Abolishing the police is a topic Australians should explore, writes Sylvia Aramchek.
THE OTHER night I watched an old Frank Sinatra movie from 1968, The Detective. Sinatra plays a cop named Joe Leland, a tough, thoughtful and intelligent sort of guy. When he gets assigned to the murder of a gay man, homophobia in the force disgusts him.
And while on the case, he discovers that the police are conspiring with real estate moguls to artificially inflate property values. He realises this is why there’s so little affordable housing and good public utilities in the community, and that these conditions lead to more crime.
Meanwhile, he finds it increasingly hard to ignore the inhumane behaviour of his fellow officers, including one who openly admits that he borrows interrogation methods from “newsreels of German concentration camps”.
It’s surreal to see Frank Sinatra giving a passionate speech about how the core function of the police is to oppress people of colour and serve the rich in 1968. It’s even stranger to see him staunchly defending queer rights a year before Stonewall. But this really exists, and it’s all there on film: proof that there’s nothing new about any of these ideas.
The most remarkable scenes are the ones where Leland’s intellect and empathy force him to reckon with the fact that his problems with the police are systemic and not fixable with reform. This becomes especially powerful when he turns this logic on himself and begins to see the flaws in the “good cop” identity he personally clings to. “I thought I was above it all”, he says, “I wasn’t".
The maturity of this insight is stunning and it would still be controversial in a film today. This is a perfect illustration of what people mean when they say “all cops are bastards”; being a good person, having good intentions, is not enough when you work for a fundamentally bad system.
Finally, after blowing the whistle on the corruption he’s uncovered, he decides the only moral thing for him to do is quit. “There are things to fight for”, he says, “and I can’t fight for them while I’m here".
In the film’s final moments, the police radio in his personal car goes off with a callout to another homicide. But he turns it off in disgust, and wordlessly drives away into the night.
It’s funny when you discover a work of art that seems to reach out to you from the distant past and shake your hand. It can be so validating. Sometimes you cry tears of relief.
Sinatra means many different things to different people, sometimes opposite things. Former U.S. President Donald Trump danced to “My Way” at his inauguration, but that’s not my Sinatra.
To me, through the character of Joe Leland, he’s become an unlikely icon of abolition.
I worked as a transcriptionist in the Australian court system for three years. I heard it all. Murders, armed robberies, child abuse, drug trafficking, countless sexual assaults — all these became part of my daily routine. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of the entire judicial process, as heard in front of every criminal judge in my state.
It took about a year before I started to realise that none of what I was hearing made any sense. None of it. First of all, there was the simple fact that having more money to afford a better lawyer puts you at an advantage. How is that fair? This is such a basic, big-picture observation, but nobody ever says it.
Some people can get legal aid, but the only way to make the system fair would be to only have legal aid.
Then there’s the criminalisation of drugs. In many cases, people seemed to be struggling with the fact drugs are illegal more than anything else. Imagine if we brought in prohibition. Alcoholics have difficult lives as it is — suddenly they’d also have to deal with “possession” charges, making life pointlessly worse and ostracising them from society.
Meanwhile, instead of Dan Murphy’s, you’d create a “criminal” class of “dealers” overnight for no reason.
And yet I’d hear judges say things to drug traffickers along the lines of, “we keep punishing your kind and it doesn’t work. Drugs in the community are still a big problem. Therefore, your sentence will be extra long.”
What’s that old saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? How is regulation not the answer?
Rehab, you might say. Give people a chance to rehabilitate themselves. Why does rehabilitation get so little money?
I listened to many hearings where people seemed to be fighting over scraps to even have the opportunity to get better. Meanwhile, for the prison system and the police, money seemed to be no object. Billions and billions of dollars. Why are the dice loaded this way? Why is there such emphasis on punishment? Who is this serving?
Then there’s the precept of “innocent until proven guilty". One word: remand. Seriously, if someone in law ever talks about the high-minded principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, ask them what “remand” is. Watch their facial expression before they even start speaking.
You can be “held on remand” in prison for years, waiting for a court date, without ever having been found guilty of anything. The law gets around this by defining “remand” as separate from “punishment”, even though both things consist of a person being imprisoned in a jail and unable to leave. This happens all the time. This is a routine part of how the system works.
Also, the system punishes you for not pleading guilty, which further makes it unfair. They have a roundabout way of phrasing it. I’ve heard judges say this many times: “I cannot punish you for not pleading guilty, however, I cannot offer you the sentencing discount I would have if you had you pleaded guilty".
And then there were the countless sexual assault trials, in which “innocent until proven guilty” was a thin facade for the grim reality of male lawyers openly abusing rape victims, spending hours essentially gaslighting them, telling them they’ve made it all up.
Of course, sometimes people do make stuff up. But that possibility rules everything, and cross-examination isn’t some neutral, academic process. In practice, courts see rape accusers getting emotionally abused for hours in the name of some corrupted idea of fairness. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but this is the best we could come up with?
Underscoring all of this was the role of the police. I could never understand it. Why were they being thrown at every kind of problem?
All this and more ran around my head every day. Slowly but surely, the disgust I felt towards criminals was replaced with a deeper disgust towards the system.
Then in 2020, I discovered abolition. I read the book The End of Policing by Alex Vitale, and it clicked: all this is bullshit. All of it: cops, the courts, the jails. It’s not fair because it’s not meant to be. We should get rid of all of it and start again.
I’ve often thought someone should write an Australian version of The End of Policing. All the principles Vitale sets out also apply here; we need to get these ideas circulating locally, with local information and local stories.
Abolition! Finally, I had an explanation for everything. Coming to know abolition was like falling in love.
I usually tell people the ambulance story. For a long time in the U.S., they didn’t have ambulances. That service didn’t exist. The cops would show up instead. So there was a time in which you could have said, “Abolish the police? But who will take me to hospital?” So, thinking forward, what else is like ambulances that doesn’t exist yet?
This story works. I can see it register with people. I can tell I’ve gotten through to them, that I’ve successfully introduced an unfamiliar concept. I can see them registering the implications of it and imagining a better world.
Then I also see the point when they stop thinking about it; when they try to put it out of their minds, conditioned by a lifetime of fear, government messaging and police procedural TV shows. It’s like when a cat follows you down the street but stops at the end of its territory. You keep walking, but the cat looks up at you as if to say “I don’t go that far.” But that’s okay. One step at a time.
I can’t get the ending of The Detective out of my head. Click, the radio turning off. The subtle relief on Sinatra’s face as he drives away, knowing he’s made the right call. He knows he can’t and won’t go back. He’s off to be someone else, to go find a better way of doing things.
Sylvia Aramchek is a writer from Melbourne.
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