Wrapping My Head Around “Defund the Police”: A Review of Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing

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.

7 thoughts on “Wrapping My Head Around “Defund the Police”: A Review of Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing

  1. I haven’t read this book so anything I say will be based on your summary.

    It sounds to me as if Vitale’s book is based on a series of premises that amount to a philosophy of class warfare. “The rich” and “the poor” are stable categories, with the same people in them from generation to generation. This might have been true in the Middle Ages, and it might still be true in societies that are basically police states, but it’s not true in the United States.

    I just read Thomas Sowell’s book The Quest for Cosmic Justice. According to him, if we define “the poor” as the bottom 20 percent of income distribution, only 3% of Americans remain in that category for as much as 8 years. People tend to get wealthier as they get older. “The rich” are disproportionately older. The genuinely rich and the genuinely poor do not add up to 10 percent of the American population. The rest of us are working class, middle class, or upper middle class, in the process of moving up and sometimes down and all around.

    To me, this is fatal to Vitale’s argument. The situation he describes, where the entire structure of society including the police force is designed to harshly oppress, might be true in a dictatorship or a police state where there is a large permanent underclass, but it’s not true in a society like ours that has so much social mobility.

    Definitely we want people in poor neighborhoods to be able to move out of poverty. But I think law and order helps them with this. Chaos, anarchy, and/or control by local gangs prevents it.

    I do agree that our mental health system is broken and that the police should not be expected to deal with this. I think if we address this, it will go a long way towards reducing the homeless population and it will give families more options as well.

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    1. Yes, he is coming from a VERY leftist perspective. But it’s important to note that from that perspective the designation is really about having access to capital, not about income levels, or even necessarily savings. So the difference would be more between the power of large corporations who own the means of production or those who run them (the so-called 1%, or the upper 10% who hold most of the share-holding power) and wage earners who sell their labor, but do not own the means of production, meaning mostly everyone else. Even a highly paid accountant, if he sells his labor for the benefit of someone else, would still be considered “working class” in this framework. I have not read Sowell’s book (though I might look into that) but I don’t think his definition of rich and poor would be relevant to the arguments that Vitale is making. (It’s also possible I may have misrepresented Vitale’s position, I’m still trying to understand this stuff myself).

      With regards to law and order helping people move out of poverty, it demonstrably doesn’t. Mostly because the punitive nature of the criminal justice system prevents this. For example, high fines for something as simple as a speeding ticket can derail a person already living on the edge, economically speaking. Inability to afford a lawyer, being pressured in to plea deals or facing arrest related to homelessness (like loitering or public sleeping) can further compound the problem by giving that person a criminal record or even contribute to bad credit, that prevents them from getting a job. I think Vitale actually does a pretty good job giving examples on how over-policing of the poor actually exacerbates their poverty by further marginalizing them from participating in the legitimate economy. (And therefore, also makes the black-market economy and gang-activity that much more likely.)

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  2. I haven’t read this book, but I do think that completely doing away with the police as an institution is a bit extreme. We definitely need massive reforms and sometimes it can seem simpler to tear up the old model and start from scratch than to go through and change a structure that has so many inherent problems. Yet if we don’t fix the source of the problems in our larger society first, who’s to say what we build as a replacement won’t be flawed in new ways or even in the same ways?

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    1. Yes, that is certainly what I struggle with as well. It’s one thing to say “the system is fucked, let’s drop it”, but if we don’t understand the environment and factors that allowed such a system to be built and to persist, how can we really avoid it?

      The road we are on now was paved with lots of good intentions. :/ On the other hand, radical change may need to happen, not all progress can be made incrementally without backsliding.

      I’ve got a lot more to learn on this. I do recommend checking out the book though.

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  3. I haven’t read that yet but will pick it up! I was thinking the same thing and processed it in one of my posts. I think its interesting how we view criminals as a genetic defect. Once someone is a “criminal” they are stamped permanently. They can’t get jobs, housing, or higher education. There is a direct link between violent crime and unemployment. If people can’t get jobs after jail then is putting people in jail really going to work? Thanks for your post!

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