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.