In The End of Policing (2017), professor of sociology Alex S Vitale journeys back to its origins to remind us that the idea behind the creation of the first police force in 1829 England was not so much to fight crime, but to "manage disorder and protect the propertied classes from the rabble." This same model was later applied across the US and against various colonised populations, where political and economic leaders sought ways to "manage riots and the widespread social disorder associated with the working classes." While the practice of policing has changed over time, the police force, according to Vitale, has remained a highly problematic institution—as is apparent around the world today.
The author begins by covering a recent slew of deaths of African American men at the hands of American police; but his purview for the book is wider. He delves deeper to identify some of the 'failures' of the police system and the social factors that cause them, and cuts through traditional reformist thinking by arguing against social and economic injustice and mass criminalisation. These, he contends, are at the heart of neoliberalism.
The "origins and function of the police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities," Vitale writes. Any police reform plan that doesn't acknowledge this history will backfire. As we witnessed recently in the States and witness commonly in our own country, certain sections of the society are perceived as "always-already guilty". "This is not justice", says Professor Vitale. "It is oppression." Real justice would look to restore trust and social cohesion.
He points out how mass militarisation allows the police to be more violent. Meanwhile, new technologies allow them to access evermore aspects of our private lives, putting modern societies at greater risk from poorly monitored police. This is why police harassment has become more frequent. Instead of acquiring new and more powerful weaponry for the police to suppress crime, governments would be better off investing that money in social services that automatically reduce lawbreaking, such as building better schools.
Instead, political leaders opt to use heavily armed police to suppress the population and safeguard the interests of influential quarters. While issues of training and diversity often come up in reform discussions, Vitale argues that what we really need to rethink is the role of the police in society. Empty police reforms ultimately have always failed. Only "a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, nonpunitive solutions to their problems," can address the shared grievances that exist—and have existed—in regards to policing.
The book contends that policing is in many ways a form of social control that disproportionately targets poor and ethnic minority communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the War on Drugs. For example, Bill Clinton's crime bills in the early 1990s increased the number of drug offences and provided more money for the Drugs Enforcement Agency and the prison estate. It transformed policing, and led to an "explosion in SWAT teams and other militarised forms of policing [...], racial profiling and racist enforcement patterns." Yet, some of the changes Vitale recommends are not unique, such as the proposal that in areas such as drugs and sex work, decriminalisation would save considerable sums of money that could be better invested in communities to reduce inequality.
Vitale doesn't just highlight problems; he offers solutions. He emphasises that in order to address the underlying issues, a political response is necessary. However, where the will for that political response would come from is not something he is clearly able to frame.
Although the book focuses almost entirely on the US police, the evils Vitale speaks of exist in almost every country. And the concerns he shares concern all. His book provides practical solutions to all these many, long-existing problems of policing, and the social ills that give rise to them.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
Twitter handle: @EreshOmarJamal