Janine Jackson interviewed Alex Vitale about de-policing for the April 14, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: A former Chicago police officer is accused of framing some 51 people for murders they didn’t commit. BuzzFeed’s Melissa Segura reports that police brass, prosecutors, judges, oversight commissions and federal authorities all had ample opportunity to stop Reynaldo Guevara. Instead they promoted him, built cases around him, and ignored even those swearing in open court to abuse.
Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby explained why she killed an unarmed man walking away from her at a traffic stop: “If I wait to find out if he had a gun or not, I could very well be dead,” Shelby said.
The public conversation has come some way toward acknowledging that, even if not every officer does what Guevara or Shelby did, it’s not appropriate to think of them as isolated bad apples, because their actions and attitudes are not just permitted, but in a sense produced by an institutional and social climate—by a system. But if such abuses are not so much mistakes in the system as indicators of fundamental problems, is “reform” really the right model for the change required? Or should our conversation move toward placing less emphasis on how policing is done, and more on why?
Alex Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. His upcoming book, The End of Policing, will be out this summer from Verso. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Alex Vitale.
Alex Vitale: Thank you.
JJ: Op-ed pages and other spaces are reflecting concern right now that the call from Jeff Sessions for a review of consent decrees with some police departments means that the reforms that such measures have led to or could lead to are in jeopardy. The New York Times cites body cameras and reporting requirements; others point to increased training, including in the use of force. The sense is that there are serious flaws in law enforcement, preeminently a breakdown in community relations, but we’re fixing those flaws, though that progress is now under threat. What sorts of questions or concerns do you have with that understanding of things?
AV: I have two concerns about the kind of hand-wringing that’s been occurring over the Trump pullback on police oversight. One is the idea that policing can only be reformed if the federal government is there as a backstop, when the reality is that policing is a local matter that is under the control of local mayors. And I think in particular of a case like Baltimore, where there was this sense in which, oh my God, if the feds pull out, we won’t be able to reform our police—when it’s the mayor and the city council who are saying that, and they have the statutory power to enact the changes that need to be enacted there.
The reality, though—sort of the second point—is that the federal interventions have not been very successful. These kinds of procedurally focused interventions that ask police to change what’s in their rulebooks, to implement some training, to possibly add some body cameras—these are what we often refer to as procedural justice changes, that attempt to make policing adhere more closely to the law, engage in better communication with those subjected to law enforcement, but never interrogate in any meaningful way the basic mission that the police have been given.
I often use the example of, you know, a perfectly legally executed and well-communicated marijuana arrest can still ruin a young person’s life: can eliminate their ability to get work in the future, cut off financial aid, put a felony or even just a misdemeanor drug arrest on their record. And so that is a substantive justice issue that is rarely addressed with these kinds of procedural reform measures that we’ve seen come out of the feds under the Obama administration.
JJ: We read often about a breakdown in relationships between communities of color, in particular, and law enforcement, or we read about a loss of trust, and that implies an earlier halcyon day. History is in fact deeply meaningful, but not the kind of imaginary history that this invokes. Can you remind us of some of the origin story of policing in America, which gets at the “why”?
AV: Yes. So I have a new essay in the New Inquiry called “The Myth of Liberal Policing,” that is adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book, and in it I basically challenge this liberal notion that policing has always existed to fight crime and to keep us safe, when the historical record is really dramatically different, that policing has always been a tool of state coercion, that has served the interests of maintaining and reproducing existing economic arrangements of inequality. And in particular, I link it to three major institutional forces in the 18th and 19th centuries, and those are colonialism, the managing of the emerging industrial working class, and slavery.
And on the latter part in particular, I went down to Charleston, South Carolina, and I looked at some of the origins of the Charleston City Guard, which predated the formation of the London Metropolitan Police, that are often held up as the first modern police force. And what I found was that the Charleston City Guard was a direct outgrowth of efforts to manage what was an emerging mobile, industrial slave population.
In cities like Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, slaves actually worked outside of the home of their owners in many cases. They worked on wharves, in warehouses and in emerging industrial production. They carried little badges that identified their owner and their permission to move about freely, but they also, as a result of this, had access to some money, and began to form underground societies and engage in underground leisure activities: drinking establishments, gambling, but also religious groups, study groups; people were learning how to read.
And white residents of Charleston were terrified about this freely moving black population, and basically created a police force to manage that mobile slave population. And of course, these forces then, after the Civil War, become transformed into the kind of Jim Crow police forces that we see using water hoses and dogs on civil rights protestors.
So this idea that the police existed to produce crime-free, secure societies was only really true in the South for whites.
JJ: Right. And that piece, “The Myth of Liberal Policing,” is online at TheNewInquiry.com. And there are a lot of interesting aspects, including the militarization of police work we think of as something new: the adaptation of tools and tactics from war being brought home to domestic policing; that’s not really new either, and there’s also information on that history in there as well.
AV: Let me just say something about that, though, because it’s important to understand police as an alternative to using the military. Because before the emergence of modern police forces in the early to mid–19th century, state authorities had to rely on local militias or the Army to put down riots, insurrections, strikes, etc. And those forces had very limited tools to use, basically sabers and muskets, and as a result they killed a lot of people. And that process served to undermine state legitimacy, and civilian police forces are created to manage those problems in a less violent, less militarized way, primarily because of the desire to improve legitimacy.
And Robert Peel, who creates the first London police force, he learned this while being in charge of the English occupation of Ireland, where he creates the first civilian peace force, that replaces militias with a more permanent and less militarized force that focuses on preemptive political action, embedding themselves in local communities, making arrests instead of lining up and shooting people.
JJ: And this continues, this lineage draws down to today with an ultimate goal of shoring up legitimacy. And I guess what we’re talking about is, it’s that very legitimacy that seems to go unchallenged, the legitimacy of the role of law enforcement within society.
AV: That’s right. So this idea of legitimacy goes unchallenged in contemporary debates. Everyone just assumes, yes, police legitimacy is a good thing. And my point is that we actually need to really question what the purpose of police legitimacy is. If it is to manufacture public consent for a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on disorder, then it’s deeply problematic. It is basically enabling these coercive state forces to maintain and reinforce racial and economic inequity.
JJ: One of the places that those contradictions have become most pointed recently is when people are saying that they want to support the idea of sanctuary cities, where local officials wouldn’t cooperate with ICE on deportations, but at the same time they don’t recognize that they need to also challenge Broken Windows policies. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that nexus, and why it’s important to see.
AV: Yes. My colleague Alan Aja and I wrote a piece for a local newspaper here in New York, not long after the election, where we said Trump claims that he intends to ramp up the deportation of immigrants with any kind of criminal record meant that hundreds of thousands, potentially, of people across New York would be at risk of ending up in deportation proceedings, not because they were violent criminals, but because they had jumped a turnstile on the way to work, or had gotten arrested for riding their bike on the sidewalk. And while the city may claim that they don’t actively cooperate with federal authorities, all federal authorities have to do is just plant themselves in court, and as people appear on these charges, they can literally just pick them up and take them away for deportation proceedings.
Now, we haven’t seen this kind of widespread practice for low-level offenses so far, but we have seen some instances of this. And certainly as the Trump administration ramps up its rhetoric and its enforcement, this is a real risk. And it could include not just people here without any documentation, but even those on certain kinds of visas or green cards, conceivably, as the criminalization of this population rolls along.
JJ: And I guess also one of the things you hope folks will see is that, yes, now you’re paying attention to how easily people can be caught up in the system, and we should care about that, even if the outcome is not deportation but just, as you said earlier, a ruined life. That kind of low-level criminalization, very selectively enforced, is damaging, and we should understand that it’s damaging, even as we trace it damaging new communities or people in new ways.
I think that when some people do support the idea of less policing, as opposed to better policing, they do so to some extent as part of a utopia that they don’t see aborning. It’s a feeling that that’s a long way off, and in the meantime, it seems to imply chaos; you know, what do you possibly mean, having less police? I wonder if you can talk a little bit about just how you introduce the idea to people.
AV: So my approach has been to directly and empirically interrogate specific aspects of policing, mostly things that have come under police control only in the last 40 years, and to ask what are the origins of this kind of policing, what are the consequences of this kind of policing, and what are the alternatives to this kind of policing.
So one example I often start with is school policing. Here in New York City, we now have more NYPD personnel in city schools than we have counselors of all varieties, over 5,000 personnel. And the origin of school policing is based, in many ways, on two myths. One is the superpredator myth that was perpetuated by conservative academics and politicians in the 1990s, that said that we were on brink of a wave of pathological youth violence that was going to run amok in our cities and schools, and that we needed to identify, isolate and neutralize this threat. Of course, every year after that article and those views were put forward, youth crime dropped. But nonetheless it became fodder for a movement to put armed police in our schools.
The other was the myth that following Columbine, our schools were incredibly dangerous places, and the only way to keep them safe was to place armed police there. Of course, what people forget is that there were already armed police at Columbine when that tragic shooting happened, and they were totally unable to prevent the attack. And in fact, that year and in the years following, school is the safest place that young people spend time. It’s safer than their homes, it’s safer than their communities.
So there are problems in schools. There are problems with discipline and even problems with crime and violence, but there’s absolutely no evidence that putting armed police in schools is fixing that problem. In fact, the research shows just the opposite. Instead, we need to look at things like restorative justice programs, rethinking disciplinary measures, and also looking at the corrosive role of high-stakes testing in both driving students away from a positive attitude about education, and orienting schools toward driving those young people out of those institutions through suspensions and criminalization.
So that’s an example where we don’t need nicer school police, we don’t need better-trained school police, we don’t need school police to be mentors to young people. We need to eliminate school policing altogether.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, and you’re illustrating it, but the idea of de-policing is not in contrast, necessarily, to the idea of reform. What would you say the relationship is? I mean, how do they fit together?
AV: I think that obviously there are needs for major changes in policing. The problem is this misunderstanding that if we change some training, we hire a few more diverse police officers, we put on body cameras, that this will accomplish anything substantial. If we don’t change the fundamental mission of police, those reforms will not work. So efforts to reform the police don’t have to all be about eliminating these police functions, but they can’t either be only focused on a handful of procedural reforms.
I look for reforms that bring immediate relief, more or less, but that point towards larger structural changes. So eliminating Broken Windows policing will bring relief right away to people, but it also questions why we rely on police to manage homeless people urinating in public, why we use police to manage young people in the summer hanging out in the park after it closes, and why we manage poor people having to jump the turnstile because they can’t afford the ever-increasing subway fare. In addition to those police reforms, we need to address those underlying dynamics that are producing the crime and disorder that we have asked the police to fix for us.
JJ: Alex Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. His forthcoming book, The End of Policing, will be out this summer from Verso. Alex Vitale, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
AV: You’re most welcome.
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