A kinder, gentler, and more diverse war on the poor is still a war on the poor.
Like many white Americans, I was complacent about the problem of police violence for many years. I figured that there would always be tragic accidents, always a few bad officers, and that we must make allowances for people doing what is, no doubt, a very difficult job. My attitude started to change when I left the country, and realized that the levels of police violence and incarceration in America are exceptionally high. Still, I figured that the United States was always going to be a uniquely violent country, and that an over-aggressive police force was simply one aspect of this.
The killing of George Floyd and the recent protests have been a turning point for me, as they have been for many people in the country. The death of yet another unarmed black man in police custody—yet another citizen choked to death by government workers, as he repeated that he could not breathe—was gruesome enough. But the seemingly infinite videos of flagrant police abuse that surfaced during the protests pushed me from complacent, to skeptical, to indignant. Peaceful protesters and journalists were shoved, beaten, sprayed, gassed, shot with “less-lethal” ammunition, and arrested.
Few people, I hope, can see the video of Martin Gugino—a 75-year old man pushed to the ground by Buffalo police, bleeding from his head as police march past him indifferently—without a sense of outrage. The only way to rationalize such an obviously unnecessary use of force is to embrace ridiculous conspiracy theories, as the president recently has. Meanwhile, the police response to this incident is entirely typical: after the two offending officers were suspended, the rest of the 57 members of the emergency response team resigned in protest.
It is in this context that the rallying cry “Defund the Police” has begun to circulate. In other circumstances, such a statement would strike me as absurdly Utopian; but once I learned that its proponents were not proposing to eliminate policing entirely, but to reduce it and divert resources to other social services, it began to sound all the more reasonable. (I do I fear the slogan is poorly chosen, however, since it gives many people the mistaken idea that nobody will be around to solve murders or investigate thefts. If a slogan requires a lengthy clarification, then it is not an effective slogan; and it risks alienating people by making the idea seem more radical than it really is. Personally, I think something like “Reimagine Policing” may capture the idea much better, even if it sounds a bit twee.)
This book is an excellent resource for those who wish to reimagine the role of police in America. (It is now available for free download on Verso.) Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College, examines the many ways that police are asked to do a job they are ill-suited for, and proposals to replace them. His first essential point is that the problem goes far beyond the conventional discourse about police reform. Body cameras, implicit bias training, and diversifying police forces do not reliably reduce police violence. Certainly, there are reforms that can and should be made—such as stopping the 1033 program which transfers military equipment to police departments, or changing the training regimes that instill a “warrior” mentality into police officers—but even the best of these reforms miss the point.
As with the issues of healthcare and higher education financing, there is a tendency in America to frame the issue of policing in terms of technocratic fixes, as if value-neutral reforms could be instituted that would make the police a perfect institution. But this ignores the greater moral and philosophical question: What do we have police for?
The police are distinguished from other public servants in being armed and authorized to use violence. Their presence is warranted if somebody poses a violent threat—as in the case of an assault, a sexual predator, or someone on a shooting spree—and even then, it is their responsibility to use a minimum of force. The problem, however, is that the vast bulk of police work does not consist in dealing with violent threats; it consists of traffic stops, border patrol, noise complaints, domestic abuse calls, drug busts, school fights, or prostitution. What connects so many of these situations is not the threat of violence, but poverty—which in America is inevitably racialized.
The life of George Floyd exemplifies the problem with policing. Born into difficult circumstances, he had many run-ins with the police during his life, none of which helped him. He served ten months in a state prison for a $10 drug deal, and then five more years after a plea deal for armed robbery. In the incident that led to his death, he was allegedly trying to pay for cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. What ties these together is that they are crimes of poverty—and that the only government intervention available came in the form of a punitive criminal justice system.
Nobody is in favor of robbery or counterfeit money; but I think that such crimes are inevitable if people are forced to endure a low standard of living with few legitimate economic opportunities to improve their situations. The question we need to ask, then, is whether locking people away, or saddling them with police records—or, in the case of Floyd, outright murder—is the right way to improve our country. Put another way, the essential question is whether a criminal justice mentality—which treats crime as an individual choice, subject to moral sanctions—is appropriate for the many social problems besetting our communities.
The case of police in schools is illustrative of how this mentality is applied to social problems. In the United States, we have apparently come to accept the constant possibility of school shootings; and partly as a response to this, armed police officers have been stationed in tens of thousands of schools across the country. In fact, two-thirds of American high school students attend a school with at least one police officer present; many schools have officers but lack counselors or nurses.
In too many cases, the police are not present merely to prevent violence, but actively take part in disciplining students. In this way, schools become a microcosm of American society: Inequality of opportunity (since schools are funded by property taxes) and an increasingly narrow metric of success (in this case, standardized tests) lead to undesirable behavior, which is dealt with through increasingly punitive measures. Who benefits from this system?
Another clear illustration of the criminal-justice approach is the war on prostitution and drugs. One does not need to be in favor of either of these activities to see that criminalizing them has not worked. Anyone who wants to buy drugs or sex can do so, just as any college student under 21 (the legal drinking age in America) can find a way to buy alcohol. Meanwhile, this approach has resulted in millions of people—most of whom are non-violent—being thrown into prison. Not only does our approach fail to address the problem, then, but we multiply the social harm into the bargain.
Any visitor to Amsterdam can see that the legalization of prostitution and marijuana has not caused the social order to descend into chaos. On the contrary, the condition of sex workers in places where sex work is legal and regulated, such as New Zealand, is far better than in the United States (even though we justify our approach as preventing human rights abuses). The case of Portugal’s drug policy is even stronger evidence of the failure of our approach. After decriminalizing drug use in 2001, and treating it as a public health issue, Portugal now has the lowest drug mortality rate in Europe, fifty times lower than the United States—and this is on top of the huge reduction in drug-related arrests.
As a final point, we also must remember that America’s War on Drugs has not only had devastating consequences domestically, but has contributed to drug-related violence around the world. Indeed, the destabilizing effects of these policies have, in part, driven unauthorized immigration, a problem that we have chosen to address using—of course—more policing.
Prostitution, drug use, and policing in schools are just three of the examples that Vitale examines. In these as in so many other cases—such as homelessness and mental illness—we must ask: Should a police officer be handling this problem? That is to say, should we have armed personnel, authorized to use violent force, treating these problems as matters of individual choice that deserve punishment? In so many cases, I believe the answer is no. I am sure that many police officers try to do these jobs conscientiously and diligently, but a gun, a baton, and handcuffs are simply not the proper tools, and imprisonment is not the proper approach.
If we are to learn from the current pandemic, I think it should be that a public health approach to social problems is both more rational and more humane. We would, of course, never throw somebody in jail for testing positive for COVID-19, even if having the disease can put other people’s lives at risk. When it comes to disease, we do not think of it as a problem of individual choice, personal responsibility, and deserved punishment. Just so, I think that we should see drug use, prostitution, school misbehavior, petty theft, and unauthorized immigration as processes that are driven by factors that go far beyond individual choice, and which merit coordinated social support rather than criminal prosecution. Imagine if the thousands of dollars that were spent sending George Floyd to jail for a $10 drug deal were instead spent on improving his situation.
As one final point, I think there is a significant factor of police violence that is not addressed in this book: gun ownership. If we choose to live in a society where, at any moment, somebody can open fire into a crowd, then I think this puts serious constraints on the degree to which we can disarm or reduce police forces. So many stories of police killings involve somebody being killed for reaching into their pocket, holding a shiny object, or even for a car backfiring. In places where gun ownership is rare, this almost never happens. This is another issue that could benefit from a public health approach. But even if we eliminated all civilian guns in the country, we would still be left with policing practices that exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the immense social divides in America. With a little bit of imagination, I think we can find a better way.
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