‘Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the Theory and Practice of Police Abolition

Meghan G. McDowell, Luis A Fernandez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Critical criminologists have challenged the utility of efforts to reform the criminal justice system for decades, including strong calls to abolish the prison system. More recently, the rebellions in Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Charlotte have made racialized police violence and police reform issues of national concern. In this article, we examine abolitionist claims aimed at law enforcement institutions in the aftermath of Ferguson and other subsequent rebellions. We consider the implications for abolitionist organizing when the institution of law enforcement, rather than prisons, becomes the explicit target of our movement(s). How are groups theorizing and practicing police abolition and how does this align with, challenge, or expand past conceptualizations of abolition? To answer this question, first we sketch the broad parameters of abolitionist thought, particularly as it is taken up in the disciplines of political theory and criminology. Second, we analyze an emergent praxis of police abolition that revolves around the call to disband, disempower, and disarm law enforcement institutions. We argue that by attacking the police as an institution, by challenging its very right to exist, the contemporary abolitionist movement contains the potential to radically transform society. In this spirit, we amplify abolitionist praxis that (1) aims directly at the police as an institution, (2) seeks to dismantle the racial capitalist order, (3) adopts uncompromising positions that resist liberal attempts at co-optation, incorporation, and/or reconciliation, and (4) creates alterative democratic spaces that directly challenge the legitimacy of the police.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)373-391
Number of pages19
JournalCritical Criminology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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