Minneapolis has voted to disband its police department. This is in response to the BLM protests.

Every developed society in the world has police forces. The police are one of the state's institutions tasked with enforcing the state’s laws. Are there any examples of states (as opposed to anarchic societies) functioning without a police force? What form did law enforcement take in those states?

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    My understanding is that particular department is being disbanded, not that there will be no police in Minneapolis. The media has reminded us of Compton Police Department, disbanded (or assimilated?) in September 2000 and Camden (New Jersey) Police Department, disbanded in May 2013 - there are still police in Compton and Camden. The cities contracted with different police organisations.
    – Lag
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 7:21
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    The Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was the British police service in Northern Ireland was disbanded in 2001. The reason was that its name and reputation had become associated with sectarianism, and the pre-eminent power of the dominant section of the population. It did not enjoy anything like the support from the Irish nationalist community as it did from loyalists. It was replaced with the PSNI (Police Service of Norther Ireland) organised differently with wider recruitment etc from across Northern Ireland.
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 8:56
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    I think the question needs minor edits; "police" is not synonymous with "law enforcement", but you're effectively equating them by asking both questions. Other models are available (which is presumably the answer you're looking for). I don't particularly see why this is getting close votes; there are examples of societies without police forces, it ought be possible to highlight the comparisons between those societies and others that follow traditional policing models.
    – Dan Scally
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 9:07
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    This question might be based on a misunderstanding of a couple sensationalist headlines. The recent Minneapolis city council decision wasn't to abolish police completely. The actual plan is to disband the current police department and replace it with a "new public safety system". Or in other words,build a new police department from scratch.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 14:18
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    @The_Sympathizer The way, I see it, people in those times generally lived in close knit communities. Also, religion affected their morality. Today we live in time of estrangement, moral ambiguity and ego-centrism. Only thing that keeps us from going about each other throats is fear and weakness. With police removed/reduced things could really deteriorate fast, with various groups enforcing their own ideas of justice .
    – rs.29
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 18:07

5 Answers 5


The Minneapolis police department was founded in 1867 (and is still the second-oldest department in Minnesota).

More generally, police in its modern form was only invented in the early 1800s and mid-1800s in the US.

As with the Minneapolis police, most police forces were not respected by citizens and acted more like organized crime syndicates (eg extorting protection money, a trend that can still be seen today, where police take more money from citizens than burglars do).

On the other hand, the Minneapolis police only solved 50% of murder cases in 2016 and has hundreds of untested rape kits, with a clearance rate of 22% for rape. At the same time, the MPD arrests black people for low-level offenses ten times more often than white people.

Minneapolis would not be the first city to disband a department in response to rampant misconduct, though generally other departments then take over.

More broadly, the demand to defund the police is most often not for the immediate disbanding of police, but about re-allocating funds from the police to services which serve the community and suffered under defunding themselves (like schools, hospitals, housing).

In general, there are alternatives to a heavily armed and oppressive police force though, like mediation and intervention teams, decriminalization of low-level crimes, community courts & patrols. See also the ACLU, which recommends raising the threshold for the use of lethal force, civilian-led crisis intervention teams (esp. for non-violent offenses), more teachers instead of police & diverting funds from the police to the communities.

  • Though I'm not sure focusing too much on murder is all that useful. Minneapolis eg has around 40 murders a year & a police force of over 1000 with a budget of $180 million, so murder isn't the primary focus of policing. When the city "rebuild[s ...] a new model of public safety" they may well decide to have a small detective office for murder - with an independent budget which can be managed more efficiently -, in addition to eg civilian-led intervention teams for non-violent offenses.
    – tim
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 13:18
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    " 50% solve rate for murder and 22% for rape shows some deficits there (and in the case of rape, an apparent lack of interest in proper investigation)." - what percentage of alleged murders and rapes can be reasonably expected to be solved (and by solved do you mean someone is convicted, prosecuted or identified)?
    – Lag
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 13:39
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    @Lag By "solved" I meant the clearance rate (which generally means the police have a suspect, closed the case & may have made an arrest; conviction on the other hand is a matter of courts, not of the police). For the MPD, the 22% is specifically the number of cleared cases as self-reported to the FBI, which is comparatively low. False rape and murder allegations are low enough to not influence the statistics significantly.
    – tim
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 13:51
  • @tim I asked a a non-opinion question about the subject (I'm not sure this one won't be deleted at some point). Good place to put another answer
    – Machavity
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 14:07
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    @tim Here are the national clearance rates. vox.com/2018/9/24/17896034/murder-crime-clearance-fbi-report Minneapolis is behind, but not astronomically.
    – mbsq
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 17:19

Of course, it can (because it did before police was a thing) but much less efficiently

A dedicated police force is basically division of labor. Enforcing order and investigating crimes is a skill, and like with any other skill, it requires specific knowledge, experience and equipment to do it well and some people are naturally better at it than others.

Before dedicated police was a thing -- and in remote and sparsely populated places that don't warrant a dedicated person -- people did and do their job themselves.

  • In traditional villages, there were so few people and almost no travel that everyone knew everyone around personally and had a more or less accurate picture of what everyone had and did.
    • So if you e.g. stole something, this would immediately become known because a thing just like what disappeared from someone suddenly appeared at you with no other explanation of where you could get it from.
    • Whenever a new person was introduced into a community, they had to be especially careful since until everyone gets to know them well, they would be the prime suspect for any kind of trouble.
    • As you can imagine, for crimes that left no conclusive evidence, people had to guess around based on random stuff and "his word against mine", and most of the time, no-one ever got to know what actually happened. Books are rife with tales of mutual suspicions and ensuing feuds that could last for generations.
  • In urban areas, people naturally reused the above practice by splitting a city into close-knit "areas" where everyone (more or less) knew one another. Outside trespassers were typically unwelcome there without a good escort from locals (good = able to keep them under control and not give them any means to potentially cause trouble now or in the future) and were in for trouble if anyone noticed an unfamiliar person around (a practice that survived well into the industial age).
    • Wealthier people who had more to lose and were a natural target for crimes typically split these areas even more, each having a protected close-knit area of their property where even fewer people were allowed in -- by erecting strong fences, gates and locks and using guard dogs and night watchers and such.
  • Law enforcement was likewise in the hands of whoever was in power and boiled down to how much effort they could and wished to put into it. A ruler's job was more like a negotiator between influential parties to try and keep them from cutting each others' throats than any kind of objective justice. As such, they typically didn't interfere in district-local matters and only required locals to bring up serious stuff to them that could destabilize the entire settlement if left unchecked. They usually judged cases themselves, with likewise sketchy evidence and "his word against mine" testimony.
    • As settlements grew, that kind of law enforcement was increasingly proving inadequte (by not being able to keep a settlement stable), and ruling bodies had to increasingly hire their own trustees and guards independent from local cliques to keep order on settlement scale on an ongoing basis and investigate and judge at least that "serious stuff", being in a position to make a better resolution due to being independent from the locals.
      • E.g. by one of the hypotheses, in the summoning of the Varyagians, Riurik was actually hired by the Novgorod's ruling cliques to work as a policeman and/or independent arbiter.
  • In some areas, citizens organized citizen patrols which most of the able people were required to take turns participating in. Naturally, they only reacted to whatever they spotted during their patrols so they couldn't catch anything besides the most obvious stuff.

The real question is: Can 2020 society function without police?

A good way to look for an answer is to observe situations where the police have been withdrawn from regular appearances. Specifically the south side of Chicago.

This 2016 article covers the aftermath of Chicago PD withdrawing from regular patrols on the south side, in mid 2015, following an unjustified police shooting of a knife armed suspect, and subsequent riots. Granted, this is the NY Post, so a hyperbole filter is in order, but there are some meaningful facts that can be drawn.

Through the end of May, shooting incidents in Chicago were up 53 percent over the same period in 2015, which already had seen a significant increase over 2014. Compared with the first five months of 2014, shooting incidents in 2016 were up 86 percent. Shootings in May citywide averaged nearly 13 a day, a worrisome portent for summer.

So... not quite the utopian society. Crime and violence appear to have risen substantially since that article was written in 2016. This recent Sun-Times article details the carnage.

From 7 p.m. Friday, May 29, through 11 p.m. Sunday, May 31, 25 people were killed in the city, with another 85 wounded by gunfire, according to data maintained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

To consider all angles, the more affluent suburban neighborhoods already have almost no regular police presence, because there is very low crime. So, yes, they could get by without police, unless the crime from the impoverished communities comes seeking a wealthier and less prepared prey.

Based on this, I conclude that society can function without police, but it will be in a very different form from what we experience today... especially in the impoverished neighborhoods.

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    Also relevant to the premise in this answer: West Baltimore’s Police Presence Drops, and Murders Soar
    – Just Me
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 19:59
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    These examples don't mean much if policing wasn't replaced with anything (anti-violence mediators or whatever).
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 20:09
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    The counter example is New York during the 2014 NYPD work stoppage where crime rates and major crime complaints dropped. So whether less policing = more crime varies a lot based on the circumstances and exactly how policing is reduced. The NYPD example is probably closest to what activists are hoping for, in that they stopped "proactive" or "broken windows" policing, but kept responding to major crimes.
    – divibisan
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 21:24
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    I am not sure those comparisons are meaningful without further context. "Shooting incidents up over the same period in 2015, which in turn was much higher than 2014" = "Crime may be rising each year for factors unrelated to any events in 2016." "Shooting incidents up over 2014" is the same. "Shootings per day are high" is not helpful at all.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 22:07

(Answering the title question only)

It depends on what you mean by "function", but if you mean anything like a lawful, orderly society with low rates of crime, the answer is "no".

The Murray-Hill riot (also known as "Montreal's 'night of terror'") was the culmination of 16 hours of unrest in Montreal, Quebec during a strike by the Montreal police on 7 October 1969. Police were motivated to strike because of difficult working conditions caused by disarming FLQ-planted bombs and patrolling frequent protests. Montreal police also wanted higher pay, commensurate with police earnings in Toronto.


By 11:20 am, the first bank was robbed. By noon, most of the downtown stores were closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.

  • 7
    Pointing to a workers uprising against an oppressive monopoly - which began long before the police went on strike (including 93 bank robberies) -, and which took place despite hundreds of police officers from other districts being called in, doesn't seem like a good example for a society with alternative solutions to policing. Note also that the local police took part in the riot: "Attempts by [outside police forces] to stop the procession towards the garage [with the intent to burn it down] were stopped by striking Montreal policemen."
    – tim
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 13:34
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    The riot changed Steven Pinker's mind on exactly the issue in the OP (see the article where the quote came from). It's up to you to believe he changed his mind based on a bad example.
    – Allure
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 15:12

This is a good time to reiterate the point that a society is based on institutions not laws. When we state an idea like (pardon the Christian sentiments) "Thou shalt not kill" or "Thou shalt not steal" we are stating institutional principles: the general, socially derived and communally held principles that killing and stealing are morally wrong, and should not be done. Most people in a society incorporate these institutional principles into their daily lives, using their own good judgment and reasonable inference to maintain the principles in their own actions and interactions. Such people are effectively invisible to law, and law is effectively invisible to them, because they are in accordance with the principles that underlie law.

Law only comes into existence when there are:

  1. Disagreements about the interpretation of a principle (about when killing someone or taking something is or is not allowable and justified)
  2. People who ignore, through ignorance, affect, or malice, the institutional principles that the rest of the community holds.

Disagreements over interpretation lead to the creation of a body of law which prescribes how institutional principles should be applied in specific contexts; refusals to comply lead to the enforcement of laws. Police are only necessary in the second case.

A self-aware and conscientious society would have no real need for laws or police. Socialization would guarantee that all members of the society take institutional principles seriously without adjudication or enforcement. Obviously that's utopian, but it is a central principle of many hyper-individualist philosophies: philosophical anarchism, Marxism proper, Libertarianism, etc. In more realistic cases, some form of legal adjudication and procedural enforcement is required, if only because people are naturally fractious and given to differences of opinion. But the extent of such adjudication and enforcement is a wide-ranging variable, subject to a lot of debate.

In general, the 'Defund the Police' movement isn't meant to eliminate laws and police. The movement begins with the assertion that laws and policing no longer conform to the institutional principles held by the community. As a consequence, the movements hold that the community must take control of the systems of adjudication and enforcement, forcing those systems back into compliance with those institutional principles. The quickest and easiest way to assert such control is through the power of the purse: cutting the funding of law enforcement until law enforcement agrees to stop ignoring institutional principles. In extreme cases (as we saw in Seattle) that may result in the absence of police; but all that absence means is that the community reverts to individually respected institutional principles. When and if those institutional principles start being disputed or ignored, the community will revert to adjustication and enforcement.

Minneapolis is an interesting case. What's happened is that the community has decided that the police force itself ignored the institutional principles of the community. They disbanded that force, and will now try to create a new police force based on different structures, structures that will (hopefully) conform to the institutional principles of the community better than the old police force. The result might not be what we would naturally think of as 'police', but if it serves the institutions of the community effectively, that is of no consequence.

  • @divibisan: in the CHAZ/CHOP thing, police stepped out and left the area alone. While they were gone, people more or less behaved: respected each other, and followed the normal social institutions. As problems arose they self-organized rules and some social enforcement; when problems got out of hand the police came back and no one objected. Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 17:24
  • Ah, CHOP was in Seattle, not Portland. A police strike sounds pretty different from what you're talking about, and Seattle hasn't defunded the police at all, but I guess the idea is that it's an example of a place without police, regardless of the reasons?
    – divibisan
    Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 17:36
  • @divibisan: D'oh! I'll fix that. Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 17:39
  • @divibisan: and yes, that was what I was trying to exemplify: that police can step out of the picture and social institutions can still hold. Commented Sep 22, 2020 at 17:42

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