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Envisioning the End of Policing: An Interview with Alex Vitale

In this installment of BPR’s criminal justice reform series, we meet Alex S. Vitale, author of The End of Policing and professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. In addition to teaching, Vitale is a leader of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. He has written for numerous prestigious publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, and Vice News

Alexandra Vitkin: What motivated you to write The End of Policing? What are you most excited about for the updated version of the book? 

Alex Vitale: When I started teaching criminology, there was a growing level of interest in mass incarceration. During this time, I was also aware of the interesting organizing occuring and the formation of the critical resistance movement. But in all of these perspectives on mass incarceration, there was very little discussion of policing. 

In that conversation about mass incarceration, I felt like we couldn’t talk about changes to the legal and penal system without addressing the role of the police. Ultimately, I was approached by a publishing company, Verso Press, before Ferguson asking me if I wanted to write a book about the New York Police Department. I responded that I would prefer to write about policing, particularly its role in mass incarceration. One of the motivations for pitching my idea to Verso was that over the course of thirty years, I had seen episodic uprisings against policing that never resulted in any substantial change. These uprisings tended to be short lived and based on superficial demands—“indict this one problematic cop,” “give us community policing,” or “hire a few more officers of color.”

Alexandra Vitkin: In the End of Policing, you argue that, historically, policing has been a tool of social control, and that de-criminalizing acts like drug use and prostitution would lead to fewer police and more revenue to finance welfare programs. What programs do you envision having the farthest reaching effects? 

Alex Vitale: It depends on what the metric is here. Is it reducing police violence? Is it reducing interpersonal violence in communities? Is it preventing overdose deaths? Is it improving the quality of life of individuals living in vulnerable communities? Too often, when we look at police-centered interventions, we only consider if a measurable reduction in an officially reported crime statistic can be found. I’m arguing that we need to completely rethink the variables here. If we use policing in a way that causes a reduction of 500 homicides annually, but in the process, the police kill 1,000 people, what is that saying? Supporters of the police will say that a reduction in homicides demonstrates that policing works; but at what cost? When we calculate the cost—the financial cost and the cost to people’s lives—it doesn’t seem like a healthy balance to me. The question becomes: What intervention will produce the greatest positive outcome with the lowest cost? 

To me, ending the war on drugs could be the solution to that question. The astronomical number of people dying of overdoses on a daily basis is completely the result of drug prohibition. Even if ending the war on drugs doesn’t reduce the number of police killings, if it just cuts the number of overdose deaths in half. Almost any public health intervention on that front would be dramatically better than what we have now. Ending the war on drugs might not drastically change incarceration rates either, as Jonathan Fath and others have noted, but it would save lives and help establish a different approach to addressing social problems. Punitiveness, punishment, and coercion have become so central to our problem-solving, and it is imperative that we establish new mechanisms centered on care and compassion to decenter that punitive worldview. 

Alexandra Vitkin: Your critics have said that fewer police will lead to a drastic increase in violent crime. How do you respond to this critique? 

Alex Vitale: First, there is no evidence to support this claim. There have been police work stoppages and substantial reductions in the number of police in certain jurisdictions, and the research has shown that there are no noteworthy increases in violent crime. Los Angeles, for example, has about a third of the number of police officers per capita that New York City has; LA does not have three times more crime than NYC. Obviously, if all police magically disappeared tomorrow, there would be negative consequences. But people aren’t advocating for the police to disappear overnight, in part because everyone knows that is impossible. There is no world wherein there are no police tomorrow. There are concrete ideas about how to begin dialing back the scale of policing vested in a logic that holds that it is better to replace policing than to reform it. 

Alexandra Vitkin: At this point, do you believe that there is a way for police to be successfully reformed in lieu of being abolished? 

Alex Vitale: If you’re asking if there are any reforms that might produce desirable results, I believe that it is possible. Historically, there have been some reforms that have saved lives. Police shoot far fewer people than they did in the 1960s and ‘70s because of widespread changes to firearms policies. However, do I see any such reforms among the packages included in the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, for instance? No. There is no evidence to suggest that any of those reforms would make a meaningful difference. Is it possible that one of these reforms might result in a 5 percent reduction in citizen complaints in some city? Yes, but that change is negligible compared to the wide range of harms that policing produces. 

As citizens, when we decide where to invest our limited political capital, why would we waste it on police reform when research tells us that the real solution lies in investment in community public safety initiatives? The state will always advocate for the efficacy of “reform” in periods of crisis. Let them take care of that—we should focus on the real solutions.  

Alexandra Vitkin: In the End of Policing, you write about the disturbing militarization of police forces across the country. Could you talk about the origins of militarization and what can be done to address it? 

Alex Vitale: We have to be careful about thinking that the hardware police are provided with drive their behavior. People assume that substantially reducing the military hardware would be a fundamental change to policing. I don’t think this assumption is true. The militarism of policing is built into its mission. When our elected officials tell the police that they are waging a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on terror, and a war on gangs, then the police will organize themselves in a militaristic fashion. This is also a by-product of being violence workers, a fact that distinguishes policing from other government interventions. This fact is reflected in the training, the production of paramilitary units, and the insular defensive nature of the institution. Rather than focusing so intently on the tools given to police, we need to push back on the “wars” the police are waging. If we change the mission of policing to dramatically reduce its scope, then lives will be saved. We need to hold the political leadership driving police militarization accountable. These leaders are waging “wars” and justifying police militarization, so let’s get rid of the “wars,” and the rest will follow. 

Alexandra Vitkin: Would reducing the number of police in the United States create a disenfranchised population of former police officers? 

Alex Vitale: Again, this scenario rests on the assumption that there is an ability to abolish police departments instantaneously. Like I said earlier, this is not the case—no city will do that. Essentially, what we’re talking about is a process of attrition. There is turnover in policing—they get to retire after twenty or so years with a pension. So, if you just stopped hiring police officers for five years, then the force would be reduced by 30 percent as a result of retirements and people who leave for other reasons. The question is not what to do with all these fired police officers. The question is: What do you say to young people for whom policing was one of the few avenues to make it into a stable middle-class position through unionized employment? 

The answer is that this movement is about creating entirely new infrastructures of public health and public safety that will necessitate hiring a lot of people. Instead of entering a criminal justice program to become a cop or prison guard, you should go into a public health program, social work program, or community building program—a helping profession, not a hurting profession. 

To illustrate this notion, I’ll recount an anecdote from a talk I gave in Houston. A few police officers came to the talk hoping that I would tell them how they could change policing—they thought they could change it from the inside, but felt like they’d had no positive impact. I replied that there is no way to change the culture of policing internally. I asked them which job they would have taken if, when they were deciding to become police officers, they were given the opportunity to mentor kids in a community or coach football for the same pay and benefits. They all laughed and said that they would have loved to coach football. There aren’t sufficient job opportunities in helping professions available. We have to change that. 

Alexandra Vitkin: After the murder of George Floyd, there was obviously a renewed vigor in protesting. Police have a history of suppressing these political and social movements. Do you envision these protests leading to an uptick in suppression on the part of the police? 

Alex Vitale: The protests themselves were heavily suppressed; there was a tremendous amount of violence and prejudicial prosecutions that emerged after those protests. The Black Lives Matter movement, however, is overall much more focused on grassroots community organizing than it is in large-scale protests. The question is: Will there be systemic organized repression of grassroots coordination? In a way, it is much more difficult to go after these movements. They tend to be decentralized and rooted in communities with strong networks of people who know each other. The behaviors members of these movements engage in is difficult to mislabel as criminal. Petitioning local governments or holding a community meeting in a church or the basement of a union hall is hard to criminalize, but that isn’t to say that it hasn’t been done. 

For example, before the Great Depression, there was no right to form a labor union in the United States, so if people organized a meeting, their employer would call the police who would beat the people up and take them to jail. This was routine police behavior. People have some greater protections from these police practices now than they once did, but infiltration, dirty tricks, surveillance, and intimidation are all still common and potentially threatening to these movements. 

Alexandra Vitkin: Could you talk about your work on the Policing and Social Justice Project? 

Alex Vitale: One of the big focuses of the project is staffing the New York City Gangs Coalition, which is composed of civil rights groups, legal aid groups, community organizations, and directly affected families. We’ve been advocating against widely labelling violence as gang-related, and using gang suppression policing techniques like gang databases and conspiracy laws to entrap people. We have some local and state bills in the works that would end the use of gang databases. Additionally, we have pressured the Manhattan DA’s office to stop prosecuting gang conspiracy cases and begin to support public outreach and violence reduction strategies. 

Nationally, we’re part of an effort to push back against federal policing task forces that parachute into local communities. We’ve built a network of organizations around the country that are working to get their local governments not to participate in these task forces. We help coordinate their efforts through financial and technical support and helping them have a voice in DC at the federal level. 

Alexandra Vitkin: What is your ultimate vision for the future of community safety? 

Alex Vitale: There has been a tendency to think about policing in a siloed way—we have police, police cause harm, so how do we fix policing? I’ve tried to argue that we can’t understand policing independently of political and economic imperatives. This is why the procedural justice movement has been a failure. Within the defund the police and police abolition movement, people are discussing how to relate their mission to those larger political and economic questions. What is the appropriate role for the state in addressing community problems? What’s our analysis of market forces? What are the limits to community­ based problem solving independent of the state? There is room here, not only for dynamic organizing, but also for deep thinking and academic investigation. 

Alexandra Vitkin: How can college students engage with police reform efforts? 

Alex Vitale: College students can organize to transform their own public safety environment. In the wake of student protests in the 1970s, colleges created massive armed police forces to suppress the effectiveness of student organizing. There is little evidence that these police forces produce safety, and their budgets often come at the expense of having a properly funded women’s center, rape crisis center, or comprehensive mental health services. Not to mention the funding that could be allocated towards ensuring food and housing security for students. There are homeless college students across the country. What are we doing to create real safety and stability for students? Policing is not how we accomplish a sense of security—it’s how we gloss over those other problems. 

* This interview has been edited for length and clarity.