What to Do About the Police?

What to Do About the Police?

Two new books examine the austerity policies and administrative overreach behind the expansion of local law enforcement.


I live in New York, a city patrolled by some 35,000 uniformed police officers. Yet beat cops and cruisers are not a meaningful part of my life. I encounter the police as a passerby, and interact with them only as I would a plumber or locksmith. They are on call to solve problems; they appear on command and leave when their work is done. My experience with the police is notably distant from that of Franklyn, a 20-year-old I met last November in our shared borough of Brooklyn. Raised in low-income sections of East Flatbush and Crown Heights, Franklyn has had many encounters with the police; they are less often plumbers or locksmiths than wardens—omnipresent and omnipotent. “There’s a reason we have policing in the first place, but I believe we stepped away from that reason and started building something that doesn’t match the initial plan,” he told me. “When you’re bothering people in the lobby of their own building or stopping someone in front of their own house, that becomes unnecessary.”

Our conversation took place after a panel at Brooklyn College, where Franklyn is a student. The event marked the publication of a new book, The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale, a sociologist at the college. Vitale squared off against Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. To a largely black and brown audience, Mac Donald argued that contemporary policing isn’t racist; rather, it is driven by objective data on where crimes occur. Racially disproportionate stop-and-frisk rates, she asserted, are evidence not of bias but of a population in crisis: delinquency and a broken family structure, especially absentee dads. Just ask the minority residents of troubled housing units, she added. They are “begging” for more police.

There are many ways one might reply to Mac Donald. Vitale did so with the central argument of his book: that most poor people are in fact begging for less police. What they really want, he said, are living-wage jobs, affordable health care, adequate sanitation, and decent permanent housing. Despite the “end” in its title, Vitale’s book doesn’t make a case for the complete abolition of law enforcement; it merely rejects the notion that the police can and should solve every social problem. Vitale blames trickle-down economics, austerity politics, redlining, and deunionization for producing the conditions of crime. What if we funded counselors instead of cops in our public schools? What if we hired doormen instead of uniformed officers to tend the lobbies of public-housing towers? What if we invested in mental-health treatment and gang-interruption programs instead of in billion-dollar law-enforcement facilities, like the new 32-acre Police Academy in Queens?

By asking such unglamorous questions on budgets and personnel, Vitale hopes to recast the conversation about the police. Black Lives Matter has provoked a critical reevaluation of law enforcement, but the response by policy-makers and analysts has too often hinged on small-bore, technocratic recipes for reform. It is tempting, and often appropriate, to change how police officers are hired, what they wear, which weapons they carry, where they conduct patrols, or how their actions are recorded. But there are more than 18,000 local law-enforcement agencies in the United States, and no national set of training standards, use-of-force guidelines, ethics rules, or centralized statistics on so-called “officer-involved shootings.” Given this unwieldy picture, no combination of tweaked internal guidelines or improved data sets will address the conditions that foster crime; nor will they alter the tendency of law enforcement to substitute for social workers. Vitale calls for a dismantling of our very notion of the police: a sprawling, untethered bureaucracy permitted to use lethal force and unaccountable to the people.

The End of Policing offers a compelling digest of the dynamics of crime and law enforcement, and a polemic against the militarization of everything. Eight of its 10 short chapters focus on vulnerable groups whose problems have been deemed fixable by the police. Students, poor people, drug users, sex workers, people with mental illness, people without stable housing, gang members, protesters, and immigrants—they are all the targets not of social services, but of criminal laws and armed personnel. In the chapter on mental illness, Vitale tells the story of Jason Harrison, whose mother called 911 after her son refused to take his medication. “When police arrived, she casually walked outside, followed by her son, who was carrying a screwdriver. When the officer saw him, he began yelling commands to drop it and within seconds opened fire,” Vitale writes.

Such fatal interactions—many, like Harrison’s, caught on video—have spurred thousands of police departments to invest in crisis-intervention training, jail-based diversion programs, and interdisciplinary response teams. But these reforms, Vitale argues, leave intact the framing of psychiatric crisis as “a public-order problem.” Why was calling 911 the only option available to Harrison’s mother? (Tragically, she even told the dispatcher, “He has bipolar schizophrenia…make sure they’re trained police officers.”) Why must the police perform tasks outside their discipline? And why, Vitale asks repeatedly, are they “the gatekeepers” of health care, housing, and other basic services? How did cops become gun-wielding caseworkers in what the sociologist Forrest Stuart has called a regime of “therapeutic policing”?

Just as no police recruit fantasizes about de-escalating psychiatric crises, most officers would rather work on serious crimes than make traffic stops or low-level marijuana arrests. Yet this is precisely what the prevailing approach of “broken windows,” quality-of-life, or zero-tolerance policing insists they prioritize. For Vitale, the coupling of “broken windows” and the War on Drugs encapsulates the excesses of local law enforcement. City cops working drug crimes now spend much of their workday “looking for easy drug arrests in poor minority neighborhoods.” In New York, for instance, after the city decriminalized some pot-related offenses in the late 1970s,

the NYPD reprioritized marijuana arrests as part of a strategy of asserting strict control over the public lives of young people of color. In conjunction with the widespread use of “stop, question, and frisk” practices, the police were stopping a growing number of young people and in many cases asking them to “empty their pockets.” As a result, marijuana possession arrests jumped from almost nothing to fifty thousand a year, resulting in the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people.

Protests and litigation have recently forced a reckoning with this strategy, but the damage to community relations may be irreparable. Poor neighborhoods have long been overregulated for minor infractions and underregulated for homicides, a point made dramatically in Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside, about detective work in South Los Angeles. For Vitale, a defender of the welfare state, the great tragedy of this scenario is that, among America’s underclass, the very face of government “is the police officer, engaged primarily in punitive enforcement actions.”

What is to be done? Each of Vitale’s chapters prescribes a variation on the same theme: “Give the cops fewer things to do, and reallocate the money accordingly.” In my own reporting over the past few years, “the police do too much” has emerged as a collective creed, the only perspective shared by officers, Black Lives Matter activists, and criminologists alike. Nevertheless, many cities, counties, and towns continue to earmark nearly half of their budgets for law enforcement. And while some police commissioners and union heads have lobbied for increases in homeless and mental-health services, I have yet to encounter a law-enforcement official willing to make cuts in favor of expanding the social safety net. Nationwide, we now spend $100 billion every year on the police. It’s the local version of what we’ve seen at the federal level since the mid–20th century: an increase in national-security and defense spending, at the expense of all other needs.

We pay for this unbridled expansion with much more than just our tax dollars. The social costs of the police state are the subject of Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission, a dense but vital book by Barry Friedman, a professor and director of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law. Friedman, like Vitale, is concerned with police overreach, but he places the blame less on cops than on the rest of us. He argues that we, as a society, have failed to impose basic ex ante standards on local, state, and federal law enforcement. Our calls for police reform, which fixate on civilian-oversight boards, body cameras, and judicial intervention, are inadequate, Friedman says. What we really need are “not reviews but rules: rules that are written before officials act, rules that are public, rules that are written with public participation.”

As it stands, the three branches of government are unwilling to regulate the police. Mayors and governors defer to police chiefs and union presidents; judges make cheesecloth of the Fourth and 14th Amendments; and legislators vote again and again to increase law-enforcement budgets. This arrangement can be traced back to the early days of modern policing, when an unsavory intimacy developed between police departments and the politicians meant to oversee them. “The police became entwined in the sort of municipal graft and corruption that was all too common at the turn of the twentieth century,” Friedman explains. “Cops collected the money that fed the political machine. And so, in order to address that problem, we decided that policing should be separated from politics, and professionalized.” But what was meant to be an insulating moat has since morphed into an uncrossable strait, resulting in a lack of oversight, an increasingly endangered search-warrant requirement, and high-tech mass surveillance.

Perhaps the most chilling section of Friedman’s book details the erosion of the constitutional prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” It is commonly understood that police officers must prove to a judge that a search is necessary before receiving a warrant to conduct one. Yet the exceptions to this rule “now include immigration checkpoints, administrative searches of regulated businesses, ‘consent’ searches, searches of welfare recipients, students, parolees, and government employees, inventory searches, searches of moveable containers, automobile searches, boat searches, fire investigation searches—the list goes on.”

For the police these days, the Fourth Amendment has effectively been revised: go on a fishing expedition first and deal with the pushback later. Similarly, while the notion of a search was once discrete and concrete—the physical examination of a specific locale or person—it is now subsumed under a digital apparatus of data interception, drone-mounted cameras, license-plate readers, and facial-recognition software. “The entire weight of our liberties,” Friedman writes, depends on after-the-fact judicial assessments “of whether what the police did was ‘unreasonable.’”

What we need instead, Friedman insists, is to compel our elected representatives on community boards, city councils, and in state and federal capitols to set the boundaries of policing before the fact. Deference to law and order or strategic concerns need not translate into wholesale authorization. “When police employ invasive technologies, such as drones and heat sensors, that were beyond the wildest imagination of anyone, including the legislators, at the time the general authority was conveyed,” Friedman argues, “it seems entirely plausible to require the government to go back to the legislature and get specific permission.”

Here’s what an established process might have prevented: Between 2009 and 2014, the military gave $18 billion in cash and surplus equipment, including aircraft, grenade launchers, and bayonets, to local police departments and even schools. The 2016 documentary Do Not Resist portrays the full absurdity of these freebies. In one scene, in a neighborhood in Richland County, South Carolina, helmeted men in black riot gear spill out of a vehicle, guns and batons at the ready. They run toward a single-story home, smashing the front windows, tackling a teenager in the yard, and pulling an older man from his car. Once inside the house, they handcuff their suspect, an African-American college student, and allow two women, one clutching an infant to her chest, to take a seat outside. The officers and their sniffing K-9s scour the premises, but find nothing. “There’s gotta be some drugs here. Where the fuck is the weed?” an officer mumbles in the driveway. His colleague finally comes upon something to justify this expedition: “loose bud” in a knapsack and $876 in landscaping proceeds from the accused’s pocket.

As Friedman notes, local police now deploy their SWAT teams somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 times a year—compared to just 3,000 in the early 1980s. The raid in Richland County, while a disturbing instance of police overreach, is hardly exceptional. What is unusual is the rather mundane bureaucratic scene that precedes it in Do Not Resist. In Concord, New Hampshire (population 42,900), the City Council meets to consider a $250,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The money would be used to buy a Lenco BearCat—an armored vehicle—at the request of the local police. Residents of the town line up to voice their opinions, which are uniformly opposed. A retired Marine colonel tells his representatives, “You don’t need this. You really don’t…. We’re building an army over here, and I can’t believe that people aren’t seeing it.” A woman begs the City Council to “put things in perspective…. Your chances from dying from a terrorist attack are one in 20 million, so we need to put the brakes on the fear and we need to act rationally.” A protester in the back holds a sign that reads “More Mayberry Less Fallujah.” The council members listen and deliberate, then vote, 11 to four, to take the money.

The town’s purchase of the BearCat is a move neither Friedman nor Vitale would endorse. But Friedman, a process guy, would applaud the dialogue and urge the residents of Concord to vote these 11 council members out of their seats. He offers the example of a 2015 New Jersey bill, sponsored by a Democrat and signed into law by then-Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, that requires any police department seeking military hardware to first get the approval of local government officials. Since the law went into effect, municipalities across the state have held hearings and taken divergent paths. Some have rejected the militarization of their sheriffs’ offices; others, in flood-prone waterfront communities, have said yes to amphibious tanks.

“It is a sign of a vibrant democracy that—after debate—jurisdictions reach different conclusions,” Friedman asserts. Later in the book, he expands on this point: “In many of the smallest communities in America, we manage to have school boards and zoning boards and other government bodies. If it is possible for this level of civic engagement around libraries, it must be equally possible for law enforcement.”

Vitale doesn’t expressly tackle the question of political process. He’s confident, though, that if we all knew the extent to which policing has infiltrated our lives, we would fight back. Citing Friedman, he writes that “our failure to adequately oversee the actions of police puts our society at peril, especially as new technologies give police the ability to see into ever more aspects of our private lives.”

There is one surveillance technology that has prompted real public debate: police body cameras. Perhaps because their rollout has been so hasty, costly, and widespread, these cameras have become the focus of municipal regulation, public hearings, and academic study. But as Friedman and Vitale contend, the entire universe of policing deserves equal scrutiny. Communities across the United States must continue to push their legislators to establish police-oversight commissions, constrain big-data surveillance, disclose the predictive algorithms used by law enforcement, and scrutinize sheriffs’ pleas for more money. Social movements like Black Lives Matter and the remarkable student uprising against guns must bind their demands to democratic processes—and forge the occasional strategic alliance with progressive police chiefs and district attorneys.

Not since the 1970s have there been so many insistent demands for community control over law enforcement, White House static aside. For now, the end of policing—as either Vitale or Friedman imagines it—may depend less on an ideals-driven abolitionism than on the messy exertions of local politics.

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