Review: The End of Policing

‘The End of Policing’ by Alex S Vitale, published by Verso, October 2017

During the 2017 UK general election, the Police Federation ran an extremely successful campaign, eventually taken up for different motivations by both the Labour Party’s left-wing leadership and the right-wing press, arguing a direct link between falling police numbers and rising levels of crime.

Since then, only Rebecca Roberts from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) has been able to offer any challenge to this idea within the mainstream media. Police numbers have undoubtedly reduced since 2010 but still remain at historically high levels after years of growth. Nevertheless, this explanation for an increase in some types of crime has become an accepted truth: questioning the need for more police officers is seen as straying far outside the Overton window of political acceptability.

‘The End of Policing’, a new book by Brooklyn associate professor Alex S Vitale, goes much further, however, by posing questions that seem almost unthinkable in the US (its main focus) or here in the UK.

What if we really need significantly fewer police officers and more attention to alternatives that are less coercive? What if the police are wholly unsuited to solving many of the problems the state asks them to deal with?

Everything in America is, of course, more extreme, more dramatically divided on racial fault lines and more heavily armed than in Britain: that includes the number of citizens who die in police custody and the proportion of the population in incarceration. In seeking to explain how the US arrived at these polarising extremes, Vitale looks first to the early days of modern policing, much of which will seem familiar to British readers with some knowledge of our own history of social control.

A shared ‘origin story’, as it were, is normally represented by Sir Robert Peel and the birth of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. In the UK, the so-called “Peelian principles” and the idea of “policing by consent” are central to the way police see and seek to present themselves. However, as Vitale points out, the main function of Peel’s creation from the outset was not to fight crime but to “protect property, quell riots, and put down strikes and other industrial actions”. This model began not in London but first in Ireland, where seven years earlier in 1822 Peel set up the Royal Irish Constabulary to maintain British rule (a force that was widely loathed throughout its 100-year existence). It was imported first to Boston and then across the US, adapting to a nation facing mass immigration and expanding industrialisation by adding controls on morality to its burgeoning priorities.

Beyond the cities, another influence shared with Britain was the experience of colonial rule. For the US this was the occupation of the Philippines from 1901, which became “a testing ground for new police techniques and technologies” imported into the coal and iron fields of Pennsylvania. Much the same roles have been played, right up to the present day, by British colonial policing in Ireland and in Hong Kong. In response to rebellion by black youth in 1981, a presentation given in secret by the then Royal Hong Kong Police Commissioner, Roy Henry, to an Association of Chief Police Officers conference the same year was critical in the importing of riot control, surveillance and suppression techniques from the UK’s former Chinese colonial possession.

What emerges from constantly changing economic, colonial and political upheavals over the last two centuries is, according to Vitale, a legacy of policing “for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements”, for maintaining social stability, even when that stability is inherently unjust and exploitative, through a constant expansion of state power.

This does not mean that today, modern policing is unconcerned about crime, or that crime is not a serious issue. Instead, Vitale argues, decisions about fighting crime and the enforcement of an increasing number of laws is “intimately bound to race and class inequalities” and the potential for ‘public disorder’ – why poor, ethnically diverse neighbourhoods are policed differently from rich, white ones. He points to extensive research that shows what counts as crime and what is targeted for control is overwhelmingly shaped by these factors and is far more complex than the rise or fall in the number of police officers.

‘The End of Policing’ looks in detail at a number of the key issues that dominate the debate about crime in the US, including the various wars on drugs, terror, vice, gangs and homelessness. In each case, he argues that after years of neo-liberal austerity, there is compelling evidence that “local governments have no will or ability to pursue the kind of ameliorative social policies that address crime and disorder”.

Instead, because “political leaders have embraced a neoconservative politics that sees all social problems as police problems”, the response has been to harass, arrest and imprison those who are themselves the most likely to become victims of street crime: people from poor, working class and especially black neighbourhoods. Using the criminal justice system in this way has, however, singularly failed to provide long-term solutions. It is also enormously expensive, inherently racist and fundamentally unjust.

In a chapter on each issue, Vitale sets out the problem in depth, explores the liberal view of reforms that seek only to remove the worst excesses of police conduct and to restore the legitimacy of using force in the interests of society, and then offers ideas for alternatives.

It is impossible to cover every subject the book examines here but take homelessness, for example. Having nowhere to live is not a crime but there are an ever increasing number of laws that criminalise behaviours associated with homelessness. Some of this is driven by gentrification, but more often by ‘quality of life’ concerns that, Vitale suggests, “play into the broader sense of insecurity felt by people who see their standards of living declining”. These concerns encourage even those who are otherwise inherently distrusting of the police to call for local governments to ‘get tough’ on the homeless.

However, constantly arresting or moving people on does nothing to end homelessness or even reduce the number of people living on the streets – a problem that governments know how to solve, but lack the political will to address. All coercion achieves is to push homeless people further to the margins and increase the prospects of them remaining there.

The alternatives are obviously more permanent homes, but also addressing the mismatch between wages and housing costs that is so often a trigger for people losing their home in the first place. These are long-term solutions – in the short-term, Vitale argues for “a system of drop-in centres and emergency shelters focused on getting people off the streets without relying on the police, the criminal justice system or other punitive mechanisms”. This includes an alternative to the kind of strict controls on conduct and behaviour demanded by many religious homeless charities.

Having historically exported many ideas about policing to the States, what is constantly striking in reading ‘The End of Policing’ is just how much of what the book describes is now returning to Britain as mainstream policy. Cracking down on street homelessness is one example: so too is the treatment of sex workers, with a strong tendency among police to view prostitution (particularly trafficking) in highly moral terms but to act in ways that increases the risk of driving it underground.

Another parallel between Britain and the US is the tendency of police departments to view most youth criminality in deprived black communities as gang-related and misunderstand the loose links and associations between groups of young people. As a result, all black youth are viewed as legitimate targets for the persistent use of stop and search powers, which has remained repeatedly disproportionate. Police tend to rely heavily too on arrests, surveillance and adding names to gangs databases (often when people have committed no offence), even though the evidence suggests teenagers are largely immune from the deterrent effect of these coercive tactics. Liberal reform focuses most on intensive enforcement of those at greatest risk coupled with a range of support services. Research shows, however, that youth crime invariably stems from a sense of insecurity and that communities themselves are often better equipped to solve these problems. Nevertheless, most initiatives of this kind remain chronically underfunded.

More than anything, Vitale argues, what we really need is to rethink the role of police in society, to constantly re-evaluate “what the police are asked to do” to tackle the problems the state wants officers to solve, to ask whether the police are really best suited to solve them and “what impact policing has on the lives of the policed”. What is missing right now, he insists, is any critical assessment of these issues.

This is as true in the UK as it is in the States. In January 2015, the College of Policing published a report showing that an extraordinary 84% of incoming calls to command and control centres were for ‘non-crime’ incidents. As Rebecca Roberts of the CCJS pointed out in her Independent article after June’s election, “rather than law breaking, the core business of police work today is on something officially defined as “Public Safety and Welfare” – mental health, child protection, missing persons and suicides”. The same is true, inevitably in a more stark and extreme way, in the US: Vitale argues that “chemical dependency, trauma and mental health issues play a huge role in undermining the safety and stability of neighbourhoods”.

As an alternative to more police officers, more oppressive laws and more expenditure on suppression and incarceration, people who are suffering need meaningful help and this must mean a greater priority to “access to real services from trained professionals using evidence-based treatments”. The pressing need is for more mental health specialists, more social workers, more youth services and more community projects.

As well as campaigning against police brutality, harassment and oppressive tactics and demanding reforms, “The End of Policing” therefore calls for “a larger vision that questions the role of the police in society… [and] asks whether coercive government action will bring more justice or less”.

What we have now is a level of political debate focused exclusively on more officers and more funding for policing, a debate that has barely raised itself above the notion that the police are the only institution standing perilously between society and chaos.

In reality, however, the “thin blue line” remains much as it has always been – less the divide between the criminals and the law-abiding, but more between the haves and the have-nots. What “The End of Policing” asks us to imagine is a society where the police are no longer viewed in these terms – or indeed, when tackling many of the problems that society faces, are no longer seen as part of the solution at all.

Reviewed by Kevin Blowe, Coordinator of Netpol

The End of Policing is available in hardback from Verso on 10 October 2017, priced £16.99