By John Kleinig
In a recent Guardian op-ed, Brooklyn College’s Alex Vitale repeats his long-term frustration with police, which culminated in his 2017 book, The End of Policing: police should be defunded, not reformed.
In a number of respects, his exasperation is understandable. As he points out, the Minneapolis Police Department (whose officers killed George Floyd) not only has a history of discriminatory treatment, but in recent years it has also sponsored many initiatives to improve the ethical quality of its policing. To no avail, Vitale claims. That is a bit quick, though I am sympathetic to his exasperation. Maybe a department of 800 would be even worse than it is without the training it received and the actions of the four officers in question even more characteristic of its style (not that its record in recent years has been encouraging. And partly because of the uniform, we are inclined to generalize over police in a way that we do not do with accountants or medical doctors. The larger problem of course is that there have been horrible cases elsewhere, and we have a poor history of holding police accountable, especially when white officers have killed or otherwise mistreated people of color.
The legal doctrine of qualified immunity, aided by well-paid and often specialized union lawyers, point to wider structural problems—legal and political—where the intersection of state power and community life is often at its most potent. No doubt we should grant police some discretion in how they respond at social flashpoints, but it should be the discretion we accord to professionals, not to individual or even cultural whim. Although police unions have an important role to play, their power is often manifested in defensive strategies (especially collective bargaining) and legal tactics that negate accountability both within departments and more widely.
But defunding? It would certainly help the situation if police departments did not mostly immunize their officers against liability, and departments were also required to carry a significant part of the financial burden for the actions of their officers. As it is, monetary settlements are almost exclusively borne by cities/states and (ultimately) taxpayers, and the burden is then felt in other areas, such as education and housing (often costing communities far more than the proposed defunding measures). Social programs could benefit by the amount saved. If misconduct hurt police departments directly, there would undoubtedly be greater concern for officer propriety. And of course improvements in officer behavior would have important social benefits, including in the communities that most often suffer from police overbearingness.
Let me add that a president who has encouraged police excess, one whose administration has removed some of the legal motivators for police reform, and has also reversed the post-Ferguson Obama initiative to demilitarize policing, has exacerbated a dire situation. Part of the problem with Vitale’s solution is that even if police are defunded, we will still need people out there to do the some of the messy work that police currently must do (interventions, arrests, crowd control, etc.), and the similar problems of excess are almost sure to recur.
The root problem is endemic not to police but to our society. Our social order still bears the legacy of overt and official racism, albeit in less obvious but hardly less invidious ways. Police, who are drawn from the wider community, pretty much reflect its moral and political failures, and until we as a society are prepared not merely to address more deeply the presence and effects of our implicit and explicit biases, but also to confront and change them in practicable ways, we are not likely to improve the situation. Taking from police some of their current tasks, leaving them as mere enforcers and not enlarging their role as social peacekeepers, fails to recognize the complexity of social life. You can’t extricate police from dealing with threatening and mentally disturbed persons, but you can train special units to be appropriately responsive. And police sometimes work productively with coalitions for the homeless, restorative justice organizations, and conflict resolution programs.
For myself, the whirlwind we are currently reaping did not start with the Trump administration, but began gathering momentum when Obama came to power. Although his accession to the presidency brought the hope of change for some, it also unleashed an undercurrent of prejudice and frustrated white entitlement to which the Trump administration (explicitly dedicated to overturning every Obama initiative) has now given public license. During the Obama years, I often made a point of reading the frequently anonymous comments of readers of the media, and was horrified at the amount of racism that infused so many of them. It is not just Donald Trump and his administration—it’s the very substantial political base he continues to have; and although some of them “keep the faith” in Trump primarily for socio-cultural and religious reasons (opposition to abortion and same sex marriage, for example), even there the racism runs deep. Alas, not only in right-wing contexts: as the confrontation between white Amy Cooper and Black Christian Cooper recently unfolded in New York’s Central Park, even committed liberals may not be free from deeper biases.
Can we do better, without Vitale’s defunding? I believe so, though—somewhat in agreement with him—we need some fairly radical reconceptualization of policing. The seeds for such reconceptualization are already there. They just need to be nurtured. In many police departments, officers now carry naloxone to treat people who have OD’ed from opioid use, and they do not arrest such people but combine with public health authorities to treat them, thus extending a diversionary approach to public disorder that has earlier precursors. Brandon del Pozo, a recent CUNY doctoral graduate in philosophy, spent 23 years as a police officer, most recently as the commanding officer in Burlington, VT. His doctoral dissertation, “The Police and the State,” reflective of his experience at every rank of policing, painstakingly argues that the police have been (not merely “should be”) vested with three powers: (1) to protect and rescue third parties from harm, (2) to collect people and evidence and present them to the court for adjudication, and (3) to broker and enforce the terms of social cooperation in public spaces. Del Pozo shifts the emphasis of policing from law enforcement toward public health, thus providing a more peaceable focus for law enforcement work than one concerned merely with (a frequently partisan) public order or safety.
There is far more to del Pozo’s account. He strongly criticizes Tom Tyler’s procedural justice approach to policing that has been broadly accepted by many policing theorists (and is rightly criticized by Vitale), and argues instead that police must seek to broker substantive justice in public places, an activity legitimated by an appeal to public reason—that is, backed up not simply by assertions of authority but articulated by reference to reasons that have general credibility. Within democratic societies, authority is vested in the police by the community, for service to the community (not merely a majority or elite); without broad communal consent it degrades into mere power. Thus de-escalation is not simply a technique but an attitude that must be generalized.
Vitale suggests that a substantial part of the current police budget be taken away and devoted to “the problems poor people face”—housing, employment, health care, anti-violence programs, counseling, after-school programs, trauma services and restorative justice. Politics does not generally work that way (the LAPD notwithstanding, though we still have to see how that works out). And even if it did, the likelihood of the money saved going to the people who most need it is unlikely to happen in our present socio-political climate. Sure, police need to feel the sting from their bad behavior. But there needs to be a much wider soul-searching. Police are not them, but us. Just as black and brown people are not them, but us. Until we get that right, we will get the rest wrong.
John Kleinig is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and in the PhD Program in Philosophy, Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of numerous books, including The Ethics of Policing, and Ends and Means in Policing.
I’m sorry, but I don’t really find this post satisfactory on my questions on police abolition or reducing funding. What is the worse that can happen? The retort that “politics doesn’t work that way” doesn’t really speak to what the possible consequences to policing are.
I’ve suggested an alternative — making police pay for the judgments made against them. It constitutes a more pointed response to misconduct. And might even cost more than so-called defunding. See what LA proposes as a defunding measure — not allocating a sum for additional services next year, not diminishing police defunding. As for abolition, what do you suggest for enforcement instead?? The onus is as much on defunders to defend their position as on thos who wante to reconceptualize policing.
Thank you for replyIng so quickly. It is that they tend to talk about alternatives such as complete economic, social, and racial equality, or limiting the role of the police as much as possible like with Vitale. They seem to assume that restorative communities and something like unarmed community negotiation officers would easily replace them. They tend to see the police only as manifestations as white supremacy, with an NYPD activist saying that the only solution is abolition. It is hard to disagree with them given that their anger is legitimate, with mainstream media agreeing with them and Vitale (he was even on NPR), but they seem to only focus on negating police as a whole instead on transforming it into a people’s police as described my former Chief Norm Stamper.
Thank you for replying so quickly. It is just that abolitionists say that the institution is beyond any kind of help and doomed from the start that they only thing to be done is to get rid of it. Lots of people seem to be starting to think so given that Vitale’s ideas are about minimizing police instead of transforming them to be more democratic. Their alternatives tend to be community based restorative justice institutions, unarmed community negotiators, or just complete social, economic, and racial equality. While their ideas seem overly utopian, it seems to be becoming a popular idea that the institution of policing is rotten from the start, especially with the protests. Any changes would have to be radical surgery/chemotherapy against white supremacy, with some activists saying that they can’t imagine policing outside of the context of structural racism.
I do not wish to underestimate the problems with the institution. They are deep. But I think that abolitionists and defunders don’t really don’t have a solution. If thpolice were limited to enforcement (and not given other roles), you would still have the George Floyd problem and the Brionna Taylor problem and . . .Whoever has the enforcement role will have to face the same issues. We don’t eliminate by defunding. We have to work at a much deeper level, culturally, institutionally and societally.
What if there were no armed police then? I don’t know… it just seems that abolitionists tend to see abolition as the magic bullet to really deal with the problem and creating non-violent institutions to replace them, so that even if they are racist, they at least won’t be as lethal. An unarmed community negotiator may punch you in the face at worst, but at least won’t shoot you in the face.
In a country that extols the second amendment?
Might it just be better to toss out the whole barrel if the barrel is too rotten? I am just worried that they will be against any kind of a new police paradigm, even if it sets a goal of being against white supremacy.
So what are you going to do to meet the issues that police currently confront? A free for all? In a country that has these second amendment issues?
Using the argument of a disgraced chief who lied to the public and abused his power definitely doesn’t hurt your argument.
I think you mean “help” rather than “hurt”. I can say only: “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” I do not condone what was done, but if every argument is to be ad hominem, it is time to stop talking. Focus on the argument, not the person. His resignation was Burlington’s loss.
Abolitionists seem to propose full-on equality, community based programs, social workers, or community negotiators. They just seem to have a big distaste for state-sanctioned violence. One that I saw recently, a Minneapolis Council member named Phillipe Cunningham, was a descendant of slaves who had to deal with police brutality, and said that he couldn’t imagine a police paradigm outside of white supremacy. What answer could you or I possibly give to convince him otherwise; that such a police force could possibly become a reality? A black, female activist on that same video agreed with him, and they are a lot smarter than me, I imagine. I never had to struggle with racism.
The only answer one can give is to change the institution. And that is hard — as the NYT so rightly points out today: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/06/us/police-unions-minneapolis-kroll.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_200607&instance_id=19160&nl=todaysheadlines®i_id=42792212&segment_id=30285&user_id=f917da533c314e5733dad60839089660. But it’s not just the police. You can’t change the police while their supporters are cheering from the sidelines.It must be push,push, push.
Given that there seem to now be armed community/citizen patrols in Minneapolis right now, it doesn’t seem like it will be easy to rebuild legitimacy in police departments anymore, not without massive structural change. I have confidence that there are officers that want to protect their communities despite the system they’re in, but people like Bob Kroll seem to be incredibly resistant to any changes that need to happen. They’re like the Bill O’Reilly’s of the cop world.
I am kind of hoping that the grassroots movement we are seeing could make it a lot easier for good cops to actually fundamentally change the system to be about true, genuine community policing; however, my fear is that activists only see the police as corrupt, or nazis that need to be gotten rid of completely. Do you think that they can be persuaded that a new police paradigm can exist that would actually be separated from the legacy of slavery or white supremacy?
The big question for a lot of people seem to be whether the institution of policing is worth saving. How am I supposed to respond to that question? They, more or less, match up with Martin Gurri’s definition of the nihilist toward police in general.
Is the institution of government worth saving? Is the institution of banking worth saving? They all have HUGE problems but they also serve important social functions. That of course is not a reason for not moderating or changing them in certain ways. Or even supplementing them (watchdogs, credit unions . . . ). But it confronts us with the questions: what do we put in their place? And will they be any better? The Russian revolution was intended to liberate the country from terrible institutions? Did we finish up with better? My view has usually been that we have to tinker (or more) with what we’ve got rather than abandon and replace. Even the American revolution was not as radical as what many are suggesting. There are all sorts of vultures out there waiting to feed on the demise of an institution.
Besides, there is a whole lot of difference between the government or banks as a whole as institutions that people interact with on a daily basis, and the police that tend the be seen as a vestigial institution that, like janitors, you only notice if something has gone horribly wrong.
Police abolitioists/defunders seem to think that state-sanctioned violence only has a role for perpetuating inequality and racism, and that community based programs essentially eliminate it by getting rid of inequality completely. They don’t seem to think that problems in society would still exist to the point that state-sanctioned violence might still be somewhat necessary to deal with new problems that are inherent to just having a large scale society. Could this just be their own version of utopianism of which police are the villains?
I agree with you, but I doubt someone like Vitale would. What would you say or could you say to convince someone like him? What would be your answers to his condemnations of policing? By any chance did you read his book?
It seems that the big split seems to be about what kind of ideals we should be pursuing. Police abolitionists and defunders see the ideal as a world completely with police. People like me or Brandon del Pozo seem to see the ideal as a true, genuine community police. What do you think?
I’m OK with that — the problem, as with all institutions,is that they are run by humans, and we are a very mixed bunch,and we don’t have very stable ways of educating or ensuring that the goodwilled run them. Democracy was supposed to do that. But it is also a fragile institution, as we have seen.
I just realized that the main problem just comes down to whether people think that state sanctioned violence can ever be justified and, if so, how can we make absolutely sure that the wielders of it are transparent and accountable. People like the council member have always been on the receiving end of unaccountable state sanctioned violence, and they see it as irredeemably evil. I just think that it is a necessity in rare circumstances, and that it is possible to make sure that only those who are capable of wielding that kind of power responsibly (almost like a group of mentor-like elites who work within their communities) are the ones who have that power. Was that what you meant by referring to government or banking in general? People feel like those institutions are unaccountable overall, but they are still worth reforming to help society as a whole?
Given what human beings are — choose your time and place — we have to have mechanisms that enable people to intermingle and cooperate without obstructing or obstruction. The more people, the more complex it becomes. We move from families to tribes to villages, to cities to countries . . . Anarchists, bless their heart, work with a notion of human goodness/benevolence that doesn’t need structures. Nice if we had evidence of this (except in tiny,tiny, utopian communities, and even those tend to break down).
A big part of the problem in the discussion is that people only see police, in essence, being only wielders of state sanctioned violence, and no more than that. They don’t see police as truly able to be leaders or guides in discussions about public safety where they can reduce violence. In which case, do you think that there will still be a role in the future for state sanctioned violence, or that police can be more than that, to truly be leaders or community partners to enhance public safety as a whole. Camden, New Jersey seems to be something of a model.
Think of poice as crisi responders — lost children, accidents, domestic violence, gathering crowd, traffic control, delivering babies, etc. etc — and not simply law enforcers. Police must also get that into THEIR headsSomeone’s got to do all these things.
Given that abolitionists only see state-sanctioned violence used to perpetuate tensions inherent from societal inequality, do you think that state-sanctioned violence can ever be justified when dealing with tensions inherent from living in a liberal democracy? This is the final question. I won’t bother you anymore after this; it is just that this discussion is setting my brain on fire in a good way.
It reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s book on moral psychology “The Righteous Mind” where he outlines how leftists and conservatives tend to emphasize different moral foundations. Lestftists tend to emphasize freedom vs. oppression where they see anything that could tilt toward oppression as morally wrong and needs to be minimized or removed. This could also be part and parcel to the political polarization of the country as well as the debate on police abolition vs. reform. I tend to be a big liberal, but more moderate, which would explain why I might be drawn to radical leftists, but I always find them too extreme. There is a big danger of a loss of nuance in the debate.Martin Gurri’s thoughts on the loss of legitimacy for US institutions could also have been the starting point for this to where we see “the emperor has no clothes”, with radical leftists concluding that the emperor must be beheaded and replaced with the people. I never realized that I was actually being radicalized to a certain extent during college and reading leftists statements, or even reading Vitale’s thoughts.
Martin Gurri actually predicted all this. That man is a frickin secular prophet with the Revolt of The Public being his holy word!
It depends a bit on what you take to be the “tensions inherent in a liberal democracy”. My goals in life may interfere with your goals in life, particularly if we are both grocers selling products to the same community. I may endanger your business. No state sanctioned interference there, unless my business practices violate criminal laws. In other cases, state sanctions may be justified — if my desire for wealth leads me to steal from you. There are all sorts of cases. It’s a very complicated question underneath.
Looks like Minneapolis is going to disband the MPD with a veto proof majority. What do you think will happen next?
My view: let’s wait and see what happens. Same as with the LAPD. The talk must walk. We Manhattanites have seen too much 3-card monte.
I really do wonder if police officers will still have some place in the new system at all anymore. Morale must really suck for them right now. Nobody wants to stick with a police paradigm set in white supremacy and slavery, but some people seem intent on abolishing police altogether. Is there really anymore of a place for them? Critics seem to easily dehumanize a lot of the police officers who actually do good despite the system they’re in. What do you think will happen to the black police officers who actually care for their communities when they end up losing their jobs as the department is disbanded?
Satwant — I do have a life! The questions you ask are good but complicated. As for black officers and chiefs — of which there are now quite a few — let’s wait and see what comes from all the talk. Much of it is intended to tamp down raised feelings, and what is politically possible will depend on place to place. Christy Lopez had a thought piece this morning: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/07/defund-police-heres-what-that-really-means/?utm_campaign=wp_opinions&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_opinions. But ultimately, what will happen will vary a lot. Politicsis an ever moving canvass.
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Hello, a lot has happened since we last talked. The city council has released a plan for a department that seems to follow the recommendations of Thomas Abt, and will still have peace officers. However, the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Lamar is criticizing the council for not putting the department under control of a Civil Police Accountability Council. Do the activists have any trust in the Minneapolis political establishment?
Probably not. Alas, as I feared, this issue is getting killed by partisan politics in an environment in which the activists for change are in the political minority. Same is true in Congress. Certainly some achievements are being made. Chokeholds, previously rejected by most departments(eie, prohibited by internal regulations), are now being legally prohibited. Some transparency is creeping into officers’records. But we have a long way to go, and other political concerns are beginning to overtake the policing issue (covid spikes, Bolton revelations, removal of monuments, etc etc). Progress, but not nearly enough, even in Minneapolis.
That is what I’m afraid of. On top of that, have you by any chance read Thomas Abt’s paper that violence will rise during the summer as well as some time after. Looks like it is going to be a perfect storm to something explosive during the summer. The MPD is still around, and I applaud Chief Arrodondo for trying to do his job in a somewhat hostile political environment, but he looks about to have a real crisis on his hands. I hope that he and the few actually good officers will still be around for the new Public Safety department. Maybe the model could even spead to other cities in the US.
No, I haven’t read Thomas Abt’s paper (though I know of some of his other work). I am hopeful that protesters will have the energy to continue protesting, but fear violence, because it will be used to undermine the validity of their case (the President is already exploiting this). (My latest joke is: the only losers DJT doesn’t hate are confederates). Unfortunately pulling down statues and changing the names of buildings are small potatoes against the serious racial disparities in our society, and we needto deal with those, somehow. It’s not asimple matter of political dominance, but the current political power differentials make everything hard.
In that case, it’s going to be a rough summer.
COVID-wise as well. Stay safe.