The Minneapolis City Council recently voted to defund the police in favor of establishing a “holistic public safety force”. This move would require an amendment to the city charter, and so requires a city-wide vote. On the face of it, it seems like a pretty extreme move. And a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum agree. On the other hand, a lot of people on both sides (extreme-left anarchists and right-wing libertarians) think it’s the reasonable choice–though what they would replace it with obviously differs quite a bit. But beyond the catchphrase and the talking heads that scoff at it, what is the actual argument and theory behind it?
Alex Vitale attempts to address this in his book “The End of Policing” and from my perspective he does a good job presenting the problems with policing. The first question he raises is, “What exactly do we expect the police to accomplish, and are they effective at it?” If we assume that policing exists for the benefit of public safety and order, how effective are they at accomplishing those goals?
The conclusions that Vitale draws on these points are actually not too far away from some of the problems that many police officers themselves have noticed—how a lack of sensible public policies with regards to providing poor communities (and especially poor communities of color) with job opportunities, affordable housing, mental healthcare, drug treatment, etc., all create a revolving door in which the police are called in to manage the effects of these social problems, but the underlying cause is never addressed. For example, police are often called in to remove homeless encampments, but this just causes the homeless to move around, without having the cause of their homelessness addressed. Likewise, those involved in drug crimes not only receive no assistance, but may have their dependency exacerbated as a result of their involvement with the criminal justice system, resulting in further arrests and incarcerations.
What this amounts to is that we call the police as a solution to problems that have not been addressed due to a lack of political will. And I think these are issues we should all be pressuring our local, state, and federal representatives to take more decisive actions on–whether or not defunding the police makes sense to you overall, I think the author does a pretty good job of arguing that police are not an adequate solution to these problems. It is in the best interest of both our communities, and one could argue, in the interest of the police themselves to approach these issues with political policies and social support infrastructure.
But Vitale goes even further than this point, by examining the history of policing as an institution. In the book, he examines the origins of global policing and its development as a means of controlling colonized populations at the hands of minority invading governments, upending worker’s rights movements, and continuing to enforce subjugation on slave (and later former slave) people. In this context, policing is less about protecting public safety and more about surveillance and curtailing the political and economic activities of political and ethnic minorities, and the poor in general. “Serve and protect” he argues, never applied to the public, but rather to the interests of the ruling class as a means of enforcing social control and economic exploitation.
With this history in mind, Vitale argues that the instances of police corruption, misconduct, and excessive force are not sporadic flaws in the institution, but rather features of its intended purpose. Hence, police reforms often fail to sufficiently address these problems because the structure of the institution creates an environment where they are inevitable. This is a strong indictment against the “bad apples” argument. It’s not to say that there are no good people who become police officers with the intention of supporting public safety, but rather that this is not what policing is actually designed to do. The “good apples” may be signing up for good reasons, but they may not be signing up for the job they think they are.
I find these arguments against policing pretty convincing. But I see some holes in the proposed solutions. For one thing, while I absolutely agree that underlying social inequalities need to be addressed on a fundamental policy level rather than just pushed around by more or less ineffectual and all too often brutal policing, I still see the need for armed responses to some situations. I’m not confident that social services will prevent the need for a professional with a gun in cases of burglaries in progress or active shooters, however rare those cases may be.
Even more troubling, if we acknowledge that the purpose of policing was not for the benefit of the public, but rather to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and if we agree that defunding the police in favor of programs which benefit the poor, what are we doing to address the interests of the rich and powerful? What I mean is, doesn’t the need for surveillance, union busting, intimidation, etc. still remain? If we defund the police, does that not create an incentive for private security forces which are even more outside the public’s control? In the book, Vitale points out how police forces in some places started out with private organizations like the Pinkertons, hired by factory and mine owners to conduct union-busting activities. What would stop the wealthy from going back to a privatized model (on a much larger scale than they already do)?
Ultimately, I do recommend reading this book, because so much in the news these days amounts to sound bites, and this book provides a much more nuanced and in depth understanding of where a lot of activists and policy makers are coming from on the subject of police abolition. I particularly appreciated the bibliography and further reading at the end of the book, because I think there is still a lot more I need to learn about this subject before I can really discuss it intelligently, one way or the other.
What about you guys? Have you read this book? What do you think about defunding the police? Is your city considering this approach? Let me know.