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Alex Vitale is Professor of Sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. Vitales book The End of Policing, is an accessible study of police history as an imperial tool for social control that continues to exacerbate class and racial tensions. —- Vitale also goes deep into the shortcomings of reform and in contrast, deepens the conversations around meaningful alternatives to ultimately ask the people to consider the end of policing.
Special thanks to Producers: Della Duncan, Robert Raymond; Upstream podcast.
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Alex Vitale transcript Making Contact
RJ Lozada This week on Making Contact…
Alex Vitale When you have an economic system that says that wealth and inequality is because some people are more qualified than others, not because of the failure of market forces, then the solution is forcing those who are on the losing end to behave themselves and accept their diminished position. Kind of blaming the victim. And because if we were to admit that market forces had something to do with this rise of inequality, then we’d have to do something about those market forces.
RJ Lozada [00:00:33] We broadcast an episode of the Upstream podcast, a conversation with Professor of Sociology, Alex Vital, author of the book The End of Policing. I’m your host, RJ Lozada. Stay tuned.
Alex Vitale is Professor of Sociology, and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College.
His book, The End of Policing, is an accessible study of police history as an imperial tool for social control that continues to exacerbate class and racial tensions. Vitale also goes deep into the shortcomings of reform. And, in contrast, deepens the conversations around meaningful alternatives to ultimately ask the reader to consider the end of policing.
RJ Lozada Upstream Producer, Robert Raymond, spoke with Vitale at his home in Brooklyn, New York.
Robert Raymond [00:01:25] So there has been a growing awareness around the problems with policing in the United States. In the last several years, thanks in part to the work of Black Lives Matter and also because of things like cell phone cameras and videos.
And so this awareness has sparked a debate about what to do about excessive police force and a lack of police accountability within the criminal justice system. Much of this debate focuses on various kinds of reform.
But in your work, you actually argue against the idea that mere reform is enough. Your argument against reform includes a number of different yet related dimensions, including both a historical and structural analysis of policing.
I’d like to focus on the dark historical origins of the police in the first half of our conversation and then really dive into the structural analysis in the second half. So first, it might be helpful just for you to briefly provide an outline of your general thesis on why you think police reform is a dead end.
Alex Vitale [00:02:32] Sure. I think that we fail to understand the fundamental nature of policing when we suggest that things like body cameras and community policing and hiring a few additional Black police officers is somehow going to fundamentally change the mission and the scope of policing.
We should be always mindful of the fact that of all the resources that the government, the state, has available to use to solve problems, the police are the most coercive and the most punitive. Along with prisons, jails, courts, etc. And so those resources should always be used as a last resort.
And so in every circumstance, we should be asking ourselves, are there solutions to our problems that can be solved without relying on that coercive state force? And what I attempt to show in the book is that a lot of what police do can be done in other ways without all the negative collateral consequences of arresting people, giving people tickets, issuing all kinds of fines, making threats, using force against people.
And that when people come to see the police as the primary tool for solving their problems, they are failing to take into account the historical legacy of policing in actually reproducing inequality, especially for communities of color, but also for poor whites, and that it’s this history that needs to be made more clear.
Robert Raymond [00:04:15] So maybe we can dive into the history a little bit. You talk about three different areas from which modern-day policing emerged. So there’s sort of the colonial era and then moves on into slavery and industrial capitalism, all with their own unique forms of policing. I want to take some time to get into each of these threads separately. So maybe can you start telling us the story, beginning with a sort of darker origins of policing in the colonial era?
Alex Vitale [00:04:44] So first of all, I like to say that the problems with policing can be understood in two ways. There is the part of the story that’s hundreds of years old that has to do with the institutions of slavery, colonialism and the suppression of the new industrial working class.
And then there’s a part of the story that’s more recent that has to do with the war on drugs and the war on disorder and “broken windows policing” and the war on terror. So both of these elements are important in understanding why we should not be relying on the police as our primary tool for managing social problems.
So often liberals will say, well, what’s your big beef with the police? The police represented a professionalization of state social control mechanisms shifting from informal watches, night watches, shifting from the use of militias to manage crowds to a professional civilian police force.
[00:05:47] But what they leave out of that historical understanding is the fact that the very origins of those first civilian liberal professional police forces was actually the colonial administration of Ireland by England. So the first modern police we often refer to is the London Metropolitan Police formed in 1829, and they were created by Sir Robert Peel. But Sir Robert Peel didn’t come up with the idea of civilian police out of thin air.
In fact, he had been in charge of the British occupation of Ireland that perpetuated a system of agricultural and economic peonage for the Irish people. It was deeply exploitative. It led to famines, etc. And for many years, that occupation was managed primarily by military forces.
[00:06:43] But over the course of the late 18th and early 19th century, there were foreign wars and foreign colonial expansions that became very expensive, that utilized heavily the existing military forces.
And Peel also noted that constantly using the military to put down various rural outrages, as they were called, basically rebellions, lacked legitimacy and often stimulated further resistance. So to counter that, the lack of resources and the need for a more legitimate form of social control, he creates the Irish Peace Preservation Force, which looks a little bit like the militia and a little bit like modern policing.
And what was distinctive about it was that it was more civilian in character and it was embedded in local communities and often took on some role in dealing with crime. But almost all crime during this period should be understood as crimes of the poor against the rich, poor people stealing things from the rich or engaged in low level rebellions or more serious rebellions.
[00:08:00] And what the Peace Preservation Force did as it tried to use its position within the community to intimidate, to gather intelligence, to be preventative in its activities so that they didn’t have to call out the militia or the military and open fire on people. In the U.S. we have our own direct colonial linkages to policing–the Texas Rangers, which were a highly lauded force in the American South and Southwest, many books written, many movies, etc., lionizing them.
But they were basically created to facilitate the expropriation of land in Texas from first, indigenous populations and then from the Spanish and Mexican populations. And they carried out basically mass extermination campaigns against the native peoples. And this then became a model for frontier justice across the rest of the much of the United States.
Also, the first state police force, the Pennsylvania State Police, was designed to manage the growing number of industrial and mining strikes happening in Pennsylvania a little over 100 years ago. The model for that police force was the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, which had occurred as a result of the Spanish American war.
So there’s a long legacy of developing policing as a political tool in the interests of colonial relationships.
Robert Raymond [00:09:40] And so we see the rise of these police forces during the colonial era and around the same time we have slavery in this country. What role did policing played during the era of slavery?
Alex Vitale [00:09:53] Well, I think, again, we can understand the origins of policing as tied in part to the institution of slavery. Now, not in all parts of the country, obviously, but what you have is these different things going on simultaneously in different geographic regions and there’s overlap.
So slavery produces a certain form of policing in the American South. Now, people will sometimes refer to slave patrols and say, well, that’s policing. Liberal police scholars will say, “Well, that’s not professional modern policing. That’s something else. Yes, it was despicable. But now we have something very different.”
What I show in the book is that actually in urban southern areas like Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia and New Orleans, you get the formation of what looks very much like modern civilian policing. Well before the London Metropolitan Police. But the primary, but not sole responsibility of those forces is the management of mobile slave populations. When we think about slave patrols, we usually think about rural areas and men on horseback riding down country roads looking for escaped slaves, which was a major part of the function of those patrols.
[00:11:15] But in urban areas, slavery took a very different form in these urban areas, slaves generally worked outside of the place that their owner lived. They worked in wharves, in warehouses, in factories for wages. Sometimes they even received some of the wages for their own use. But the bulk of it returned to the slave owner. But what these cities were confronted with was the fact that there were now a huge population of slaves moving around freely within the city and sometimes in conjunction with legally freed slaves who had the right to own property and have small businesses.
And this created a tremendous anxiety among the white population–that slaves would form underground societies, reading groups, religious organizations, political groups, speakeasies. And all of this, in fact, was going on in places like Charleston and New Orleans. And what this new modern police force was doing in Charleston as early as 1789, we have the Charleston city guard that’s wearing uniforms, professional, carrying out these law enforcement duties.
But what they’re enforcing primarily are the micro-regulation of these mobile slave populations. And the Charleston City Guard, after slavery, then becomes the Charleston Police Department. There’s a fairly seamless transition there. And this is true in other parts of the south where what had been slave patrols then morph into local policing.
RJ Lozada [00:13:00] If you’re just tuning in, you’re listening to Making Contact. You’re listening to an interview with Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, brought to us by the Upstream podcast. For more information on Vitale or the Upstream podcast, visit our site at radioproject.org.
Robert Raymond [00:13:22] So looking at the history of policing in the United States, it’s not hard to see why we’re in the situation that we are in right now with the police and what the United States, having the largest population, I think, both absolute and per capita, incarcerated individuals in the world. So maybe you could discuss what happened in the last century to lead us to being such a hyper-incarcerated society and how we can see the historical legacy of policing being played out now in our modern society.
Alex Vitale [00:14:00] Yeah, there really was a dramatic transformation. So for much of the 20th century, incarceration rates in the United States look like, look basically flat, and look a lot like Europe and other industrialized areas. But in the 1970s, there begins an abrupt upswing that continues up until just recently. Just the most sustained and dramatic increase in incarceration rates.
And what I’m interested in in particular is, the role of police in that process and the tools that empowered police and encourage police to be part of that trajectory. And police are not the only players. We know from Jonathan Fast’s work that the role of D.A.s is incredibly important in explaining mass incarceration and, of course, the changing of sentencing regimes by law makers.
[00:14:58] But what we’ve seen is this dramatic expansion in both the scope and intensity of policing along a broad number of fronts. So we have the war on drugs. We have the expansion of the enforcement of various kinds of vice laws. We have the rise of the policing of homeless populations, mentally ill populations, basically the creation and then rapid expansion of school policing, gang suppression policing, border policing.
So in all these areas, for both individual reasons and then for some overarching reasons, police have expanded the number of things they do, the powers they use, like the widespread creation of SWAT teams and other paramilitary forces.
[00:15:56] But all of this is tied to important political and economic transformations that began in the 60s and 70s. And I think the best way to think about it is the interaction between neoliberal restructuring and neo conservative politics.
So on the one hand, this is the period where we begin to see mass deindustrialization and a reshaping of the economy into a kind of post-industrial economy where a fairly small number of workers who are directly tied to high finance, the management of multinational corporations and high level business services for those sectors –those folks are making massive wages. They’re enjoying huge tax cuts, deregulation.
And at the same time, we have the replacement of an industrial middle class unionized wage force with a service industry sector where wages are diminished, benefits are diminished, job security is diminished so that people are unemployed, underemployed, sometimes over employed, but at very low wages with no job security so that people are taking two jobs, three jobs, trying to make ends meet.
[00:17:21] And this, in turn, is producing high levels of disorder so that we have mass homelessness. I should say also what’s also occurring is what we call government austerity, structural adjustment. So in order to provide subsidies, tax cuts and incentives to high finance, multinational corporations, real estate, industry, insurance, high level business services, there’s a hollowing out of social programs of redistributive programs, the backlash against the welfare state that we see beginning in the Nixon administration.
And then this is combined with an expansion of the social control functions of the state to manage this new disorderly and sometimes crime-prone communities. And so you get an expansion of criminal law. You get an increase in punitiveness within the system. You get an expansion of policing into more areas of everyday life. None of this is really primarily about making us safer in some specific sense. It’s more about managing these new dangerous classes, if you will.
Robert Raymond [00:18:49] So one thing that I wanted to get into, because it’s just recently come back up, is the militarization of the police in the United States in particular. So the 1033 program–maybe if you could talk briefly about what that is and how it seems to be escalating under the Trump administration and how police can possibly justify needing grenade launchers and stuff like that.
Alex Vitale [00:19:15] So the militarization of policing has got a long arc. It goes back to the 1960s with the formation of SWAT teams, which were designed initially to deal largely with the political uprisings that were happening and the threat of armed insurrection movements from the Black Liberation Army and groups like that. So it always was very political and it rarely had anything to do. It was really about the fear of these things that were incredibly rare occurrences, especially over the last 30 years.
So instead, we’ve seen this increasing mission creep of these SWAT units instead of reducing their numbers. They’ve exploded. Peter Krasker, whose work is eastern Kentucky, is very important in documenting this. The number has exploded, the intensity of their work has exploded and the armaments that they use, the scope of law enforcement they engage in.
So now you’ve got SWAT teams all across the country serving, low level drug warrants at 4:00 in the morning, bashing down doors, throwing in flash bang grenades because someone suspected of having some pot in the house.
[00:20:31] This has led to deaths, the killing of pets, the injuries of small children, the killing of people who are completely innocent because the SWAT team’s at the wrong address.
And rather than challenging this, the Obama administration dramatically expanded it. The 1033 program allows for the direct transfer of military hardware from the Department of Defense to local police departments with almost no checks and balances.
The Marshall Project recently created fake police departments, and got millions of dollars of hardware sent to basically a P.O. box with no oversight, no monitoring. And they got all kinds of military hardware. They could have done whatever they wanted with it. In addition, even more money goes into homeland security terrorism grants to police departments. Tens of billions of dollars for local police departments to buy military hardware from defense contractors. It’s basically welfare for the defense industry.
[00:21:37] And all of this has contributed to an increasingly militarized mindset within policing that’s being experienced as changes in training, changes in procedures, in the expansion and use of these paramilitary units. And all this has contributed directly to the number of people being killed by police — the militarization of the policing protests like we saw in Ferguson, that was completely counterproductive.
Robert Raymond [00:22:05] More recently in St. Louis. Where you had the police marching down the street in unison chanting, Whose streets? Our streets.
Alex Vitale [00:22:14] Yes, exactly. And so this is a deeply problematic development. And Trump’s changes are actually incredibly minimal. The Obama administration after Ferguson was pressured to restrict some of the kinds of military hardware. But basically, he said you can’t have bayonets. You can’t have actual tanks with tracks on them. And you can’t have camouflage uniforms anymore.
That’s it. You can still have grenade launchers. You can still have armored personnel carriers as long as they have wheels and set of tracks, and mine resistant vehicles and night vision scopes and ballistic hardware, you know, and high grade ammunition.
[00:22:59] I think he also restricted anything that was 50 calibers or above was too big. But anything else is fine, AR 15s and this sort of thing. So the Trump changes are largely symbolic by re-allowing this stuff in.
Many police departments have come out publicly and said, “We don’t want that stuff. Civilian policing shouldn’t have that stuff.” So it’s more about a theater of empowering the police than any actual changes in policing. But certainly it’s a step backwards and calling into question the fundamental nature and direction of policing right now.
Robert Raymond [00:23:33] I’m just curious. The funding, the amount of funding that goes to the police. I know it probably varies widely between municipalities and states, but do we see that police departments being defunded? Is that happening?
Alex Vitale [00:23:48] Right, so just the opposite. The police departmentthere’s always money for more police, I often say. There is there are exceptions here or there. There’s always money for more prisons if that’s the political priority. And this transformation, there’s nothing particularly rational about it. It’s not cost effective. It doesn’t produce justice. It’s about managing inequality.
And so there is always a willingness to spend money on these social control mechanisms rather than social programs. And when you have an economic system that says that wealth and inequality is because some people are more qualified than others, not because of the failure of market forces, then the solution is forcing those who are on the losing end to behave themselves and accept their diminished position. Kind of blaming the victim. And because if we were to admit that market forces had something to do with this rise of inequality, then we’d have to do something about those market forces.
[00:24:58] And the ideology of neoliberalism does not allow for that. So instead, we need an ideology of punitiveness that says that the cause of all our problems or moral failings and individual inadequacies in the way to manage that is through punishment and threats to force people to alter their behavior and to get with the program to accept their position in society. And that means that problems like even homelessness and profound mental illness are not treated as problems of inadequate housing or an inadequate mental health care.
They’re treated as problems of public disorder and criminality.
Robert Raymond [00:25:47] If you were to go and look at the root causes of the problems in our society and particularly with policing, what would you be looking at if you went upstream and if you could just outline how you would design or replace the criminal justice system, what you would have in place of that?
Alex Vitale [00:26:11] Well, I think let’s go back to what I said before about community problem solving. We should have a policy in place that says that communities should have more power to call on government to provide a full range of services to solve community problems, which they don’t have. Now, what they have are the police.
And so the community should be able to say what we need is community based mental health treatment, and support of affordable housing, and real summer jobs for our young people, and real after school opportunities that don’t just keep them busy but help develop them as full human beings, that we tried to bring these young people into society instead of pushing them out. And we give them real resources to do that.
You know, we have blocks here in Brooklyn where the state of New York spends a million dollars a year to incarcerate people. From one single block.
[00:27:13] And the question is whether or not the community could figure out a better way to spend that million dollars than locking people up to produce safety in that community. And I’m sure that they could.
Now, maybe there are a couple of homicidal rapists that they don’t want to deal with, that they need them to be locked up. But a lot of these people are in for things that we could resolve without relying on police and prisons. We just need the political will to do it.
[00:27:43] And so ultimately, to get to that position politically, we have to break the back of this neoliberal mindset that the only appropriate role for government is to subsidize the rich and penalize the poor.
And we need to find a politics that does that and embrace that at the local level and the national level. And at the center of that has to be an agenda of racial justice.
Robert Raymond [00:28:14] Thank you so much for your time.
RJ Lozada And that’s it for Making Contact. If you’d like to hear more about Alex Vitale’s work or learn more about the Upstream podcast, please visit our site, radio project.org. Special thanks to the co- producers Darla Duncan and Robert Raymond of the Upstream podcast for allowing us to broadcast an abridged version of the conversation.
Lisa Rudman is our Executive Director. Marie Choi, Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez are our producers. Sabine Blaizon is our audience engagement manager. And Vera Tykulsker is our Development Associate. And I’m RJ Lozada. Thank you for listening to Making Contact.