Knowledge Boost #1: The End of Policing
Editor's Note: At the beginning of this year, I set myself a goal to do some reading to make sure that the polisci side of my brain doesn't completely atrophy and fall to pieces, as I've been 'out of the game' as it were for a while now. I was thinking things like The Federalist Papers or Democracy In America (which I've started to pick my way through) but given the events of June all across the country, I thought it was important to actually engage with some of the thinking and arguments out there to try and understand where people are coming from- not just on the issue of police reform (as this entry tackles) but on a deeper range of issues.
So, these posts are going to be a departure from the usual Bookshots that I do for regular book reviews. I'm going to go all over the place, ideologically speaking to try and read on some issues as widely and as extensively as I can. All in the name of at minimum, engaging with these arguments and criticisms in a genuine way but hopefully understanding them a little bit better than I do now. This is the first of these posts. Hopefully, you enjoy them!
TL;DR: The country seems broken and full of people shouting at each other about various topics. I want to understand why.
THE END OF POLICING is proclaimed in bold red lettering on the front cover of this book and while that's certainly an attention-grabbing title, I only wish that Mr. Vitale had taken some of this book to make an equally attention-grabbing argument as to what might come next for policing once it's (presumably) ended in its current form. Many problems are described in this book. Far fewer realistic solutions are described in this book and that's the detriment of Mr. Vitale's work overall. Right off the bat, you've three main structural problems:
First, is the mileage problem. There are so many jurisdictions of varying sizes throughout a country this big, your mileage will vary greatly when attempting to fit them all into a broad argument. Chapter Eight of this book deals with Gangs and Mr. Vitale looks specifically at a lot of policy solutions pursued by California. Sitting here in Iowa where we have fewer gangs and more 'people that hang out together and argue with guns', I was left a little hamstrung. Similarly, with every other issue, cities and agencies could deal with things differently. Locally, law enforcement has been pushing hard for a 'housing first' policy for the homeless population. Other places could be perfectly happy to ride the hamster wheel of trespass warnings and release from jail over and over and over again. (We've been there, believe me.) Same with SROs. Same with mental illness. Some agencies are going to have better policies and better training than others. Some agencies are just going to be more progressive about it than others. It's damn hard to make an argument about ending all policing where in many places it might be moving to something in the neighborhood of what he's asking for here. In short, with all these arguments, a grain of salt is demanded because your mileage will undoubtedly vary.
Second, is the island problem. A lot of the articles I've read about defunding the police or even straight-up abolishing the police seem to be under the impression that the police exist on some kind of island unto themselves. And to be sure, in a lot of big cities, hellacious crappy union contracts may make it seem that way. But ultimately, the police are accountable to politicians and policymakers. And if they're not, then as citizens we should be demanding answers from elected officials as to why they're not. At the end of the day, a lot of these arguments are like blaming the toolbox for the shitty work your contractor does. If you need a better 'house' (and let's stipulate that in 2020 the 'house' that is America is in dire need of a remodel- I think most people could get behind that notion) and the contractor isn't doing the job- do you yell at the toolbox or the hammer? There is absolutely no discussion of accountability for politicians and policymakers in this book. A large percentage of the problem can be laid at the feet of both parties who have supported truly atrocious policies over the past four decades if not longer that have had appalling results and failed to solve anything much.
Police are not an island. Their priorities- however, fucked they may seem looking back on history- are a direct reflection of the preoccupations of the political establishment at the time. So, of course, policing in the South emerged out of slave patrols. They were, however abhorrent it may seem, concerned with catching runaway slaves and suppressing potential slave rebellions. Of course, policing in the north was centered around industrial control-- the franchise was limited initially at our founding to men with property. It makes sense that the business owners would be driving the political establishment toward strike breaking, union-busting and abuse of the working class. Change the priorities of the Establishment and you can change the nature of policing in this country. But that's not an argument that Mr. Vitale wants to make- you sell more book these days by doing what policymakers have been doing with every problem they don't want to pay to solve for decades now: dumping it on the police.
Third, you've got some maddening contradictions that run throughout this book. Mr. Vitale spends most of Chapter Two reducing policing to the active suppression of social movements and the control of racial minorities and then turns around and says this:
We cannot reduce all policing down to the active suppression of social movements and the control of racial minorities.
What the what? But... but... you just did that. Like, for most of Chapter Two! He's also incredibly dismissive of notions of reform and police training throughout the book- but simultaneously goes out of his way to point out the instances where law enforcement is leading the push to change policies and get reforms passed. (Specifically when it comes to people with mental illness and homelessness.) But at the end of the day: the police can't be reformed. The reader is left frustrated because he doesn't seem to want to land squarely in the lane you think he wants to land in. If you're going to make an argument for abolishing the police, then make it. Don't spend the whole book dancing between the two. It makes for a frustrating read and undermines your argument.
The first two chapters sort of set out the basic thesis of the book and delve into some of the history of policing. In general, these chapters left me wishing for a basic understanding of criminology so I could better engage with his thoughts on Broken Windows Policing, as I have only a vague idea of what the theory actually entails. He scores some points on the whole 'warrior' mentality which is still present in a lot of law enforcement training. He points out the need to end the War on Drugs (I agree) and the need to end things like the 1033 Program which transfers military equipment to local police departments (I also agree.)
But he also drops delightful nuggets like this:
An armed suspect is much less likely to shoot an unarmed officer.
Really? Are they though? This assertion, by the way is just left hanging out there without much of anything to back it up in terms of hard data- and no, comparing the US to the UK isn't a valid answer. The nature of policing in the UK is completely different, oh and also, there's far fewer guns.***
The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life.
News to me, man. Are police in America today as good as they should be at preventing crime? No. Not by a long shot- but are they also hamstrung by sloppily written and outright terrible laws passed by politicians? They sure are.
There's also a somewhat unspoken push to get the reader to accept the idea that "all crime is caused by economic inequality." Given that Mr. Vitale is viewing this argument through an unabashedly Progressive/Leftist lens this isn't surprising- I'm just not convinced that it's the root of all crime. It's undoubtedly the root of some crime. But if ten years in the business has taught me anything its that sometimes people are just awful to one and other and their reasons have little to do with economic inequality. (If you apply that thesis to say, sexual assault, I think you'd find that power dynamics come into play far more than economic inequality- but again, I'm lacking in understanding of basic criminology on this, so I don't really know what the field actually says about any of this.)
He's undoubtedly correct in that a lot of these problems are because we have simply stopped funding potential solutions. Whether that's because of the excesses of austerity politics or neo-liberal capitalism (as he would say) or because local policymakers see these things as 'luxuries' instead of 'essential services' and just get lazy about their funding (as I would be more inclined to say) is entirely up to you- but as with so many conundrums facing our country today, the Gordian knot policymakers have to tackle is a simple one: America wants nice things, we just don't want to pay for them.
Chapter Three deals with the 'school to prison' pipeline and I'll give Mr. Vitale due credit- he just about turned me around on the concept of SROs. I'm still not against them- but I do think if you're going to have them, there needs to be a crystal clear MOU between PD and School District about what they can and can't do and if you can't set strict boundaries and keep to them, you're going to have problems and you're probably going to end up using your SRO as a disciplinary tool which is 100%, not their job. I'm less inclined to agree with his argument that the reason schools have less time to devote to social and emotional education and to do things like restorative justice and conflict resolution is because they've been forced to "teach to the test" constantly- but again, I get it. He's approaching this argument through a Progressive/Leftist lens. No surprises here.
(Personally, I think the better argument is that the public school model of 'sit your ass down from 8-3, Monday thru Friday' just isn't working anymore. Kids aren't wired that way. There's a gender imbalance in education that makes boys especially suspect to being medicated because the model demands compliance more than anything else. But again- that's my lens, not Mr. Vitale's lens.)
Chapter Four focuses on mental illness. In terms of the 'big picture' kind of things, I agree with him and I haven't really met many people in law enforcement that wouldn't agree with him on the big picture: cops should not be the frontline mental health care workers for this country, yet, naturally, they are- because again, we want nice things, we just don't want to pay for them.
Where Mr. Vitale loses me however, is in his cherry-picking to support his basic proposition.** For every one encounter that ends in tragedy, there are hundreds where people get taken to hospitals to get some treatment- whether it's effective over the long term, I don't know, but the point being, not every police encounter with a PMI is deadly. That's not a given. They can be deadly. And yes, Mr. Vitale is undoubtedly correct that the training environment that pushes a 'warrior mentality' contributes to police escalating when perhaps they shouldn't- but it's a fixable problem and it's nowhere near as endemic as he makes it out to be.
Law enforcement has agency as a profession when it comes to mental illness and an increasing number of departments are pointing out how crazy the current situation is and that police shouldn't be dealing with these cases. Iowa has 64 beds for mental health care. 64. In the whole state. It's an unseen crisis that- thanks to policymakers and politicians, gets dumped on the police. Could the police do a better job and should they be better trained? Absolutely. But they're not the problem. They're just trying to deal with a problem they're a. not equipped to deal with and b. wasn't of their making. If someone handed me a blow torch and a welding hood and said, "Hey man, go weld." I don't think the results would be all that great.
The mileage problem pops up all over the place. "Standard police training instills a warrior mentality." What, all police training? There's a lot out there. There's also this:
The drive to criminalize has more to do with ideology that effectiveness: the mentally ill are not seen as victims of the neoliberal restructuring of the public health service but as a dangerous source of disorder to be controlled through intensive and aggressive policing.
Your mileage may vary, but I've met no one in law enforcement who would agree with that statement. Like no one. Politicians just didn't want to pay for it. So, they did what they always do: dumped it on the police.
To give Mr. Vitale some credit: he does explore the UK's response to PMI and while I'm leery of comparisons to other countries on this issue because there are cultural differences (like way more guns, for instance) that make them less effective than they should be- there's the outlines of an interesting policy solution here that he should have explored more- but, you know, those damn neoliberals. Easier to blame them. He didn't want to explore it, but I will: the NHS has a holistic response with the basic idea being to get PMI to a place of safety. They've also played with the idea of having mental health care workers respond with police- both of which are interesting, achievable and worth exploring and even implementing over here.*
Chapter Five tackles homelessness and broadly speaking I found many points of agreement with Mr. Vitale on this one. Professional experience has proven that enforcement isn't really a solution to this problem. Transients won't pay tickets and they'll just cycle through the system- overpolicing your homeless population means making your jails into shelters pretty much and Law Enforcement doesn't really have any tools to really solve the root causes of homelessness- the mileage problem appears again here though because any attempt to characterize all police response everywhere in the country as aggressive and potentially deadly just isn't true. Some jurisdictions are better than others- but on the important points, credit where credit is due: Mr. Vitale is 100% correct that police aren't the solution to homelessness.
Chapter Six and Chapter Eight deal with two issues that I'm not all that familiar with sex work and gangs respectively. I'll be honest: I don't know how I feel about legalizing prostitution, but Mr. Vitale does make a persuasive case that if it's going to happen anyway, it should do so in a manner which ensures the safety of those practicing the profession and lessens the exploitation and violence many have to deal within it. It would, I think, free up law enforcement resources to focus more on underage prostitution and sex trafficking, both of which are far more important, to me.
Mr. Vitale makes a similar point about homelessness that he echoes with his look at sex work: there's a steady supply of people in the business. If you arrest a sex worker, someone will take their place. Enforcement is just continuing a cycle and not solving the problem. Overregulation (he mentions New York enforcing regulations in strip clubs, which seem like a massive waste of police resources to me) and sloppy laws rooted in frankly dated moral concerns don't really help either. Given the religiosity of America as a whole, I don't know how far he'd get in a debate about this issue- but I do think it's a discussion worth having on the national level. Something's gotta be better than what we're doing now.
When it comes to gangs (Chapter Eight) again, Mr. Vitale makes a good point that improved social services and job opportunities will probably be a more effective remedy to gang problems than enforcement- and for sure, the picture he paints of LAPD's anti-gang efforts is an especially terrible one-- (more so in the 90s than today) but he also credits Law Enforcement for moving away from overpolicing and finding solutions (ex-gang members/violence interrupters) from within the community itself. And again: that's how this should work. Police exist to protect. And to serve. And if a community has a problem, you should work with them to solve it when possible- and granted, it might not always be possible, but it should be the first thing you try, in my opinion.
Chapter Seven deals with the War on Drugs. It's the one chapter in this entire book where I have little disagree with Mr. Vitale about. It's been a policy disaster for decades and the sooner we end it, the better off we're all going to be.
If Chapter Seven is the chapter I agree with the most, Chapter Nine on Immigration Policing is where I probably diverge the most from Mr. Vitale. I think we could both agree on the main point: the immigration system is more or less completely fucked in this country and nuking the entire system from orbit and starting over wouldn't qualify as a bad idea in my book. I think US citizens should be able to still sponsor family members to come over and live here. I think the fact that Border Patrol Agents have watchlists of certain people they keep an eye out for- and the fact that they can operate with far greater latitude than most Americans realize up to 100 miles from the border is incredibly messed up. Also, he's right in that the immigration system punishes the immigrants, not the employers that hire them to begin with.
Wow. I guess we agree with more than I thought- but hold up, because at some point, we take a hard left (and yes, I use that deliberately) turn down Crazy Lane and it all goes completely off the rails. First up:
Our standard of living is not declining because of migrants, but because of unregulated neo-liberal capitalism, which has allowed coprorations and the rich to avoid paying taxes or decent wages. It is that system that must be changed.
Those damn neoliberals again. Also, I'm not an economist, but the argument that tighter labor markets lead to higher wages for workers across the border seems to be a legitimate one and doesn't really his argument here. But wait, it gets better:
If we want immigrants, documented or not, to be more integrated into society, more like to report crime and better able to defend themselves from predator we should instead look to end all federal immingration polciing, remove social barriers in housing and emploument, and acknowledge their important role in revitalizing communities and stimulating economic activity.
So... amnesty then? And I'd like to know more about how they revitalize their communities and stimulate economic activity when so much of their economic activity isn't tracked effectively, as a lot of it involves cash and a kind of 'underground' economy if you like. But this is an argument for amnesty. And also, just not having an immigration system anymore. Oh and also:
Borders are inherently unjust.
At this point, I threw up my hands and gave up. It just comical after that-- the EU and dropping their borders didn't increase anti-immigrant sentiment according to Mr. Vitale. (What he's smoking here, I don't know- and maybe I'm reading the wrong article, but it sure seems like tensions are worse now, not better. And the cold hard fact of the matter is that the Northern tier of the EU pays for the Southern Tier of the EU and both sides resent each other for it and old nationalisms and resentments are painted over, not resolved. It's all still there, bubbling away madly.) Maybe a little less time ragging on the neo-liberals and stepping outside his progressive globalist bubble would have sharpened his arguments here, but he's just flat wrong about the EU. There's no other way to put it.
Naturally, our massively shitty Latin American policies get brought up- but again, I don't think that means we should open our borders as penance. I think we should fix our messes and then leave Latin America alone. In short, despite agreeing that large amounts of the immigration system are fucked, Mr. Vitale blew a huge opportunity here to argue for something better.
Mr. Vitale closes out the book with Chapter Ten on political policing. I think he misses an important opportunity to make his case about the undermining of civil liberties post 9/11- he touches on them but gets lost in a lot of history here-- railing about police during the Red Scares and the Palmer Raids (ignoring the existence of things like COMINTERN) and we get the inevitable discussion of the FBI and COINTELPRO- but then he skips right into talking about how it's the left that are the victims of political policing- sort of skipping right past things like Waco, Ruby Ridge and the militia movement's heyday of the 1990s-- touching on that would have made his argument more effective and less partisan.
TL;DR for Mr. Vitale is "policing is broken and we need to imagine a future without it." Doesn't offer a lot of actual solutions- other than utopian ones
Overall, there are some structural flaws with attempting to tackle a topic so large, but I think Mr. Vitale should be commended for the attempt. Some things he is absolutely right about: we need to end the war on drugs, we need an actual mental health care system in this country and not whatever bureaucratic horror of scotch tape and baling wire we have now. On other things, he's dead wrong: the police aren't an island-- while accountability for police is an issue of national concerns- the real culprits here are the Political Establishment that perpetuates 'the system' that Mr. Vitale has so many problems with.
Given that history shows that policing reflects the preoccupations of the Establishment of whatever time you look at- changing the political Establishment would change our policy priorities and, by extension the police. But the problem with that argument is that the Progressive/Leftist lens through which Mr. Vitale views these issues is part of the political Establishment and has no reason, desire or will to make real changes- which probably explains why so few concrete solutions are on offer here- and instead, the reader must feast on a veritable buffet of generalizations and cherry-picked examples.
In the spirit of concrete, real solutions- because I feel like as a reader, I shouldn't bitch so much if I'm not willing to suggest something myself, I'll add this: Given Mr. Vitale's extensive exploration of these very real issues the most basic one is the one that he mentions absolutely nothing about in the entirety of this book: traffic stops. In general, police go where they're sent. Traffic stops are amongst the few things the police officers initiate themselves in the field and they're probably the most common interaction the general public has with law enforcement on a daily basis. The real secret of policing in America is this: you could get rid of 75-80% of all the traffic offenses we have on the books right now and take a massive step forward for racial and economic justice at the same time- and it wouldn't have a detrimental impact on road safety to boot.
This also doesn't even touch things like pretextual traffic stops and drug searches and K9 searches of cars-- its an omission from this book is a frankly shocking oversight in my opinion and if you're looking for a reform that can be done with relative speed and have a potentially huge impact on the issue of improving our policing, traffic stops should be where you start and they should have been Chapter One in this book. My Grade: Worth reading, but there's a long list of missed opportunities to make better arguments and advocate for politically achievable solutions.
***Examples of line of duty deaths in the UK are thankfully few and far between- and I hate to indulge in the cherry-picking that I was so critical of when reading this book, but here's an example of two unarmed police officers who were tragically killed by a suspect. With a gun. In the UK.
**He cited a 1967 study by Egon Bittner about officers responding to Skid Row which I gave a certain amount of side-eye too. '67 was a long ass time ago and Skid Row is a rather unique location and I would hesitate to characterize it as being typical of an officer interaction with PMI.
*(Mild digression: we do get called to the hospital on occasion for what they call 'Code Greens'- which are combative patients. Officers do not get directly involved- because there's a team of medical professionals that are trained in how to handle it. But occasionally we get asked to standby if they believe that there's the potential for things to escalate beyond their capabilities. In ten years in the business I can probably count on both hands the number of times we've stood by for Code Greens- and I can't think of any time where we've had officers get directly involved. Which is how it should be. Police should be there to ensure the safety of the mental health care workers and the general public- and a holistic approach which lets officers keep the MHC workers safe while they deal with the PMI is a model eminently worthy of exploration, IMO- but again, we want these nice things and don't want to pay for them.)