It’s been almost four years since the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown galvanized a nationwide movement against police violence, particularly violence against Black men. As Alex Vitale notes in “The End of Policing,” “The recent killings of so many unarmed black men ... have pushed the issue of police reform onto the national agenda.”
But what reforms are we looking for? Obviously race plays a major role in who gets targeted by police. “Diversity” training is called for, but as Vitale points out, such training often is an overlay that has little effect on the practices of police on the street. According to Vitale, “Well-trained police following proper procedure are still going to be arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden will continue to fall primarily on communities of color, because that is how the system is designed to operate.” Furthermore, the experience of racially diverse big-city police forces is that it’s not just White police officers who arrest and kill Blacks in disproportionate numbers — nor are unarmed Whites exempt from dying at the hands of police.
To explain how the system is designed, Vitale starts by going back to the origins of government police forces in England and America. One model for the first police forces in America was the London Metropolitan Police, whose main functions were to “protect property, quell riots, put down strikes ... and produce a disciplined industrial work force.” The impetus for similar police forces in the industrial North in the U.S. was the desire by elites to keep control over unruly, often immigrant, working-class populations and not to promote public safety within those communities. Instead, police were instrumental in breaking strikes and suppressing radicals. The police in the South had an even more sinister origin in slave patrols and, in Texas, supporting Anglo settlers in stealing Mexican land.
While the overt mission of the police has changed, many of their practices and organization can be traced to those origins. According to Vitale, the emphasis on the public safety mission of police has partly been driven by the desire of more liberal politicians to legitimize the force in the eyes of the population. And, as Vitale points out, everyone wants to live in safe communities. But in the past few decades, as inequality has increased, police forces have both been expanded and given increasingly lethal weapons. Training, rather than emphasizing de-escalation techniques and respectful treatment of people, has been focused on promoting police safety through quick, violent reaction to perceived threats.
Vitale argues we need to rethink the role of policing and to reduce the ways in which police are used in our society. In a chapter on the school-to-prison pipeline, he points out that having armed police in schools actually exacerbates conflicts with at-risk youths. Sometimes such police take on roles as mentors — but this is a role that would be better taken on by an unarmed civilian.
The same is true of dealing with the mentally ill, homeless people sex workers, drug users, immigrants, and even gang members. In each case, police officers, who are charged with arresting people and enforcing laws, are in conflicted situations when they’re expected to also do social work. While there are obviously violent situations where an armed security officer may be needed, generally the presence of police escalates already fraught interactions. In many cases, it’s the underfunding of social services and the overfunding of police that causes them to be put into roles for which they’re not trained in the first place.
Vitale’s book is structured to highlight the issue areas mentioned above — schools, homeless, mentally ill, etc. In each case, the alternative to dependence on police is obvious — we first need people who are trained to deal with these vulnerable and difficult populations, who understand their point of view, and who are primarily there to help them, not to arrest them or restrain them. Beyond that, we need to deal with the manifest social problems that derive from maintaining a society in which large parts of the population are considered surplus or undeserving.
This obvious solution is difficult because the prevailing attitude, conditioned by neoliberal elites and supported by conservative voters, is that the best way to deal with social problems is to keep a lid on them. There’s a wide streak of racism and classism in this belief, of course, but it’s also been fostered by media stereotypes about crime and security in this country, in which “problematic” behavior is considered the result of personal failings rather than the way we’ve structured our society.
What’s lacking in Vitale’s analysis is a real vision of nonpunitive policing in our society. There are hints of it in his discussion of how British police, mostly unarmed, handle the difficult situations that inevitably end in police shootings in the United States, generally without seriously injuring anyone. But a developed vision of a police force that actually works to preserve the lives of all citizens, rather than only the “deserving,” is not articulated here.
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