Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

Law School hosts Beyond Reform: Reenvisioning the Role of Police

On Wednesday June 24, 2020, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School held the first event in its summer series, A Path for Change: Policing in America, hosted by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, in partnership with the Office of Inclusion & Engagement and the Toll Public Interest Center’s Social Justice Programs. The series is part of a yearlong colloquium, Achieving Racial Justice, previously announced by Dean Theodore Ruger, Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law, as one of many initiatives Penn Law will be implementing in the coming months “to work internally and externally against anti-Black violence and racism and to promote meaningful change toward a more just reality.”

Wednesday’s event, Beyond Reform: Reenvisioning the Role of Police, was a panel discussion moderated by George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights Dorothy Roberts. The panelists were Amna Akbar, Associate Professor of Law at The Ohio State University; Monica C. Bell, Associate Professor of Law and Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale University; and Jocelyn Simonson, Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.

Approximately 400 people attended the event, which took place on Zoom.

Roberts began the conversation by observing that “to many people, it seems completely inconceivable to talk about anything beyond tweaks to the current system, let alone abolition.” However, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, she said, “momentum is building” for the abolition of prisons and police. At this critical inflection point in American history, said Roberts, “we need structural, not individual approaches” to change.

Akbar, who began writing about policing in the aftermath of 9/11, when Muslims were broadly racialized as terrorists and subjected to intensified scrutiny by law enforcement, said that abolition offered a broader, deeper vision of change.

“If we care about racial justice,” she said, “there are aspects of our society that we need to tear down and aspects that need to be built up.”

Akbar said she has learned from working with organizers to always ask three questions.

“First, what is your account of the problem? Second, what is your horizon for change? What is the world you’re fighting for? And third, what is your theory of how we get where we want to go?”

The prevailing account of the policing problem, she said, is the “bad apples” narrative, but a more complete analysis takes into consideration our nation’s history of enslavement and colonialism. Instead of the “reform” horizon, Akbar said, she looks to the abolitionist horizon, where people have access to housing, healthcare, and education, and where we do not resort to state-sponsored violence to solve interpersonal conflicts.

Finally, Akbar said, her theory of how to get to abolition involves not the courts, Congress, and other elite institutions but rather organic, grassroots organizing that mobilizes collective resistance and harnesses the power of everyday people.

Simonson’s work explores movements and the ways in which people collectively intervene in the criminal legal system to contest the ideas that make up the carceral state.

As an example, she said, “when people sit inside of a courtroom as court-watchers on behalf of someone accused of a crime, they’re challenging the idea that the prosecution is representing ‘the people,’” which undercuts the ideology of public safety that makes policing and incarceration possible.

Simonson noted that many people are now in the process of asking first-order questions about how the state should be providing safety and security and finding new ways to intervene.

“What we’re hearing from activists,” she said, “is not demands for technocratic reforms — no chokeholds, etc. They’re asking for fundamental shifts in who has power over government control of communities. They’re asking really profound questions about what it means to have a democratic state.”

Bell, who writes about the intersection of policing and other discriminatory institutions, talked about how her own work is primarily based in qualitative research, interviews, and ethnographies, because “when you actually talk to people about their hopes and dreams for the law, you get a lot of complex and conflicting responses,” she said.

“We lose sight of humanity in the law. I want to force people who read law review articles to attach a human being to that thinking.”

Inspired by Afro-pessimism, a theoretical framework that acknowledges the likely permanence of racism and the ways in which racist violence is constitutive of white civil society, Bell said that it “makes the agenda seem almost paralyzingly big when you conclude that it’s about racial equity, not policing.”

Because abolition may be unrealistically optimistic, she said, it is also important to work for incremental reforms, even while “recognizing that if you’re advocating for incremental reforms, what you’re working toward is not actually justice.”

Roberts then asked the panelists what we should do “in the meantime,” if total abolition still seemed beyond reach today, and the group offered a range of practical examples of “non-reformist reforms” that, as Akbar put it, “undermine the prevailing political-economic-social system and expand the space for the democratic exercise of power.”

Akbar also recommended a variety of resources for people interested in learning more about abolition, including the Critical Resistance Chart, Rachel Herzing’s “Big Dreams and Bold Steps Toward a Police-Free Future,” and Andrew Burton’s “Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose.”

After the group took questions from the virtual audience, Bell had the last word in the rich discussion, calling on those working toward abolition to adjust their concept of victory.

“Our horizon is long,” she said. “We’re not doing this for our generation, but for generations to come.”

The next event in the series, Structural Frustrations: Challenges to Implementing Change, will take place via Zoom on July 8, 2020 at 6:30 p.m., featuring these panelists: 

  • Everett Gillison, Penn Law Toll Public Interest Center Practitioner-in-Residence; Former Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Chief of Staff, City of Philadelphia
  • Anjelica Hendricks, Policy Analyst Police Advisory Commission, City of Philadelphia
  • Charles Ramsey, Penn Law Distinguished Policy Fellow; Former Chief, Philadelphia Police Department
  • Sozi Tulante, Penn Law Lecturer; Former Philadelphia City Solicitor; Partner, Dechert LLP

Watch the full webinar

Additional Resources

  1. Critical Resistance chart on reformist reforms vs. abolitionist steps
  2. Rachel Herzing on police abolition
  3. Mariame Kaba on police reforms you should always oppose: 
  4. Movement for Black Lives Vision for Black Lives
  5. Mijente Free Our Future 
  6. Red Nation Red Deal

Related publications