The Best Way to “Reform” the Police Is to Defund the Police

Alex S. Vitale

For years we’ve heard about body cameras and bias training to reform the racism and brutality of the police. That won’t cut it. The only way to get better policing is to get less of it — by defunding the police.

Protesters denouncing police brutality and systemic racism are kept in place on the Manhattan Bridge by police for hours during a citywide curfew in New York City. Scott Heins / Getty

Interview by
Meagan Day

Last Monday, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Protests that began early last week in Minneapolis spread to city after city, and by the weekend they had snowballed into nationwide mass civil unrest, which continues into this week.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, about the mass demonstrations underway and the political experiences and ideas that are animating it.

Meagan Day

It’s so strange and unexpected to see a resurgence of protests against police brutality in this moment, of all moments, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing and much of the nation still theoretically in coronavirus-related lockdown. I didn’t even expect to see people protesting the inadequate coronavirus response en masse, much less protesting racist police violence. How can we make sense of this?

Alex S. Vitale

It is kind of shocking. I also assumed that the social distancing imperatives would dramatically curtail street protest. But I think we’re in a moment of profound crisis that goes far beyond policing, and that the coronavirus crisis and the coming economic depression are part of what’s driving this. It’s the convergence of a bunch of different factors. Completely unreformed brutal policing is just the catalyst that has unleashed a kind of generational activism that’s responding to a deeper crisis, which policing is part of and emblematic of.

Meagan Day

I see many different kinds of people at the protests. There are poor and working-class black people, but there are also young white people, many presumably from middle-class backgrounds. That seems to support what you’re saying, that the protests are driven by anger both at police violence against black people in particular, and at a wider variety of social phenomena.

Alex S. Vitale

I think what we’re seeing is the residuum of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Sanders campaign, movements united by a sense that our basic economic system is not working. Even people who don’t personally experience police violence see a future of economic and environmental collapse and are terrified and angry. If we had a booming economy, it would mute this. If we had credible leadership in Washington, it would mute this. But not only is Trump in the White House, I don’t think that anyone believes Biden is going to fix it. 

When we think about the urban uprisings of the 1960s, we don’t think of them as being solely about policing. We understand that policing incidents were a trigger, but that they were a response to a deep problem of racial and economic inequality in America. That’s how we have to understand what’s happening today. Police are the public face of the failure of the state to provide for people’s basic needs, and to paper over that failure with solutions that just harm people further.

Meagan Day

It’s surprising to say, but these protests seem to have a greater intensity than the earlier Black Lives Matter protests did. It’s like Ferguson and Baltimore, but in dozens upon dozens of cities. Why might this be?

Alex S. Vitale

One of the reasons of protests are more intense today than they were five years ago is that five years ago people were told, “Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of it. We’re going to give the police some implicit bias training. We’re going to have some community meetings. We’re going to give them some body cameras and it’s all going to get better.” And five years later, it’s not better. Nothing has changed. People are not going to listen to any more pablum about community meetings. 

Minneapolis is a liberal city in both the best and the worst senses of the word. Five years ago, they fully embraced the idea that they could get out of their policing problem by having people sit around and talk about racism. They tried all these tactics to restore community trust in the police while at the same time the police were permitted to on waging a war on drugs, a war on gangs, a war on crime, and criminalizing poverty and mental illness and homelessness.

It’s not just Minneapolis. One of the things you heard a lot was this idea that we needed to jail killer cops. This is a dead-end strategy. First of all, the legal system is designed to protect police. It’s not an accident. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Secondly, when police are prosecuted, the system tosses them out and says, “Oh they were a bad apple. We got rid of them. See, the system works.” 

So people are realizing this type of procedural reform will do nothing to change policing. Where’s the evidence? Well, we jailed a killer cop in Chicago last year. Nobody in Chicago is dancing in the streets about how great policing is right now. 

Meagan Day

I perceive a growing popular awareness that the police are what society has in lieu of a decent welfare state. Do you agree that people are increasingly connecting their negative feelings about policing to a positive desire for a transformational economic reform agenda? 

Alex S. Vitale

Absolutely. I mean, we’ve seen the signs on the street this past week that say, “Defund the police.” That slogan really embodies this idea that we’re not going to fix the police, but instead we have to reduce them in every way we possibly can and replace them with democratic, public, non-police solutions. This idea has been building for the last five years, because the longer people have stayed engaged with the problems of policing and criminalization, the more they learn firsthand how pointless these reforms are. More people are recognizing that shrinking the police apparatus and replacing it with publicly-financed alternatives is the way forward.

And by the same token, any effort to produce a multiracial working-class movement has to have dialing back the carceral apparatus of the state as part of its platform. Mass incarceration and mass criminalization are a direct threat to all our political projects. They foment racial division, undermine solidarity, instill fear, reduce the resources at our disposal, put activists in precarious positions, and will always directly subvert our movements. 

The procedural reformers are caught in this mythic understanding of American society. They believe that the neutral professional enforcement of the law is automatically beneficial for everyone, that the rule of law sets us all free. But this is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the legal frameworks within which we live. These frameworks do not benefit everyone equally. There’s a famous nineteenth-century saying that the law forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets, and stealing bread. But of course the rich don’t do those things. Only the poor do.

Ultimately policing is about maintaining a system of private property that allows exploitation to continue. It has been a tool for facilitating regimes of exploitation since the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. When most modern police forces were formed, those regimes were colonialism, slavery, and industrialization. Policing emerged to manage their consequences — to suppress slave revolts, to put down colonial uprisings, to force the working class to behave as a stable workforce that doesn’t act out. 

And that is the fundamental nature of policing. It’s a force that has never been interested in producing equality, just the opposite. It’s existed to suppress our movements and to allow exploitation to proceed.

Meagan Day

What does defunding the police look like in practice? 

Alex S. Vitale

Practically, on a local level, it means trying to build a majoritarian politics on the ground to compel a city council to vote to cut the budget for the police and reinvest as much of that money as possible in community needs. 

For example, in New York City the Democratic Socialists of America have been doing issue advocacy around issues of criminalization for some time. Now they’re planning for next year’s city council races to make one of their key litmus tests whether or not the candidates seeking endorsement will support a program of reducing the budget for policing by a billion dollars. They’re helping to put this on the radar in a practical way. And just this week, forty candidates for next year’s city council races signed a pledge to defund the NYPD. That’s incredible.

I’m the coordinator for the Policing and Social Justice Project, which is part of a movement in New York for budget justice. We put out the target of one billion. Other groups like Communities United for Police Reform and Close Rikers have called for substantial reductions to policing and reinvesting that money in community needs. So we’re all participating in budget hearings, writing op-eds, we released a video that’s circulating on social media, including paid advertising, that calls for this billion cut. We’re making a real push to defund the police not in theory but in practice.

And then it’s important to lobby to divert or reallocate that money in ways that actually directly replace the function of policing. So for example, in New York City the Public Safety Committee makes its recommendation about the police budget, other committees make their recommendations to other departments, but there’s a Budget Committee chair who can send signals to those different subcommittees. So the Budget Committee chair who we’re targeting in New York could say to the Public Safety Committee, “Hey we want you to take two hundred million out of the police budget,” and then he could say to the Education Committee, “You’ve got an extra hundred million to put in, but I want you to put it into counselors and restorative justice.”

Meagan Day

Polls consistently show that even though many people, especially people of color and in particular black people, distrust the police, they don’t actively want the number of officers in their neighborhood reduced. I suspect that disconnect owes to people’s automatic equation of police with safety: people want to feel safer, and policing is the only solution to public safety on offer. Why do you think this gap exists, and how do we bridge it?

Alex S. Vitale

I think it’s analogous to the situation with Bernie Sanders. You saw the exit polls showing that people liked Sanders’s ideas but voted for Biden. They’re afraid. They’re not ready. They have a stake in conformity and they don’t trust this new thing, even though on some level they understand and believe in it.

When it comes to police, we’re dealing with a forty-year legacy of people being told that the only thing they can have to fix any problem in their neighborhood — loose dogs, noise complaints, rowdy teenagers — is more police. That’s the only option. So people have been conditioned to think, “Oh, if I have a problem, it’s a problem for the police to solve.” When people say they want police, they’re saying they want fewer problems.

We really have to break out of this thinking. We have to empower people to actually ask for what they want, and we also have to equip people with more examples of things that they could demand that would actually make their communities healthier and safer. A lot of people would agree that it would be better if they had a new community center, for example. They just don’t believe it’s possible. They think, “There’s no point asking for that, cause they’re never going to give us that.” 

We need to be putting concrete alternatives out there. For example, mental health crisis calls have become major part of what police to every day in New York City. There are seven hundred of them a day. We don’t need police to do that work, and in fact we don’t want armed police doing that work, because it’s dangerous for people having mental health crises. We need to create a twenty-four-hour non-police mental health crisis response system. Jumaane Williams in New York City has called for exactly that in an excellent detailed report. The proposal is to take the money that’s spent on police crisis calls and shift it over to delivering mental health services. 

It’s a concrete idea for an alternative to policing. We need more of those to instill a sense of possibility and optimism, and broaden people’s imaginations.