There has been a long standing debate in this country about the role of the police. Indeed in the shadow of the Sheehy Inquiry in the 1990s the Police Foundation carried out its own independent review into the role and responsibilities of the police. More recently caught between the challenges of austerity and rising demand many continue to call for a royal commission into the role of the police.
A version of this debate has now erupted in the United States, spearheaded by Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College his new book The End of Policing. Yesterday Vitale visited the Police Foundation to discuss his ideas with an audience of police officers, academics, policy makers and community activists.
Vitale takes aim at liberal reformists, such as those associated with the Obama administration, whose response to the tragic events in Ferguson and elsewhere has been to promote reforms such as improving workforce diversity, enhancing accountability and shifting from militarised to community policing. Vitale argues that such efforts, while well intentioned, are a distraction.
He argues that as social inequalities have widened and public provision has been cut back the police have been asked to deal with an expanding range of social problems which they are ill suited to deal with. Moreover, while the police are asked to carry out these enforcement functions in an unequal and racially unjust society they will always end up over policing minority communities, using excessive force and, in the US in particular, killing innocent people. As he made clear in his presentation this is not in his view largely the fault of the police: they have been handed an almost impossible task in trying to manage the consequences of social and ultimately political failure.
There is much in Vitale’s description of the expansion of policing into new social spheres that will resonate with a UK audience. In particular, the increased deployment of police officers to deal with mental health incidents, street homelessness and low level antisocial behaviour are all trends we have seen here.
However, other parts of his description of the changing role of policing do not fit with the UK experience. In particular the extreme militarisation of US policing in order to wage ‘the war on drugs’ and most obviously the problem of regular police shootings are not patterns we have seen here. Moreover, much of the expansion of the role of the police here in recent years has been in areas where greater enforcement has been tied to explicitly progressive ends: in particular for example tackling modern slavery and human trafficking and providing the protection of public law to women and children facing abusive men in the domestic sphere. It seems to me these represent areas where the most disadvantaged in society have suffered because of a lack of law enforcement in the past.
Vitale sets out a number of alternatives to this problem of over-policing which are well evidenced and convincing. Rather than continue with the failing ‘war on drugs’ he calls for drug legalisation which will reduce harm and undercut organised crime. Rather than use the police to deal with people in mental health crisis, provide proper mental health services. Rather than use the long arm of the law to police street homelessness stop people becoming homeless in the first place. Rather than use the police to deal with discipline and order issues in schools (there are extraordinarily 5,000 police officers deployed full time in New York’s schools) use restorative justice interventions.
My main problem with the argument is that Vitale makes procedural reform (increased accountability, better community policing) an alternative to addressing substantive injustice. Why not do both? Apart from anything else dealing with the problems he identifies will take time and the reforms he advocates (such as drugs and sex work legalisation for example) will require public support that may or may not be forthcoming. In the meantime we will still need police officers to respond to incidents and investigate crimes and on my reading Vitale agrees that, while he is sceptical about some of the evidence base, there are better and worse ways of them doing so.
In the course of our discussion it became clear to me that in the end the reason Vitale poses the question in these stark terms is not because he considers procedural reform to be worthless, but rather that he wants community campaigners to stop focusing all their efforts on police accountability and process and instead start demanding better housing, improved mental health services and an end to drugs prohibition. Taken in that spirit this book represents a welcome effort to take on a toxic political discourse whose consequences are a weakened social safety net, failing criminal justice policies and overstretched police services.