Police are deployed to manage a broad spectrum of social issues, from homelessness to school safety. Alex Vitale’s new book lays out a different approach.
“Vitale calls for an ideological reframing of policing as an inherently punitive practice that criminalizes the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the U.S. in order to maintain the status quo for white elites. Instead, he writes, people should be given the programs and resources they need to solve problems within communities in ways that do not involve police, courts, or prisons — a path to materializing justice.”
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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.
Vitale calls for an ideological reframing of policing as an inherently punitive practice that criminalizes the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the U.S. in order to maintain the status quo for white elites. Instead, he writes, people should be given the programs and resources they need to solve problems within communities in ways that do not involve police, courts, or prisons — a path to materializing justice.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.