Policing Is Not the Only Tool


Janine Jackson intreviewed Alex Vitale about The End of Policing for the October 27, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: The litany of instances of police violence and misconduct is both infuriating and almost numbing. Our guest’s new book suggests we reconsider our understanding of policing, see it less as a tool that has on some occasions been used for abuse, and more as a tool for abuse, a system that does considerable harm even when functioning as designed. That reflects more closely the history of the institution in this country, and it’s really only seeing things that radically—going to the root—that lets us see a way out, not a way back to some imagined time in which there was harmony between police and community everywhere, but forward to a time in which policies of punishment don’t distort so many societal functions, and consign huge numbers of especially black and brown people to the margins.

The book is called The End of Policing; author Alex Vitale is professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Alex Vitale.

Alex Vitale: Thank you.

JJ: People are offended, I think morally, when you suggest that the inequity of the impact of policing is not a bug but a feature. I think we tend to think of it as an institution made in a lab, you know: We need protection from criminals, so let’s create “law enforcement.” I wonder if you would tell us a little bit of the actual history of US policing that shapes the role that we see it playing today.

AV: Sure. There’s kind of a standard liberal narrative, academic narrative, historical narrative, about the police, that begins with the London Metropolitan Police formed in 1829. And the idea behind it, that’s propagated behind it, is that it was an improvement over the kind of semi-professional watch, that was made up of volunteers and others pressed into service that would walk around at night, on the one hand, and the use of the militia to put down riots and disorder on the other hand. And the feeling was that this would be a civilian force under the control of local authorities, and would engage in a kind of neutral enforcement of the law.

But the reality is, is that the model for the London Metropolitan Police actually is directly tied to the British occupation of Ireland. And the person who creates the London police, Robert Peel—Robert, Bob, the Bobbies—had been in charge of the British occupation of Ireland, and it was there that he begins to develop the idea of a civilian force that could be used to put down rural uprisings more efficiently than relying on the British army, which had been tied up in the Napoleonic Wars, was overstretched and highly indebted. So he creates the Irish Peace Preservation Force, which is located in local communities, which allows for better surveillance and preemptive action to put down social unrest.

London, during this period, is awash in this newly industrializing working class, that’s come from rural areas, and the job of the police was to micromanage the lives of this new industrial urban workforce, in a way that tried to mold them into a reliable workforce. So there were all kinds of little minor nuisance laws that were enforced, as well as proscriptions on, you know, drunk and disorderly behavior, etc., that had the purpose of getting people to go home to their families, get up in the morning and go to work and be productive, and to try to stamp out lifestyles that weren’t tied to a standard industrial work life. At the same time, they put down riots, they put down labor movements, they attacked strikers, etc.

And we can see this in the US context as well, with the creation of forces to drive Native American populations out, to drive out Mexicans from what was becoming Texas at the time, to stamp out workers movements, to shoot miners in Pennsylvania, etc. And so the book basically argues that the origins of policing should be understood as intimately tied to three major forms of accumulation during the 19th century, and these are slavery, colonialism and the new industrial workforce.

JJ: So it’s always been a kind of social engineering, if you will. The definition of crime itself has been very much shaped by the social control impetus of the enterprise of policing.

AV: It was a new way of constructing state power that was more fine-tuned than relying on the army and the militia. It was able to produce legitimacy for the state in a way that the army was not; it relied on brute power. And so this was much more efficient for the state, and the state immediately began on this kind of mythmaking, of saying that, well, of course we understand the state is legitimate, because these are liberal democracies of some form, and therefore any expression of state power is legitimate. But all of that discourse completely hides slavery, completely hides the suppression of workers movements, and so the actual tasks of this seemingly legitimate state are in fact designed to reproduce race and class inequalities, and the police are just a softer touch in carrying out that mission.

JJ: You can certainly see a worldview at work that is fomented, I think, by media, in which you want police to have all of the weapons, and you want them to have freedom to do anything at all, because there are good and bad people in the world, and cops protect the good from the bad. When major percentages of people are going to prison for nonviolent drug offenses, for example, this idea that there are different sorts of people, bad criminals who do harm and good noncriminals, you have to challenge that.

AV: This is the problem with all this “thin blue line” and “war on cops” discourse that’s out there, is that it assumes that the world is divided up between good people and bad people, and that the only way to produce safety, to protect the good from the bad, is through coercive state power: the threat of arrest, the use of violence.

And of course, when we look at middle-class, leafy suburban communities, they don’t need police to manage their social problems. They have mechanisms and resources to regulate those things themselves, and, of course, they’re beneficiaries, in large part, from the basic political and economic arrangements. And so no one feels like, oh, of course they need heavy-handed policing in those communities. It’s poor people who are perceived to be only responsive to this kind of coercive power.

JJ: The book—and I do want to get onto it, because the book talks about alternatives, it talks about a way that we could do things differently, so I wanted to get you started talking about that. When we’re talking about this kind of—you know, you say at one point, “Whole segments of our society have been deemed always-already guilty,” and it’s there that the most help is needed, of course. So what are some of the alternatives to policing that the book is getting at?

AV: Well, what I do is I take eight areas of policing, and look at the origins of that kind of policing, what the problem is it claims to be trying to solve, and then look at the literature that shows just how many problems that kind of policing actually produces rather than resolves, and then try to lay out a series of alternatives to relying on police.

So we don’t need nicer school police, we don’t need better-trained school police. The whole idea of school policing is deeply flawed. All the research shows that it doesn’t make young people any safer, it contributes to an environment of insecurity for young people, it’s also often demeaning, degrading, abusive and at times even deadly to these young people. There are alternatives to relying on police to deal with discipline issues in schools. And there are schools that are using these methods, like restorative justice programs, where the whole school is oriented not towards driving people out of school and into the criminal justice system, but in trying to actually resolve problems. And they use various forms of peer mediation, peer adjudication.

We could look at a community schools model that’s being tried out in some areas, where the school is seen as a resource center for the whole community, so that after hours, on the weekends, there are classes and services available to the families of students. So that if there is a mental health issue, if there is an English-as-a-second-language problem that maybe is contributing to financial insecurity, if there are nutrition issues, health issues, the school could be seen as a resource for that, rather than just another place where young people are criminalized.

JJ: And I would say the book also talks about, you know, police dealing with people with mental illness, it talks about the war on drugs and border policing and political policing—as you say, a number of different aspects in which the police seem to be taking on roles that would be better played by other social forces and other social mechanisms. Of course, what people will hear and should hear is that this requires resources, this requires a redirection of resources. And I think, I imagine, that would be some of the pushback, is simply this myth of scarcity that we hear, that we just can’t invest in community somehow.

AV: So a lot of the money we’re spending now on the criminal justice system is not making people safer, it’s often making communities less safe, because of the disruptive effects of cycling people through prisons and jails, and we could redirect a lot of those resources. The Youth Justice Coalition out in Los Angeles wrote a report a couple years ago where they said, look at the spending in LA County on police, jails, courts, and if we redirected just 10 percent of that money, we’d have a billion dollars a year to spend on new youth programs. And they worked with young people to lay out a program of what kinds of services would actually help young people. And they had summer jobs and after-school programs and more counselors in the schools, and these kinds of things, rather than more school police, more gang-suppression policing, more gang injunctions, the kinds of things that the county spends a lot of money on that don’t work.

JJ: You do cite a lot of existing work that this is building on. So there is a history of consideration of this idea, and then, as you’re saying, places where it’s actually being tried, or some aspects of it are being tried.

AV: Every chapter is filled with examples of alternatives that lay out a program that says, there are noncoercive solutions to our problems, and the thing that’s preventing us from doing them is not an absence of money, it’s an excess of neoliberal, neoconservative, austerity politics, that has labeled the poor as incapable of benefiting from any kind of positive proactive interactions, and defines them as basically only capable of responding to threats and punishment. And in a way, this is, I think, a profoundly racist ideology. Even though it is embraced by many black and Latino politicians, it really treats their constituencies as less than fully human, and then subjects them to dehumanizing treatment by the police, jails, prisons, etc.

And so we can’t just tinker with the police response, to make it a little bit nicer or to make the police department a little more diverse, because none of that gets at this core problem. We have to really, directly address the politics of the country, that’s largely bipartisan, that says that the only way we can solve problems is to criminalize them. Whether it’s homelessness, severe mental illness, discipline problems in schools, youth violence, etc., we’ve got to break this mindset that policing is the only tool that people can have.

JJ: I’ve heard you say at some point, I think of abolition as a process rather than an outcome. What are you getting at with that, and is the book—I assume the book is an attempt to sort of spark that process?

AV: Yeah, I never start from the position of, like, imagine a world without police, something like that. I don’t think that’s very helpful, I think it’s alienating to most people, it’s confusing, and it doesn’t seem, you know, realistic. However, underneath that is the root idea that policing as an institution should be understood as deeply problematic, historically, functionally and contemporarily. And that it should always be approached as the tool of last resort, so that if a community has a problem—and many of our communities do have serious problems—wouldn’t it better to start from the position of saying, let’s put all the resources of the community, of government at different levels, on the table, nonprofits, and say, how can we best solve this problem?

And we could have some principles in the process, that what we do should be cost-effective, there should actually be evidence to show that it can work, and it should try to treat people with as much dignity as possible. And when we have a process like that, such as when Ithaca looked at their opioid problem, and developed a plan for opioids that didn’t involve criminalization, it involved drug treatment on demand and safe-injection facilities and needle exchange, etc., when we do that, we can come up with noncoercive solutions for so many problems that we’ve asked the police today to deal with.

And so that’s the process that should guide community-based problem-solving, which is the exact opposite of what most communities experience today, which is, government tells them that they have to express the problem in terms that can be solved by the use of more police, more police power, more police resources. And, unfortunately, things like community policing are part of that problematic dynamic, where all community problems have to be articulated in terms of what the police can do to solve them, rather than holding the rest of government accountable for not doing something about these problems.

JJ: I just attended the Drug Policy Reform Conference in Atlanta, and one of the things that was said was that, in a way, criminal justice reform is trending now, but we have to be very wary about what it means, because at this point, anything that you do that decreases the prison population can be seen as reform, but people can still be ensnared in the criminal justice system. And one of the things that I think Deborah Small from Break the Chains said was, you don’t have to lock people up to lock them out.

So there is reason to be cautious about what is going to be put forward right now. There seems to be a bipartisan understanding that, oh yes, mass incarceration is bad, we should get those numbers down. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to the root of the question in the way that you’re talking about.

AV: Certainly, if you don’t deal with the front end of this process, it’s going to be very hard to really get at the root of this. Because mass incarceration should not be understood as just an expression of how many people are in prison. It’s maybe more accurate to look at what Marie Gottschalk says about the development of a carceral state, in which the whole state is organized around punitive social control mechanisms, targeting the poor and the nonwhite and the immigrant. And so this suffuses, not just in the prisons and courts and policing, but into the delivery of social services, youth programs, treatment programs. It’s all suffused with this coercive and punitive ideology.

This is the problem with relying on things like drug courts. We’re finding, increasingly, that the services that people are sent to by these drug courts are driven by the same punitive outlook that treats people as incapable of making real decisions for themselves, belittles them, looks at their problems as ones of individual moral failing, and then fails to provide the kinds of services that people really need, like access to stable housing, stable employment, adequate healthcare, etc. So I hope that this book will put policing on the map in terms of our discussions about mass incarceration, but also the broader punitive ideology that’s driving all of this.

JJ: Many would say it’s time for a bold vision. I’m reminded, though, of an op-ed I just saw a few days ago, saying that calling for universal healthcare is going to re-elect Donald Trump. It seems like people who want things really to change are seen as antagonists, not just of conservatives or the right wing, but of many people who define themselves as centrists. You get this feeling of, oh, we also want this social change that you’re calling for, but if you really push for it, well, then you’re to blame for anything that happens. It’s hard not to hear a kind of “go slow, go slow,” which I just wonder, that seems something we have to fight against as well. Bold ideas require courage, and not least the courage to hold one another up when we’re being attacked as being somehow the real reason that we can’t see any change.

AV: Well, I have two thoughts on that. One is that if we embrace supposed reforms to policing that just re-empower the police, and relegitimize the police, without really addressing the negative consequences of what they’re doing, then we haven’t really accomplished anything, and we’ve actually maybe made things worse.

The other is that policing is overwhelmingly a local concern, and the vast majority of policing happens in major urban areas, the majority of which are run by Democrats. And so we should not be paralyzed about broader national political trends in trying to do something about this. Wherever you’re listening to this, there are local politicians who are empowering the police to be a coercive force, in a way that lets them off the hook from engaging in real problem-solving that will produce real justice for people, and we can do something about that, wherever we are.

JJ: I’ll just ask you, finally: When we last spoke, the book was forthcoming; now it’s out. Has the response been what you expected?

AV: Well, it’s been out for a week or two, and I’ve had some very positive reviews and feedback. I’m waiting to hear more from the mainstream police scholarship community, more from police, many of whom I know are reading the book, and also from elected officials, who I know are reading the book. So I’m still waiting to get more feedback, if you will, and to see what the reaction is like.

JJ: All right then. We’ve been speaking with Alex Vitale. The book is The End of Policing. It’s out now from Verso. Alex Vitale, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AV: You’re most welcome.

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