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The Police Can’t Fix That

An interview with Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing

Will Meyer


Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, whose book ‘The End of Policing’ came out last year, argues that armed police are rarely, if ever, the answer to our social problems. In his striking book, he suggests that we need to radically “rethink the role of police in society,” that the “origins and function of police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities of race and class, and that “a kinder, gentler, and more diverse war on the poor is still a war on the poor.” Right on the front cover of the book, he lays out his thesis statement: the problem isn’t police training or diversity, he insists, but an “unprecedented expansion and intensity of policing in the last forty years. The problem is policing itself.”

The surveillance camera debate followed by community outcry over the Northampton Police Department’s purchase of more riot gear, ammunition, and so-called less-lethal weapons, opened up new space to examine the role of policing in Northampton. It became incredibly clear that many in the community are eager to have less policing and more services.

In the spirit of continuing the discussion, I am pleased to bring you an in-depth Q+A with Vitale, who spoke with me at the Haymarket after he gave a talk at Hampshire College (where we are both alums).

The Shoestring: In Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper’s book, she describes Robert Peel as someone who “firmly believed in honesty, accountability and trust.” Adding that, “American policing has its roots in Peelian law enforcement agencies in England.” In other words, her history paints a romantic—and dare I say naive—picture of policing’s history. Who is Robert Peel and what’s missing from the Chief’s understanding here?

Alex Vitale: In a way it’s not really her fault, because if you look at the way policing is taught in the United States—if you look at the textbooks, if you look at the standard history accounts—it all starts in exactly this way. But this is an erasure of very important historical factors in the development of policing.

First of all in the U.K., what always gets left out of this narrative is what [Robert Peel’s] prior job had been. You know, he didn’t just wake up in London and invent the police. He had been in charge of the English occupation of Ireland. A colonial endeavor where he was confronted by agricultural uprisings, so called outrages, that were a threat to British colonial rule. And so he developed a whole series of hybrid institutions that were somewhere between the military, the militia, and what we consider modern policing today. And he understood what was needed was a force that could manage uprisings in a more legitimate and cost effective way. And he basically took that colonial technology and applied it not to the colonial occupation of England, but to the creation and management of this industrial workforce that is exploding in London, and bringing with it all kinds of disorder and crime, etc.

Mark Neocleous, who is a social theorist in the U.K., has a great discussion about the way in which policing produces the working class through micro regulation of their public behavior.

TS: And can you expand on the United States?

AV: So in the American context, it’s true that the Peelian model, based on colonialism, comes to the U.S. in places like Boston and New York. But what that leaves out is the development of policing in the south, which is directly tied to the management of slave populations. And usually when we hear the word slave patrol we think of rural, plantation systems—but in fact we get what looks very much like modern policing. In places like Charleston and Savannah and New Orleans—in this urban milieu, where slaves actually work outside the home of their owners in factories, wharves, warehouses—policing emerges in these southern cities to manage that slave population: To prevent uprisings, to prevent the formation of reading groups, and even to stop the creation of speakeasies and other forms of independent entertainment. And so the Charleston police, well before the London Metropolitan Police, are uniformed, professional, 24-hour, law enforcement; it’s just that their primary mission is managing the slave population.

And then we had our own domestic colonial policing. The Texas Rangers, for example, were involved in wiping out the indigenous population and dispossessing the Spanish and Mexican landowning population to make way for white settlers. So, this is the real historical origins of policing.

TS: And here in Northampton it was sort of a puritan mindset that created our first law enforcement agencies. They went after witches, indigenous people, and slaves.

AV: During that period of witch hunts and stuff, we don’t normally think of that as modern policing, but certainly it’s a system of social control, backed by state-sanctioned coercive, punitive force.

TS: The NPD was praised by Obama’s commission on 21st century policing for its Open Data Portal that offers statistics on use of force, crime, police diversity, etc. We still have little idea of what type of weapons and technology they use, how they use it, and what the consequences are. Can you comment on the limits of this type of transparency and give a little context on that commission?

AV: First of all, we do need more transparency, and we do need the potential for democratic oversight. The problem is that what gets called transparency is not very transparent. So the NYPD says because they put some crime statistics up on their website, they’re the most transparent police department in the world. Which, for anyone who studies policing outside of the U.S., or even outside of New York City, will find this completely ludicrous. Transparency has to be more than just crime data and PR statements. It has to be real, public access to rulemaking—not just the rules, but the rulemaking process; it has to include community input, and there has to be transparency about spending and policy priorities, and we have that almost nowhere in the U.S..

TS: For what it’s worth, Chief Kasper only follows certain recommendations from Obama’s Commission on 21st century policing. The Open Data portal is a big step forward, but Northampton doesn’t adhere to the Commission recommendations of community oversight of the police or citizen input on the hiring of officers.

AV: This idea of transparency as a kind of procedural pathway to better policing is predicated on this kind of mythical understanding of policing as having simply a legitimacy crisis. Politicians and police officials believe that what’s needed is to restore public confidence in the police. This leads to all kinds of procedural justice reforms that fail to deliver substantive justice. And by that I mean it’s not enough to just know what the police are doing; it’s what steps are we taking to reduce the harmful consequences of policing.

TS: In a video to recruit officers to the NPD, which we noted in our review of the video, officers are shown armed with assault weapons, but nowhere did they interact with the community in ways that could be understood as noncoercive. What does this video tells us about the nature of policing?

AV: This is a huge national problem. The police, on the one hand, want to tout community policing initiatives as evidence that they’re reforming their ways and that they’re going to be more in touch with community concerns. But we’re still very deeply mired in a kind of warrior mindset around policing. When political leaders tell the police to wage a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on gangs, a war on disorder, they are going to get the message that they are at war with the public. Then when you arm them with military weapons, and when you give them these huge homeland security grants, they see large segments of the population as the enemy. And this creates dynamics in which there is a tendency to over assess the risk, and that leads to really horrible outcomes sometimes. Like the recent shooting in Sacramento, or like the man who was killed in Walmart in Ohio because he was trying to purchase an air rifle, legally, and the police saw him, yelled at him, he had headphones on, and when he didn’t hit the deck, they shot him to death right in the middle of the store. So these kinds of overreactions I think are driven by, in fact, training, which emphasizes the constant split-second risk of death.

TS: Something they’re really interested in here is the active shooter trainings.

AV: So, active shooter trainings—this is used as the justification for a lot of militarized equipment. And one of the things we know about active shooter situations is that by the time that equipment arrives it’s all over. Everybody’s dead including the shooter, usually. The way to handle active shooter situations is that whoever is there first has to go in and try to stop the shooter. You can’t wait for the heavy weapons teams to show up. By the time the press show up, they’ve assembled all their militaristic gear, and, [sarcastically] “oh, it looks like they’re all ready to go.” But it’s all over by the time those units show up.

TS: You write in your book that the “threat of lethal violence indicates a crisis in police legitimacy.” Can you comment on that and also why arming police officers is potentially unsafe for both the officers and the public? You advocate for substantially disarming the police.

AV: Yeah, the ultimate goal should be to address community problems in nonpunitive, noncoercive ways. And to the extent where we can remove police entirely from certain areas that they dominate now, that reduces the number of people with guns who are involved. So if we got them out of the drug business, and out of the sex-work business, and out of the school security business, that would be a lot fewer people with guns around. And I think that would all contribute to cultural shifts around violence.

Now, there are people with guns, and there are people who will try to use guns take advantage of other people, and so there may be circumstances where some kind of armed response is needed. I’m open to that possibility. But that’s a very tiny fraction of what police actually do. Some police officers go their whole careers without ever pointing their weapon at anyone.

The presence of the weapons colors their interactions with the public, in potentially ways that actually endanger the police. You know, people don’t shoot British police officers because they don’t have weapons. Now that means that maybe somebody gets away. But lives are saved in the process.

TS: Going back to the military gear. To justify the purchase of more riot gear, which Chief Kasper describes as “routine” and “business as usual,” she used the example of serving papers to armed drug dealers in the middle of the night. Is this a good reason to further militarize the police?

AV: Ultimately, the police should not be in the drug business. This is incredibly counterproductive, and no matter how many of these warrants they serve, there’s no interruption in the availability of drugs. No police officer with any experience is going to go and claim that because they arrested some drug dealers, now people can’t get drugs. Peter Moskoz, in his book Cop in the Hood, about his time on the Baltimore PD, says that he never saw anyone have to go an extra fifteen minutes to get their drugs, no matter how many raids they did, how many streets they closed and how many people were arrested, it had no effect on the availability of drugs.

So, the response of the government is not to question why we rely on police to manage drug problems, such as they are, but to double down on increasingly militarizing the response. Everything from giving people the death penalty to sending in armored personnel carriers to find someone’s marijuana under their bed. These are almost never encounters that involved shootouts. And in most cases, if the police just waited till the person left their house in the morning, they could just walk up and arrest them without incident.

TS: I asked Kasper, for the example that she cited in her memo, why not just go arrest the people outside? And she said something like “sometimes we try to do that, but sometimes that’s not possible.”

AV: Well I don’t agree that it’s not possible. I think it’s more convenient for them to assemble a big team and do it on their schedule instead of having to engage in surveillance. But the whole endeavor is misguided. And of course these S.W.A.T. teams were supposed to be able to deal with, you know, armed suspects, barricaded armed suspects, these things. But instead, they mostly spend their time doing drug warrants. This is not making us any safer.

TS: It’s not getting rid of the drugs.

AV: No.

TS: The Mayor recently praised the police for participating in the International Association of Chiefs of Police sponsored ‘One Mind Challenge’ to help the police and mental health services work together. Should armed police be the ones to handle people with mental illness?

AV: Well, whenever possible, the answer is no. We’ve got a big systemic problem here, which is the dismantling—or the failure to create any kind—of robust community mental health services. So we have a tremendous amount of mental health problems that are exacerbated sometimes by people’s living conditions being homeless, living in precarious circumstances, experiencing trauma that’s never dealt with. Instead of providing services to help stabilize those people, we criminalize their problematic behavior or just calls for help. And instead of providing services to them, we are trying to train the police how to kill fewer people in these interactions. And this is completely backwards thinking. Instead of attaching more mental health social services to the police, we need to take the police out of the equation. Because what’s often the most destabilising aspect of an encounter like this is the presence of police. A social worker would be more effective and cheaper. But there have to be services in place for it to be meaningful, because the outreach and crisis response alone is not adequate. And, of course, what we have now is the worst of both worlds. We have no infrastructure and we send armed police to manage the consequences.

TS: As I mentioned before, the Mayor’s office is working on a panhandling report that is intentionally designed to be, in their words, “narrow in scope, rather than being an in depth look at the underlying causes, effects, or service adaption by panhandlers.” They will likely propose a non-binding ‘code of ethics’ that runs the risk of further criminalizing an already vulnerable population.

AV: I think we gotta look at what’s going on with the economy. We’ve created an economy that basically systemically excludes a significant chunk of people, who have become formally divorced from the formal workforce, the labor force. Some of those people will move into black market activity, like drug sales, pirated goods, and sex-work, and they’ll pursue those survival strategies. Others choose actually less illegal, less dangerous forms of coping, which are panhandling, sleeping rough, begging, eating at soup kitchens. Ironically, they’re potentially less dangerous and less of a burden than the folks involved in black market activity. But the solution in either case is the same: What are we doing to stabilize those who have been left out of the economy? What we do now is that we label them morally deficient—lazy, self-centered, unable or capable of getting their act together. And that makes punitive treatment of them seem more appropriate. This is crucial because the whole goal here is avoid acknowledging that this is about market failure, because then we would have to intervene in markets, whether its labor markets or housing markets, we’d have to have much more direct intervention.

TS: We’d have to confront capitalism?

AV: Yeah, or at least the neoliberal form of capitalism that has produced this post-industrial large-scale unemployment, precariousness, etc. So, of course, politicians don’t want to do that, so it’s much easier ideologically to vilify and criminalize them. Yes, panhandling produces some burdens on the community. It’s upsetting that we have this huge population that can’t find ways of subsisting materially. And so, we deal with that discomfort not by railing against the inadequacy economic supports, but by criminalizing those who need them most.

TS: You also write in the book about business improvement districts, which are organizations created by the business community. What is the role of these groups politically? And can you give a little context on how they work and what they do?

AV: The business improvement districts are a response to the hollowing out of the state, if you will. They developed in New York City in relationship to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, where the city cut back on sanitation, street repair, policing, etc. So, business improvement districts, rather than paying more taxes that benefit everyone, they carve out the right to pay for these services in a way that it only narrowly benefits them. This creates a situation where we may not have decent sanitation in poor communities, but I’m paying people to pick the trash up in front of my store. Said differently, business improvement districts are a form of privatization that divert tax revenues from the general good to the interests of commercial property owners and business owners.

TS: The NPD recently spent a year tracking down a vandal, who, by accident, according to his testimony, damaged an owl that is important to the business community in town. His case is pending. But according to recent numbers, wage theft is just as prevalent locally as other types of theft. Still, the police don’t take this crime seriously. Do police care about stopping crime?

AV: The question is not crime, I think, the question is do they care about public safety and the public good? So, at the level of the individual, they believe that’s what they’re doing. I work with police all around the world, and when you talk to them, you know, the majority of them are in it for what they think are all the right reasons. They think this is a way to help their community, to get the bad guys. But it’s a very simplistic, and somewhat narcissistic, understanding of how the world works. This kind of thin blue line mentality that there’s good people and bad people, and we stand between the two. When, in fact, good and bad are much more complicated here.

What I suggest we need to do is let’s look at actual harms in the world. And one good way to think about this concretely is in relationship to the debates around sex-work. So there are a lot of campaigners who want to continue to criminalize sex-work because they view any kind of commercial sexual activity as inherently exploitative to women. And they point to those cases where there is coercion as evidence. And my view is let’s put all the harms that women face on the table.

It’s not like women who work in factories and hotels and diners—they also face unwanted sexual contact, theft of wages, degrading treatment by customers and bosses. In fact, one of the things we know about sex-workers is that many of them had job in these other arenas and prefer sex-work because the wages are better and they sometimes have more autonomy.

So, let’s put all of the harms on the table. The harms caused by fraudulent foreclosures schemes, frauds caused by thefts of wages, and let’s prioritize which of those harms—environmental pollution, unsafe products—really produce the most harm, and let’s figure out ways of addressing them. Ideally, preferably, in non-punitive, non-coercive ways from the onset. And then, if we’re left with harms that are significant, serious, and we don’t have non-punitive ways of addressing them, then we can talk about what’s left. But the vast majority of what policing deals with is A) not the real harms, and B) they don’t make those harms any better.

TS: The NPD now has a trading card program for kids. They encourage children to collect cards that glorify and idolize the police. The program is funded by a grant from Wal-Mart. Who does a program like this benefit? The police? The children? The community? The corporation funding it?

AV: There was a huge uptick in school policing in the 1990s, but there’s an earlier origin of school policing, it’s the 1950s. And during that period, there was an uptick in youth violence, juvenile delinquency, and gang activity in parts of the U.S.. And there was a crisis around policing in relationship to that. So the first school police were not in high schools.

TS: They were in elementary schools?

AV: They were in elementary schools. Why? Because they were trying to fix the image of police in the eyes of young people. It was a strategy for creating legitimacy and doing PR, and for socializing young people into the legitimacy of policing. And so obviously a trading card regime like that has a similar function. It’s designed to win kids over to the legitimacy of police. And what we don’t see is the parks department, the libraries, the social services. Where is their money for outreach to create goodwill in the community to actually solve problems? To me, this is a totally ridiculous waste of money.

TS: So Northampton is a relatively wealthy community with very little crime, yet we have a larger than average police department, inadequate services, and increasing inequality. What do you see to shifting this dynamic on the municipal level?

AV: Well I think that Northampton should look at what Ithaca, NY has been trying to do. It’s a small college town with a progressive population. But also has its share of racialized inequality. Ithaca has a drug problem, like Northampton does, like a lot of places do. And the mayor in Ithaca understood that policing was not going to be part of the solution to their drug problems. And when I say drug problems, I don’t mean drug usage, I mean the problems. Like overdoses and people who can’t work. We’re not talking about kids who smoke marijuana on the way home from school. Or adults in the privacy of their bedrooms.

So, what they did was he pulled together his team in city government and said, “let’s put everything on the table,” in terms of local resources that might be useful in addressing our actual drug problems. And they brought in some experts, some people in harm reduction, drug treatment, things like that. They held town hall meetings. They did focus groups with constituent organizations and individuals. And they developed what was called the Ithaca Plan for a Comprehensive and Holistic Response to Drugs. And policing is not in it. 24-hour crisis response, drug treatment services, safe injection facilities, needle exchange programs, but also community development—economic development initiatives in those parts of the city where young people turned to drugs in problematic ways, and turned to drug dealing because of the lack of economic opportunities. That’s an example, in my mind, of police reform. Because it’s about addressing the real harms and taking police out of the equation. And if we could shut down the narcotics squad, and use those resources to fund drug treatment and other things, that, in my mind, is a step in the right direction.

TS: And how do you see changing the narrative around policing and austerity to people who don’t share your view and/or benefit from the status quo?

AV: Well I’m not really interested in the folks who benefit from the status quo. I don’t think we can reach them. And that’s just a waste of time. People have said, “Well, are the police reacting to your book?,” and I’m like, I don’t really care. I did not write it for them. I’m not trying to change their minds. I’m trying to go over their heads.

So, what we need to do is quit worrying about them. Quit worrying about the people who are committed to a punitive, moralistic framework. And we’ve got to work on our potential allies. And that includes, frankly, a lot of people in poor communities, and communities of color, who have embraced a kind of punitive respectability politics that provides a lot of cover for these punitive approaches to social problems. And I think we need to convince people who are our allies that these approaches are actually really bad for their communities, and they should be calling for the things that, they know, will make their communities better. Whether it’s better youth services, better schools, better summer job opportunities, better mental health services, health care, whatever it is. It’s not like they don’t know that these things are needed in their communities, many have just given up on the possibility of getting them. Because for the last forty years, they’ve been told by Democrats and Republicans that they can’t have any of those things, but they’re going to have more cops.

TS: Lastly, can you talk a little more about community oversight of the police? And what types of democratic processes, or community organizations, can be an effective check on policing?

AV: Increasingly, my focus isn’t really on police accountability. It’s on political accountability. The police did not invent the war on drugs. The police did not invent the war on terror. They didn’t invent broken windows policing. These are political projects designed to solve political problems. And we need to give the politicians a different set of problems: We need to tell them that they can no longer treat our social problems as moral failures to be dealt with by aggressive and invasive policing and mass incarceration. Instead, we need to hold politicians accountable for solving our social problems in ways that actually lift people in communities up rather than tearing them down.

I increasingly argue against people going to the police commission, or lobbying the police chief. I don’t think they’re going to change themselves. I think they’ve created a dynamic where they’re largely politically impervious. But a local city council person, we might have leverage with them. And that’s what we need to do. We need to go after them. And some of them, they know better—they don’t feel like they have the political cover to do the right thing. We need to create the political pressure to force them to do the right thing. And to quit talking about hiring more cops as a way to improve our communities.


Will Meyer is a co-editor of The Shoestring. Illustration by Anya Klepacki

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