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Maya Schenwar | Beyond Reform, Toward the End of Policing: An Interview With Alex Vitale

It’s time to rethink the very mission behind policing.

(Photo: Frederic Genest / EyeEm / Getty Images)

Calling for reforms to police training implies that the problems of policing lie in the shortcomings of the police force, says Alex Vitale, sociology professor and author of The End of Policing. But the real issues lie with the actual mission that police forces are tasked with — from policing schools and dealing with mental health crises, to waging an endless war on drugs.

Maya Schenwar for Truthout: Often after a high-profile act of police violence, we hear calls for reforms like “diversifying the police,” “community policing,” and “training.” The demand for “training” has been a particularly loud refrain. To give us a sense of where these reforms fall short, could you explain why “training” isn’t a simple, go-to solution to address police violence?

Alex Vitale: Calls to improve or reform police training are predicated on the idea that the problems of policing are ones of implementation, when in most cases the real problem is the actual mission police have been given. The bulk of police use of force, discourtesy and abuse of authority are derived from functions that they shouldn’t be responsible for, such as policing schools, dealing with mental health crises, or waging the war on drugs. The focus on police training distracts us from these larger political questions.

Body cameras, diversity in hiring, and community policing, all fail to get at the root of the unjust mission of policing.

There are two frameworks that we hear a lot about in relation to training that illustrate this. The first is implicit bias training. This is based on the idea that some share of police misconduct is tied to small unexamined racial biases within police officers that shape their behavior in unfortunate ways. The proposed solution is to make them more self-aware of these unintended biases and work with them on strategies to compensate for them. This approach is totally unsupported by research. The results of implicit-bias testing lack reproducibility or evidence of an actual effect on behavior and there’s no real evidence that any of these training efforts have any effect on officer behavior. It also ignores the role of actual conscious and explicit racism, which is alive and well in policing. In fact, the appeal of it for many reformers is that it’s a way of appearing to address police racism without actually doing anything about it. The other problem is that the problems of policing don’t actually require a lot of police bias or racism. The institutional mission of waging a war on drugs and a war on crime and stamping out disorder have the unavoidable consequence of reproducing and exacerbating racial inequalities because they assume that the neutral application of punitive and repressive legal regimes will produce public safety evenly. But in fact, since disorder and crime are heavily concentrated in already distressed communities, these punitive practices merely add additional burdens through fines, arrests, humiliation and imprisonment.

The second problematic framework is procedural justice, whose proponents argue once again that it’s not the law that is the problem, it’s the way it’s enforced. They point to research that shows that people are more satisfied with the police when there is good communication and the perception of a fair and unbiased application of the law. There is some empirical support for this belief. However, this does not mean that the solution to the problems of policing are merely to more professionally execute the war on drugs, the criminalization of homelessness, or gang-suppression policing. These basic police functions are unavoidably unjust and counterproductive and this is what must be rooted out. Procedural justice runs the risk of merely manufacturing more public consent for a system of race and class oppression.

The history of policing is a history of the management of exploitation.

I have similar criticisms about body cameras, diversity in hiring, and community policing, which all fail to get at the root of the unjust mission of policing. We need to focus instead on developing concrete alternatives to relying on armed police to address so many social problems, rather than making them more friendly and legitimate.

You spend some time delving into the history of US policing and tracing the threads of how the police, as we know them, have evolved. Why is it important to look at this history? (In your response to this one, it’d be great if you could point to some of the specific threads you mention in the book — slavery, the Texas Rangers, worker suppression, etc.)

The history of policing is a history of the management of exploitation. This includes the use of police to maintain colonial relationships internationally, the production and control of a massive industrial working class, and the control of slave populations.

(Photo: Verso Books)Alex Vitale. (Photo: Verso Books)The origins of the London Metropolitan Police, for instance, were rooted in the colonial occupation of Ireland. Sir Robert Peel, for whom the “bobbies” are named, had been in charge of the British occupation where he experimented with proto-police forces like the Irish Peace Preservation Force, before brining those lessons to London to help mold the industrial working class into a stable workforce free of strikes, and indolence, and sloth.

In the US, we had our own domestic colonial police force in the form of the Texas Rangers who played a central role in the extermination of Indigenous peoples and the displacement of Spanish landowners. The US colonial occupation of the Philippines also provided the model for the first American state police force in Pennsylvania in 1905. This new force was needed to manage the growing labor unrest of the period and was quickly put to use attacking strikers with more violence, intelligence gathering and subversion than many local police were willing or able to employ. This earned them the name “Pennsylvania Cossacks” among the largely immigrant work force. Finally, policing in much of the US South was derived either from rural slave patrols or from early professional and civilian police forces in major port cities like Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, where most slaves worked outside the home of their owners in the growing mercantile economy of the South. These new police forces were designed to micromanage this mobile slave population to prevent uprisings, public disrespect of white people, and the creation of underground schools and social venues.

“Gang Crime” has become the new moral panic, driven by both local politicians and the Trump administration.

The lesson of this history is that policing has never been primarily about the production of public safety for the policed, and that as an institution it comes with tremendous historical baggage, and therefore, should be viewed as a tool of last resort, rather than the tool of first resort, that it currently is for a growing number of social ills.

We are often expected to take at face value the role of police as protectors of “public safety.” However, as you explain, police are making much of the public less safe. Your chapters on the school-to-prison pipeline and the war on drugs were particularly illustrative of this reality. Could you give an example of a way in which policing has endangered people and communities (beyond isolated examples of individual cops’ acts of violence)?

Prohibitionist policies are the clearest example of this. In an effort to control drugs and sex work through criminalization, policing has created massive unregulated black markets that endanger both consumers and providers. So much of the current opioid crisis could have been avoided through legalization schemes. The move from pills to street heroin and the spiking of heroin with fentanyl are both aspects of the “iron law of prohibition,” which is that when substances are made illegal, their use will become concentrated. In fact, the prohibition against marijuana remains a contributing factor in why people take even legal opioids for pain management. By criminalizing drugs, we drive people away from treatment, create a massive unregulated business where recourse to violence is unavoidable, and encourage the distribution of impure, fake and adulterated drugs. In addition, police corruption is a central feature of the war on drugs, with officers arrested on a daily basis for protecting drug distributors, and using, distributing and stealing drugs.

Similarly, the sex work industry presents real avoidable dangers to workers because they are driven into underground black markets. Sex workers are unable to organize for their own protection, are more vulnerable to exploitation by pimps and traffickers, and lack basic labor, health and safety rights. They are also subjected to harassment, extortion and sexual assault by police.

We must also address the issue of reparations for African Americans and Native peoples to start the process of overcoming past exploitation and genocide.

Sending police to deal with people having a mental health crisis is another incredibly fraught endeavor. One out of every four people killed by police is having a mental health crisis. In the vast majority of these calls, a public health nurse should be sent instead, as is currently done in the UK. Sending the police is a horrible alternative to developing a robust and stable community-based mental health system.

“Gangs” are often mentioned, vaguely, as the source of violence in cities, and are often seen as a justified and important target of policing. However, there are some serious issues with policing’s emphasis on “gang suppression,” as you explain. Could you describe some of the problems with this framework?

“Gang Crime” has become the new moral panic, driven by both local politicians and the Trump administration. Gang suppression policing is based on faulty premises about the nature of gangs, often exacerbates youth violence and reinforces mass incarceration. Gang designations are reserved almost exclusively for young people of color, and criminalize these youth without regard for the implications for them, their families, or communities. While youth violence remains a real concern in many places, we need to invest in community-based anti-violence initiatives that work with young people to help address the drives toward violence and help them move in more positive directions. Cure Violence programs can be a major part of such an effort. These programs use credible messengers from within a community to reach out to young people in an effort to break the cycle of violence. While these programs have some real success to point to, we also need robust community investment that gives young people access to real pathways out of poverty and hopelessness.

“The police” are not just one entity, of course, and I appreciated that you included border policing in your book. What would enacting your suggestion to “de-police the border” look like?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the “border” is now everywhere. ICE and other federal and local police agencies are enforcing the law in courtrooms, hospitals, communities, workplaces, highways, etc. This is a toxic acceleration of what was already a terrible deportation regime under Obama. It’s also racist and totally counterproductive. We know that new immigrants are less likely to commit crime, are more economically productive, and have reinvigorated distressed communities in rural and urban areas across the country. A huge amount of immigration is also being driven by US foreign policy that impoverishes developing countries and undermines their own democracies; creating violence and economic and political instability. When the EU erased its borders, there was no mass destabilizing migration across Europe, in part because they took steps to equalize economic opportunities and because most people want to stay where they are if at all possible. If we took the money we now spend on border enforcement and spent it on economic development in Mexico and Central America and quit supporting corrupt dictatorships, we wouldn’t have so much immigration in the first place.

It’s also important to keep in mind that before the 1990s the borders essentially were open. There was only minimal enforcement of land borders and huge numbers of people migrated back and forth on a regular basis. This free movement did not undermine our democracy, economy, or society. Quite the opposite. It was a source of innovation and dynamism.

You explain that policing is not the solution to social problems that are largely driven by poverty, oppression and inequity. In your Conclusion, you mention some potential large-scale solutions — visions for what systemic change could look like. Could you speak to those?

Despite recent Democratic protestation against the GOP tax bill, there has been a broad bipartisan consensus in favor of neoliberal economic programs and government austerity. Local Democratic mayors and legislators continue to accept the premise that they have to cut business taxes and social spending in order to remain economically viable. This has contributed to growing inequality, declining infrastructure and a politics of resentment. All of this is then backed up with a robust neoconservatism that argues that the resulting social instability has to be addressed through repressive state action in the form of heavy-handed policing, mass incarceration, and the vilification of the poor as morally inferior. We can’t push back against this new “carceral state” without directly addressing these political and economic arrangements. The criminal [legal] system will not be reformed through a series of apolitical technical fixes. We need to redirect resources from punishment and control to economic development and community empowerment.

But we will need to go further than just defunding some prisons and cutting the number of police; we need to tap into the vast wealth at the center of the American economy and put it to use rebuilding the country and repairing the damage done to poor and non-white communities. Revitalizing public services, green jobs and rebuilding infrastructure would be a start, but we must also address the issue of reparations for African Americans and Native peoples to start the process of overcoming past exploitation and genocide. While short term behavior modification programs and restorative justice can provide some relief in high crime communities, real justice can only come from these broader strategies.

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