the use of force by the officer” and adjourned without providing “counsel, reprimand, or discipline.” On paper, APD holds officers accountable. In practice, not so much. The monitor concluded that APD “has a difficult time knowing an improper use of force when it sees it.”
What APD says its officers do and what cops actually do on the street remain two different things. During one recent court reporting period, the monitor found that APD sought to “walk back” its policy to review lapel camera devices following use-of-force events. APD adopted procedures to investigate and adjudicate community complaints against police. But the court found a “substantial and persistent (and unreported) backlog of cases related to uses of force.”
So many backlogs, and perhaps the biggest backlog of all is the one full of the unfulfilled promises by chiefs and mayors that reform will somehow “fix” the Albuquerque police department. But it’s worth asking what we’d get with a “fixed” police department. It would be a department that doesn’t just kill more than most, it’s one implicated in intimidating witnesses, harassing critics, violating its own policies, and ignoring court orders related to public records. It is a department that has left thousands of rape evidence kits untested in police warehouses.
Why, you might ask, is a police department so mired in controversy, so incompetent at fighting crime, so intransigent at fixing what’s wrong, and so lethal to poor people of color, seen as so essential to the city of Albuquerque? Because while a particular agency such as APD or ICE might occasionally find itself the target of criticism for its practices, rarely is police as an institution seen as the problem. Instead police, whe are taught and told, is essential, whether at the border or in your community. The idea that a community might be safer without the police, however, is dismissed as too radical. But there is significant evidence that the institution of police as currently constituted does not enhance public safety and security. The 1972 Kansas City Patrol Experiment demonstrated that increased police patrol does not reduce crime. When NYPD cops went on strike in 2014, crime reports (not just arrests) plummeted. Fewer police, not more, enhances public safety. If we want to get tough on crime, we might start by getting rid of cops. But there are no calls for the abolition of APD in Albuquerque. Despite its long record of racialized violence against the poor, APD receives broad support. Albuquerque’s new Mayor, Democrat Tim Keller, who campaigned on fixing APD, instead hired a 20-year veteran of APD as its new chief; and even worse promises to hire hundreds of new officers. This is what passes at getting tough on cops.
If the calls to abolish ICE become a call for reform, let Albuquerque be our guide. It won’t work. Police and policing do not serve the interests of the communities being policed, and no amount of reform will change that fact. After all, what history of community-minded, constitutional policing can APD or ICE point to as the reason for anyone to support expanding its ranks? What pattern of good-faith effort at reform can APD show as evidence that reform in 2014 is somehow different than the failed reforms of the past? And we can extend this to ICE. No amount of reform will transform the sole purpose for the existence of ICE: the arrest, incarceration and deportation of migrants, which will always include the separation of families?
The thought of abolishing police, not just ICE, is frightening to some, hence the collective shrug among communities not under assault by police every time another cop gets away with outrageous police violence. After all, we need cops, don’t we? Who but police can guarantee order and security? But the police departments we have, whether we’re talking about APD or ICE, empirically, do not keep people safe. How many more children must be attacked by police dogs, how many more people shot in the back by cops, how many more poor people harassed, brutalized or killed just because they sought a safe place to sleep for the night before we start looking for alternatives to the police we have?
Police don’t keep us safe, that we know. But who or what will? This is the question every politician — liberal or conservative —and many activists, refuse to ask for fear of being dismissed as naïve or, worse, “soft” on crime. But what’s softer than supporting police, an institution with no record of keeping working people safe?
Calls to abolish ICE, to be meaningful, must include calls to abolish local police too. The police is an institution organized around the use of violence for punishment and coercion overwhelmingly arrayed against poor communities of color. Abolition, not reform, is the solution to this problem. No more money for cops or reform. The money and energy wasted on police reform and police agencies would be better spent supporting community efforts at alternatives. Fewer cops and more emergency and transitional housing. Fewer cops and more support for institutions that serve (not arrest) people suffering mental health crises or drug addiction. Abolition ICE, yes, but don’t stop there.