Images from the mass protests in St. Louis last month against the acquittal of a white former police officer in the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith felt like déjà vu: raised fists, Black Lives Matter signs, swarms of police armed in full riot gear. But this time, as police made arrests on the third night of protests, they began to chant “Whose streets, our streets” — a refrain that, stolen from the voices of protesters, mutated into an unsettling declaration of power, entitlement, and impunity.
So far this year, 773 people have been fatally shot by police, according to the Washington Post, while independent databases that include other causes of death by police report tolls above 900. In the three years since the flashpoint of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, pushes for reform have reverberated through all levels of government, most notably from former President Barack Obama’s policing task force. And yet, much like gun violence itself, police brutality in the United States remains stuck on repeat. A new book published last week goes beyond the rhetoric of reform to interrogate why we need police at all.
In “The End of Policing,” Alex S. Vitale argues that police reforms implemented in the wake of Brown’s death — from diversity initiatives to community policing to body cameras — fail to acknowledge that policing as an institution reinforces race and class inequalities by design.
“The suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of black and brown lives have always been at the center of policing,” writes Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College.
Starting with the “original police force,” the London Metropolitan Police, Vitale provides a succinct historical framework to understand how police in the U.S. were created to control poor and nonwhite people and communities. The modern war on drugs can be traced back to “political opportunism and managing ‘suspect populations’” in the 20th century. The increasingly intensified policing of the U.S.-Mexico border today stems from nativist sentiment and economic exploitation of migrant workers starting in the 1800s. Surveillance and suppression of political movements takes root in imperialist Europe, when ruling powers used secret police to infiltrate and eliminate the opposition.
“The End of Policing” maps how law enforcement has become an omnipresent specter in American society over the last four decades. Police are deployed to monitor and manage a sprawling range of issues: drugs, homelessness, mental health, immigration, school safety, sex work, youth violence, and political resistance. Across this spectrum, current liberal reforms are intertwined with upholding the legitimacy of police, courts, and incarceration as conduits to receive access to resources and care. Vitale’s approach goes beyond working within the carceral system to propose non-punitive alternatives that would eventually render policing obsolete. He convincingly argues that a combination of community-based programs, support services, regulation, economic investment, and political representation for poor communities of color can significantly shrink the impact of policing in exchange for justice and community empowerment.
In a time when the president of the United States openly supports and facilitates aggressive policing, and police officers continue to kill black Americans with impunity, “The End of Policing” is an essential primer to unpack the innate brutality of policing and begin to envision an America free from police violence and control.
The Intercept’s interview with Vitale has been condensed and edited for clarity.
There have been a host of reforms proposed in reaction to the shootings of black Americans by police in the last three years. How does your book address the shortcomings of these reforms?
The bad news is that at the national level, any hope of the federal government bringing about some kind of progressive reform has largely evaporated. The reforms that existed under the Obama administration were pretty limited in scope and their effectiveness is open to question. The good news is that the vast majority of decision-making about police reform happens at the local level, and local political pressure can really make a difference. But the bad news about that is that the kinds of reforms most people are advocating for I don’t think are going to make a substantial difference. Some improvements in training, policy, and accountability may lead to a reduction in deaths, but it won’t address the larger question of overpolicing.
What we’ve seen in the last 40 years is an explosive increase in the scope and intensity of policing. Everything from the war on drugs to the war on terror to the war on disorder is driving a set of police practices that are invasive and aggressive, and the deaths we see on the nightly news are the tip of an iceberg of policing experienced in poor communities, especially poor communities of color. There is very little empirical support for a lot of the reforms being proposed, like diversifying the police or community policing or implicit bias training. What really needs to be done is we need to dial back the explosive increase in the scope of policing, and quit using the police to solve every kind of social problem.
Your book was written before Donald Trump’s election. In what ways has your outlook on working toward non-punitive police reforms changed under the Trump administration?
It’s changed the political opportunities. Trump has attempted to close the door on rational, technocratic, liberal reforms to policing for this “Blue Lives Matter” approach that policing shouldn’t be the last resort, it should be the first resort, to address all kinds of problems in a world divided between good and bad people, and it’s the police who keep the two sides separated. This is a horribly inaccurate and counterproductive view of the world, both for him and for those who support this viewpoint in the law enforcement community. My hope is that in the absence of any kind of progress on a liberal reform agenda, people will be open to thinking about more systemic reforms.
You write about the origins of modern policing, in which you debunk the mythology constructed around police as protectors and crime fighters who keep the public safe. Can you talk a bit about the real reasons why policing exists?
We should understand policing as the most coercive form of state power … and the reason is that policing has historically and inherently been at the root of reproducing fundamental inequalities of race, class, and immigration status. Trump, the police, ICE — this is just a continuation of a history of exclusion and repression going back to the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, Texas Rangers driving out Mexican landholders and indigenous populations to make room for white settlers, the transformation of slave patrols and urban slave management systems into what became Jim Crow policing in the South and ghetto policing in the North. Police have historical origins in relation to both the formation and disciplining of the industrial working class; early 19th century forms of policing in Europe and the United States shaped rural agricultural workers into urban industrial workers, and then suppressed their movements to form labor unions and win better living conditions.
The point of all this is to fundamentally question this liberal notion that police exist primarily as a tool for public safety and therefore, we should embrace their efforts uncritically, when in fact, there are lots of different ways to produce safety that don’t come with the baggage of colonialism, slavery, and the suppression of workers’ movements.
There’s a refrain throughout your book that the policing and incarceration of marginalized people is ultimately far more expensive than non-carceral alternatives. So why isn’t the government pursuing cost-saving measures that would also better people’s lives?
A lot of research about police practices is couched in terms of effectiveness — can we show some improvement in an outcome like recidivism or crime rates? But there’s very little attention to any notion of justice and the political context in which these decisions are made, the implications of these processes on the people subjected to them, or the alternative ways to achieve the same ends. So we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to cycle people through jails, courts, emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and their lives never get any better. And ultimately, the community is not significantly improved either. So if we did any kind of cost-benefit calculation that took this into consideration, we would do something different.
The problem is we’re caught up in an ideological battle, in which the politics of austerity and a neoconservative commitment to punitiveness as a response to social discord means that we don’t ever get a chance to assess a series of possible options to address community problems. Most people, if they really felt they had options, would say, well, we need some youth programs, supportive housing, community-based mental health care. If we could use the resources that are being spent on police, jails, prisons, and courts, there would be plenty of money to invest in those kinds of solutions, but at all levels of government, they’re just never on the table.
You write about how police are inherently political and have always functioned as an extension of state power around the world. In what instances has it been clear that American police are not neutral actors, but in fact, serve the political agenda of whoever is in office?
We continually discover evidence of police engaging in the surveillance and suppression of social movements, in which there’s no real allegation of criminality. From the suppression of Occupy Wall Street and the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline movement to the surveillance of Black Lives Matter, that’s becoming clearer. These have occurred under both [the Obama and Trump] administrations, but more importantly, they’ve occurred in mostly Democratic cities governed by Democratic mayors with democratically appointed police commissioners. What’s important to them is that politics be channeled into a very narrow conceptualization of liberal electoral politics, and anything that can’t be is fundamentally illegitimate, disruptive, and disorderly, and should be surveilled and, if necessary, suppressed. And the police have always been at the center of that process.
Many places around the world and some parts of the U.S. have decriminalized or legalized certain drugs or sex work. What are the challenges around attempting to legitimize these underground economies that are so heavily moralized against?
It’s very important politically for neoconservatives to define crime and disorder in moralistic terms because the alternative would be to acknowledge the role of markets and the state — that black markets are a product of a lack of economic opportunities. Instead, neoconservatives criminalize on moralistic terms so that drugs can’t be understood as a public health problem with origins that may be linked to the deindustrialization of rural America, the entrenched poverty of urban America, the pharmaceutical industry and flooding the market with cheap opioid pills. [Drug use] is framed in terms of “Just Say No” and punitive sanctions for those who don’t go along with it. So whether it’s prostitution, drug abuse, kids acting out in school, shoplifting — these are all framed in moral terms, which closes off the possibility of any kind of conversation about how to reduce the harms and the demand. I try to undermine those moralistic arguments and think about the people involved in these black markets as full human beings, whose well-being should be part of any calculation on how to address these issues and understand that the historic role of police in managing these problems has been primarily counterproductive.
You write about restorative justice as an example of non-punitive alternatives to policing. Can you talk about what this model looks like in schools, as well as in communities grappling with violence?
Restorative justice is a mechanism that’s designed to resolve social problems in non-punitive ways by trying to identify what the underlying forces are behind problematic behavior and, instead of using punishment and exclusion to respond to that behavior, drawing that person in and trying to figure out what can be done to both repair them and whatever harm their problematic behavior has produced.
The place where this has gotten the most traction has been in schools. These systems typically involve peer adjudication, where students work with students engaged in problematic behavior to try to identify the behaviors and causes of those behaviors, and then come up with some solutions. Often, the problem is coming from outside the school, something going on at home or in the community, but sometimes it’s coming from within the school, like bullying. We had a horrible stabbing here in New York City just recently, the first death of a student on campus in many years, and of course, the young person who did the stabbing said they were subjected to long-term, persistent bullying. And what’s going to be done about that? Possibly nothing. Instead, they’re putting metal detectors in the school. So that’s a kind of punitive approach. A restorative justice approach would have created avenues to address that bullying long before it escalated into a violent, deadly confrontation. The whole school community has to be involved — students, teachers, administrators. It requires rethinking how whole disciplinary systems are organized so that problems are identified early, and the goal is to resolve them, not to punish them.
In communities, one of the more interesting models is linked to a concept called justice reinvestment. We know there are neighborhoods where problematic behavior is highly concentrated, and local and state officials spend millions of dollars to police and incarcerate people. What if those communities kept some percentage of people who get arrested in the community and tried to develop strategies for resolving their problems, and in return, the community got the money that would have been spent incarcerating them? We could afford to begin to produce some supportive housing and community-based mental health systems, we could find summer jobs and after-school employment for young people. We could develop services not just for them, but for their parents. These things are cheaper than jails, prisons, and police, and they don’t come with all the collateral consequences of driving people through those punitive systems.
What is the relationship between police abolition and prison abolition?
I think of abolition as a process rather than an outcome. I don’t explicitly go around saying “abolish the police” or “abolish prisons.” Instead, I say that if we understand police and prisons as inherently coercive and punitive and stained with a history of reproducing inequality, those institutions should always be used as a last resort. Instead, we should identify, whenever possible, constructive, restorative, non-punitive solutions to our social problems. And, to the extent we can do that, we reduce our reliance on those deeply problematic institutions.
We need to quit beginning with the premise, Oh, I’ve got a problem, let’s get the police involved. No, I’ve got a problem, and I want to demand that government solve this problem in a way that is ethically and intellectually defensible and will actually produce benefits for the community and those who’ve been the target of punitive approaches.