Leading ‘defund the police’ advocate says law enforcement needs to ‘get out of our lives’
WASHINGTON — The author of a controversial book that has become a kind of bible for the “defund the police” movement says police officers have turned into “violence workers” who need to “get out of our lives.”
“When push comes to shove, the police are showing us their true colors,” said Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor and author of the book “The End of Policing,” in an interview with the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.” “They are violence workers who are often not really interested in the well-being of huge parts of the population, and we need to get them out of our lives in every way we can figure out how to do so.”
“This is not about sorting out who the good police officers are and the bad police officers are, because I think a lot of that is irrelevant and a distraction,” he added.
Vitale has received increased attention in recent weeks in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the national protests over police killings of African-Americans. As the cries for “defund the police” have grown ever louder, Vitale’s book is seen by many as a road map for how to do so — starting with the author’s calls for shifting massive resources from traditional police methods and the purchasing of firepower to community-based violence-prevention programs, as well as replacing punitive drug laws with treatment and education.
“We’ve got to start picking off as much as we can of what police do and replacing it with better alternatives,” he said.
“And that includes things like youth violence and domestic violence and sexual assaults. We have evidence-based strategies to replace so much of what police do, but it’s not gonna happen overnight. We have to build up the community infrastructures. We have to win broader, popular support for these ideas, but we can start with establishing a logic about getting police out of the schools and putting more counselors in, or getting police out of the mental health business. … It would save huge amounts of money and lives.”
Vitale’s comments come amid new evidence that American attitudes toward race and the protests are changing dramatically. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll released Thursday shows that 57 percent of Americans now approve of the Black Lives Matter movement, compared with 27 percent in 2016, and that 60 percent now agree that “racism is built into American society.”
And yet that has not yet translated into support for the kind of radical changes Vitale and the “defund the police” campaign are calling for. Only 25 percent in the Yahoo News/YouGov poll favor “cutting funding for police departments,” while 64 percent agree that “we need more cops on the street.” Strikingly, black Americans are evenly divided (50 percent to 50 percent) about whether more cops are needed.
Vitale doesn’t argue — because he doesn’t think it’s remotely practical — to shut down police departments or remove cops from the streets entirely. And he acknowledges he has few immediate answers for a wave of persistent murders in major cities that disproportionately affect African-Americans and Latinos.
Vitale was asked during the interview about a Chicago Sun-Times report this week that on one day, May 31 — while much of the country was focused on the protests over Floyd’s death — there were 18 murders in Chicago, making it the deadliest single day in the city in 60 years.
(Over 93 percent of the victims of homicides in Chicago in 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available, were people of color.)
In an interview for the Sun-Times article, a pastor on Chicago’s South Side was quoted as saying the police were nowhere to be found during the May 31 spate of violence — the implication being that he wanted a greater police presence in the city’s violence-ridden neighborhoods, not a smaller one.
“Well, I would say that policing, even when they are filling the neighborhoods, has not solved the violence problem in Chicago,” said Vitale. “And also that this problem is not going to be solved overnight. We have to create new infrastructures.”
He added: “So these communities have been told for, for 40-plus years now that the only tool they can have to address problems like youth violence is more police. And so, of course, if the choice is police or nothing, a lot of people are going to choose police. And the whole point of this is to put other options on the table.”
In tracing the growth of urban police firepower, Vitale cited as a major development the 1033 Program — an initiative begun during the Clinton administration to transfer surplus military equipment to local police departments. As a result, “massive amounts of equipment has been transferred,” he said.
“And in addition, especially after 9/11, there was a massive increase in grants to allow the direct purchase of military-grade equipment. So this has flooded cities, big and small, with Humvees and BearCats and sniper rifles and all this tear gas that we see all across the country, and I think this is a terrible development. It is expanding police power, it is expanding police violence, and it’s being used at the moment to suppress lawful protest.”