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Depolicing a Free Society

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Abstract

In free and democratic societies, police are a contradiction. Their authority and capacity to coerce and overpower resistance is at odds with the ideal of liberty, and their broad discretion to use this authority selectively is at odds with the ideal of equality. Nevertheless, as the primary coercive agents of the state, they are expected to protect those ideals in order to maintain the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. In the United States, this contradiction has placed police at the center of controversy of all types, torn between an array of the conflicting interests of a diverse and multicultural society. To regulate the opposing pressures and demands placed upon them, police have increasingly through history embraced a law enforcement, or crime prevention mission. This history is reviewed in the context of the United States in Chapter 1, arguing that the crime prevention mission has often, in fact, undermined police’s ability to manage conflicting pressures, because it has led them to maximize the frequency by which they intervene in the lives of citizens and make use of their coercive authority. Recent crises in American policing have prompted calls for reducing police power and presence in a variety of ways. This dissertation informs the question of whether an agenda of “depolicing” should be pursued. Chapters 2 and 3 bring empirical evidence to bear upon this issue through analyses of the effects of reducing police stops on crime and police shootings. Chapter 4 concludes the dissertation with a discussion of findings, their implications for the case for depolicing, and suggestions for future research that can deepen understanding of the issue.

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This item is under embargo until June 27, 2024.