Police and police unions have proven incapable of ensuring public safety, argues Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Speaker 1: So what have the police been good for? They have not prevented crime. They have not reduced crime. The prison populations have nothing to do with the levels of crime because crime rose, crime fell, the prison population massively expanded.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. Public views on American policing are undergoing a seismic change. Months of sustained protests from Black Lives Matter activists have centered calls for justice for victims of police brutality and demanded law enforcement’s role be fundamentally altered. Organizers say policing is broken and beyond reform and true change will only come through shifting of resources from law enforcement into social programs that address inequality and the root causes of crime and violence.
Speaker 1: We want the Baltimore City Police Department to cut the police budget by $270 million and take that money and invest it in community-based solutions.
Speaker 3: The process to abolition is actually a process that’s not going to happen overnight. I know that removing the police and their footprint in our city and redefining public safety is going to be a long process. I’m willing to work with anyone who understands that who actually wants to improve the city.
Jaisal Noor: Well now joining us to discuss this is Alex Vitale. He’s a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project. He’s also the author of End of Policing which is currently available for $3 via Verso Books. Thanks so much for joining us.
Alex Vitale: You bet, Jaisal.
Jaisal Noor: So this idea of defunding the police has really gained popularity. It’s something that activists have been saying at local council hearings for years and for decades, but these recent protests, the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other people, and also the police’s response to it has created a historic change in the discourse and in the belief that simple reforms like body cameras, trainings will fundamentally change something. How do you account for this?
Alex Vitale: Well you’re absolutely right that this is not really new. It’s kind of exploded into the national discourse in a way that was pretty unexpected, but it has been percolating under the ground, under the radar for a number of years now. I’ve been spending the last three years crisscrossing the country in 20, 25 cities a year where there are real movements, not just about policing, but also about defunding jails and youth lockups and redirecting that money into community-identified public safety initiatives. This really is a movement for public safety. That’s what’s driving this and the people who are really leading this movement on the ground are people who’ve experienced violence and a lack of safety and for whom police have not been the solution. For some reason, Minneapolis kind of became this galvanizing moment where these movements all simultaneously mobilized into the streets and this created a changed narrative. I think also what’s really important here is the way in which on-the-ground organizing has shifted away from demands for body cameras and training and just jailing a few killer cops to really rethinking why we’re using police in the way we’re using them.
Jaisal Noor: So in cities like Los Angeles and New York where police budgets have soared while crime has sort of dwindled, activists have made some progress at least rhetorically getting concessions from politicians saying, “Look, we’re going to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from police budgets.” But in cities like Baltimore where we’re based or in Chicago where there’s dozens of people getting shot over the weekend, that’s where activists are facing the biggest pushback and the argument is that, “Look, this all might be great, but fundamentally right now we need to keep people safe and the only way to do that on a short-term basis is through aggressive policing and catching these shooters and putting them behind bars and locking, throwing away the key.” How do you respond to that?
Alex Vitale: Yeah, I just had an exchange this morning with David Simon on Twitter about this exact question and have had kind of a debate with Thomas [Abt 00:04:31] who’s defended this position. So look, first of all, the policing is not working very well. We have this massive policing apparatus and it’s not preventing these upticks in shootings. The connection between policing and this kind of violence is very complicated. The police involvement in this stuff is mostly reactive and when we have targeted policing interventions that are more preventative and proactive, this has nothing to do with things like patrol strength or the overall mission of policing. The reality is we have a lot of ideas about alternatives to policing that could be used to manage these very serious violence problems.
Even in Baltimore, we got pretty strong evidence about the success of Cure Violence and these kind of credible messenger initiatives. In New York, we have very strong evidence about the effectiveness of these things. We need to give that stuff a try and we need to constantly dial back this over-reliance on policing. I mean we’re never going to get completely out of this violence problem with a police-centered strategy which relies on throwing people away, putting people into the criminal justice system, ruining their lives. That has a cost to communities as well and that rarely gets calculated into these discussions about, “Well policing works or policing, if we throw 1000 police at something, we can get a 10% reduction in homicides,” but it comes at this huge social cost.
Jaisal Noor: I was just reading this book by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg which is coming out in July about the Gun Trace, so later this month about the Gun Trace Task Force, and it’s just incredible to see how corrupting this entire system is. The drug war which is being waged in cities like Baltimore where there’s no jobs or access to wealth or money, drugs become a way of putting food on the table and feeding your families. The fact that you have cops that are also tasked with going after these dealers and sellers in many cases, they are also getting caught up in this too and they are becoming drug dealers and like it happened in Baltimore, operated with impunity for years. So it’s not necessarily about individual actors. It’s a system that is a corrupting force itself. Can you talk about that?
Alex Vitale: Sure. It’s a great book. I highly recommend it. These guys have done great research and have really shown how, when we turn problems over to the police to manage, that’s going to come with violence and corruption. It’s these specialized units like the Gun Trace Task Force and narcotics units, gang suppression units that are the most likely to be involved in corruption and abuse. These are precisely the kinds of proactive violence reduction initiatives that supporters of police-centered strategies point to as the solution to these violence problems. Invariably, these units get tied to corruption and abuse. So this is not some kind of value neutral undertaking. We see the same thing with violence against women.
We say, “Oh, well we have to have all this intensive policing to protect women,” and then when we look more carefully, what we find is that police are actually involved in a lot of assaults against women. This is a recurring problem. They’re involved in assaults against women in their personal life and in their official capacity not universally, not across the board, but disproportionately. They use the color of authority of their job to perpetrate a lot of this violence. So we need to understand the costs when we send police to manage these problems, not just the potential benefits.
Jaisal Noor: The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that, in the next two years including the fiscal year that just ended, states will have a budget shortfall in excess of half a trillion dollars. We know what programs are often on the chopping block. Some states are cutting education by a billion dollars. It’s these same violence prevention programs that are often facing budget shortfalls every year. We talked about Cure Violence in Baltimore. Safe Streets, right now the latest information I have, it faces a $225,000 budget shortfall thanks to a veto on the state level. Do you think especially with these austerity measures coming down the pipe because of the coronavirus lockdowns, do you think now is the time where this conversation really needs to happen across the board?
Alex Vitale: One of the challenges the movement faces is that policing is always considered central to the kind of hard money budget. Then community-based public safety initiatives are always treated as kind of soft money so that they’re seen as temporary, tied to a particular politician doing a political favor, a little bit of patronage or something or an experiment, but of course the real public safety budget is all police with these little add-ons so that when budgets are tight, what gets cut is the soft money stuff. So that just puts us in even a worse position. So we need to look at what Minneapolis is talking about which is creating a public safety infrastructure in which policing is just one node and that public safety is understood more broadly as being produced in all kinds of complex ways so that when there’s a cut, it doesn’t just go to those soft money programs. It gets spread out more broadly among a whole set of strategies including policing. It’s been outrageous while we’ve seen cuts in some cities to police budgets, in other cities, the only part of the budget that’s either been neutral or actually increased has been the police budget.
Jaisal Noor: Finally, I wanted to talk about police unions. The labor movement which has many, many big unions have come out in support of Black Lives Matter and workers, especially frontline workers, many of whom are people of color during COVID-19, they’re facing this internal battle now over the role of police unions in organized labor. Later today, we’re speaking with a Maryland state delegate, Gabriel Acevero, who was fired from his union job because he was pushing police reform on a state level in Maryland. Maryland has one of the strongest protections for officers through the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. Police unions are major donors as in most every state, major donors to political campaigns including many of the elected officials on a board that is overseeing police reform as we speak right now. Can you discuss that?
Alex Vitale: There’s a group of us who’ve been looking closely at this role of police unions for a long time. We actually had a conference at the CUNY Graduate Center, at the CUNY Labor School a couple years ago. My friend David [Unger 00:12:20] has just published a piece about police unions from a labor perspective. One of the things that we have to sort out is really should police unions be part of the labor movement. My feeling is they should not be, but that doesn’t mean we should just break their unions because I think once we head down that path, that’s going to backfire against the labor movement more broadly. What I think we need to do is we need to reduce their political influence.
The way to do that is to make their contributions to elected officials politically toxic, that we have to out those endorsements and contributions and call out those politicians who claim to be our friends but are taking money from unions that not only suck up resources, that not only insulate officers from accountability, but also perpetuate a logic and ideology that says that the solution to community problems is more policing, more mass incarceration, and that other kinds of community-based strategies can’t be trusted or don’t work. So anyone who takes that police money, those union endorsements really can’t be our political friend.
Jaisal Noor: All right, Alex Vitale. Your book, End of Policing, is available for $3 from Verso. We’ll continue to follow your work and appreciate having you on.
Alex Vitale: You bet. My pleasure, Jaisal.
Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
General Assignment Reporter
Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent.
Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.