Alex Vitale is a professor of sociology and coordinator of a project on police and social justice at Brooklyn College in New York, and has been writing and researching police performance for the past 30 years. His radical postulates have resonated in the US since the assassination of George Floyd, whose case has sparked a public debate on police behavior. During the three weeks that the trial against Agent Derek Chauvin, who has been convicted of murder, has lasted, more than three people a day have died at the hands of the police in the US.
Your book The end of the police (Captain Swing) will be published in June in Spain and in it he argues that the abuse of the agents “cannot be solved with a reform because it has its origin in the decision to hand over to the police all the social problems” derived from a “system neoliberal exploitation “.RELATED
The answer, according to him, consists of “a process of reducing the scope of the police and its replacement by alternatives.” The end result, he says, could be a model similar to the English one where only a small number of armed agents were available to respond to a very small number of cases.
What is your analysis of the verdict in the George Floyd case? Do you think anything will change in terms of accountability and policing?
It is important to understand the verdict as a result of popular pressure. The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests of the past year have created a fundamental legitimacy crisis in US policing. This can be seen in the prosecution’s decision to aggressively prosecute the case, which is unusual, and also in the Minneapolis police’s decision to vigorously testify against the officer, which is extremely unusual.
In turn, we should not understand the verdict as something that will bring about a profound change in American policing. We have seen these types of unusual convictions in the past and they have not led to any significant change. In fact, the discourse that comes from the police officers and government leaders is that the system worked, that it was a “bad apple”, an agent who has been fired and sentenced and that now it is possible to go back to what they were doing without having to address the underlying issues.
Are these problems related to the origin of the police itself?
We have this commonly accepted idea that the police are simply a neutral enforcer of a legal system that produces a social order that benefits everyone equally. However, if we look at the origins of the police in the United States and in the rest of the world, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, in reality it is linked to legalized regimes of exploitation: especially colonialism, slavery and the manufacture of a industrial working class.
The police arise when the need arises on the part of the State to use violence to manage more efficiently and legitimately the consequences of these systems of exploitation.
The first modern police force to meet the definition is the Charleston City Guard in South Carolina, which was created to manage mobile slave populations. It was a professional, uniformed, 24-hour law enforcement-oriented civilian body whose main job was to manage slaves who worked outside their owners’ homes in workshops or warehouses.
Even the London Metropolitan Police, created in 1829, uses the model of the English occupation of Ireland. Sir Robert Peel, who created the London Police – Bobby is short for Robert and hence the call for the police bobbies– was in charge of the English occupation of Ireland and developed the Irish Peace Preservation Force as a hybrid form of police surveillance to manage agricultural uprisings in the Irish countryside. Then he took that, modified it, and used it in London to manage the massive influx of farm workers who were displaced by the enclosure movement. [división de tierras comunales para uso individual privado]. These people flooded the cities creating disorder and problems of political resistance and then police action was developed to try to turn them into a fixed working class.
And if the objective of the police is to defend that system of exploitation, would you say that policing is then inherently racist?
It is not necessarily racist, except that these systems of exploitation have always been based on race as the central factor of organization. In addition, that notion of race is changing over time. For example, in the northern United States, during the high immigration periods of 100 years ago, groups such as Italians and Jews, and even the Irish, were not considered white, but were considered a different racial group.
Over time, these groups in Europe became “white”, policing focused more on the growing number of black people living in these northern cities, and the police became central to the ghetto-building process. The police have always been part of racial projects and therefore contain these institutional legacies within them.
So the objective of the police is to control disadvantaged communities?
Yes, manage them. The objective of the system is to extract wealth in the most efficient way through processes of exploitation that almost always have to do with race. When you have a system of exploitation, there will be resistance. Workers will try to form unions and go on strike; slaves will try to escape or kill their masters; people subjected to colonialism will resist and form uprisings. The police are one of the central tools used by the state to manage and suppress these acts of resistance.
He argues in his book that in the last 40 years there has been an immense expansion of the reach of the police, who have been entrusted with managing all kinds of social problems that do not correspond to them. Why has this phenomenon occurred?
In this period we have seen that politicians of both parties in the United States have increasingly adopted a kind of neoliberal austerity policy that alleges that all the government can do in the face of globalization is to subsidize economic actors that already have more. success in the hope that they will be so competitive that some of their wealth will leak out to the rest of us.
This has not produced widespread prosperity, but has spawned a class of billionaires, and on the other hand, it has spawned a lot of homeless people, widespread mental health and drug problems … Later, that has become in a crime problem that must be managed through the police.
After so many reforms, why do we continue to see killings at the hands of the police in the United States?
The history of the police is a history of reforms. Every new police chief thinks he is a reformist, but these reforms are nothing more than attempts to legitimize a system whose legitimacy is always under assault because it is a system that facilitates exploitation. Today we react against what in previous generations were innovative reforms, which in turn were reforms of previous generations. This idea that reforming the police is the solution is a misunderstanding of history.
The solution, according to you, would then be to reduce the scope of policing. Do you think American society is ready for this debate?
Surprisingly, it seems so. The events of the last year have forced a public conversation about this and we are seeing very concrete changes as a result. A growing number of cities are applying exactly the kinds of things the movement has been asking for: how to get the police out of schools and replace them with counselors and services; take the police out of the mental health business and create response teams with clinical staff rather than officers; do something substantial about homelessness instead of using the police to break up their settlements.
And in this whole process, what role does withdrawing funding from the police play, which has been one of the main demands?
The demand to withdraw funding from the police has been a slogan to express this idea that we should not focus on police reform, but rather focus on taking resources from the police to invest in the community.
Now, when people first hear this term, it can be misleading because for generations we have been told that the only tool we can have to produce security in communities is the armed police. As troublesome as the police are, they are afraid that the only tool will be removed. When activists have the opportunity to explain to people what they want to substitute for policing. People tend to support the idea.
But some may argue that withdrawing funding could mean leaving the police unprotected in a society with many guns.
If people are given a choice between nothing and the police, most, though not all, will choose the police, but this movement does not dispute that. What he advocates is the creation of a whole set of alternative institutions and infrastructures that allow us to address the problems of violence and deprivation more effectively through prevention and intervention strategies in community centers. It will be more effective in producing public safety and will not have all the collateral consequences associated with policing.
And if we get to that point, what should the police deal with in that kind of society?
I think it is an unknown answer. In my opinion, this is a process of reducing the scope of the police and replacing it with alternatives. As we do that, we see what remains and whether or not we can replace it. The guiding principle here is that the police are dangerous by nature and should be used as a tool of last resort. So we should take all the steps we can to try to find non-police strategies to our problems, and if we can’t get there, so be it.
It may end up resembling the way armed response units are used in England, which are a very small number of officers responding to a very small number of calls and with a very high level of supervision. The vast majority of police officers in England are unarmed, but these small units are.
Why do you think these murders that occur in the US do not occur so often in European countries?
There are several factors. One is that there are not that many weapons in circulation in Europe, but also, historically Europe has not had to manage the kinds of inequality and exploitation that the United States has. The colonialism and slavery of Europe occurred elsewhere. Torture, racism and violence were exported, but in the United States they were domestic projects. The extermination of the indigenous population and slavery were domestic projects and that is, in fact, one of the reasons why we have so many weapons in the United States.
Two weeks after George Floyd’s murder, the City of Minneapolis announced that it would dismantle the police department to create a whole different public safety system. What is the result a year later?
It is still in process. There are a number of legal and bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome. There are going to be some measures up for a vote this year for voters to approve the changes that would allow the plan to move forward.
There is quite broad support for these initiatives, so I think we will continue to see how the plan progresses, although it will take time and that is fine. It takes time to build community support and also for us to start creating alternatives. For example, Minneapolis has allocated millions of dollars to community anti-violence initiatives that are already showing success and will reduce the need to use the police.