You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

Rough Justice

How America became over-policed

Illustration by Seth Tobocman

In pop culture, representations of police have tended with few exceptions to start with the vision of a righteous force on the side of the people. In the 1950s, Dragnet showed Sergeant Joe Friday solving crimes with a cool professionalism. In the ongoing Law & Order franchise, detectives often trample civil liberties in pursuit of New York City’s most vile criminals. Any violation of rights that occurs in the course of this work results only from the relentless pursuit of truth and justice. “Hollywood’s police stories,” the film critic Alyssa Rosenberg has written, “have reinforced myths about cops and the work of policing.”

In the early 2000s, The Wire made itself more compelling than any other police drama by assuming that policing—not just the people who do the job but also the institutional demands of the job—is flawed. Examining systems—schools, government, media, and, above all, law enforcement—and their impact on a decaying city, even as it captured compelling characters and told human stories, The Wire made a major innovation by putting police at the center of the show without assuming they were heroes. “If you’re gonna be authentic, you’ve gotta be authentic,” the actor Wendell Pierce, who played the detective Bunk Moreland, told an audience at Columbia University in 2016. This commitment, especially to portraying the shortcomings of the police, won fans among policing’s fiercest critics.

Yet there was one aspect of The Wire’s depiction of police that I always hoped was fabricated. Several times during the show someone is referred to as “natural police.” It is meant as the highest form of praise: The characters Lester Freamon and Jimmy McNulty, portrayed as detective-work savants, possess an innate curiosity that helps with complicated problem-solving, as well as a tenacious relationship to truth-finding, and an easy way with people. If this is what it is to be “natural police,” we are back at the idea that police are inherently virtuous, even as the show constantly dug into the ways in which they were not. Calling someone “natural police” implies that policing is itself natural, and necessary, when it is anything but.

The first modern police force—the London Metropolitan Police—was established by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. He developed his ideas about law and order, Alex S. Vitale writes in his book The End of Policing, when he was “managing the British colonial occupation of Ireland and seeking new forms of social control ... in the face of growing insurrections, riots, and political uprisings.” The “Peace Preservation Force” was meant to serve as a less expensive alternative to the British army, which had previously been tasked with quelling Irish resistance. Appointed home secretary in 1822, Vitale writes, Peel would run the London Metropolitan Police along the same lines. Although the group claimed political neutrality, its main functions were “to protect property, quell riots, put down strikes and other industrial actions, and produce a disciplined industrial work force.”

Basic Books, 256 pp., $30.00

Boston adopted the London model in 1838, and New York established a formal police force in 1844. (This, it would seem, is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions was referring to when he invoked the “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”) But well before then, cities in the southern United States, such as New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston, “had paid full-time officers who wore uniforms, were accountable to local civilian officials, and were connected to a broader criminal justice system,” Vitale writes. These police officers were charged with preventing slave revolts. They had the authority to go onto private property to make sure enslaved people were not harboring weapons or conducting meetings, and they enforced laws against black literacy.

The motto “to protect and to serve”—adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955 and later used by others around the country—has been a highly effective public relations tool for the police, as it obscures the main function of their work, which since its inception has been to act in an adversarial manner toward the wider community. “Police often think of themselves as soldiers in a battle with the public,” Vitale writes, “rather than guardians of public safety.” This has held true through the last century and up to the present: in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which the Chicago police killed ten protesters during a steelworkers’ strike; in the raid of the Stonewall Inn in 1969; in the killing of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man whom the Sacramento police shot at 20 times on March 18, 2018, in his grandmother’s backyard. No matter what other responsibilities police have assumed, they have consistently inflicted violence on the most marginalized people in society and maintained the economic, political, and social dominance of the ruling class.

Verso, 272 pp., $26.95

Vitale’s book does not give a comprehensive history of the police but rather examines the implications of that history for American police today. Only after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, did police reform became one of the most pressing and hotly debated domestic political issues in the country. Even that debate started, like all those Hollywood narratives, around a faulty assumption that police are essential to safe and secure communities. “Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day,” President Obama said after a grand jury decided not to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. “They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law.”

Critiques of police violence are often tempered by assertions that the police provide a necessary peacekeeping force to guard against crime and ensure that criminals are brought to justice. In reality, the police in Ferguson actually operated as an armed collection agency: They targeted black citizens at traffic stops and imposed fines that became an integral part of the city’s budget. When residents protested police violence, they were met with tanks, tear gas, and arrests. The police, as James Baldwin once put it, are “simply the hired enemies of this population.”

And yet, Americans have made police the primary problem-solving institution in our society. When we profess a moral objection to something, say sex work or drug use, we criminalize it and charge the police with stamping it out. When we fail to care for people’s basic needs, and more and more people become homeless, we criminalize their means of survival and suggest the police “clean up the streets.” When we cut resources for mental health care, the only people left to respond to a crisis are the police, and they tend to use the means they have been most proficiently trained to use—violence—as their first response.

Americans largely revere police, who are endowed with the authority to use violence in defense of the people against the “bad guys.” Which Americans revere the police depends on which Americans are viewed as the “bad guys” and are therefore subject to that violence. Perhaps the “bad guy” is Arab (and therefore a terrorist), or Latinx (and therefore illegal), or a “lone wolf” (read: white) gunman who fires an automatic weapon into a crowd of people. As the past few years have shown, the “bad guys” are often presumed to be black. Although black people make up only 13 percent of the population, 31 percent of people killed by police in 2012 were black. That figure, which dropped to 25 percent in 2017, remains disproportionate. But these well-publicized injustices have not dented the general population’s confidence in police—which remains highest among white people.

One of the hallmarks of Donald Trump’s political rise has been his ability to tap into a persistent sense that only the police can protect the population from any number of threats, and that their most violent methods are the most effective ones. He famously began his presidential campaign by claiming that Mexico was sending drugs, crime, and rapists over the southern border, dredging up racist tropes that further inflamed white Americans’ sense of insecurity. Very early into his presidency, he acted on his promise to ban Muslims from entering the country, playing to the post-September 11 fear of the Muslim terrorist—even though there exists no evidence that Muslims are particularly likely to commit such devastatingly violent acts.

In speeches during the past year, Trump has actively encouraged police violence. In an address delivered before law enforcement officers at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, Long Island, he said: “You see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody—don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK?” In a later speech, in which he talked about eradicating the MS-13 street gang, he celebrated an increase of military-grade weaponry being sent to local police forces.

Most perceived threats to Americans’ safety—urban gun violence, foreign terrorist attacks, immigrant crime waves—result, in fact, from American policies or are created wholly out of our imaginations. “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values, and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth,” Umberto Eco wrote in a 2009 essay. “So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.”

In America, we have created many enemies, and it is their creation that Elaine Tyler May takes up in her book Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy. The years immediately following World War II are her starting point, since she identifies this as the moment when “fear increased far out of proportion to any real threat” in the United States. From the advent of the Cold War, with its concerns over “nuclear attack from abroad and communist subversion at home,” to a focus in the 1960s and ’70s on “other presumed dangers, especially crime and social unrest,” she traces how a growing preoccupation with vigilance and safety shaped American culture and prompted millions of people to invest in “security measures that did not make them any safer.”

One such example is bomb shelters. The bombing of Pearl Harbor had shaken Americans’ confidence in the country’s natural defense system—the oceans to its east and west—and as both the United States and the Soviet Union increased their nuclear capability, the threat of an attack at home loomed large. “For our own protection,” California Governor Earl Warren said in 1951, “all Californians must realize, and realize quickly, that the danger is here, the task of preparation is great, and the time may be shorter than we think.” With the federal government unable to offer much in the way of security, people began constructing amateur bunkers, turning to their own backyards for a sense of protection. Of course these shelters would have been insufficient in the event of a nuclear strike, but that didn’t stop a government body endorsing them.

Not all families, however, were able to construct these shelters. Only suburban dwellers had the means or the space, and only white families were suburban families at this time, as redlining practices in housing ensured no black person was able to purchase one of these suburban homes. “By promoting suburban homes as essential for civil defense,” May writes, “the government underscored that the white middle-class nuclear family represented not only the ‘normal’ American family, but also the family most deserving of protection from external and internal threats.” Even antagonism toward the Soviet Union served to reinforce black people’s status as second-class citizens within the states.

The fear of communism, meanwhile, contributed to the impoverishment of urban areas. From the 1940s, city policymakers and real estate agents found common ground, both campaigning against funding for public housing in urban areas, the former dismissing it as socialism, while the latter stood to lose profits. In fact, in Los Angeles, “a 1952 ordinance against ‘socialist projects’ virtually outlawed public housing.” As white flight diverted tax dollars to the suburbs, municipalities saw their budgets shrink and struggled to provide maintenance and improvement in urban areas. The draining of resources from cities, where largely black populations were residing, brought the unsurprising effect of an increase in violent crime. This, in turn, led to social unrest and what some would call riots but are perhaps more accurately described as rebellions.

Instead of attracting policy solutions, American cities became the focus of more fear. A 1961 headline in the Los Angeles Examiner even integrated rising crime into larger Cold War anxieties, warning that teen violence was “AS BAD AS [THE] H-BOMB.” In his bid for the presidency in 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace promised to “help make it possible for you and your families to walk the streets of our cities in safety.” Politicians like Sam Yorty in Los Angeles and Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia ran for office on racist ideas around crime and promises to restore “law and order.” And law and order, we know, meant only more policing and more police violence.

As the title of Vitale’s book suggests, he proposes the “end of policing,” or rather the end of the way the United States currently does policing. At times he makes gestures toward abolishing the police altogether, but ultimately he does not embrace the idea. “Policing needs to be reformed,” he says instead. “The culture of the police must be changed so that it is no longer obsessed with the use of threats and violence to control the poor and socially marginal.” Yet, he adds, “as long as the basic mission of police remains unchanged, none of these reforms will be achievable.”

While most of the book is dedicated to describing the consequences of over-policing, Vitale does suggest alternatives to the current order. Many of the solutions would involve the decriminalization or legalization of what are now nonviolent crimes, such as sex work and the possession and sale of drugs. Because economic distress lies at the root of many forms of violence, he also recommends rerouting resources toward programs that would eliminate poverty, joblessness, and homelessness—a vision similar to the platform laid out by the Movement for Black Lives and also adopted by the Democratic Socialists of America. Vitale proposes that “trained civilian responders should be the default preference” for responding to situations in which people who suffer from mental illnesses have a breakdown that potentially poses a threat to others—and he advocates for a significant public investment in mental health care. In cases of violent crime, Vitale favors restorative justice practices that move away from punitive measures and toward those “that demand that people take meaningful responsibility for their actions and work to change them.”

These are the kinds of societal reforms that could make America less dependent on police. To get there would require a shift in public opinion and a marshaling of the political will. As a country, we would have to decide once and for all that the harm police do is too great a price for the limited protection they promise. We would have to recognize the root causes of the problems we have been deploying police to address, and instead of increasing the number of armed officers and the quantity of deadly weapons at their disposal, we would need to direct our attention toward closing the gap in various forms of inequality.

“Everyone wants to live in safe communities,” Vitale writes, “but when individuals and communities look to the police to solve their problems they are in essence mobilizing the machinery of their own oppression.” Unless Americans can reconceptualize safety, taking away its racist connotations and recognizing that we are safer not with more guns and violence but with adequate food, clothing, housing, education, health care, jobs, and income for all, we are doomed to continue calling the police for rescue from every conceivable threat, real or imagined. The myth of their goodness will feed the delusion of our security. We will create a sense of the natural in which they fit right in. We already have.