A new book wants us to think differently about cops and crime.
The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale, Verso, 266 pages, $26.95
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Can the police fall from grace? Where would they fall from? Their behavior, as summarized in The End of Policing, Alex Vitale’s thorough rinsing of the American criminal justice system, seems like a betrayal of any promise to “protect and serve.” But if you reload the facts of how and where the police started, their role in American life as destroyers of community is not surprising. The police were designed to do exactly what they still do. The End of Policing is that holiday argument book, the relatively brief stack of facts you can hand to a relative who still talks about those nice guys who helped out with the flat tire and doesn’t see why any lives have to matter more than they already do.
Before the industrial era, police were small groups of men drawn from larger state militias. Their general remit was quelling riots and protecting property. This group alternated with the “night watch,” volunteers—often criminals who wore leather helmets, earning them the name “leatherheads”—tasked to bring in prostitutes and gamblers, two groups that landowners thought drove away business (until prostitution and gambling became businesses worth regulating). In the mid-nineteenth century, New York and Boston led the way in creating forces modeled after the London police. Salaried and appointed by local politicians, police mostly carried out the bidding of those politicians, who were especially keen on putting down strikes. In the South, the police were simply recruited from the ranks of the former “slave patrols,” allowing a morbid continuity. The history of the police could be reduced to a history of the corruption baked into this proposition and of the corporal violence that was encouraged from the start. The “protect and serve” branding feels most accurate if we posit that it refers mainly to protecting those who pay the police.
Vitale is a sociologist at Brooklyn College and his default position is to rely on research, and go light on theory. The chapters correspond to alleged services provided by police, and detail how police consistently achieve something quite distinct from those services. In “Gang Suppression,” he describes how police efforts to dismantle gangs reinforce gang culture. Vitale explains, “One way to gain respect is to stand up to police harassment in subtle ways, like flashing gang signs or giving them the eye as they drive past. This use of bravado to gain respect can only be accomplished if police are there as an oppositional force.”
Vitale points out that you don’t have to be in a gang or care about bravado to be caught up in the damaging cycle sustained by the police, if you’re simply young and live in Oakland: “Wherever they go they are hounded by government officials, who treat them as always-already criminals. The effect is what sociologist Victor Rios calls the ‘youth control complex,’ which undermines their life chances by driving them into economic and social failure and long-term criminality and incarceration.”
Incarceration is not necessarily a disappointing end if you’re selling the shackles. Imprisonment enriches the firms who build (and maintain) hospitals and jails. In a section that focuses on how the police interact with the mentally ill, Vitale illustrates how ends that don’t suit a citizen might suit vendors. “According to the Florida Mental Health Institute, chronically mentally ill people are a major source of spending for the criminal justice system,” he says. “Its study identified ninety-seven ‘chronic offenders’ who, over five years, accounted for 2,200 arrests, 27,000 days in jail, and 13,000 days in crisis units, state hospitals, and emergency rooms. The costs to taxpayers for these people alone was nearly $13 million, or $275,000 per year per mentally ill person.”
Vitale teases out how the entire workflow of policing and punishment incrementally harms many of the populations it seeks to regulate, ostensibly in the name of service. As he writes, “If we want immigrants, documented or not, to be more integrated into society, more likely to report crime, and better able to defend themselves from predators, we should instead look to end all federal immigration policing, remove social barriers in housing and employment, and acknowledge their important role in revitalizing communities and stimulating economic activity.”
On the internet, this thought is often reduced to “ABOLISH ICE.” It helps that Vitale is patient enough to expand such a directive and lay out the concrete actions and reactions that leave police looking more like a public health issue than a public good.
Vitale concludes that “we need to get rid of the warrior mindset and militarized tactics” that plague the police today. And, then, after he recommends reform, he plants the most important sentence: “As long as the basic mission of police remains unchanged, none of these reforms will be achievable.” The culture of the police is historically violent, punitive, and above its own policing. And, furthermore, Vitale states, “Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing.” And here, Vitale talks about legislators in a way that slightly complicates the function of his book, though in a fruitful way. “They may adopt a language of reform and fund a few pilot programs, but mostly they will continue to reproduce their political power by fanning fear of the poor, nonwhite, disabled, and dispossessed and empowering police to be the ‘thin blue line’ between the haves and the have-nots.”
The hope comes in moving police a few steps away from the putative problem, as happened with gambling, once it was legalized and fell under governmental regulation. Vitale offers, “There is no reason the same couldn’t be done for sex work and drugs today.” The fastest way to end policing, it seems, may be to adjust the concept of the criminal.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician from Brooklyn.