In 2015, Minneapolis was one of six cities selected by Barack Obama’s Department of Justice to pilot a new kind of policing. Said to be grounded in rigorous social science research, the new initiative aimed “to build trust” between the police and the community being policed. The Minneapolis Police Department would undergo implicit bias training, wear body cameras, and practice mindfulness and “racial reconciliation” as part of a three-year, $4.75 million project tied to Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” campaign. The national reform program was described by then–Attorney General Eric Holder as “groundbreaking.”
Five years later, the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, casts a harsh light on years of expensive police reform initiatives. A white Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes while three other officers variously kneeled on his torso and legs or stood by and watched as he gasped, “I can’t breathe.” Observers filming the incident begged Chauvin to release his knee and check Floyd’s pulse as he lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital less than two hours after police arrived on the scene.
To many who saw it, the display of brutality by the Minneapolis PD signals the failure of police reform. Can a police force that behaves this way be reformed through anti-bias training and diversity initiatives alone? Alex S. Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing, told me (on the day that Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder for Floyd’s death) that milquetoast, technocratic reforms are a dead end. The only leverage left, he pointed out, is to cut police budgets and shrink police power. “We must starve the beast,” he said.
In Vitale’s telling, mainstream reform initiatives like the one Minneapolis tried years ago do not wrestle with the history of policing in America. “The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people,” he writes in The End of Policing. Those who bear the brunt of police use of force, he continues, are “those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.” The police were initially called on Floyd because he allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill to make a purchase at a local grocery store. Floyd was a bouncer, and like millions of others, he was out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While protesters gathered around the country, I spoke with Vitale about the failures of police reform efforts, the necessity of cutting police budgets, and what happens next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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I wanted to provide this deeper analysis that said that we’re not going to fix these problems by jailing a couple of killer cops or giving them body cameras or making them take implicit bias training. Instead, we need to directly challenge the scope and power of policing. We need to take their budgets away, take their toys away, take their authority away in as many dimensions as we can.
After six years of attempted police reforms, we have nothing to show for it. Even if some of these reforms were capable of working in theory, police leaders refuse to properly implement them. The only leverage that remains is to starve the beast. That is a language they can understand, and it has the benefit of reducing their scope and power at the same time.
ZS: Millions of dollars have already been spent “reforming” the Minneapolis Police Department. Just before talking to you, I was reading a report published by the department in 2018 that states, “MPD has become a national leader in procedural justice initiatives around the nation.” It says that “All MPD sworn and non-sworn personnel are trained in 24 hours of procedural justice theory and application, including implicit bias training and historical trauma.” According to the document, the officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck and the others who stood by went through this training. What is “procedural justice,” and does it work?
AV: Minneapolis was one of a half dozen cities that were selected by the Department of Justice for a procedural justice intervention. The DOJ funded these procedural justice training types to go into Minneapolis and fix policing by surveying the public, surveying officers, setting up dialogue sessions, and implementing implicit bias training. The point of all that, intellectually for them, is to restore the public trust in policing. And the research behind this is that if the police take the time to talk to people about why they’re doing what they’re doing, listen to everyone’s side of the story, and act in a procedurally proper manner, then people feel better about the outcome, even if they get a ticket, even if they get arrested.
Procedural justice has become the dominant form of police reform. This is what was at the heart of Obama’s task force on 21st century policing. It’s a long list of all these kinds of procedural reforms designed to get people to quit protesting the police and obey police orders by getting the police to be friendlier and more respectful.
ZS: Where do you think this approach goes wrong?
AV: The problem is that this approach does not ever deal with questions of substantive justice. What is the actual mission of policing and what is its actual impact on people?
So, instead of questioning why we’re using police to wage a war on drugs, they respectfully ask the narcotics units to take anti-bias training. It completely ignores the fact that the War on Drugs is an inherently racist legal program designed by politicians to meet a racist political agenda. And they just have nothing to say about that. So procedural justice is the reigning theory, yet it’s morally and intellectually and scientifically bankrupt. What they never measure are the number of arrests, the amount of police use of force, the justness of the arrests that are made, the ethics of why we’re using police to manage homelessness and mental health problems or wage a war on drugs.
ZS: Just days before George Floyd’s killing, you wrote an op-ed calling on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to cut the NYPD budget by $1 billion. The coronavirus pandemic has brought a lot of attention to the disparity in city budgets, where spending on police is far higher than on public health, schools, and housing. Since the majority of police budgets go to paying salaries, do these cuts ultimately call for fewer police?
AV: It doesn’t necessarily mean wholesale firings of police. We can use attrition, but I also think that we should be using job transfers and not just for police, but for jails and prisons, too. We should take people and put them to work, doing something positive for communities. If you talk to people in policing and corrections and ask them if they had the option of working in a jail or, for the same pay and benefits, could work in a community center and coach football or mentor teenagers…the vast majority of them would much rather have that community job. But there are no such jobs like that.
The police department and the corrections department are always hiring and community centers aren’t. And when they do hire, it’s at half the salary and half the benefits. So this budget battle is about getting cities to reprioritize how they deal with the very real needs of the most disadvantaged communities that are subjected to the most intensive policing. When austerity politics produces problems like mass homelessness, mass involvement in black markets, untreated mental health and substance problems, those problems are turned over to the police to manage, and people who need help are criminalized.
ZS: What other aspects of the budget need to be shrunk?
AV: The primary thing is to reduce the headcount. But in addition, in our proposal in New York, we identified increases in spending on high-tech items, like money for body cameras, money for closed-circuit surveillance, and technology like StingRay tracking devices and ShotSpotters [acoustic sensors that detect gunshots]—all these things bloat the police budget. So stopping the expansion of their surveillance capacities is also a concern.
ZS: Much of your book is dedicated to the history of the police suppressing social movements. Do you think the uprisings across the country will spark a reaction, leading to more surveillance and suppression?
AV: We’re at the beginning of another round of heightened conflict. And it’s important to keep in mind that all policing is political policing. Policing is created as a form of government authority to manage resistance to exploitation. That’s what we’re seeing happening. People are being subjected to exploitation. The police are part of that process. And then when people resist, policing is used to put that down, to repress it. So when push comes to shove, all policing is about the suppression of social movements. But they always try to couch it in this language of legitimacy, which is to say, they try to say, “Well, we just enforce the law. We use the minimum force necessary. We try to be professional.”
ZS: The procedural language is a cover…
AV: They will always do what they have to to suppress any real threat to the status quo. They will try to use dialogue in many cases, but if necessary, they will use tear gas, infiltration, disruption, and arrests. And as our movements escalate and become more powerful and more threatening, the political policing will become more intensive and also more obvious.
ZS: Others have called for abolishing the police, abolishing ICE and prisons. Do you consider yourself an abolitionist?
AV: I think what the abolition movement adds to the conversation is a deep skepticism about the ability to reform institutions whose normal functioning is inherently unjust. In that sense I consider myself a part of that movement, and that analysis drives my own thinking about these institutions. I understand abolition as about a process more than an outcome. No one’s in a position to flip some switch and then tomorrow there are no police or prisons. The question is “What is the process we use to analyze and change these institutional relationships?” And it’s not giving them body cameras; it’s taking away their toys, it’s reducing their budgets, it’s closing down their institutions and replacing them with the things that actually will build stronger and healthier communities.
Rather than giving police another $50 million for body cameras and training, I say let’s take $200 million away and get them to shut down some of what they do, and take some of that money and put it into things like community-based mental health services and community-based anti-violence initiatives. What’s important here is that we try to create a new understanding of what we mean by justice that is not rooted in punishment and revenge, but rooted instead in trying to build people up to restore relationships, to strengthen communities.
ZS: George Floyd’s family wants his name to be remembered. Moving forward, what can make this incident of police brutality have an impact and throw a wrench in the cycle we’re in?
AV: I think that we have to get beyond the narrative that the solution to this is just to jail killer cops. That is a degraded notion of justice that is rooted in the same language of punishment and revenge that we don’t want to apply to us. Instead, we need to talk about accountability at both the interpersonal level and institutional level. Obviously these people should not be police officers, and they have to be put in a situation where they are taking steps to repair some of the harms in ways that actually build up the community.
But there also has to be institutional responsibility and accountability, both for the police and the political leadership of the city. So that means a political intervention. And I think the most effective way to do this in the short term is for these budget interventions to say, “We’re going to take away the scope of your power and we’re going to make a demand that will directly result in new resources for our communities.”