The Limits of Police Reform: The Origins and Ends of the Police
Alex Vitale talks about his new book “The End of Policing,” which casts a skeptical eye on the liberal calls for police reform, and calls for us to stop asking police to solve a wide variety of social problems
BAYNARD WOODS: For The Real News in Baltimore, I’m Baynard Woods. We’ve been going through a wide-ranging series of problems with policing in the city over the last several years. Just in the last week or two, we’ve seen a number of officers convicted and starting to be sentenced in the Gun Trace Task Force trial. Going back, we had the uprising after the death of Freddie Gray, and we had a commissioner just last week be forced to resign only about a couple of months into the job.
Everyone here seems to be screaming for police reform in some way or another. But with me today is Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, who really, who has a great new book out, “The End of Policing,” and it questions this whole narrative and this call for police reform. So welcome, Alex.
ALEX VITALE: Thank you.
BAYNARD WOODS: So what’s the problem with these various calls for police reform that seem so well-intentioned, when we know around the country that, that policing is in a crisis? But you really question some of the reformers and the calls for reform. What’s, what’s the problem with it?
ALEX VITALE: Well, I think we have to understand the nature of policing and the ways in which the reforms that are most popular, and I’m thinking here a lot of, a lot of the things that are included in these consent decrees or that are contained in Obama’s task force on policing report, they sort of misunderstand the nature of policing and its impact on communities. And so a lot of what they do is try to reestablish the legitimacy and the functionality and professionalism of policing, without interrogating the kind of mission that the police have been given.
So, I always say a totally lawful, professional, unbiased, low-level drug arrest is still fundamentally unjust, and serves no positive social purpose. And so just making the police more professional, having them follow the training better, adding some diversity to the police department doesn’t change why it is we’ve come to rely on police to deal with such a huge range of problems in our communities.
BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah, I want to go into some of those, those areas that you talk about police really, policing really expanding. But the title of the book, as you were just talking about, the real purpose of policing. The title is “The End of Policing.” And it’s both a call, in some ways, I think, for the end of it. But it’s also addressing the ends, the purposes. And so what’s the fundamental purpose of policing that you see? And you trace it all the way back to the beginning in Charleston with the slave patrols, and then in England, Boston. How did this begin, and what is the purpose of policing?
ALEX VITALE: You know, we often get this liberal narrative of policing. When I study policing in school you, you hear about the creation of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829 was the beginning of modern professional law enforcement-oriented policing. But what people often leave out of that story is where did that idea come from? The police in London were created by Sir Robert Peel, Robert, Bob, the bobbies. But no one talks about what job it is that he had before that, where he develops this idea. He was in charge of the colonial occupation of Ireland.
And during that occupation, he had to manage the rural uprisings against English colonial rule that was incredibly exploitative, and at times brutal and repressive. And policing was a way for him to more efficiently manage those uprisings at lower financial cost, but also lower political cost, because policing can be more preemptive, more community-embedded, and develop greater public legitimacy. We had colonial policing here in the United States. The Texas Rangers were responsible for wiping out the indigenous population and pushing out Mexican landowners to make way for white settlement. We also had policing used to manage the new industrial working class in London in the 1820s, but also in places like Pennsylvania at the turn of the last century, where the first state police force was created to manage the strikes of miners and industrial workers in a way that local police weren’t able to. So they created a state police force modeled explicitly on the U.S. occupation of the Philippines.
And then we have the use of slave patrols, not just in the rural countryside, but in urban areas like Charleston and New Orleans and Savannah, where slaves actually work outside of the home of their owners and wharves and warehouses. And they needed a force to manage that mobile slave population. So I would argue that the Charleston city watch and guard in the late 1700s is actually the first real professional uniformed 24-hour police force. But we never hear about that example in the liberal descriptions, because it’s seen so clearly that it was about a system of racialized oppression. So I think we need to understand policing as a tool to manage regimes of accumulation and exploitation that generate resistance that has to be managed. And today, rather than-.
BAYNARD WOODS: Let me ask you, that was slightly academic-speak for a second. So I mean, in layman’s terms, that last part was they’re protecting wealth from people who don’t have access to the wealth.
ALEX VITALE: And they’re, they’re protecting systems of exploiting people. So it’s not just the property, it’s the relationships of exploitation. And today we don’t have, like, colonialism and slavery in the same way, but we have a system of mass unemployment and underemployment, mass homelessness, mass untreated mental illness, huge levels of participation in black market activities because people don’t have access to real jobs. And that’s what policing do today, is they manage those consequences of these economic systems of exploitation that we have today.
BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah. And I mean, that seems particularly clear in this city, in Baltimore, where we have high unemployment, it’s a hypersegregated city. And I think for a lot of white people like me that only became clear after something like the death of Freddie Gray, when it became, the mask kind of came off, and it was, it was very obvious that police were there to protect the power structure and to protect the white property from the propertyless and the jobless, and from minority populations. And yeah, that was also the time when these calls for, you know, it seems like more police surveillance. Body cameras came out. And you know, we just had officers charged with recreating discoveries, where they planted drugs. So they’re using the body cameras for their own, to their own advantage now, rather than the things that people were calling for.
So I mean, you do go through, it’s not just attacking the sort of progressive, or pseudo-progressive police reform, but you also go through some solutions and some alternatives that may work, may work a little bit better. But one thing people are calling for a lot these days is disband the BPD here in Baltimore, and other cities are saying that. When you’re saying the end of police, do you think that we should and could get rid of the modern police force as we know it altogether?
ALEX VITALE: What I’m saying is that you show me a problem that communities are suffering from, problems around drugs, problems around youth violence, problems around homelessness, and I can show you ways that we can address those problems without policing. Now, if there are problems that we can’t figure out how else to address except to have some coercive state force involved, well, then so be it. Let’s let’s deal with that. But the vast majority of what police do today is manage young people with few opportunities, homeless people out on the street, people having a mental health crisis. And we know how to manage those problems without using police.
BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah. I mean, it’s-. When you mention mental health problems, it seems like that’s one of the places that-, I mean, you, I forget the figure you have in the book. But a huge number of civilian encounters that police have are people who are dealing with mental health crises. But then if we look at self-medication that a lot of the drug policing may also be from self-medicating for mental health issues. And yet Thomas Allers, a sergeant in the Gun Trace Task Force here who pleaded guilty last week, and one of his defenses or requests for lenience was that he was dealing with PTSD, that he was dealing with-.
And so it seems like we have, we’ve created this system where we have people who are sometimes armed, who are dealing with mental health crises, who are confronted by people who are always armed, who are also dealing with trauma and mental health crises. And that seems like an impossible situation. What, what are ways that we can help people? You have some good examples of ways that we can deal with these mental crisis, mental health crises better than sending someone out, and because we’ve all heard of the cases where you call 911 on your own son because he’s going through a crisis, and he ends up dead.
ALEX VITALE: Yeah. In fact, between a quarter and a half of all people killed by police are having a mental health crisis at the time they’re killed. And yes, some of them may be armed, and some of them may be trying to commit suicide by cop. But this just points out the utter ludicrousity of the system that we have of sending armed police when someone’s in crisis. So what can we do instead? I mean, we need to build a robust mental health structure. In the 1960s and ’70s we dismantled a deeply problematic state hospital system, and in a lot of places we were told that the money that was saved from that would be invested in community-based services that would allow people to live independently with dignity, and take care of themselves. But that investment never happened. It went to tax cuts to the rich, or more policing services.
And so we need to start by building that infrastructure first so that people don’t reach crisis stages where there needs to be an intervention. And also so that there are people who can respond who have actual mental health services to offer not guns and handcuffs to deal with that. And I think there’s, you’ve linked this to the behavior of police, and also violence in the community. And what ties those together is this issue of trauma, which is largely unaddressed throughout our medical systems and throughout our communities. Almost every single young person who’s involved in violence has been a victim of violence. They have been shot, their brother has been shot. They have seen their parent, one parent beat up the other parent. And those traumas are never addressed.
So now we see the police. They also experience trauma. And the police, at least, are being offered some services to deal with their traumas, to reduce absenteeism and to have them be less anxiety-prone on the job. But really these whole communities need access to culturally-appropriate trauma services. That’s not only going to reduce the mental health calls, it’s going to reduce the cycle of violence that’s driving a lot of the problems we have with policing.
BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah, I want to come back and talk about the role of police in schools in the second part of our conversation, so maybe this is a good place to wrap up the first part. Alex Vitale is a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of “The End of Policing,” and we’ll be back for a second interview, so stay tuned.