Incremental Reforms Won’t Work: The Transformation of Policing Is Needed

Activists march against the International Police Chief Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 21, 2017. (Photo: Joe Piette)Activists march against the International Association of Chiefs of Police Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 21, 2017. (Photo: Joe Piette)

Author Alex S. Vitale has no patience for the usual suggestions for police reform. In fact, he argues that some of them may make policing worse in many communities. The following is an excerpt from his book, The End of Policing.

Any effort to make policing more just must address the problems of excessive force, overpolicing, and disrespect for the public. Much of the public debate has focused on new and enhanced training, diversifying the police, and embracing community policing as strategies for reform, along with enhanced accountability measures. However, most of these reforms fail to deal with the fundamental problems inherent to policing.


The videotaped death of Eric Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes immediately spurred calls for additional training of officers in how to use force in making arrests. Officers were accused of using a prohibited chokehold and of failing to respond to his pleas that he couldn’t breathe. In response, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton announced that all New York Police Department (NYPD) officers would undergo additional use-of-force training so that they could make arrests in the future in ways that were less likely to result in serious injury, as well as training in methods to de-escalate conflicts and more effectively communicate with the public.

Such training ignores two important factors in Garner’s death. The first is the officers’ casual disregard for his wellbeing, ignoring his cries of “I can’t breathe,” and their seeming indifferent reaction to his near lifelessness while awaiting an ambulance. This is a problem of values and seems to go to the heart of the claim that, for too many police, black lives don’t matter. The second is “broken windows”-style policing, which targets low-level infractions for intensive, invasive, and aggressive enforcement. This theory was first laid out in 1982 by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They presented existing behavioral research that showed that when a car is left unattended on a street it is usually left alone, but if just one window of the car is broken, the car is quickly vandalized. The lesson: failure to indicate care and maintenance will unleash people’s latent destructive tendencies. Therefore, if cities want to establish or maintain crime-free neighborhoods they must take action to ensure that residents feel the pressure to conform to civilized norms of public behavior. The best way to accomplish this is to use police to remind people in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that disorderly, unruly, and antisocial behavior are unacceptable. When this doesn’t happen, people’s baser instincts will take hold and predatory behavior will reign, in a return to a Hobbesian “war of all against all.”

The emergence of this theory in 1982 is tied to a larger arc of urban neoconservative thinking going back to the 1960s. Wilson’s former mentor and collaborator, Edward Banfield, a close associate of neoliberal economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, parented many of the ideas that came to make up the new conservative consensus on cities. In his seminal 1970 work The Unheavenly City, Banfield argues that the poor are trapped in a culture of poverty that makes them largely immune to government assistance:

Although he has more “leisure” than almost anyone, the indifference (“apathy” if one prefers) of the lower-class person is such that he seldom makes even the simplest repairs to the place that he lives in. He is not troubled by dirt or dilapidation and he does not mind the inadequacy of public facilities such as schools, parks, hospitals, and libraries; indeed, where such things exist he may destroy them by carelessness or even by vandalism.

Unlike Banfield, who in many ways championed the abandonment of cities, Wilson decried the decline of urban areas. Along with writers like Fred Siegel, Wilson pointed at the twin threats of failed liberal leadership and the supposed moral failings of African Americans. All three of them argued that liberals had unwittingly unleashed urban chaos by undermining the formal social control mechanisms that made city living possible. By supporting the more radical demands of the later urban expressions of the civil rights movement, they had so weakened the police, teachers, and other government forces of behavioral regulation that chaos came to reign.

Wilson, following Banfield, believed strongly that there were profound limits on what government could do to help the poor. Financial investment in them would be squandered; new services would go unused or be destroyed; they would continue in their slothful and destructive ways. Since the root of the problem was either an essentially moral and cultural failure or a lack of external controls to regulate inherently destructive human urges, the solution had to take the form of punitive social control mechanisms to restore order and neighborhood stability.

Wilson’s views were informed by a borderline racism that emerged as a mix of biological and cultural explanations for the “inferiority” of poor blacks. Wilson co-authored the book Crime and Human Nature with Richard Herrnstein, which argued that there were important biological determinants of criminality. While race was not one of the core determinants, language about IQ and body type opened the door to a kind of sociobiology that led Herrnstein to coauthor the openly racist The Bell Curve with Charles Murray, who was also a close associate of Wilson.

What was needed to stem this tide of declining civility, they argued, was to empower the police to not just fight crime but to become agents of moral authority on the streets. The new role for the police was to intervene in the quotidian disorders of urban life that contributed to the sense that “anything goes.” The broken-windows theory magically reverses the well-understood causal relationship between crime and poverty, arguing that poverty and social disorganization are the result, not the cause, of crime and that the disorderly behavior of the growing “underclass” threatens to destroy the very fabric of cities.

Broken-windows policing is at root a deeply conservative attempt to shift the burden of responsibility for declining living conditions onto the poor themselves and to argue that the solution to all social ills is increasingly aggressive, invasive, and restrictive forms of policing that involve more arrests, more harassment, and ultimately more violence. As inequality continues to increase, so will homelessness and public disorder, and as long as people continue to embrace the use of police to manage disorder, we will see a continual increase in the scope of police power and authority at the expense of human and civil rights.

The order to arrest Eric Garner came from the very top echelons of the department, in response to complaints from local merchants about illegal cigarette sales. Treating this as a crime requiring the deployment of a special plainclothes unit, two sergeants, and uniformed backup seems excessive and pointless. Garner had experienced over a dozen previous police contacts in similar circumstances, including stints in jail; this had done nothing to change his behavior or improve his or the community’s circumstances. No amount of procedural training will solve this fundamental flaw in public policy. Many advocates also call for cultural sensitivity trainings designed to reduce racial and ethnic bias. A lot of this training is based on the idea that most people have at least some unexamined stereotypes and biases that they are not consciously aware of but that influence their behavior. Controlled experiments consistently show that people are quicker and more likely to shoot at a black target than a white one in simulations.

Trainings such as “Fair and Impartial Policing” use roleplaying and simulations to help officers see and consciously adjust for these biases. Diversity and multicultural training is not a new idea, nor is it terribly effective. Most officers have already been through some form of diversity training and tend to describe it as politically motived, feel-good programming divorced from the realities of street policing. Researchers have found no impact on problems like racial disparities in traffic stops or marijuana arrests; both implicit and explicit bias remain, even after targeted and intensive training. This is not necessarily because officers remain committed to their racial biases, though this can be true, but because institutional pressures remain intact.

American police receive a great deal of training. Almost all officers attend an organized police academy and many have prior college and or military experience. There is also ongoing training; large departments have their own large training staff, while smaller departments rely on state and regional training centers. Many states have unified Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) agencies that set minimum standards, develop training plans, and advise on best practices. While police training standards are still more decentralized in the United States than in many countries that have national police forces and academies, the new POST system has gone a long way in raising standards and creating greater uniformity of procedures.

However, even after training officers often have inadequate knowledge of the laws they are tasked to enforce. Police regularly disperse young people from street corners without a legal basis, conduct searches without probable cause, and in some cases take enforcement action based on inaccurate knowledge of the law. In Victoria, Texas, an officer assaulted an elderly man he had pulled over for not having a registration sticker on his license plate. The man tried to explain that the vehicle had a dealers’ plate, which in Texas is exempt from the sticker requirement. When the officer refused to listen, the man attempted to summon his boss at the car dealership where the confrontation was occurring. Rather than working to resolve the mistake, the officer attempted to arrest the man and in the process injured him with a Taser so badly that he was hospitalized. In the subsequent inquiry, the officer insisted that the man’s passive resistance was a threat that had to be neutralized. Since the incident was recorded on the dashboard camera of the police cruiser, the officer was fired.

The training police receive at the academy is often quite different from what they learn from training officers and peers. The emphasis is on strict discipline and rote learning of laws and rules, and emphasizes proper appearance over substance. Cadets are given little in the way of substantial advice about how to make decisions in a complex environment, according to two veteran officers’ memoirs. Even sympathetic portrayals, such as the reality television show The Academy, provide stark evidence of a militarized training environment run by drill sergeants who attempt to “break down” recruits through punitive drilling and humiliating personal attacks. When officers start working, the first thing their peers often tell them is to forget everything they learned in the academy.

In some ways, training is actually part of the problem. In recent decades, the emphasis has shifted heavily toward officer safety training. Seth Stoughton, a former police officer turned law professor, shows how officers are repeatedly exposed to scenarios in which seemingly innocuous interactions with the public, such as traffic stops, turn deadly. The endlessly repeated point is that any encounter can turn deadly in a split second if officers don’t remain ready to use lethal force at any moment. When police come into every situation imagining it may be their last, they treat those they encounter with fear and hostility and attempt to control them rather than communicate with them — and are much quicker to use force at the slightest provocation or even uncertainty.

Take the case of John Crawford, an African American man shot to death by an officer in a Walmart in Ohio. Crawford had picked up an air gun off a shelf and was carrying it around the store while shopping. Another shopper called 911 to report a man with a gun in the store. The store’s video camera shows that one of the responding officers shot without warning while Crawford was talking on the phone. In Ohio it is legal to carry a gun openly, but the officer had been trained to use deadly force upon seeing a gun. The officer involved was not charged, and Crawford’s girlfriend was intimidated and threatened while being questioned after the incident.

Similarly, in South Carolina, a state trooper drove up to a young man in his car at a gas station and asked him for his driver’s license. He leaned into the car to comply and the officer shot him without warning: see unexpected movement, shoot.

Part of this emphasis on the use of deadly force comes from the rise of independent training companies that specialize in service training, staffed by former police and military personnel. Some of these groups serve both military and police clients and emphasize military-style approaches and the “warrior mentality.” The company CQB (Close Quarters Battle) boasts of training thousands of local, state, and federal police as well as American and foreign military units such as the US Marines, Navy Seals, and Danish, Canadian, and Peruvian special forces. Its emphasis is on ‘battle-proven tactics.” Trojan Securities trains both military and police units and offers police training in a variety of weapons in numerous settings, including a five-day “Police Covert Surveillance and Intelligence Operations” course.

This problem is especially acute when it comes to SWAT teams. Initially created in the early 1970s to deal with rare acts of extremist violence, barricaded suspects, or armed confrontations with police, these units now deal almost exclusively with serving drug warrants and even engage in regular patrol functions armed with automatic weapons and body armor. These units regularly violate people’s constitutional rights, kill and maim innocent people — often as a result of being in the wrong location — and kill people’s pets. These paramilitary units are increasingly being used to respond to protest activity. The militarized response to the Ferguson protests may have served to escalate the conflict there; it’s probably no accident that the Saint Louis County police chief’s prior position had been as head of the SWAT team. These units undergo a huge amount of in service training, funded in part by seizing alleged drug money.

The federal government also began to fund training and equipment for SWAT teams in the 1970s as part of the last round of major national policing reforms, which were intended to improve police-community relations and reducing police brutality through enhanced training. These reforms instead poured millions into training programs that resulted in the rise of SWAT teams, drug enforcement, and militarized crowd control tactics.


There is no question that the racial difference between the mostly white police and the mostly African American policed in Ferguson, Missouri, contributed to the intensity of protests over the killing of Mike Brown. Reformers often call for recruiting more officers of color in the hopes that they will treat communities with greater dignity, respect, and fairness. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to back up this hope. Even the most diverse forces have major problems with racial profiling and bias, and individual black and Latino officers appear to perform very much like their white counterparts.

Nationally, the racial makeup of the police hews closely to national population figures. The US population is 72 percent white; 75 percent of police nationally are white. Blacks make up 13 percent of the population and 12 percent of police. Asians and Latinos are somewhat less well represented relative to their numbers but not dramatically so. In the largest departments, only 56 percent of officers are white. The disparities seem greater in communities of color because of the deep segregation there. In these cases, there are invariably large numbers of white officers patrolling primarily nonwhite areas. This contrast stands out more than its converse, because whites are rarely concerned about being policed by nonwhite officers and because white communities tend to have fewer negative interactions with the police.

There is now a large body of evidence measuring whether the race of individual officers affects their use of force. Most studies show no effect. More distressingly, a few indicate that black officers are more likely to use force or make arrests, especially of black civilians. One new study suggests that small increases in diversity produce worse outcomes, while large increases begin to show some improvements; but only a handful of departments met this criterion. In the end, the authors conclude, “There’s no evidence to suggest that increasing the proportion of officers that are black is going to offer a direct solution.” Use of force is highly concentrated in a small group of officers who tend to be male, young, and working in high-crime areas. This high concentration of use of force may be exacerbated by weak accountability mechanisms and a culture of machismo that rewards aggressive policing, formally and informally. These same cultural and institutional forces militate against differential behavior by nonwhite officers.

At the department level, more diverse police forces fare no better in measures of community satisfaction, especially among nonwhite residents. These departments are also often just as likely to have systematic problems with excessive use of force, as seen in federal interventions in Detroit, Miami, and Cleveland in recent years. Both New York and Philadelphia have highly diverse forces (though not as diverse as their populations), yet both have come under intense scrutiny for excessive use of force and discriminatory practices such as “stop and frisk.” This is in large part because departmental priorities are set by local political leaders, who have driven the adoption of a wide variety of intensive, invasive, and aggressive crime-control policies that by their nature disproportionately target communities of color. These include broken-windows policing, with its emphasis on public disorder, and the War on Drugs, which is waged almost exclusively in nonwhite neighborhoods. Having more black and brown police officers may sound like an appealing reform, but as long as larger systems of policing are left in place, there is no evidence that would give cause to expect a significant reduction in brutality or overpolicing…..

Community Policing

Everyone likes the idea of a neighborhood police officer who knows and respects the community. Unfortunately, this is a mythic understanding of the history and nature of urban policing, as we will see in chapter 2. What distinguishes the police from other city agencies is that they can legally use force.

While we need police to follow the law and be restrained in their use of force, we cannot expect them to be significantly more friendly than they are, given their current role in society. When their job is to criminalize all disorderly behavior and fund local government through massive ticketing-writing campaigns, their interactions with the public in high-crime areas will be at best gruff and distant and at worst hostile and abusive. The public will resist them and view their efforts as intrusive and illegitimate; the police will react to this resistance with defensiveness and increased assertiveness. Community policing is not possible under these conditions.

Another part of the problem lies in the nature of community. Steve Herbert shows that community meetings tend to be populated by long-time residents, those who own rather than rent their homes, business owners, and landlords. The views of renters, youth, homeless people, immigrants, and the most socially marginalized are rarely represented. As a result, they tend to focus on “quality of life” concerns involving low-level disorderly behavior rather than serious crime.

Across the country, community police programs have been based on the idea that the “community” should bring concerns of all kinds about neighborhood conditions to the police, who will work with them on developing solutions. The tools that police have for solving these problems, however, are generally limited to punitive enforcement actions such as arrests and ticketing. Community policing programs regularly call for increasing reliance on Police Athletic Leagues, positive non-enforcement activities with youth, and more focus on getting to know community members. There is little research, however, to suggest that these endeavors reduce crime or help to overcome overpolicing.

Low-level drug dealing and use generates a tremendous number of calls for police service. Criminalizing these activities has done nothing to reduce the availability and negative effects of drugs on individuals or communities. It has produced substantial negative consequences for those arrested, however, and has been a major drain on local and state resources. The research shows that community policing does not empower communities in meaningful ways. It expands police power, but does nothing to reduce the burden of overpolicing on people of color and the poor. It is time to invest in communities instead. Participatory budgeting and enhanced local political accountability will do more to improve the wellbeing of communities than enhancing the power and scope of policing.

Copyright (2017) by Alex S. Vitale. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Verso Books.