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(Book Review) The End of Policing

As stories of police misconduct continue to dominate the headlines, we repeatedly hear the calls for the implementation of micro-reforms like cultural competency training, body cams, and the firing of so-called "bad apples."  Sociology professor Alex Vitale argues in his recent book, The End of Policing, that these changes would be helpful, but they're nibbling at the edges.  Instead, Professor Vitale says what we really need to do is completely revamp how we see the role of the police in our society and to stop using them in situations where they do little to nothing that increases public safety (and in fact, often make things worse.)  What follows is in fact a detailed argument for what is currently known as the "defund the police" movement.

Professor Vitale begins with an extensive review of the history of policing in the United States.  He shows that right from the start, the establishment of police departments was rooted in enforcing a racial and class hierarchy that protected the interests of the economic elite at all costs, whether that meant tracking down runaway slaves or busting up labor protests.  Fast-forward roughly 150 years later, and little has changed.  Vitale spells out in detail how the police are inappropriately used to deal with issues involving students, the mentally ill, the homeless, sex workers, drug users, gangs, immigrants, and political activists.  The police involvement with these groups has dramatically expanded over the last 40 years for reasons more to do with social control than safety.  Time and time again, Vitale explains how the police presence in these situations consistently does little but harm the lives of mostly people of color and the poor without actually improving anything.

Vitale repeatedly argues that what these issues require is extensive investments in education, mental and other health services, long-term stable housing, and greater protection for workers.  We need to move away from the police treating everyone like the enemy largely by removing them from these encounters in the first place.  Instead, politicians must be forced to stop abandoning everyone except the rich, and local communities must have much more say in their affairs.  The United States can not come close to living up to its rhetoric of being the land of equal opportunity when the wealthy and their political enablers create devastatingly inhumane conditions (both here and abroad) and then criminalize those people who are trying to break out of these destitute circumstances.

There is a book called The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, by Jeffrey Reiman, which opened our eyes years ago to the disparities of the judicial system.  White collar crime is more harmful on just about every front than other offenses, but the wealthy are rarely prosecuted for their acts.  At worst, they may have to pay a fine, which does nothing to stop their destructive deeds.  There's a passing mention of Reiman's work in The End of Policing, and the two books should be pared in schools across the United States.

The End of Policing reads like a sociology textbook, which is to say it can be a little dry.  However,  Vitale still lays out the case against our current policing system in a way that will challenge your view of the world.  Yes, lower level reforms of individual police departments can be helpful to some extent, but we need a completely new approach to society as a whole.  It has to be one that extends a basic humanity to people from every background, in order to really move closer to anything truly resembling a fair justice system.

 

 

 

The End of Policing CoverA powerful argument for creating a more just society.  (pic via amazon.com)

 

 

 

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