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Has policing in America gone too far?

While police departments across the country address reform, community groups in cities like Chicago and New York are also teaching people about alternatives to 9-1-1 for crises that can be exacerbated by police presence. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano talked to author Alex Vitale of “End of Policing,” about the country’s reliance on law enforcement to solve complicated social issues.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    From last month’s controversial arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, to the viral videos of a black woman’s contentious arrest in an Alabama waffle house, to a school-based police officer, near San Diego, slamming a 17-year-old student onto the ground, to the fatal police shooting in New York of an unarmed black man who suffered from bipolar disorder — conversations about how police react when they’re called to a scene, especially involving communities of color are everywhere.

  • But there’s one idea that is different from all the others:

    what if police hadn’t been involved in these incidents at all? That’s what Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, argues in his recent book “The End of Policing.”

  • ALEX VITALE:

    In many cases, the solution to some of the problems with policing is not rejiggering what we do but to just quit using police for that function altogether. I think it’s a fair thing to say that most police officers wake up in the morning thinking about how to help people. I think they’re motivated by the right kinds of desires. The problem is that they’ve been given a limited set of tools and placed into circumstances where those tools often can be counterproductive.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Vitale says that modern-day policing was shaped by our country’s racial history.

  • ALEX VITALE:

    Policing in the era of Jim Crow segregation in the south and ghettoization in the north was shaped by pretty strong racial politics during that period. And so in a lot of northern and western cities one of the major functions of policing was the ghettoization of black populations, the enforcement of racial borders both in terms of social behavior and actual geography.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Was there a specific decade when we saw this change and you know an overuse, or over reliance on police?

  • ALEX VITALE:

    I think the expansion of police powers really happened over the last 40 plus years. And it begins with the kind of war on drugs, war on crime discourse that comes out of the Nixon administration but really continues through the 80s and even into the 90s and the Clinton administration. For instance, we see dramatic expansions in school policing, the war on drugs border policing. So it’s been a kind of long term bipartisan process of defining more and more social problems as things to be dealt with by police. We’re not concerned about slave uprisings anymore. We’re concerned about things like mass homelessness, black markets, around drugs and sex work. The management of untreated mental illness, violence and behavioral problems in schools. And so as the social problems shift, the mission of policing shifts. And the question is really whether or not policing as an institution is best equipped to manage some of these problems.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Some police officials agree that policing was never meant to solve all of those problems. At a press conference in 2016, then Dallas police chief, David Brown, said the country’s police are being asked to do too much.

  • DAVID BROWN:

    Every societal failure we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding? Let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding? Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we have a loose dog problem, let’s have the cops chase the loose dogs!

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    San Jose’s police chief says that the onus to deal with mental illness right now comes down to a police officer, and that is unfair. Although police have little training in mental health, about 10% of police interactions involve a person with a mental illness, and one in four people with mental disorder have histories of arrest.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Many people do see police as protectors. How do race and class impact how you view the police?

  • ALEX VITALE:

    When we apply policing as the primary solution to a set of problems that are really driven by histories of economic exclusion, racialized oppression, then we produce outcomes that are racially skewed regardless of the attitudes or biases of individual officers. So that the war on drugs may be carried out in the places where the most complaints happen. But there’s a reason why the complaints happen in poor communities and communities of color disproportionately. Even though drug dealing is widely distributed throughout our society, poor people don’t have private spaces. They have limited resources. They’re more likely to be engaged in black market activity for survival purposes. There’s more hopelessness among young people so that their drug use takes a more dangerous and disruptive form. And so even the neutral professional application of the drug laws produces a racially disproportionate outcome.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    As NewsHour Weekend has reported, many police forces have implemented diversity initiatives or anti-bias and de-escalation training. But Vitale says there is no empirical evidence that these types of strategies improve police-community relations. For instance, one study found that police “crisis intervention teams” in which officers are trained in de-escalation tactics by mental health professionals, did not reduce arrest rates for people with mental illnesses.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What about spending more money on more effective police academy training?

  • ALEX VITALE:

    Over the last several years we’ve responded to these most serious forms of police violence through a series of kind of procedural reforms to make the police more professional, to better communicate with the public, to try to restore trust in policing. But even if we reduce the most egregious use of force we’re not really addressing the tens of thousands of non-violent punitive interactions between police and the public that produce the resentment and the escalation of tensions between police and the public and i think we can look at the Eric Garner case in New York as an example of this.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    In 2014, police tried to arrest Eric Garner, a black resident of Staten Island, New York, on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. Garner–who had many run-ins with the police–complained of being harassed and resisted arrest. One of the officers put him in a choke hold, asphyxiating and killing him.

  • ALEX VITALE:

    A totally seemingly innocuous interaction escalates over what are really non-criminal behaviors for the most part. Tax avoidance and disorderly behavior in public and it’s that resistance that gets reacted to by tackling him, jumping on him, choke–putting him in a chokehold and ultimately killing him.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    So what should police be doing? Where should we be pulling back, but also what is their role in modern society?

  • ALEX VITALE:

    We need to look concretely at the problems that police have been asked to solve and decide whether or not we can find non-coercive non-punitive alternatives and whatever’s left at the end of that process where we need that kind of powerful coercive force then so be it. I think the answer is to quit using police to solve every social problem under the sun. Instead we need to invest in new systems of discipline that treat people with dignity and respect and try to identify what’s driving problematic behavior and actually address those root causes. We know how to do this. We just need the political will to make it happen.

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