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When Seeking Justice, Imprisoning Killer Cops Should Not Be Our Priority

Instead of focusing on putting police officers behind bars, we must prioritize addressing and dismantling the prison-industrial complex as a whole.

As several high profile cases of police brutality cause public outrage, including the murder of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant and 13-year-old Adam Toledo, the call to “jail killer cops” has been growing in popularity. When seeking justice and accountability for horrific crimes committed by police, a common response is to look towards our criminal justice system. However, as many abolitionist leaders have suggested, when examining how to best hold killer cops accountable for their crimes, imprisonment should not be the top priority. 

One major issue with equating jail time to accountability is that the carceral state is not designed to ensure true justice, but rather to uphold a capitalist system of exploitation and oppression. Time and time again, we see that incarceration prioritizes retribution over healing, and because of this, it doesn’t actually deter police or civilian violence. From its origins, the prison-industrial complex (PIC) in America was primarily designed as a way to protect property (including stolen people and stolen land), as well as to continue profiting off of the slave labor of emancipated Black people and immigrants. Essentially, prisons and police were created to oppress marginalized communities, not serve them. As Black feminist activist Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The current system will never provide true justice for the people, and relying on it to do so will only result in more lost lives. According to The New York Times, “Since testimony [for the trial of Derek Chauvin] began on March 29, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide,” including the murder of Andrew Brown Jr. in North Carolina the day after Chauvin’s conviction. Clearly, the widely publicized murder trial of a police officer isn’t enough to keep other law enforcement officers from continuing to murder more Black and Brown people.

    Another major issue with focusing on imprisonment is that it serves as a distraction from the real problems at hand. If we’ve learned anything from the protests and uprisings over the past few years, it’s that we have power in numbers; but with this power comes a responsibility to demand solutions that will provide lasting change. Although these officers should be held accountable for their actions, by focusing our collective energy on ensuring a guilty verdict we ignore the root of the problem — namely the inherent racism and violence of the PIC. The reality is that these police officers are only a representation of the much larger problem posed by the PIC, and racial capitalism (an economic system which extracts value from racial identity) as a whole. Instead of petitioning to simply put killer cops in jail, we should focus on seeking alternatives to police and prisons within our communities (such as transformative justice processes), calling for large scale reinvestments from police departments into community wellness initiatives, and establishing local forms of governance and open dialogue.

    It’s understandable that many people, especially the families of victims, want to see these killer cops in prison. Some people don’t have the time or energy to invest in transforming the system, and simply want to see consequences for the cops’ actions. It can be overwhelming to tackle these huge issues full on, and it makes sense that some might shy away from addressing the bigger picture. However, it’s important to remember that each person isn’t dismantling the whole system alone: that’s the point of building more community and movement space. Plus, “transforming the system” isn’t always as overwhelming of a task as it may seem. Although large scale advocacy and organizing is necessary to make drastic changes, through building community and decreasing our reliance on these systems, we can make radical change from our own neighborhoods. Something as simple as creating mutual aid systems, such as a food bank outside your home for people to give and take produce or canned goods, can make a big difference. 

Others who oppose this reframing of thought argue that the crimes of police should not go unpunished, especially while so many Black and Brown people receive lengthy sentences for victimless crimes with little evidence. While killer cops like Derek Chauvin should obviously face consequences for their actions, by deprioritizing the imprisonment of these officers we actually allow ourselves to prioritize those groups most affected by the police state. Instead of spending all our energy calling for individual police officers to be jailed, we can push for the decriminalization of nonviolent drug offenses, support for prisoners in their organizing for improved conditions, and reinvestment from police departments into real solutions. Adrienne Maree Brown discusses this theory of thought in her book Emergent Strategy, writing, “What we pay attention to grows.” By turning our attention to the well-being of those most impacted by the police state and away from the imprisonment of individual officers, we can begin crafting root cause solutions to the problem of the PIC instead of fighting surface level battles.

As Angela Davis writes in Freedom is a Constant Struggle, “Neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators. But how is it possible to solve the massive problem of racist state violence by calling upon individual police officers to bear the burden of that history and to assume that by prosecuting them, by exacting our revenge on them, we would have somehow made progress in eradicating racism?” Although convictions like Chauvin’s may bring a sense of temporary relief, in the long run they fail to address the real issue behind why officers like him feel entitled to commit such horrible crimes — even on camera. By focusing attention on the larger issue at hand and adjusting our demands accordingly, our movements will actually be more effective towards serving and healing the communities disproportionately affected by police violence. 

    In our fight towards a more equitable and safe society, it’s important to remember the larger issues we’re working to address. As long as we continue to be satisfied with small victories and allow the cycles of state-sanctioned violence to continue, the system will continue to win. This is not a battle that can be won overnight, or a battle that can be won on an individual level. Many local organizations have already begun this collective work, including Critical Resistance, the Anti-Police Terror Project, Black Organizing Project, and Cop Watch. If we want to truly transform the way our society defines justice and shift towards healing over revenge, those values must be reflected in our activism. For the younger generation, especially in such a rapidly gentrifying area as Berkeley, it’s of the utmost importance that we adjust our mentality when addressing systemic injustices. Instead of expending energy and resources fighting individual battles, we must prioritize collective well-being and seek alternative solutions in order to begin building the foundations of a world in which true safety is possible.

Update: This article was changed to add information regarding the photograph.