The brutal murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police has been met with an international uprising — led by Black communities — that continues to fill streets even as unrestrained police riot in response. These crowds of mostly young, multiracial and unarmed people in solidarity declare that if Black Lives Matter, then the end of policing is necessary.
If you’ve spent any time on social media in the last week, you’ll have come across countless abolitionist reading lists, anti-racist reading lists and Instagram stories launching vital texts and theory into our collective psyche. Now, perhaps more than ever, we are able to imagine the end of policing. Conveniently, much of this conversation has been captured in Alex S. Vitale’s 2017 book, The End of Policing.
We took some time to sit down with this book and reflect on its basic proposal, the unflinching directive that we must end policing. Vitale, a sociologist who also co-ordinates the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, comes to this idea after more than 25 years of writing about police, albeit through the lens of a white academic.
The End of Policing serves as a foundation for people newly contemplating the movement to defund and abolish the police. In particular, Vitale speaks to an audience of policy researchers, fellow white-collar sociologists, and academics who need a particularly curated and laid-out framework to understand both current and long-standing concerns about police.
Vitale dismantles the well-established myth that policing brings justice and equality. The book reveals how police stand as a “thin blue line,” managing inequalities along terrains of race, class, gender and sexuality. As the title suggests, Vitale offers an alternative that abolishes policing entirely, replacing it with the development of safer communities through various means such as decriminalizing drug use and sex work, building quality public housing, providing truly universal health care and rehabilitation services, investing in public schools, strengthening labour protections and expanding the public sphere in general.
Any real agenda of “reform,” Vitale writes, must look to replace the institution with empowered communities working to solve their own problems on their own terms.
The author explores in separate chapters, for example, how sex workers, unhoused people and people in psychiatric distress are criminalized and murdered by police. Vitale rejects the notion of reform, pointing out how “police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviours of poor and non-white people.”
Citing Naomi Murakawa, Vitale points out how liberal reforms of police and criminal justice systems fail to critically assess which problems the police are asked to solve and if they’re actually suited to solving them. He discredits reformist interventions, such as diversity in leadership, specialized outreach teams, or increased technology use (like bodycams), as they’ve had little impact on policing culture and police accountability, except to expand policing into our private lives.
In the chapter “We called for help, and they killed my son,” Vitale describes how those with mental illness or psychiatric disabilities are criminalized to the point that the involvement of police often results in arrest, incarceration, injury and death. Vitale highlights how aggressive policing methods, continuing inappropriate use of armed officers and punitive sanctions within the criminal justice system continue to rely on violence and coercion to promote compliance.
‘Caring professionals’ can be racist, too
Vitale’s proposed alternatives to police, however, make troubling assumptions about what would replace policing, such as “caring professionals.” When articulating alternatives to police, Vitale looks to caseworkers, mental health services and low-barrier employment, although he also notes that “programs are not a panacea” and we need community-led justice.
In our calls to defund the police, we must refrain from supposed “quick, cheap and simple solutions” to replace police officers with other state-sanctioned care providers such as social workers or psychologists. Racism pervades these institutions as well, and at times has actually been formalized in their direct practice. Social workers played a role in residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the Millennium Scoop and birth alerts, or have been involved in child welfare and criminal justice positions.
Vitale’s book emphasizes democratic socialist reforms and largely calls for the work that’s currently being mishandled by police to be rolled into other state-governed social and health-care services. But this fails to address the illegitimacy of settler states that are founded on the theft of land and genocide of Indigenous peoples. Canada continues to occupy and invade sovereign Indigenous territories and assert colonial law.
Again, we must listen to impacted communities to learn about the transformative work they’re already doing in the absence of benevolent state-based care, including caregiving, childminding, advocacy, income-generating or peer-witnessing.
The End of Policing is the book for someone who has just learned about the harms of police, even if that someone hasn’t come to the conclusion that policing is a problem. Vitale sets out the impact of policing across broad communities and highlights how accountability and reformist interventions have been unable to generate change. Vitale’s work, however, wouldn’t exist without Black feminist thought, including abolitionist scholarship and organizing, and it can’t be enacted without asserting sovereignty as articulated by Indigenous people in what is currently known as Canada.
Settlers, on either side of the artificial border, can’t advocate the end of policing without also advocating for the end of colonial occupation and join calls for Land Back — returning land to Indigenous peoples. Our calls to end anti-Black racism in all of its forms are linked to the criminalization of poverty, the War on Drugs, and an unmitigated toxic drug supply. Solutions, however, cannot solely come from state-funded health or social services.
What does the end of policing mean in Vancouver?
In Vancouver, we are fortunate to work alongside peer-led organizers in groups like BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, Carnegie Community Action Project, Pace Society, Sex Workers United Against Violence, Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
For decades these groups, who face and fight police power directly, have led calls and actions against policing long before academics came onto the scene. While the “defund police” movement may seem new, it’s existed in Vancouver since the Black-led and Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project visited and met with local organizers in 2018 to build a replicable and sustainable model to end police terror, particularly in communities of colour.
Before we take up academic calls to end the police, we must look to the communities we have worked alongside and heed their solutions. We also know that Black and Indigenous leaders have called attention to the harms of policing for decades, and note the work of Black Lives Matter-Vancouver, the February 14th Women's Memorial March Committee, the Frank Paul Society, and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. If we fail to centre groups like these, we risk replacing the currently failing model of community safety with something similar, different only in name.
As the conversation about police defunding takes the stage, we must continue to return to communities made disposable through the expansion of police force budgets: those who are Indigenous, Black, unsheltered, drug users, informal economy workers and those otherwise marginalized by police. Many of these communities already have solutions and they don’t need to be further managed by “caring professionals” — they need to be affirmed as peers with expertise. We must also remain strident in our advocacy, recognizing that the end of policing is the end of carceral power and forceful authority.
'The End of Policing' is available for free at Verso Books, and you can download it here. If you are compelled to purchase a hardcopy, please make your order through an independent, BIPOC-owned, and/or radical bookstore (we recommend Massy Books, Iron Dog Books or Spartacus Books).
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