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Book review: The End of Policing

Jon Clements, Development Director

Thursday 29 March 2018

Crest's Director of Development Jon Clements reviews The End of Policing by Alex Vitale

With these words, Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, New York, kicks off The End of Policing, a polemic on the state of American law enforcement.

Given concerns in UK policing about non-crime demand, Vitale’s book and its emphasis on the policing of schools, the homeless, people with psychiatric problems (one chapter is “We called for help and they killed my son”) feels timely. But readers should resist the temptation to draw superficial parallels between the US and the UK. Yes, it is undeniable that UK forces are stretched due to problems within our mental health system. But in the US, police are under pressure due to the absence of any mental health system. One in four people they shoot dead are in mental health crisis. The biggest psychiatric inpatient facilities in the US aren’t hospitals – they are the LA County Jail and Rikers Island. In Florida, one study found 97 people with mental health problems accounted for 2,200 arrests, 27,000 days in jail and 13,000 days in crisis units over five years. The costs to the taxpayer were $275,000 per year per mentally ill person. We have problems but not those problems.

Youth violence and knife crime have become a political issue in the UK once more. But our debate is characterised by a recognition we need to do more to keep young people out of the justice system, if at all possible. Vitale describes, in jaw-dropping detail, the ways in which the US has done the complete opposite. There are currently 43,000 police officers in American schools, the majority of whom enforce classroom discipline – not just the law. The result has been a pipeline from classroom to jail with one study reporting 92,000 arrests in US schools in one year alone. Though violent crime is at a record low in New York, the city continues to have more (armed) police in its schools than child counsellors. Homelessness too has become a fast track into the criminal justice system. One study found half of the 800 offenders who passed in and out of New York’s prisons most frequently were homeless with trespass and drugs possession their most common offences. In the UK, police routinely (and quite rightly) emphasise the risks of becoming the service of last resort. Vitale paints a picture of a US policing model which, in the absence of other effective public services, embraces it’s fate as the service of only resort by seeking out non-crime demand and promptly criminalising it in pursuit of bigger budgets (including Federal counter terrorism funding).

The author himself cautions against drawing parallels. At a lecture hosted by the Police Foundation, Vitale was sceptical about the ability of body worn video to improve police accountability in the US, arguing such reforms will have no impact on a justice system configured to enforce racialized poverty (the toxic legacy of slavery). He conceded, however, that the UK experience of this technology could be more positive due to our national standards on its use and the presence of an independent watchdog to examine footage during investigations into allegations of police misconduct.

That said there are lessons to be learned from End of Policing, in particular around the opportunities from devolution. With 18,000 autonomous police departments, locally-elected prosecutors and public services overly reliant on local taxes for funding, Vitale is no cheerleader for US localism. But, (as my colleagues have shown), localism could deliver better justice if effective welfare services were available to be joined up with policing and other parts of the criminal justice system. In comparison to the US, the UK does have functioning (albeit under pressure) social services for the poorest and most vulnerable. If our Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners had even some of the authority and responsibilities of their US counterparts at city and state level (think youth justice and probation, for example) the opportunities for integrating them and bearing down on crime and non-crime demand would be significant.

Vitale’s book is a reminder to be (relatively) thankful for the policing model and public services we do have. But it doesn’t mean we can’t still do better.


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