Do Cops Make Us Safe?
JD Barnes/Essence Archives

In the year since protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor galvanized the world, advocates and elected officials have called for a range of safer and more effective public- safety approaches—from abolishing or defunding to retraining the police. 

D’atra Jackson, Black Youth Project 100 National Director, says, “When we seek answers to police violence, there is always a counter. For example, maybe there should be more body cameras—then it’s like, yeah, but they don’t actually prevent killings from happening, and in a lot of the states it’s really difficult to access the camera footage. There’s always a hoop to jump through.” Such challenges led Jackson to endorse police and prison abolition, which she explains is “a process and a practice of getting rid of police and prisons and implementing new solutions to wellness and safety.”  

Concerns about public safety are real for us: Black women are less likely than any other group to feel safe walking home at night, according to a 2020 Gallup poll. But do cops make us any safer? In a Pew Research Center survey published in 2020, most Black respondents felt the police didn’t do a good job protecting them from crime.  

Rachel Gilmer is codirector of the Dream Defenders, an organization that fights to liberate communities of color from overpolicing and other social ills. She believes abolition can both “meet the community’s needs and directly respond to violence” through prevention. “If we’re really concerned about deterring crime,” she says, “we should focus on the basic social services people need.” 

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Congresswoman Karen Bass advocates “initiating a change in culture in policing.” The former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus—and the lead sponsor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (JPA)—Bass is keenly aware of racial disparities in how cops operate in her district. In South Central Los Angeles, a predominantly Black and Brown area, “police come in as warriors and view residents as enemy combatants,” she notes. Meanwhile, in her -California district’s majority-white, more affluent west side, “police go in to protect, to serve.”

The JPA calls for extensive officer training. But Jackson doubts that officers can be reformed. In a study on implicit-bias awareness training in the New York Police Department, for example, researchers found no evidence that officer behavior actually changed.  

For her part, Chicago Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor promotes “defunding a system that hates us and kills us on a consistent basis.” Though gun violence in Chicago is notoriously high, the steep cost of policing prompts her fight to slash the Chicago Police Department budget, which was $1.6 billion in 2020—more than for community services and infrastructure combined. More police officers doesn’t mean less crime. The number of Chicago police officers per capita has grown steadily over the past half century, as crime rates have risen and fallen, according to an analysis by Injustice Watch. 

Despite their varying approaches to police reform, these advocates share the same fundamental concern. “If people made a living wage and had access to jobs, good health care and the things that make a great community, you think we’d have this much crime?” Taylor asks rhetorically. “I don’t think so.” 

This article originally appeared in the July/August print issue of ESSENCE Magazine.