Alex Vitale is the author of The End of Policing and a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. In his book, he looks at why we need to dismantle our police forces as much as possible and how that can be done. His views were considered fringe even a few years ago. But as the movement to abolish the police and the carceral state has gained momentum, he has become one of its most prominent voices.
Amid anti-police protests that have engulfed the country for the past week, he joined us last night on The Indypendent’s weekly radio show on WBAI-99.5 FM to discuss how the crisis in policing came about and how to resolve it. This interview has been lightly edited.
What’s your assessment of the police performance here in New York City and around the country over the past week?
I think that it’s been pretty abysmal. I’ve seen just some horrific images: the beatings that were meted out at the Barclays Center, police vehicles that were driving into standing protestors on Flatbush Avenue — just this kind of zero-tolerance attitude that has led to these dramatic escalations in police tactics.
Can you talk about how police forces around the country have become increasingly militarized over the past 10 or 20 years?
It’s certainly true that really beginning in the ’90s we’ve seen this dramatic expansion in federal support and local and state support for the formation of all kinds of paramilitary [police] units, outfitting them with hardware. It’s also about a kind of militaristic mindset: the training and also just the message they receive from political leaders that they’re out there wagering a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on immigrants, a war on gangs, a war on terrorism. This has led to this incredibly oppositional relationship between police and the public.
A lot of officials, including ones from the Obama administration and Bill de Blasio’s mayoral administration, have called for building more trust between the police and the communities they operate in. Yet, you feel that hasn’t really worked out as promoted. Can you talk about why that is and where you’d like to see things go next?
That’s the central issue here right now. We’ve been told for five years, “Don’t worry. We’re gonna fix policing. We’re gonna give them some implicit bias training. We’re gonna give them some police-community encounter sessions. We’re gonna get them to wear body cameras. We’re gonna create a civilian review board.” And this made absolutely no difference. The problem remains because the problem can’t be fixed through those kinds of superficial, procedural reforms. The problem is a massive problem of over-policing.
We’ve unleashed police as the solution to every social problem under the sun, especially those involving poor and nonwhite communities. That is the issue that is driving this outrage, not just the occasional outrage of a killing, but the tens of millions of totally unnecessary low-level, punitive interactions between the police and the public.
The Policing and Social Justice Project that I coordinate has called for reducing the NYPD budget by a billion dollars over the next five years and to get the police out of schools, out of the mental health business, out of the drugs business, out of the sex-work business, out of the gang suppression business. We need to reduce the burden of policing instead of imagining that we can make them friendlier and nicer.
The City Council will be hashing out New York City’s annual budget in this month of June. What are the prospects of starting to defund the NYPD taking hold at City Hall this month?
It’s just outrageous that the mayor left the Police Department as basically the only city department with no cuts, that he has bent over backward to embrace the most reactionary elements in city government and then call himself a progressive.
The good news is that a really large collection of organizations and coalitions have come together around a “defund the police” message in a way they never have before, a lot of groups that in the past embraced a little accountability, like “Get the police to show you their business card when they harass you,” you know.
These events are now showing much more clearly that the only way we’re gonna make progress is to get these people out of our lives in every way we possibly can. I think the Budget Committee is feeling the heat. I think we’re gonna see some cuts to the NYPD. I encourage people to call Donovan Richards, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, and Danny Dromm, the chair of the Finance Committee, and demand that they cut the Police Department and not the Education Department.
The kinds of cuts you envision, starting with $200 million this year, among other things, could preserve the Summer Youth Employment Program, which is facing complete elimination this year and was slated to serve 75,000 young people. Can you talk about the trade-off of eliminating that program to continue fully funding the NYPD?
We can achieve a $200 million dollar savings so easily, just through attrition and some cuts to overtime, so the cuts could go even deeper. That would allow us to put funding back for all sorts of positive interventions.
The irony here is that some progressive politicians like Jumaane Williams and others went along with expanding the NYPD by 1,300 officers a few years ago under City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on the condition that they get summer jobs money. What are they getting in the end? They’re getting more police and no summer jobs.
And those summer jobs are crucial to keeping the peace in the summer, to keeping young people not just busy but feeling like they’re on a positive track, that something is gonna happen for them, that they have a stake in conformity if you will. We’re turning our backs on our young people when we should be doing exactly the opposite.
The Indypendent’s weekly news show airs Mondays 6–6:30 p.m. on WBAI-99.5 FM and streaming at wbai.org.
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