What would we do without the police? The question sounds rhetorical, but sociologist Alex S. Vitale wants us to try to answer it. He believes that an unprecedented expansion and intensification of police work over the last forty years has resulted in “overpolicing.” The job of police officers has grown beyond keeping the peace and responding to emergencies and now includes addressing addiction, mental illness, homelessness, prostitution, juvenile misbehavior, and more. What would happen if the police played little or no role in these issues? What if, instead of criminalizing drug users, sex workers, and homeless people, our city and state governments treated them as citizens with needs to be met and rights to be protected?
Vitale says that poor people and people of color, in particular, are targeted as criminals on the streets and in their homes, schools, and places of employment. Routine traffic stops may end in fatalities, and protests against police brutality sometimes turn into confrontations between a highly militarized police force and angry activists. Few officers are ever charged, let alone convicted, for misconduct. Some cities are experimenting with reforms, but Vitale argues that these efforts won’t change the fundamental, unspoken mission of the police: maintaining an unequal status quo. “This is how the system is designed to operate,” he says.
A native of Houston, Texas, Vitale is a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York (CUNY). He consults for police departments and human-rights organizations, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Nation. He is the author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics and The End of Policing (alex-vitale.info). As a frequent guest speaker at college campuses, criminology conferences, and community meetings, he discusses policing in the context of U.S. history and social policies. Vitale tells audiences that, when we believe inequality is a result of some people working harder or being smarter than others, “we erase the history of exploitation and the ways the game is rigged to prevent economic and social mobility. When people complain about these realities, they are told it’s their own fault, that they didn’t try hard enough to be part of the glorious ‘one percent.’ ”
I met Vitale at his home in Brooklyn on a cold winter day. As I walked up the single flight to his apartment, I passed some students coming down, who cheerfully announced, “Your turn!” During our time together there was little levity. Vitale struck me as a no-nonsense guy who judges people on their behavior rather than on big talk and promises. After two hours together he had no time to linger, and was quickly on his way to participate in a workshop at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Leviton: You’ve done ride-alongs with police officers on patrol, who you say tend to describe their shifts as “99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror.” What’s your experience of watching them do their jobs?
Vitale: Police work is very bureaucratic. There’s a lot of paperwork, report writing, and time management. Patrol officers are mostly involved in missing persons, noise complaints, illegally parked vehicles, and so on. They spend hardly any time dealing with serious crime. That’s left to the detectives. Most uniformed officers make a felony arrest once a year. If a patrol officer catches a robber in the act, he or she is “cop of the month” and gets on the nightly news. [Laughs.]
Police will rush to the site of a reported shooting or robbery, but they almost never arrive while the act is underway. A department might make an effort to cut its 911 response time, but research shows this has no effect on crime rates.
Television shows would have you believe that police are always finding clues, interviewing suspects, and piecing together evidence to arrive at a surprising conclusion. This makes great drama, but in real life it mostly happens in the opposite way: detectives decide who did it, often because an informant told them, and then they try to collect enough evidence to secure a guilty plea or conviction. Very few criminal cases ever go to trial, because prosecutors scare suspects into accepting plea bargains. And of course prosecutors get wrongful convictions sometimes, because the informant is out to get someone, or a suspect is frightened into falsely pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
Most police TV shows create the myth of heroic crime-fighters, and police departments often work with the shows’ producers to ensure this. Early cop shows like Dragnet and Adam-12 were actually coproduced by the Los Angeles Police Department, which provided technical advisers, case files, cars, and police stations — and even signed off on the content. Cops is one of the longest-running shows on television, on the air since 1989. It’s presented as reality TV, but the sheriffs, police, and state troopers who cooperate have final say on the contents. Ask yourself: Has Cops ever shown serious police misconduct? Numerous studies have revealed that the show makes black and brown men appear responsible for a higher percentage of violent crime than they actually are. These misrepresentations have an effect. People of color experience policing directly, while many white people get their ideas of what policing is from watching TV.
Some white people do get direct experience of law enforcement, of course. In 2008 U.S. senator Patrick Leahy was stopped by a U.S. Border Patrol agent 125 miles from the border. Leahy was ordered out of his car and required to show identification to prove his citizenship. When he asked the agent under what authority he was acting, the officer pointed to his weapon and said, “That’s all the authority I need.”
Leviton: Seth Stoughton, a police-officer-turned-law-professor, says cops have a “warrior problem.” What does he mean?
Vitale: The expanded role of the police in society has been accompanied by the broad criminalization of citizens. We conceive of social problems not as a result of market failures or the lack of effective government intervention, but as moral failures that will respond only to punitive interventions. In the eyes of law enforcement, the drug problem isn’t a medical problem or a result of the way we’ve organized health care or the pharmaceutical business. It’s a matter of individual users’ inability to control themselves. So a “war on drugs” is a war on those individuals.
If you’re in a warrior mind-set as a police officer, you don’t look at the public as people in need of assistance. They are the enemy, the bad guys, and you are part of the “thin blue line” — the heroic men and women in blue uniforms who prevent anarchy. This leads to degrading treatment of suspects and excessive use of force.
When politicians tell the police to wage a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on terror, and a war on gangs, officers are not going to be friendly and respectful. They are going to be aggressive, abusive, and violent.
Leviton: But surely there are some good cops who want to help their communities. How do they fit into the system you describe?
Vitale: I believe most officers join the police with the desire to help their communities and “get the bad guys.” Unfortunately they are often given the wrong tools for achieving that, despite their best intentions. What most communities need — affordable housing, stable employment, high-quality health services — the police can’t provide. When the agents we send to deal with the needs of poor folks of color have only guns and handcuffs, it will invariably lead to criminalization and violence.
Leviton: You say that when new officers come into their first precinct assignment, they are often told, “Forget what you learned at the police academy.” Why?
Vitale: The main things officers learn at the academy are when and how to use their firearms, how to fill out reports, and to treat the public with respect. Then, on the street, they find themselves responsible for cleaning up a neighborhood drug problem, mostly by arresting people. The mission isn’t consistent with the training.
There’s a lot of what you might call “mission creep” in policing. Look at Special Weapons and Tactics — SWAT teams. The original idea was for an elite group that could deal with volatile situations like a hostage-taking, but the first actual use of a SWAT team was against a Black Panther group in Los Angeles in 1969, in a standoff that did not involve hostages. SWAT teams quickly became part of an effort to cast political activity as criminal activity. The American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, antiwar groups — all were perceived as threats and characterized as heavily armed revolutionaries, which justified militarized police tactics.
Over time SWAT teams did develop expertise in dealing with barricaded suspects, bank robbers using military-style weapons and body armor, and so forth, and those unusual incidents were used to justify the expansion of SWAT teams and the purchase of new technology and more military-style weapons. Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University examined what SWAT teams actually do in the 2001 book Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System. He found they mostly serve low-level drug warrants and act as an intimidating presence at political protests and in neighborhoods where there’s been unrest as a result of police shootings.
When we see video of factory raids looking for undocumented workers or big gang takedowns in cities, there’s often a formidable display of SWAT equipment and special units. And they show up at the sites of mass shootings, though such incidents typically play out before SWAT can get there.
Leviton: Since 1997 police departments have been able to obtain surplus military armaments at no cost, ostensibly for use in antidrug and antiterrorism efforts. The Department of Homeland Security has also distributed $34 billion in “terrorism grants.” Do local police need this equipment and funding?
Vitale: To some extent they are victims of their own rhetoric. They’ve been talking about waging war, and many officers now believe they need armored personnel carriers to protect them. It aligns with the “thin blue line” thinking: the world is divided into good and bad people, the threats from the bad guys are increasing, and the police keep civilization afloat and prevent the bad guys from taking over.
The paramilitary units in police departments are high-profile, prestige assignments that often lead to further advancement. In Ferguson, Missouri, at the time of the police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, the head of the St. Louis County Police was Jon Belmar. He’d been appointed to the top position that January after having been in charge of the local SWAT team. Belmar decided to confront protesting crowds with overwhelming force, including snipers and tear gas. When your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
Leviton: In theory, the job of the police is to solve murder cases, keep crime in check, and maintain the peace, but in The End of Policing you write that “the basic nature of the law and the police is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo.”
Vitale: The standard narrative in textbooks and criminal-justice programs is that modern policing was created in 1829 in London by Sir Robert Peel as part of a liberal reform movement. Compared to what law enforcement was like before, the police were to be more professional and more accountable to the public. The legitimacy of the police would rely on public acceptance, and policing would essentially be done with citizens’ consent. What the textbooks fail to point out is that Peel got his ideas about organizing police forces while he was the head of the colonial occupation of Ireland. His duty was to extract massive agricultural surpluses from that country, and he founded the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1814 to keep that colonial system of exploitation afloat. Colonialism was the context for the development of modern policing.
It’s also important to consider how the political dynamics of England in the 1820s necessitated the creation of a professional police force. Workers were demanding more rights and protesting the economic hardships caused by the Napoleonic Wars. There were strikes, riots, and battles between the British Army and powerful working-class movements. The national government responded not by dealing with the legitimate grievances of poor and working people but by passing laws to suppress meetings, prevent the printing of radical newspapers, and punish seditious speech.
Leviton: Before the establishment of police forces, how were laws enforced?
Vitale: Enforcement was essentially privatized. If someone stole something from me, my only recourse was to find out who might have done it and then pay a fee to the sheriff, who would bring the accused to court to be confronted in a civil suit. It was not a criminal matter.
A place like London would have had a semiprofessional “night watch” with limited authority. The night watch was probably most effective in keeping an eye out for fires. And in cases of rioting and social disturbances, the authorities would call out the militia, which was sort of like our National Guard. They would literally “read the Riot Act” in an effort to disperse the crowd, and if that didn’t work, they’d open fire.
People of color experience policing directly, while many white people get their ideas of what policing is from watching TV.
Leviton: What happened when American cities began to assemble police forces modeled after Peel’s innovations in England?
Vitale: The first police jobs, in cities like Boston and Chicago, were patronage jobs. Whatever political party controlled local government could give out — or sell — positions in the new police departments. There was no extensive training offered and no special skill required. It was probably lucrative to bribe your way into the police force, because, once there, you could cut a deal with local thieves and receive a share of their plunder. All big-city American police forces were corrupt, especially in the ranks of detectives, who sometimes took bribes to look the other way.
The Boston police force was formed after the Broad Street Riot in 1837, during which a mob attacked Irish immigrants. Likewise the New York City Police Department was formed in 1845 after a series of strikes, race riots, and trade-union actions. These early police were not doing what we would recognize as serious crime prevention. They were primarily monitoring morality: restricting gambling and drinking establishments, examining the length of bathing suits, and discouraging public displays of affection. New vice laws allowed police to intrude in the lives of immigrants — Catholic immigrants, in particular — who were considered uneducated, disorderly, and disease ridden.
Leviton: The first drug laws also came into being due to a fear of immigrants.
Vitale: The initial focus was on the Chinese immigrant population, and the first U.S. antidrug law was an 1875 San Francisco ordinance that outlawed the smoking of opium. What was upsetting to white city officials was that opium dens attracted white women, who the officials believed were being seduced by Chinese men. Race mixing was deeply offensive to the nativists who controlled the legislative system. In 1909 Congress made opium smoking illegal everywhere but allowed exceptions for tinctures of opium sold as patent medicines, which were popular among whites.
Chinese people couldn’t become citizens and didn’t have the right to testify in court or to bring legal cases. After tens of thousands of them had built the American railroad system and other projects, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stopped further Chinese immigration. It was one of the first immigration restrictions in U.S. history.
Marijuana prohibition in the early twentieth century became an excuse for police to harass Latino communities. The African American jazz scene picked up marijuana as well and became a target. Cocaine was also associated with African Americans when its use was made a criminal offense. Enforcement of drug laws was at the discretion of cops on the beat, who rarely showed any concern for drug use among whites.
Leviton: So even though we think of the “war on drugs” starting with President Nixon, it has much deeper roots.
Vitale: Absolutely. The national effort intensified under Nixon, who argued that, since drugs often crossed state lines, a federal response was needed. But he just built on the existing practices of using drug laws to incarcerate mostly people of color and the poor. For Nixon the drug war was part of the “Southern strategy” — a Republican campaign to win over white Democrats in the South who were alienated by the national Democratic Party’s support for civil rights. The war on drugs signaled to those voters that the Republican Party would keep black people in their place through strict policing and selective enforcement of certain laws.
Leviton: We know that people of color are more likely than white people to be stopped for traffic violations, are handcuffed more often than white suspects, and in general are treated with more scrutiny by police. Does that change when the racial composition of police departments is more diverse?
Vitale: No. There are a number of studies about diversifying police departments, and they show no reduction in arrests, use of force, or citizen complaints. The racial makeup of officers appears to be irrelevant. The police must carry out a certain mission, and there are consequences for individual officers who do not carry out that mission. Hiring more black and brown officers doesn’t change the understanding about how the job is supposed to be done. Even black and brown officers in positions of power don’t have a significant effect.
It’s a mistake to think of each episode of police misconduct as an isolated incident that might have gone another way if different officers had been involved. It’s not about individuals. The problem is a political imperative toward overpolicing.
I sometimes say there are two aspects to the American policing problem: there’s an anti-working-class mind-set that’s hundreds of years old, and there’s a more recent aspect tied to mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and the politics of economic austerity.
After the Civil War, for instance, because slavery had been abolished, the white people in control of society’s institutions needed a new system for harnessing black labor as cheaply as possible. This included sharecropping, the leasing of convict labor, prison farms, and debt peonage, where a person works to repay an insurmountable debt. And policing was necessary to make those systems of exploitation possible.
Now, in our postindustrial service economy, many people aren’t needed in the labor force, and policing has become a way to manage those unemployed and underemployed people. Police also deal with homelessness, untreated mental illness, and enormous black markets in drugs and sex and stolen goods. They aren’t just driving people into prison; they are controlling them where they are through constant harassment. Meanwhile nothing is done to address the root causes of social problems. For drug users, for example, the system is a revolving door of temporary incarceration, rehab, and the streets.
The public school system is being starved of money by legislators who want to cut taxes. The solution? Put police — known as “school resource officers” — in the schools to deal with behavior problems.
I believe most officers join the police with the desire to help their communities and “get the bad guys.” Unfortunately they are often given the wrong tools for achieving that, despite their best intentions.
Leviton: When were police introduced onto school campuses?
Vitale: It started in the 1950s with the “juvenile delinquent” crisis, as portrayed in the film Blackboard Jungle. There was concern about street gangs and antisocial behavior among teenagers. The first school resource officers weren’t sent to high schools, though. They were sent to elementary schools to teach young children the legitimacy of police authority. It was a political project, not an attempt to curb crime in schools.
In the 1990s some criminologists promoted the “superpredator” myth: that a large group of remorseless, brutal young people with no regard for human life was emerging, and the criminal-justice system needed to treat them not as children but as adults. Young black males, in particular, were demonized. The Clinton administration pushed to have more police officers in schools.
The Columbine High School shootings in April 1999 brought the idea that schools were now dangerous. (There were police on campus that day, by the way, but they didn’t make an appreciable difference.) Afterward there was more surveillance of students and intensified campus policing. “Zero-tolerance” policies meant more suspensions and expulsions, even for minor infractions, with harsh punishments applied regardless of extenuating circumstances. In many places this created a school-to-jail pipeline, as children suffering from abuse, learning disabilities, and poverty were moved out of the school system and into the juvenile-detention and criminal-justice systems. Today, with more than forty thousand police stationed on campuses, our schools sometimes look more like jails. A 2019 ACLU report stated that there were 14 million students whose schools have police on campus but no counselors, nurses, psychologists, or social workers. Can we really say that’s a healthy environment for young people?
Though there is some crime and violence in schools, they are statistically among the safest places where young people congregate: safer than workplaces; safer than their own homes. Discipline problems in schools are often the result of a lack of extracurricular programs, after-school opportunities, and counselors. We need to move away from zero-tolerance systems of discipline that rely on suspensions and police involvement and toward restorative systems that attempt to address the underlying motivations for disruptive student behavior.
Leviton: You believe most police reforms are failures. What are some examples of failed policies?
Vitale: “Implicit-bias training” is one. It tries to correct the sort of unconscious biases that can be detected through complex microsecond response rates to images and words. For instance, controlled experiments show that people are more likely to shoot at a black male target than a white one in simulations. The theory is that, by drawing conscious attention to the bias, it can be countered, but the evidence shows that this is a waste of time. Implicit bias remains even after such training, and officers in the field continue to act the same. In his book Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong about the Struggle for Racial Justice, Jonathan Kahn points out that when something is considered “implicit,” it’s nobody’s fault. Therefore the system doesn’t have to change. We’ll offer some training and hope that officers just stop shooting so many black people in the future.
A lot of cops hate implicit-bias training and dismiss it anyway, because they see it as politically motivated meddling. What happens is, in the face of a real crisis, these training initiatives are rolled out to restore the public’s trust in the police. They accomplish nothing, and a lot of police know it. They consider the training a joke, just something they have to do to appease the top brass and politicians. The rank and file agree with me on this. We cannot treat bias in policing as if it were an individual choice when racism is built into the institutional mission. Plus there’s a lot of explicit racism in American policing that isn’t going to be fixed by this kind of training either.
Leviton: Last year, police in Alabama raided the home of a white family and found fifty dollars’ worth of marijuana, but impounded eight thousand dollars in cash as well, causing the eventual foreclosure of their home. They were hardly wealthy drug kingpins. Is there a class issue here?
Vitale: In The End of Policing I do talk about the problems of policing in rural white America. Those people are hurting, and they are being criminalized, too. But make no mistake, race is always an extra burden. We can’t just collapse the criminalization of blacks and Latinos into a class issue, because their plight is always a little worse, and sometimes a lot worse.
Leviton: Within police departments, is there any sense that some police actions — especially ones that result in the death of unarmed citizens — are inexcusable, or do cops feel they must support anything their colleagues do?
Vitale: When police conduct is being questioned, many departments circle the wagons and defend whatever their fellow officers have done. As they see it, the police need plenty of leeway to do their job. Some cops might feel that better training, more body cameras, and less use of lethal weaponry would be a positive development, but they don’t think it should undermine their basic ability to act as they see fit.
There are also some cops who will regret an incident but defend the use of lethal force as lawful. They know it looks bad, and they’d like to have less of it, but they don’t think the officers involved should be charged as if they’ve committed a crime.
Leviton: Michael Fortner, in his 2015 book Black Silent Majority, argues that African Americans played an important role in our current era of mass incarceration by demanding that local police do more about crime in their neighborhoods. Is he correct?
Vitale: Certainly there is broad public support for arresting drug dealers. But the same communities that call for more drug enforcement also call for more drug-treatment programs, more economic development, and more after-school programs for young people. And the politicians keeping the drug war alive tell them there’s not enough money for those other things. All that’s really offered is the additional policing.
We have to be realistic about who actually has the power in the war on drugs. It’s not well-meaning church groups. It’s the public representatives who will find more money for police but not for programs that might make their presence less necessary, such as high-quality medical drug treatment on demand and harm-reduction programs like safe injection facilities and needle exchanges.
It’s a mistake to think of each episode of police misconduct as an isolated incident that might have gone another way if different officers had been involved. It’s not about individuals. The problem is a political imperative toward overpolicing.
Leviton: One law-enforcement theory that has remained tenacious despite its many critics is “broken-windows” policing. What’s the concept behind it?
Vitale: It emerged in the early eighties, based on a loose analogy to some social-psychology research. Criminologists with ties to the neoconservative movement cited behavioral research showing that when a car is parked on a street, it is usually left alone, but if one person vandalizes it, others quickly follow suit. Similarly if one window in a building gets broken, the rest will soon be shattered, too. From this they argued that urban decay is caused not by deindustrialization, lack of investment, and economic austerity, but by a breakdown in morality, and that the police officer on the beat is the appropriate tool to restore that lost morality. Poor people have no interest in advancing their own well-being, the theory went. They will just vandalize and waste any resources provided for them. There is no point in trying to help them, because the so-called culture of poverty makes government assistance ineffective.
One of those early neoconservatives, Edward Banfield, wrote in his 1970 book The Unheavenly City that the “lower class person . . . is not troubled by dirt and dilapidation and he does not mind the inadequacy of public facilities such as schools, parks, hospitals, and libraries.” There was too much unregulated individualism, these theorists said, as a result of the upheaval and civil-rights struggles of the sixties. It was a sign of disorder that interracial couples were openly walking down the street!
In short, neoconservatives proposed that some communities are poor because people there think too much about themselves and not enough about the shared environment. This should have been recognized immediately as racist at its core, and deeply insulting.
The increased intrusion of police into all aspects of poor people’s lives was justified by the idea that poor people are perpetrators rather than victims. This is still the dominant model of policing in the U.S., including in cities run by black mayors. It’s why Eric Garner was arrested for selling loose cigarettes on the street in New York City. A special plainclothes unit, two sergeants, and multiple backup units were deployed to deal with him. Garner died after gasping, “I can’t breathe,” while officers had him in a choke hold. After his death the mayor and police commissioner promised that all officers would undergo de-escalation training. To them, Garner’s death was the result of a misapplication of police tactics: if they had arrested him more professionally, he would still be alive.
It’s true that if they hadn’t choked him, he wouldn’t have died, but teaching police how to de-escalate confrontations won’t solve the real problem.
Leviton: Why not?
Vitale: When you’re engaged in a massive campaign of criminalizing certain populations through stop-and-frisk and broken-windows policies, it will breed resentment and resistance. Garner had been arrested more than thirty times before and was tired of being harassed. In such a situation the police are going to respond with increased force to make an arrest. They are not going to attempt de-escalation if they feel they are operating in a hostile environment. Instead they attempt to reduce their reliance on violence by using threats and intimidation — for instance, putting their hands on their holstered weapons in response to something someone says to them.
I study videos of police encounters in New York City, and they show the police escalating the violence over and over, even though they’ve all had de-escalation training.
Leviton: To what degree is the problem of police violence a result of stress — say, working as a police officer in areas where you know you are not liked or trusted, or are seen as an occupying force?
Vitale: I think frustration and cynicism are big factors. Police are told that they are the only ones who can provide safety, so when crimes keep occurring, they often become frustrated and cynical. As a result they tend to ramp up the aggression or resign themselves to going through the motions without much concern for the outcome.
Leviton: In December 2018 Jazmine Headley was at a municipal office in New York City with her one-year-old. How did she end up in jail?
Vitale: This is a microcosm of what we’re talking about. She went to a social-services office to get her child-care vouchers reinstated. They wouldn’t give her the benefits she needed, and the welfare office was overcrowded, and there were no empty chairs, so she sat on the floor with her son to figure out what to do. Instead of finding her a chair or asking her to avoid blocking the pathway, a female security officer told Headley to get up. In New York the Human Resources Administration (HRA), which administers welfare benefits, has its own police force. They were summoned, as were the NYPD. In a cell-phone video that someone took, you can see it was mostly the HRA police manhandling Headley, who was engaged in a kind of protest, as a result of being tired and frustrated. An angry crowd had gathered around the police, but anybody who tried to intervene was threatened with a taser. Eventually Headley was handcuffed and arrested, and her child was turned over to Child Protective Services. Because of the cell-phone video, the public pressed successfully to have the charges against her dropped and have her reunited with her child.
Leviton: When it comes to catching police misbehavior, are amateur cell-phone videos, security cameras, dashboard cameras, and body cams valuable tools?
Vitale: So far cell-phone videos have been the most helpful in exposing infractions. Body cams have not proven to be a boon. One study showed that departments using body cameras have higher rates of shootings. A study in Washington, D.C., found that police body cameras made no difference in terms of police behavior or accountability, but the D.C. police decided to expand their use anyway, because the cameras were useful for gathering information on citizens. Police could potentially use the footage to establish “gang databases” and monitor political groups. They can videotape you anytime they want, even if you aren’t currently suspected of a crime.
Leviton: According to mappingpoliceviolence.org, about 25 percent of people killed by police are black, and 30 percent of those are unarmed. The crime rate in a particular city has no effect on the rate of police killings.
Vitale: In many police shootings it’s hard to say how the officers could have acted differently, because they really were in danger or under fire. Then there are the cases we call “lawful but awful,” which means the police were within their rights, but the outcome was tragic.
It’s not like the police are shooting people all over the place, but there are many disturbing killings. The real question is: Why were police even present in many of these cases? Up to half of all people killed by police are having a mental-health crisis. We shouldn’t be using armed police as the primary tool for managing these situations. And even when no one is killed, black and brown people must deal with traumatizing stop-and-frisk encounters and other unnecessary, low-level punitive interactions every day.
Leviton: People with untreated mental issues are sixteen times more likely to be shot by police than the general public, according to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Vitale: Right. It’s not just that bringing weapons into a confrontation with someone having a mental crisis escalates the situation; it’s also that the command-and-control mind-set of the police is inappropriate. If we want to save lives, we need mental-health professionals on the scene. It’s not logical to expect officers, who spend most of their time using aggression to establish their authority, just to turn off that attitude when they encounter someone who’s mentally ill.
In England, Australia, Canada, and other places, cities have put together “crisis-response teams” of trained mental-health workers. Here in New York City a task force has been formed to improve how police respond to 911 calls involving the mentally ill. We need to build up community-based mental-health services and divert as many calls as possible to nonpolice responses. Eugene, Oregon, has a mobile crisis-intervention team called CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets — that responds to situations involving unarmed people, whether they are intoxicated, disoriented, having a mental crisis, or involved in a dispute.
Leviton: Police spend a lot of time arresting people for prostitution and pimping. You don’t think they should.
Vitale: Before World War I, prostitution was largely legal in the U.S. Sometimes it was restricted to “red-light districts,” but it was fairly out in the open. During that war there was a crackdown on prostitution, because of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers.
Today we see quite a bit of police corruption around prostitution. Cops extort money or sex without concern about consequences. In New York an advocacy group called Decrim NY helped draft a bill in the state legislature that would decriminalize sex work. The bill was introduced in the legislature in June. To me this is long overdue. Legalization will greatly diminish the incentives for human trafficking and coercion. The illegality of sex work turns the business over to organized crime and creates an underground economy where the workers have few protections and are afraid to ask for help.
We are all concerned about the dangers of human trafficking and exploitation, but some people think the only way to manage those harms is through entirely punitive interventions. This is why those of us advocating for legalization of sex work also push for serious efforts to help those who need support. My main interest is in reducing harm, limiting the chances of exploitation, and saving lives. Decriminalization is logical, evidence based, and in the best interests of all of us. I’m trying to take the morality out of it.
Leviton: You also favor decriminalizing drug sales and possession.
Vitale: Yes, and there should be more drug-treatment programs and education along with legalization. Portugal decriminalized the personal possession and consumption of all drugs in 2001. Since then, HIV and hepatitis rates have plummeted, overdoses are down, and drug-related crimes and incarceration rates have decreased. But drugs are still purchased on the black market, and organized crime is still involved in their manufacture and importation.
Legalization can introduce a system of regulation, as we see in the many states that have legalized marijuana. To buy marijuana legally in those states, you have to go to an authorized cannabis outlet, and you pay sales tax on your purchase.
I think we should make heroin available by prescription. If I’m using it, I can go to a doctor, who will explain the treatment options and the dangers of the drug. If I still want it, the doctor can write a prescription for low-cost or free heroin. Where this has been tried, usage rates, overdoses, and secondary infections have gone down. The crime associated with getting money to buy heroin also goes away. Right now in Canada heroin is illegal, but in an effort to reduce opiate-related fatalities, doctors are allowed to prescribe medical-grade diacetylmorphine, which is heroin made in a lab.
Leviton: What type of resistance have you seen to the idea of legalizing drugs, both from police and from citizens in general?
Vitale: I think it’s mostly based on a moralistic perspective. People have bought into the idea that civilization will come unglued if we don’t tightly regulate human pleasures. Even though legalization makes logical sense, the moralists believe it would unleash an instinct for self-destruction. Holding the line on drugs — even though criminalization advocates might be alcohol users, or users of prescribed mind-altering drugs — is seen as a way to prevent chaos.
Leviton: Have you gotten any sense that in those states where marijuana has been decriminalized, the police are breathing a sigh of relief because they can spend their time on more important things?
Vitale: Yes, that’s absolutely what happened in Portugal when they decriminalized drugs. The police there have been very happy about it and have urged other police organizations to follow their lead. There are American groups like the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, founded by five police officers in 2002, that call for more ethical and practical drug policies, including legalization, as a matter of public safety. Their ranks include judges, prosecutors, and corrections officials.
The increased intrusion of police into all aspects of poor people’s lives was justified by the idea that poor people are perpetrators rather than victims. This is still the dominant model of policing in the U.S.
Leviton: If we remove police from so many areas through changes in social policies, what will their role become?
Vitale: I don’t know. We have to start by asking what the problems are in society and how best to address them. We should be guided by three principles: do as little harm as possible; choose methods that are effective and affordable; and treat people with as much dignity as we can. If there are still some problems that won’t respond to anything but coercive force, then so be it.
Leviton: Some police departments have set up surveillance of political groups and even planted informants at meetings and protests. How do they justify this?
Vitale: As I’ve said, suppressing social movements has been part of the policing mandate from the beginning. Over the years they’ve mostly monitored left-wing groups, but at the urging of organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center they also sometimes monitor right-wing and white-supremacist groups. In the eighties and nineties groups like ACT UP, PETA, and Greenpeace were tracked by police. Police are more focused on how these groups threaten the existing social order than on whether they are committing crimes. Occupy and Black Lives Matter have both attracted the kind of scrutiny that left-wing groups received from police and the FBI in the sixties and seventies, when law-enforcement agencies ran counterintelligence programs against domestic political activists.
The restrictions that had been put in place in New York State as a result of those abuses of power in the sixties and seventies were removed after 9/11, when law enforcement wanted expanded capability to deal with “terrorists.” Anti-terrorism policy has given police even more right to surveil groups and infiltrate organizations.
Leviton: The police are also heavily involved in deciding who gets a permit to hold a rally and how they are allowed to protest.
Vitale: If you accept that the police are experts in protecting everyone’s well-being, then you turn control of a political process over to them. We are supposed to feel fine about this because the police are politically neutral technocrats, but to believe that, you have to erase the history of political policing. The police are not neutral actors, and issues of free speech should not be left up to them. There should be more political transparency when it comes to permitting policies.
Some groups won’t request permits because, when they do, the police restrict them to a fenced area several blocks away. Spontaneous demonstrations might increase the threat of arrest, but they don’t require you to negotiate away your constitutional rights.
Leviton: Suppose a new wave of politicians are swept into office in 2020 and they propose the kind of drastic reduction of overpolicing you describe. Wouldn’t it take a long time for the bureaucracy to change, and for police culture to change?
Vitale: If we implemented the positive interventions I advocate, I wouldn’t care how the police reacted, because we’d be removing them from many areas. If we get all the police out of the school system, for example, then the attitude of “school resource officers” becomes moot. If we legalize drugs and sex work, we’ll shut down the vice and narcotics units. So I don’t really care what the police who are reassigned think about the reform.
Well-meaning community activists make a mistake when they think yelling at the police chief will bring relief. The war on drugs was not invented by police, and it cannot be ended by police. Placing police in schools was an initiative that came from school boards, city councils, and mayors, not police departments. We have to hold our elected officials accountable for giving the police the mission they have. We have to vote out those who will not authorize money for drug-treatment programs, housing, and after-school programs but will spend millions on a new police precinct building.
I don’t think we are going to implement big changes inside police departments without going over their heads to the politicians and lawmakers who make policy. Then we can talk about what kind of police training is appropriate and what might help solve existing problems. Less policing by itself is not enough. We risk suffering a political backlash if we don’t deliver real results. We need a national conversation about how to help people instead of policing them.