In recent months, the police have been the object of extensive discussion and harsh criticism in the UK. The Louise Casey report published in March found the Metropolitan Police (the police service for the Greater London area) to be institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Since then, various incidents in different parts of the country – most recently in Cardiff last week, resulting in the tragic deaths of teenagers Kyrees Sullivan and Harvey Evans – have seen the police behaving in deeply problematic ways. The police have also come under attack for its behaviour towards protesters, or people believed to be such, especially during the weekend of the Coronation following the passing of the Public Order Bill. This is in the context of a crisis of legitimacy that the institution has been facing for a few years now, in part as a result of a number of other high-profile cases and investigations. The police are increasingly seen not as an institution that function to protect all citizens, but as a potential threat to members of different social groups. Scepticism about whether the police can be trusted to act lawfully and to provide truthful accounts of its activities is mounting. Mistrust towards the police is of course not in itself a new phenomenon, especially among certain sectors of society, but it has been gaining more traction in broader segments of the population.

The debate on the reform and abolition of the police has a long history. Most recently, following the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, many activists and organisations have coalesced around the proposal to defund the police. Some advocates of this idea understand it as part of a broader abolitionism agenda, as a pathway to police and other forms of abolition. This is, however, not necessarily the case. The defunding the police movement is about reducing the amount of funding the police receive, and to re-invest it in other services and programmes, especially in deprived communities. One of its motivating thoughts is that much of what the police do should be done by other governmental workers, such as social and case workers, which would be better equipped in responding to these situations. An example that is often mentioned is that of mental health crises which are often dealt with by the police with an unnecessary and harmful degree of violence. This proposal is particularly compelling in the US context, in which, first, the police receive a greater and over the past decade often growing proportion of public funding, second, police funding as well as that of other public services is controlled by local authorities and, third, the police is even more present in communities and places such as schools. However, many of its elements can apply to other contexts, especially for communities that are systematically over-policed.

The question that I want to raise here is what addressing these issues from the point of view of care can tell us about the ways in which we should rethink the police. While the literature on care was initially developed in the context of moral theory, as an ethics of care, more recently many have argued that we should think of care also as a political value. Looking at our societies from a care perspective involves not only assessing whether the practices that we generally consider forms of care are indeed caring and, if not, propose ways in which they can be made so, but also, more broadly, bringing the normative considerations distinctive of care to bear on our social and political arrangements. Such considerations include an attention to others’ well-being and a commitment to address their needs in a way that is sensitive to their own understanding of them, and in the context of relationships characterised by mutual trust and concern. Adopting the care perspective to our social and political arrangements means addressing questions such as whether institutions and practices that are not usually regarded as the site of care should instead be refashioned to embody considerations of care, and whether existing institutions and practices need to be rethought because, in their present configuration, they undermine care. What can the care perspective tell us about the police?

There are two main ways to reply to this question. The first is to suggest that it is precisely because we adopt a care perspective rather than a punitive one that we should aim to defund, if not abolish, the police. One of central ideas is that it is possible to construe a system which holds people accountable without being punitive. In order for it to not to be punitive, the role of the police should be minimised, especially when it comes to contact with communities, such as black communities in the US and the UK, that have been historically mistreated by the police. Another possibility that has been proposed is instead to reform the police by incorporating consideration of care in its practice. This can be seen as part of a broader proposal to incorporate considerations of care in realms that are not usually regarded as sites of care, such as the economy, policing and punishment. This approach understands those policing and those who are policed as part of the same communities, and puts concern for communities and its members, nonviolence and mutual trust at the centre of the practice of policing.

The question of whether adopting a care perspective should lead us to support the abolition of the police is of course a very complicated one. However, more can be said about the two alternatives just outlined.  The idea of a caring police relies on a re-orientation of the practices of policing and the skills that are considered central to that practice. Rather than physical strength and ability to assert authority, skills in communication and negotiation should be the ones that are valued and promoted. This would allow police to better conduct interactions with the public and minimise the use of violence. This proposal is the mirror image of the idea of defunding the police: rather than promoting the use of public services other than the police to address situations like mental health crisis, the attempt is to make the police behave in ways that are closer to the ways in which a social worker, or a psychologist, might act. The first point to make here is that there are good reasons to believe that it is more likely that governmental workers other than the police would do a better job at caring for citizens in these situations. Even if not necessarily in principle, in practice the attitudes of care are often in tension with how policing is understood at the structural as well as individual level by members of the force as well as ordinary citizens. Relatedly, as pointed out earlier, the police do not enjoy the level of public trust which would make such caring exchanges possible. These other public services, while not at all untainted or universally trusted, still enjoy more public support and are overall better equipped at responding to situations in caring ways, as care is arguably at least part of their core function. Secondly, there are also good reasons to believe that defunding the police would serve better the aims of care as a whole. Going beyond the question of which kinds of services should be involved in particular incidents, the proposal of defunding the police also requires the transfer of resources from police budgets to other public services, especially in deprived areas. The most likely effect of this would be that public services would be better equipped, among other things, to respond to the needs of citizens in ways that are caring. Further, public services such as healthcare, schools and social care which are directly engaged in care provision would also be more resourced and hence likely to be effective. This would in turn lead to crime reduction, hence resulting in less crime and incidents of the kinds that often see the police involved. There is much more to be said about the idea of defunding the police, especially when it comes to the relationship between defund and abolition and the question of whether and how specific strategies and proposals originally developed mainly in the US can apply to the UK and elsewhere. However, what we can conclude for now is that a care perspective provides us with reasons to support the family of ideas under the umbrella of “defund the police.”

Costanza Porro

Costanza is Lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Lancaster. She is also carrying out a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship which she started at MANCEPT, the Centre for Political Theory of the University of Manchester, in October 2022. Previously, she was postdoctoral fellow at the department of philosophy of the University of Hamburg. She completed a PhD in Law at King’s College London in 2019. Her research interests lie at the intersection of moral philosophy, political and social philosophy, feminist philosophy and the philosophy of criminal punishment. Her current research explores how the fact of our nature as caring and needy beings shapes the way in which we should conceive an egalitarian society.