The End of Policing

A hot topic today, in the midst of nationwide (and international) protests against police brutality, is the abolition of policing as we know it. A number of cities are considering defunding or reducing funding for their police departments. In The End of Policing (2017), Alex Vitale argues that policing has greatly expanded over the last forty years, with often tragic results. The following is from an academic book review of The End of Policing:

The End of Policing begins by explaining why current reforms, such as improved training, greater diversity in police ranks, accountability via prosecutorial independence, federal investigations, or that latest vogue, body cameras, are unlikely to diminish police violence and abuse. Perhaps disarming the police, as many other nations have, might help, Vitale offers, but what he really seeks to provoke is a metascale, transformation rethinking of the role of police in society. That role, at present, Vitale argues–and the rest of the book goes on to show–involves managing race and class inequality, waging a war on the poor, containing and punishing Black and Brown people, and feeding the revenge factory that is our criminal justice system. Joining the prison abolitionist chorus denouncing the use of criminal justice solutions for social problems of all sorts, Vitale weighs in with a rousing call for a robust and genuine democracy.

In the body of the book, Vitale delves into a series of issues police are called to address. He begins with the question of crime, reminding readers that police deal only rarely with this phenomenon. Despite its common understanding as the police’s exclusive focus and reason for being, crime is actually but a very small part of any officer’s day. Instead, police engage in a whole host of seemingly extraneous activities: They patrol schools, intervene with people facing mental health challenges, remove poverty from public view, segregate sex work, manage addiction, enforce immigration policy, and advance the political agendas of prevailing groups. Vitale then explores these tasks in turn with a chapter devoted to each: the policing of schools, mental illness, poverty and homelessness, sex work, drugs, gangs, immigration, and politics.

Seigel, M. (2018). The end of policing. Social Justice, 45(1), 127-129.

From a systems theoretical perspective, we can see policing as an autopoietic system. As such, it expands into more and more areas of social life. Public school districts have police officers on campus. Colleges and universities have their own police departments. Shopping centers, hospitals, wealthy neighborhoods, etc., pay for their own security.

The money currently funding policing could be shifting to education, healthcare, drug treatment, and other resources that might prevent crime from ever arising.

The end of policing as we’ve come to know it seems like a radical idea, but radical ideas are often warranted when reform doesn’t work. Why doesn’t reform work? As autopoietic systems, police departments will respond to any efforts to curb their growth; they will resist regulation from outside, preferring to use Internal Affairs divisions to investigate themselves, which is a bit of a joke. All autopoeitic systems prefer self-governance; this is what makes them autopoietic.

The end of policing goes hand-in-hand with the abolition of prisons.


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