In this brief and clear-eyed treatise, Alex S. Vitale breaks down the many ways in which policing does harm: from the school-to-prison pipeline that drives kids into despair, to practices that criminalize homelessness and addiction; from systems that disproportionately impact Black, brown, and disabled people, to the failures of policing sex work; and of course to the many people—Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—who die at the hands of police every year. In each case, he also methodically proposes evidence-based alternatives to policing that focus on the care and well-being of people and their communities rather than an insatiable and ineffective drive to do violence. The result is a thorough indictment of every part of the institution that is policing—and an urgent call to end it. “We should demand safety and security,” he concludes, “but not at the hands of the police. In the end, they rarely provide either.”
A key thing to keep in mind with respect to the huge increase in police forces and policing over the past forty years is that it has dovetailed with an increase in inequality: rather than attending to the root causes of inequality, we’ve turned to the police to deal with its effects:
Broken-windows policing is at root a deeply conservative attempt to shift the burden of responsibility for declining living conditions onto the poor themselves and to argue that the solution to all social ills is increasingly aggressive, invasive, and restrictive forms of policing that involve more arrests, more harassment, and ultimately more violence. As inequality continues to increase, so will homelessness and public disorder, and as long as people continue to embrace the use of police to manage disorder, we will see a continual increase in the scope of police power and authority at the expense of human and civil rights.Vitale, The End of Policing, page 7
Not only is it unethical to criminalize poverty, it doesn’t accomplish anything. What does arresting a homeless person achieve? It costs more to punish someone for the failings of their society than it costs to help them—and their community—recover from those failings.
But spending the public’s money efficiently isn’t the point: the point is to oppress. That oppression serves to uphold the unequal systems that draw money out of Black and brown communities and drive it into the hands of rich white corporate owners.
Inequality and violent over-policing require each other to exist. You can’t have one without the other. If you’re serious about ending inequality, you also have to end policing.
Vitale notes that policing—which was created in the eighteenth century, making it a relatively modern invention—rose up in response to systems that created an underclass of people so they could serve the wealthy few:
The reality is that police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behavior of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements....This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the eighteenth century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of a new industrial working class.....In the words of Mark Neocleous, police exist to “fabricate social order,” but that order rests on systems of exploitation—and when elites feel that this system is at risk, whether from slave revolts, general strikes, or crime and rioting in the streets, they rely on the police to control those activities.Vitale, The End of Policing, page 34
The notion of “fabricating” social order is a useful one: this isn’t a legitimate or natural social order, but a deceitful one, purpose-built for oppression. It isn’t self-sustaining but can only be maintained with deadly force. Again, we see that policing and inequality are two sides of the same coin: unequal systems give rise to a police force that enforce them, and the police are then defended by the benefactors of that inequality.