Book Review of Alex Vitale’s *The End of Policing*

By a graduate student in the seminar

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale, offers a comprehensive critique of policing practice in the United States and police reform proposals.  The book documents the police’s ever-increasing role in addressing social problems in the U.S. and recounts some of the most tragic events caused by police.  The book contends that police reforms can contribute little to solving the current police crisis and that, by contrast, “what we really need is to rethink the role of police in society.”[1]

In Chapter I, Vitale discusses some of the most widely championed and adopted police reform strategies.  These reforms, however, according to Vitale, are unlikely to bring fruitful or substantial change:  community policing, empirically speaking, fails to empower communities or reduce over-policing; body cameras are only as effective as the accountability mechanisms in place, whereas legal hurdles and limited federal intervention have largely undermined the accountability mechanism; a diversified police force cannot resist the institutional force compelling racial profiling and bias; and enhanced training even, to some extent, exacerbates the police crisis by contributing to the militarization and the warrior mentality of the police.  Vitale argues that all these reforms suffer a common defect which is fundamental, namely that they do not address the reality that “the origins and function of the police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities of race and class.”[2]

Vitale draws this conclusion from both the history and the current practice of policing.  In Chapter II, Vitale overviews the history and evolution of policing in Britain and the United States and explains how policing has been used to maintain the status quo, perpetuate and manage slavery, and suppress workers’ and civil rights movements.  Policing today, according to Vitale, is not vastly different.  Even though today’s police are clearly concerned about public safety and crime control, Vitale argues that “the crime-fighting orientation is itself a form of social control” because “what counts as crime and what gets targeted for control is shaped by concerns about race and class inequality and the potential for social and political upheaval.”[3] “American crime control policy,” Vitale writes, “is structured around the use of punishment to manage the ‘dangerous classes,’ masquerading as a system of justice.”[4]  With this reality in mind, Vitale contends that any real agenda for police reform must “replace police with empowered communities working to solve their own problems.”[5]

In the next eight Chapters, Vitale then elaborates the thesis he has so far developed in the context of eight areas of policing: the School-to-Prison Pipeline, “We Called for Help, and They Killed My Son” (people suffering mental health problems), Criminalizing Homelessness, the Failures of Policing Sex Work, the War on Drugs, Gang Suppression, Border Policing, and Political Policing.  Each chapter starts with a review of the failure of the current policing practice, then discusses the defects of the reform proposals and suggests some promising alternatives at the end.  Although the content of the specific reforms and alternatives considered differs from chapter to chapter, the reforms’ problems and the promising alternatives share general contours, respectively.

The primary reason for which the reforms are doomed to fail, according to Vitale, is that the reforms all retain the idea of employing police and punitive measures to address social problems.  Police are ill-positioned to solve social problems due to both their lack of expertise and their bad track record in forming partnerships and building trust with local communities.  Punitive measures are similarly ineffective as they only hide the social problems behind the criminal justice system, instead of addressing the root causes of the problems, namely poverty, lack of proper education, lack of employment opportunities, and, to some degree, American foreign policy.  Retaining police and the criminal justice system as the primary problem-solver, therefore, can never break the loop from courtrooms to jails and again back to courtrooms, since the causes of the problems are never addressed.

The alternatives Vitale believes that are worth pursuing, in contrast, are those that target these root causes.  For children in schools, disciplinary problems should be addressed by peaceable education and community involvement programs; for sufferers of mental health problems, mental health services instead of police should be on-demand nationwide.  Homeless people should be offered affordable housing with meaningful income, and juveniles should be enabled to access employment opportunities, social services, and improved education.  Sex work and drugs should be legalized and regulated, but the subordinate position of women in the culture and the economy and the widespread poverty among minority neighborhoods and rural white areas should be addressed to avoid forcing people to turn to sex work and drugs to earn a living.  American foreign policy should be adjusted to reduce the need and incentive of becoming an immigrant and flee to the U.S., and politicians should listen to and hear the pursuits of the social movements.  Investment in police and the criminal justice system today would be much more profitable, according to Vitale, if diverted to implement alternatives that dispense with police and the criminal justice system.

One noteworthy aspect of Vitale’s discussion of police failure and police reform in the book is that Vitale does not locate the discussion in a criminology context, a historical context, or a racial context only.  Instead, Vitale connects the problem of policing to the larger political-economic and ideological context.  In Chapter II, for example, Vitale notes neoliberalism’s influence on government’s apathy to crime and social problems apart from the criminal justice system: “After decades of neoliberal austerity, local governments have no will or ability to pursue the kinds of ameliorative social policies that might address crime and disorder without the use of armed police; as Simon points out, government has basically abandoned poor neighborhoods to market forces, backed up by a repressive criminal justice system.”[6]  He revisits the neoliberal question at the end of the book and this time highlights neoliberalism’s contribution to the idea that “crime and disorder are the results of personal moral failing and can only be reduced by harsh punitive sanctions,” upon which rests “the massive increase in policing and incarceration over the last forty years.”[7]  Even though neo-liberal ideologies are not mentioned in each of the eight chapters discussing police failure, reforms and alternatives, their influence can be detected every time Vitale describes the government’s inaction in the light of exacerbating social problems.  For example, the government’s refusal to provide affordable housing, even though poverty and property prices simultaneously increase, is clearly influenced, at least to some degree, by neoliberal austerity, and the notion of “individual inadequacy”, upon reflection, can be found underlying every punitive measure.

As a result, The End of Policing, in addition to calling for changes in the criminal justice system and the economic structure, also calls for value changes and cultural shifts.[8]  Readers are invited to reflect not only on the role of policing but also on the role of the more general public, including the readers themselves, in shaping today’s policing practice and on the values the public have so far embraced.  Vitale makes it clear that the alternatives he suggests will not succeed if “those who would benefit from this process lack the political will and power to do so.”[9] The book is an invitation to the public to empower themselves.

Readers not familiar with the subject matter could benefit from additional references at times. So, for examples, when discussing the limits of the current police reform proposals, Vitale writes that “the research shows that community policing does not empower communities in meaningful ways”[10] without citing to specific research; when discussing programs targeting sex work, Vitale claims that “[recidivism] rates for participants in these programs are slightly better than for those jailed and fined. However, most participants do go back to sex work, even those involved in abusive relationships with pimps[,]”[11] without pointing the reader to references. At times, additional sources would help the uninitiated reader understand why reforms are futile and fundamental changes are needed.

In the end, although the book is titled The End of Policing, Vitale does not go that far to argue that society should abandon policing completely.  This is implied, for example, when Vitale claims that “the role of police in terrorism investigations must be similarly curtailed.”[12]  Given that the police would continue to exist, one inevitable question would be how to effectively supervise and monitor the police’s activities, so that the police crisis today will not re-eventuate. This might involve the design and implementation of an effective accountability mechanism.  A more elaborate discussion of such a mechanism would help readers envision a society where policing can be carried out with neither over-policing nor under-policing–unless, of course, Vitale’s argument is for the abolition of all policing.

Notes

[1] Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing (Verso 2017), p. 27.

[2] Id.

[3] Id., p.51.

[4] Id., p.52.

[5] Id., p.30 (emphasis added).

[6] Id., p. 53.

[7] Id., p.227.

[8] See id., p.226.

[9] Id., p. 226.

[10] Id., p. 17.

[11] Id., p. 121.

[12] Id., p. 219.

Fonda Shen