The drive to diversify police forces and the renewed interest in community policing are transforming law enforcement across the country. But a provocative new book by a Brooklyn College sociology professor argues that these efforts don’t address the underlying problems. He explains why in a conversation with TCR.
Policing in the United States is in the midst of transformative changes, partly spurred by the well-publicized officer-involved shootings around the country—but also as a consequence of generational change, as police ranks open up to a more diversified group of recruits and as departments modernize their training. But Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, argues that little will happen unless police agencies rethink their roles in public safety.
In The End of Policing, Vitale offers a different framework for thinking about how law enforcement relates to the communities it serves. In a chat with TCR’s Isidoro Rodriguez, he explains why the current policing model perpetuates racial bias, why he believes community policing is misconceived, and what he means by the provocative title he chose for his book,
The Crime Report: The title of your book will attract a lot of attention. But do you really think that policing needs to end?
Alex Vitale: The title has a kind of double meaning. On the one hand, it means should we look at a complete rethinking of policing. But, also, within that, what is the purpose of policing? What is it that we have asked police to do functionally?
The book is really about trying to lay out a process of interrogating our over-reliance on policing, and using evidence-informed alternatives to try and reduce that reliance. And behind that is the understanding that policing is inherently a problematic tool for cities to use to solve problems because it comes with a legacy of reproducing inequality, especially along the lines of race. Also, it relies on the tools of coercion, force, and punitiveness to solve problems; and that brings with it a lot of potential collateral consequences that we should be looking to avoid whenever possible.
TCR: The punitive aspect of policing is a key issue today. Departments across the country continue to face controversy as a result of their officers’ often aggressive methods. As a result, many have implemented programs such as Crisis Intervention Training and placed new emphasis on de-escalation and conflict resolution. Are these the right ways to go?
AV: First of all, a lot of departments aren’t making meaningful changes. They’re not actively embracing significant new training regimes. My view is that, ultimately, training police to better do things that they shouldn’t be doing in the first place is not the ultimate solution. If we could really dial back the things we ask police to do, then we could talk about what kind of training and protocols would be best for doing what’s left. Police is the unit of government that we rely on to be able to use force.
It’s a mistake to think that, somehow, we can just train police to be nice and friendly all the time. Rather than creating this idea that we can make the police nicer, we should really just reduce the number of things we ask them to do.
TCR: One of the main areas where police are taking on more responsibilities than many feel they should is policing the mentally ill. Should we take the responsibility for this population off the shoulders of police who often aren’t even trained to deal with them?
AV: Absolutely. Instead of trying to fine-tune the police response, we need to just end the police response to most of these calls. And we can just look at the United Kingdom as an example of how to move in that direction. There, when someone in a family is having a mental health crisis and a family member calls for help, they call a phone number that’s tied to the national health service. It has nothing to do with the police. A trained mental health nurse practitioner, or other trained mental health worker, responds to that call.
Now, if there is a concern, or an articulation of violence, than it may be necessary for some police backup. But that call is handled as a health crisis call. The UK police don’t want to take those calls, are happy to have mental health professionals doing that work, and are angry that mental health services in the UK are being dialed back and more of the burden is falling on them. And, frankly, there are a lot of cops in the United States who think it’s a mistake to send police on those calls. They don’t want to do them;, they don’t believe that what they’re doing helps; and it’s incredibly fraught.
TCR: Why is there such reticence on the part of American police forces to adopt international examples of successful alternative policing methods like those practiced in the UK?
AV: Because it has nothing to do with the police. This is not their decision to make. This is a decision that’s been made by political leaders not to fund adequate community based mental health services due to a bipartisan consensus around the politics of austerity.
TCR: In the debate on how best to deal with the mentally ill, there’s a strong push for diversion methods such as mental health courts. Do you see that as a successful step of reform?
AV: The courts are not always that successful in diverting people. Whether it’s mental health courts, trafficking courts, or drug courts, they rarely provide the services that are often most needed in these situations: stable supportive housing and access to a stable income, whether it’s through employment or government transfers.
They engage in a lot of therapeutic regimes, which may provide some aid in helping people stabilize, but don’t totally do so in a way that avoids future interactions with these systems.
Instead, we see a lot of churning of people through these courts, through therapeutic regimes and, also, through emergency rooms, police lockups, and jails—often at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per person. I think what we should be looking at is not pre-incarceration diversion, but pre-arrest diversion. Instead of limiting access to drug treatment to people that get arrested, why not have drug treatment on demand for anyone who needs it? Why not have actual adequate community based mental health services?
Then, if we have those services in place, and there are people who are still producing problems in the community, let’s talk about how to address those individuals from a comprehensive standpoint. Instead, we make no services available, and then we criminalize people for engaging in antisocial behavior.
TCR: Another issue your book addresses is the militarization of the police, both in tactics and the supply of military-grade hardware, a reality memorialized by the protests in Ferguson. Please explain your perspective.
AV: Political violence is a political problem, and it needs to be solved in the political arena. But, too often, rather than addressing those political concerns, our political leaders hand it off to the police to deal with. That leaves, again, police in a no-win situation where they feel the need to use force to resolve what are ultimately political problems. The other thing is that militarization of policing is about a lot more than humvees and tactical vests. It’s about a whole ethos that has become widespread in policing in the United States. About politicians telling police to wage a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on terror, and a war on disorder and then giving them budgets to buy military equipment and create paramilitary units with training regimes that treat the public as enemies to be neutralized.
We have seen that ethos at work in some of the most horrible abuses of policing. So what is to be done? Quit telling the police they’re at war with the public, scale down the kinds of thing that they’re being asked to deal with, and then think about what kinds of tools, training, and technologies are best for accomplishing that. In my mind, that would result in a vast reduction in the use of militarized equipment and training.
TCR: In your book, you point out that poor and minority populations almost exclusively shoulder the burden of overpolicing. Why?
AV: We persist in a fantasy of color blindness that says the police response is merely a professional technocratic response to where the crime is, but ignore the ways in which our society has been structured along racialized lines and the ways in which poverty in the United States is growing and becoming more entrenched. This includes a lot of white rural communities that are suffering from opioids and other kinds of crime problems.
Our political leaders have chosen to define those communities as criminal rather than as communities that are in deep distress because of entrenched joblessness, discrimination, geographic isolation, etc. If they were to admit that the problems in those communities were the result of market failures, rather than individual moral failures, then they would have to intervene in markets in ways that those who put them in office don’t want them to. To address the problems of inequality in any way other than policing is politically unacceptable in our current political environment.
TCR: As you write in your book, today’s policing issues have deep historical roots—in some cases as far back as the 17th century. Does this history hold any lessons for policing today?
AV: Our popular culture, which is the main source of information that people have on policing, is suffused with the myth of police as neutral, professional crime fighters. In the book, I discuss things like Adam 12, which was created in the wake of the Watts riots, as a tool that the Los Angeles Police Department was actively using to restore public confidence in police along really invented lines. That has become the way police are portrayed primarily in our popular culture. What we don’t see, are the concrete ways in which the police reproduce enforced ghetto segregation, Jim Crow, and carry out the war on drugs and terror along racial lines.
TCR: In your book you describe the “hero narrative” that dominates police thinking about their role. Does that need to be addressed at the start of police training?
AV: Most young people that I know, who have wanted to go into law enforcement, are motivated by a very real and genuine desire to help their communities. They believe that policing is the way to do this. What they don’t understand is the profound legacy of the structural impediments to using policing to truly solve community problems. So, police officers are often very frustrated in their jobs, because what they thought was going to be both exciting and helpful is bureaucratic and pointless. If you read memoirs from police officers, you often get “we spent years arresting people for drugs, and yet everyone in the community could get drugs any time they wanted them.” It’s the utter pointlessness of the enforcement.
TCR: The motivation to help the community is behind many police departments’ renewed drive for adapting community policing methods as a means of creating safer and more effective policing practices. Is this a step in the right direction?
AV: No. I think that community policing merely expands our reliance on police to deal with social problems that would be better handled in other ways. As long as the police are asked to wage simultaneous wars on drugs, terror, disorder, and crime, they cannot do this in a friendly and respectful way. And what the police consider to be the community excludes large portions of these neighborhoods and consigns them to being the enemy.
TCR: So much of your book emphasizes taking money out of criminal justice and putting it into viable progressive social programs. In your opinion, on a party level, is there any push for this kind of monetary change on either side of the fence?
AV: No. My hope is that the theatrical excesses of the Trump administration will create more political space to talk about the kinds of reforms and shifts in social spending that will actually make a difference. But I don’t see too much of that in the works among existing big city politicians. New York City Council members have written me letters, some elected officials came to my book launch in New York, but we have yet to see a true political tendency.
Of course, there are community- based organizations all across the country making these same points. What we need to do is bring together those groups, critical academic researchers, and progressive political leaders, and turn this into a real political movement.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.