Recently, a friend emailed to report on changes that his city—Cambridge, Massachusetts—was considering for its police force. He confessed he was “coming around” to the idea that “the authority of police to use lethal force fundamentally undermines engaging with and supporting communities,” and that “abolition” of the police—a word he said he used consciously, for its historical echo—was the best option.
In the months since the killing of George Floyd, Americans have reached an uneasy stasis in the policing wars, with police unions and elected officials trading insults, a specious “law and order” president fanning the flames, and the inchoate movement to “defund the police” continuing in uncertain form. To my mind, “defund the police” is a crowd-pleasing slogan that can’t possibly deliver what it promises. What is really needed is to reform the police. But activists view that word with mistrust, disappointed by past failures; presumably they deploy a more provocative term in the hope that threatening to end policing will increase the chances of actually changing it.
Whatever the point and pedigree of the phrase, the experience of the so-called autonomous zone in Seattle reminds us that policing in some form is necessary, as do the ongoing travails of cities where the murder rate has risen dramatically—and the voices of people of color who live in those communities and who overwhelmingly do not support the push to abolish policing. What is needed is not no police force, but a different one.
For my part, experiences years ago in another country inform my sense of an approach to policing that could help us here and now. In recent weeks, I’ve found myself recalling my positive impressions of the Polizei in Germany, where I lived in the 1990s. To be sure, many young and middle-aged Germans back then possessed an abiding mistrust of “die Bullen”—a mistrust you could trace to 1968 and the clashes between students and police. To many people those clashes emblemized state power run amok. Yet the reality of policing in Germany belies the notion of the out-of-control cop—and presents, to an American, an instructive model.
In the Rhine city where I lived, I played noontime chess in the park with a group of elderly men. They were all former Wehrmacht soldiers, and we had long conversations about World War II, Hitler, and the Holocaust. Also at the park was a group of Pennern—bums, drunks—who hung out around benches beneath a pergola near the chess area. They were a motley crew, tattooed, unhealthy, rowdy. One day, one of them was especially drunk and unruly, cursing at passersby. The Polizei arrived. The man was obstreperous. They cautioned him and he belligerently waved them away, screaming profanity. Uh-oh, I thought, here we go.
Yet the situation didn’t escalate. Instead of coming down hard on him, the police talked to him, politely and firmly. Did he have a home address? Was he on any medication? Where was he spending the night? Might they help him get somewhere? The whole time, he was threatening and thrashing around. In the United States, the police wouldn’t have needed anything else to arrest him. But the German cops didn’t want to do that. Instead, they spoke encouragingly, quietly suggesting some institutional resources for him. As an American, I was struck by their flexibility, their patience, and their helpfulness. I remember thinking, These guys sound more like social workers than like cops. It was clear that while they could arrest him, they felt that doing so would constitute a professional defeat. It was a last recourse, if every other tool in the toolkit failed. And they had a lot of tools in their kit.
My second exemplary memory of policing in Germany traces to Berlin and a pretty street corner in Charlottenburg. Lunchtime, a warm spring day, two adjacent cafés providing outdoor seating for maybe 150 people. A green-and-white police car pulled up and parked. Two cops started wending their way through the tables, questioning people. Wow, I thought, they must have a lead on a suspect. Soon enough, they confronted a guy at a table near ours. He stood up. He was nodding and saying, yes, he did drive a VW Cabrio with a particular license plate. I craned my neck to hear what the police wanted.
“Sie haben Ihre Schlüssel im Auto gelassen,” was what I heard.
He had left his keys in the ignition, and the cops had noticed. It was a humorous inversion of a Nazi trope—the Gestapo searching through a crowd, looking for someone, pulling him out...and handing him his car keys!