Book review: The End of Policing

Alex S. Vitale

Verso, 2017, ISBN-10: 1784782890

Reviewed by John Locker - Performance and Implementation Manager, Police Prosecution Service, New Zealand Police

Reviewer biography:

John Locker has a Ph.D. in Criminology. He worked as a Lecturer in Criminology at Keele University in the UK, before moving to New Zealand in 2005. Since that time he has been employed by New Zealand Police in a variety of roles.

Why are ethnic minority populations over-represented in criminal justice, and how can we respond effectively to this issue? How should society respond to problems like homelessness, prostitution, drugs, gangs, illegal immigrants, mental health? Should police take on a broader role in dealing with social issues? Should we invest in more police? And what might happen if we do? These are the types of question that preoccupy Alex Vitale’s “The End of Policing”.

This is a book about why current criminal justice approaches are unlikely to achieve their often-stated outcomes; why a fundamental change in thinking – away from one that places a growing burden of responsibility for the amelioration of social issues in the hands of police – is required; and what could happen if the police role continues to expand.

Set in the context of US policing, Vitale’s book is framed against the backdrop of growing tensions between US police agencies and communities, driven by issues like over-policing, and excessive use of force. In response, and in efforts to rebuild police-community relationships, US Police agencies have typically focused on initiatives like building diversity, community policing, training, and accountability. For Vitale, these approaches are limited (and may, in some cases, be counterproductive) because they are largely irrelevant to the problems they are seeking to address. Instead, the real cause of the problems facing police, he argues, lay in “the nature of policing itself”, and therefore any meaningful response requires “a rethink [of] the role of police in society” (p.27).

Essentially, Vitale’s argument is that police (regardless of discourses about community partnerships or harm prevention that prevail within modern policing) are – historically and presently – “a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo” (p.15). As such, Vitale argues that the police role reaches disproportionately into poor and marginalised communities (and into the lives of what he terms “people of colour”, as those disproportionately represented in such communities): “The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviours of poor, non-white people” (p.34).

Against what Vitale notes to be the backdrop of decades of US governmental neglect, through a paring back of the welfare state and the dominance of neo-liberal austerity measures (p.53), police agencies have been given an increasing mandate for responding to “all social problems” (p.27). In the context of Vitale’s conceptualisation of the police role, he argues that this has invariably extended the reach of criminal justice more deeply into particular populations and communities (which have in common their poor and marginalised status). Vitale notes that in some contexts – such as the “war on drugs”, the militarisation of police in tactics and equipment, or the adoption and application of flawed models, such as “broken windows” – this control has been visible and overt; however, even where less overt, he sees it as no less present; for example, in his view, where police adopt approaches that are characterised by benevolence or a genuine desire to help, reduce harm, or prevent crime (and may well be), owing to the nature of the police role, these still embed law and order responses more deeply into communities: “a kinder, gentler, and more diverse war on the poor is still a war on the poor” (p.27).

Through a variety of case study chapters (including on drugs, gangs, homelessness, behaviour in schools, mental illness, and immigration), Vitale details how the nature of the police role, together with the continued expansion of police responsibility for the amelioration of social issues, has placed the solution to community problems in the hands of a law and order organisation, with a focus on social control. This approach, he suggests, has drawn hundreds of thousands of poor and marginalised people – and particularly “people of colour” – into the criminal justice process. Therefore, ironically, for Vitale: “law enforcement has come to exacerbate the very problems it is supposed to solve”.

“Is asking the police to be the lead agency in dealing with homelessness, mental illness, school discipline, youth unemployment, immigration, sex work, and drugs really a way to achieve a better society? Can police be trained to perform all these tasks in a professional and uncoercive manner? The answer is no …” (pp.29-30).

The core underpinnings of Vitale’s book are not new or novel, but are grounded in established scholarly debate. For example, his conceptualisation of the police as agents of social control is echoed in decades-old research from within the fields of history, sociology, and criminology; for example, the work of revisionist social historians, like Robert Storch, during the 1970s and 1980s, signalled the role of the new police as “domestic missionaries”, bringing middle-class Victorian values to the unregulated urban masses. Similarly, Vitale’s concerns about the criminalisation of social policy are well represented in areas of the criminological literature. However, what is useful about Vitale’s work is its bringing together of these issues, into a current context, to debate fundamental problems facing criminal justice.

If not the police, then who? Vitale presents a range of different approaches to dealing with the issues he raises. What most of them have in common is a drawing back of the police role: “instead of asking the police to solve our problems we must organise for real justice” (p.53). Within the book’s various cases studies, and using empirical evidence in support, Vitale highlights the places where alternative approaches to policing are required, and their value in reversing the expansion of criminalisation – typically at a greatly reduced financial and social cost to those criminal justice alternatives.

Take the example of mental illness. Notwithstanding that police (given their role) inevitably – and always will – interact with persons with mental illness (PMI), Vitale argues that “one of the most tragic developments in policing in the last forty years has been the massive expansion of their role in managing [such] people” (p.76). He notes that the stripping back of mental health service provision has played a key part in expanding this aspect of police responsibility. In turn, the lack of specialist services has driven “the criminalisation of mental illness”, as individuals are swept into and cycled through police jails and emergency rooms. Ironically, considerable funding has then been (and continues to be) required to make these environments more suitable in housing large numbers of PMI – for example through the provision of “specialised police units and enhanced mental health services in jails and prisons”. And therefore, mental health provision has been reshaped in a more carceral (and, for Vitale, less suitable) setting.

Beyond his arguments about the criminalisation of a significant social health issue, and the individual and social impacts of such an approach, in elaborating the scope and significance of this problem, Vitale cites work by a variety of organisations and research institutes which have articulated the vast costs of dealing with mental illness within criminal justice settings; this work includes a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, which found that incarcerating people with mental health issues costs 2-3 times that of community-based treatment. Vitale advocates for a system of mental health service provision that is more heavily grounded in public systems and community-based care, that is populated by trained civilian operators, and that is delivered in such settings, where possible. What is more, he notes the increasing support and advocacy of a variety of police agencies in calling for this change in focus.

Elsewhere in the book, Vitale presents similar arguments in respect of other social issues, such as approaches to managing homelessness, policing in schools, and contemporary drug policy. His comments on the impact of “the [US] war on drugs” are particularly interesting given that they are echoed by recent debates within the New Zealand media.

This is a book that is likely to be polarising, and invoke strong feelings (one way or the other); at least in part this reflects its challenge to current dominant discourses within modern policing. Notwithstanding this, and regardless of its primarily US focus, the issues raised in Vitale’s The End of Policing have broad application to the challenges facing modern police agencies and criminal justice systems worldwide. In a context where New Zealand is currently grappling with many of the issues debated within Vitale’s work (including an expanded police role and numbers, and the disproportionate overrepresentation of Maori throughout the criminal justice system), this book offers empirical evidence around an alternative perspective within a complex debate. For this reason alone, it is a book that should be of interest to all those with an eye on the future of criminal justice.