Policing as a Public Good: Reflecting on the Term 'To Protect and Serve' As Dialogues of Abolition

29 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2021

See all articles by Tracey L. Meares

Tracey L. Meares

Yale University - Law School

Gwen Prowse

Yale University

Date Written: January 18, 2021


This Essay is based on a lecture that was to be delivered in person in March 2020 but was cancelled as a result of the initial ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. That a discussion of policing in the United States was cancelled because of what may well turn out to be the most significant public health crisis of this decade, if not this century, is important as these two subjects are intimately related. Sociologists and others have long noted that crime and especially violent crime, is concentrated in places. Research is also clear that the state’s primary response to concentrated violence in communities has been to send police and other apparatus of the criminal legal system to respond to crime rather than to provide state supports and other resources better aimed at preventing the circumstances that render certain neighborhoods susceptible to violence.

The goal of research described here is to investigate how ordinary people discuss a reconceptualization of policing in ways that respond to the current moment. The data from the Portals Poling Project (https://www.portalspolicingproject.com/) comprise a set of over 850 conversations recorded and transcribed between 2016 and 2018, and that took place between dyads of people located across fourteen neighborhoods among six cities: Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Mexico City, and Newark. Much social science literature predicts that people will disengage from the state as a result of negative police treatment. For example, legal scholars argue that excessive police force can lead to distrust in the law and police as legal actors. This Essay focuses on a key phrase participants discussed with one another, “Protect and Serve” (and its variants), and argues that even when people are unrelentingly negative in their characterization of police and policing, they are more likely to argue for an aspirational vision of policing rather than state disengagement and self-policing. The argument here is that this analysis is very relevant to the current discussion regarding police abolition where a key question is how people who regularly experience the strong hand of the state think about what role the state should play in their lives. This Article concludes by suggesting that when listening to the public safety recommendations race-class subjugated communities offer, these ideations should be understood as part of a reconstructive process—imagining new state formations—as opposed to an erasure of the state in its entirety

Keywords: police, public, Reconstruction, privatization, abolition, reform

Suggested Citation

Meares, Tracey Louise and Prowse, Gwen, Policing as a Public Good: Reflecting on the Term 'To Protect and Serve' As Dialogues of Abolition (January 18, 2021). University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper Forthcoming, Yale Law & Economics Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3768726

Tracey Louise Meares (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4074 (Phone)
203-432-4876 (Fax)

Gwen Prowse

Yale University

United States

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