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Changing the Role of Police

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One of the challenges for the emerging “Black Lives Matter” movement is to reconceptualize the fundamental role of the police and the larger criminal justice system. It is not enough to condemn individualized acts of police misconduct, or to suggest cosmetic reforms to existing institutional arrangements.

While most people think the criminal justice system has been designed to reduce crime and promote public safety, it is more accurate to think of it as primarily a system of managing racial and economic inequalities. The origins of modern policing in particular are tied to the control of colonial and slave populations. Even the “Bobbies” of 19th century London, upon whole American policing is based, were designed by Sir Robert Peel, whose inspiration was the colonial Irish Peace Preservation Force he helped create while Undersecretary for War and Colonies.

While reducing crime and disorder can be a part of the function of modern police, and while many people benefit in important ways from social stability, for the poor and non-white the costs of our current system of mass incarceration and racialized over-policing increasingly outweigh the benefits. To change that balance, we need to think beyond asking police to do the same thing differently – we need to re-think the role that police are asked to play.

One of the core problems with this system of managing inequality is that it relies almost exclusively on punitive mechanisms of social control—which often do nothing to actually reduce these inequalities and in many cases exacerbate them. Arrests, use of force, and incarceration are blunt tools that assume that people behave in a civilized manner only under the constant threat of punitive sanctions.

What is needed, therefore, is not to “improve” the police through increased training and diversity in hopes of achieving a more community-friendly form of policing—a goal that is unlikely to be met given the basic structural function of police. Instead, what’s needed is to develop less punitive and more empowering and restorative mechanisms for addressing crime and disorder problems that in the process seek to reduce inequalities.

There are many aspects of contemporary policing that could be largely replaced. The most glaring is the “war on drugs.” For over 30 years police have been waging this war with increasing intensity and yet drugs are cheaper and more widely available than ever. It’s time to reframe the problems associated with drugs as a public health issue in the same way we treat smoking and alcohol. The role of the police in this area has been at best a failure and at worst a massive mechanism for eroding constitutional rights and undermining the stability of poor and minority communities.

Other areas that should be civilianized include the management of the mentally ill and people living on the streets, and discipline in schools. In each of these areas there are cheaper and less punitive alternatives that should be pursued. Even problems like domestic violence and gangs can be addressed in meaningful ways with community-based strategies that attempt to deal with the underlying problems that give rise to these problematic behaviors, rather than just perpetuating a cycle of violence and retribution. Ironically, Mayor de Blasio and his criminal justice team are exploring many of these alternatives, but at the same time they continue to support the current system of policing and its slavish allegiance to the “Broken Windows” theory and its unproven hypothesis that aggressive and invasive policing is the only way to deal with the problems of poverty and inequality.
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Alex Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. He is author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics.

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