The University of Chicago’s sociology department’s two-day conference, “Reimagining/Reinventing Police,” convened eight panels of experts from July 30–31. Over both days, panelists sought to navigate the tension between reinventing police with evidence-based reforms that would have an immediate impact, and reimagining a new vision of public safety in the long term that doesn’t include police at all.
The first panel set the tone with Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, who criticized the fact that so much of the research around policing in the social sciences is aimed at finding small fixes to systemic problems rather than questioning the institution as a whole.
“We [don’t] need to create police racism dashboards so we can fix it with little training interventions, we don’t need any more of that kind of data,” Vitale said. “If people are trying to figure out concretely what the costs of policing are and the burden on society, then yes, we need research on those things, but that’s not what’s being funded.”
Several panelists used historical analysis to frame their research. UChicago School of Social Service Administration professor Reuben Miller spoke at length about how the transatlantic slave trade and centuries of slavery and segregation in America created both our modern understanding of race and the legal infrastructure of racism. According to Miller, contemporary policing and prisons are the most recent iteration of legal mechanisms that reproduce racial oppression in order to preserve the unequal distribution of economic power.
Ethnographer and Quinnipiac University professor Kalfani Ture, who was doing fieldwork in Baltimore during the Baltimore uprising over Freddie Gray’s murder, drew on the recent history of protests against police brutality to offer insight into police response to protests in 2020.
Ture introduced the concept of blue fragility to diagnose the response of law enforcement to the wave of protests over their behavior and very existence. “Blue fragility is a set of protective strategies that police deploy against challenges to their legitimacy and moral authority,” Ture said, mentioning work stoppages and physical and verbal aggression as examples of those strategies.
He added that attempts to rewrite the narratives surrounding police violence are strategies intended to “symbolically restore police as moral agents.”
The conference’s third panel tackled the question of how to use smaller reforms to create immediate change within an abolitionist framework. Northwestern University professor Wesley Skogan explained how the entrenched power of police unions and their connections to state legislatures limits what cities like Chicago can do to scale down their police departments.
Skogan proposed letting natural attrition reduce the size of police departments over time by simply not replacing officers as they retire, which he believes will significantly diminish the size of the police force after several years.
Professor Forrest Stuart from Stanford University spoke about his research on Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which diverts police calls related to behavioral health case managers who connect people in need with social services instead of officers.
Stuart said that many conventional police reform measures have failed because they tried to use officers to do the work of mental healthcare or social workers, allowing police to see the violent interventions they typically used as an act of compassion.
Discussions about the Chicago Police Department and the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) turned the conversation closer to home. UChicago Sociology professor Robert Vargas credited his undergraduate students with persuading him to adopt an abolitionist perspective, and spoke about how the “finance and research policy nexus” that supports Chicago police implicates a much wider array of entities outside law enforcement in the work of policing. Private investors in police technologies and private research labs, such as UChicago’s Crime Lab, with exclusive access to police data play a role in supporting the police as an institution.
“The barriers institutions raise to data and transparency is a form of violence,” Vargas said.
Yale professor Monica Bell said that she wishes universities would work on inventing more creative and equitable solutions to public safety rather than funding their own private police departments, which often serve as a barrier between students and the communities their universities inhabit.
“It’s actually exciting because I think universities have more interesting ways to produce public safety,” Bell said. “I would love to see universities become labs for how we can think more concretely about alternatives to standard policing.”
The final panel of the conference brought together 33rd Ward Alderman Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, UChicago’s Pozen Family Center Director of Human Rights Practice Alice Kim, activists Alicia Hurtado and Tai Davidson Bajandas from #CareNotCops and Damon Williams from the #LetUsBreathe Collective, a coalition of artists and activists organizing around police and prison abolition on the South Side. Their discussion centered on how to use community organizing to achieve abolitionist goals in a variety of contexts.
Kim detailed the years of organizing that went into her work with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials to successfully advocate for reparations for survivors of police torture and the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. Hurtado and Bajandas explained the history of #CareNotCops on UChicago’s campus and the results of their research into how UCPD’s policing practices (traffic stops and street interviews) disproportionately criminalize Black residents of Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods.
Williams argued that the everyday reality of policing and prisons—strip searches, prison labor, and more—despite having been normalized in media and political discourse, should be understood as forms of torture.
“Every day you have woken up and drawn breath, you have been living in a place where slavery is legal,” Williams said. “Policing and incarceration is slavery. Policing and incarceration is torture.”
Williams asserted that the first step toward establishing public safety is to invest in the resources that people need to survive by divesting from police and prisons. #CareNotCops’s Hurtado and Bajandas seconded his claim.
“What we have right now is a political moment where things that seemed impossible are now much more possible,” Hurtado said. “But the thing is, all of this was always possible; we’re just convinced and conditioned to believe that we don’t have the people power, the connections, the voice to actually make change.”
“The things that you think are impossible now are probably not impossible, they’re just things we’ve been told we can’t do.”