These have been a rough couple of months for police. An investigation in Uvalde, Texas, found “systemic failures and egregious poor decision making” by the 376 law enforcement officers who delayed responding to a school shooter by 73 minutes. By comparison, in Indiana, Elisjsha Dicken, a regular person lawfully carrying a concealed handgun, single-handedly stopped a mass murderer by shooting the suspect within fifteen seconds.
We haven’t seen anything like that level of failure recently in Colorado. Still, some of the headlines have been concerning. In Denver, police unintentionally shot and seriously injured two bystanders, and injured several others, while responding to an aggressor.
Initially the public response ranged from raised eyebrows to outrage. The shootings seemed more justified after police released images appearing to show the suspect pointing a gun at officers and showing a recovered handgun. Still, that’s a lot of “collateral damage,” and a few inches to one side might have meant death.
I don’t have to remind anyone that police have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. In Colorado, one of the most vocal critics is Elisabeth Epps, who is on track to join the Colorado legislature next year. Last week I discussed Epps in the context of housing policy. She did not respond to my invitation to discuss her views for my podcast.
Epps is among the more interesting candidates for the legislature, having served as a public defender, sued Denver police over their overzealous protest response, and done jail time for allegedly obstructing a police officer. (For what it’s worth, I think those charges were bullshit.)
After working hard, rallying her supporters, and staring down intense and well-funded campaign attacks, Epps won her Democratic primary. Personally, I’d rather have Epps in the legislature than a boring party-line Democrat; at least Epps might sometimes buck her party and approach issues with an independent mind.
What does ‘abolitionist’ even mean
Epps has made a name for herself as an “abolitionist.” The problem is it’s not really clear what that means. In some contexts it seems to mean abolishing police and the criminal justice system, which is a crazy position.
A July 20 remark by Epps in the wake of the Denver shootings by police (but not explicitly in response to them) should give you the flavor: “Police violence is gun violence. Not only do cops do an objectively poor job of preventing gun violence, they exacerbate it. On this day, and every day, we must reject calls to pour $ into that which does not keep us safe. Instead we must invest in data-driven interventions that actually increase our safety.”
Contrast Epps’s remarks with those of another Colorado radical, Aurora councilor Alison Coombs. In 2020, Coombs shared a social media message, “F*** pride. It’s wrath month. No cops, no KKK, no racist USA.” So . . . she wants to do away with police? No. Denver7 summarized, “Coombs says the post was more of a feeling and not meant to be taken literally. However, she said she is in favor of restructuring the Aurora Police Department.” Coombs told the station, “Realistically, there are some things that we need police to do.”
Epps has a section on “Abolition” on her campaign page, but it does not clearly lay out her views. It begins, “As an abolitionist, Elisabeth believes people deserve to be safe, healthy, and free.” Okay, so we’re all “abolitionists”?
I completely agree with this remark: “Abolitionists understand that we cannot arrest our way out of homelessness and we cannot prosecute people into stopping the drug use that underlies so much criminal activity.” This could have been said by a Libertarian candidate.
Here is the most revealing segment: “Abolition does not mean immediately disbanding all law enforcement and decriminalizing all offenses—of course not. But it does mean actively investing in mental health care, harm reduction, smart drug policy, public schools, clean air and safe water, and other sound policies actually proven to enhance community safety for all.”
The new utopians
This line suggests that, for Epps, “abolition” is a utopian dream. Sing it to the tune of Lennon’s “Imagine” for full effect. Just as socialists believe that the state can wither away with the rise of Socialist Man (let’s say “Socialist Human” to fit the times), so Epps seems to believe that the entire criminal-justice edifice, including police, can wither away with the rise of Peaceful Human. If we all just have clean water and “free” health care and all the other stuff people need to thrive, we won’t need police or the courts to handle crime, seems to be the view.
Epps’s remarks contain important grains of truth. For example, tens of thousands of Denver homes still have lead pipes, and Denver Water will not get rid of them all for fifteen years. Gasoline used to be leaded until governments banned that. There’s pretty good evidence that lead damages cognition and worsens crime. Air pollution also is linked to higher crime rates. So there is definitely something to the view that cleaning up the air and water can reduce crime.
But it is not the case that social and environmental conditions explain all of crime or that, if “we” (meaning government) just make people’s lives good enough, they’ll quit committing crimes. Criminal gangs are not stealing millions of dollars worth of autos and other items because their water is too dirty. Kevin Eastman did not murder his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend because the schools he attended weren’t adequately funded. What Epps leaves out of the equation is individual choice and the capacity for human evil.
Some people do bad things because, through a long string of bad choices, poor decisions, and mental evasions, they become bad people. Although various policies can help, we can’t socially engineer ourselves out of crime. Hence, we need, and always will need, police to try to stop crimes and to bring criminals to justice, courts to try people accused of crimes, and prisons to separate violent people from the rest of society. We cannot abolish those things without inviting chaos, and if we try we will create vigilantism, cycles of revenge violence, and pervasive gang warfare.
What we can do is work to reform the criminal justice system such that police consistently act to protect rather than violate people’s rights, courts treat people accused of crimes justly and compassionately, and prisons treat people humanely and help to rehabilitate criminals rather than abuse them and school them in criminality. The best ideas for such reforms are coming from libertarians—see philosopher Michael Huemer’s book Justice before the Law—and from leftists such as Epps. So I’m hoping to see interesting alliances and progress in these areas.
With apologies to Lennon: You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. We just need the right dream.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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