When Police Are the Problem

Think, if you’ll indulge me, of your last significant encounter with a police officer. For some, this may be difficult, and perhaps all that will come to mind is ...

Think, if you’ll indulge me, of your last significant encounter with a police officer. For some, this may be difficult, and perhaps all that will come to mind is asking an officer for directions. For others, it will be easy and painful: perhaps you were stopped on your way to work and patted down, or maybe you were pepper-sprayed at a protest. Whatever the case, your experience and interactions with the police are largely determined by where you are, what you look like, and your access to legal and financial resources.

Police are everywhere—from train stations to schools to hospitals to traffic stops—and yet the omnipresent organization they compose, which is so much a part of our daily lives, is insufficiently studied and its authority largely unquestioned. Ask yourself what a police officer does, and you’re likely to find yourself reaching for vague clichés—like “stopping crime” and “maintaining order”—whose actual explanatory power is limited. To quote the sociologist Egon Bittner, “When one looks at what policemen actually do, one finds that criminal law enforcement is something that most of them do with the frequency located somewhere between virtually never and very rarely.”1

The variety of problems police are tasked with range today from enforcing discipline in schools to handling mental health crises. Given the narrow set of tools police have at their disposal, the violence they create and deploy, and their limited ability to achieve the results demanded of them, perhaps a different approach is necessary. Perhaps it’s time to ask: are the police obsolete?

The two books under review here are part of a surge of new work that seeks to shine a light on the notoriously secretive institutions and practice of policing. Following a renewed interest in police violence in the wake of the high-profile 2014 murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the growth and activism of the Movement for Black Lives, and uprisings and protests in response to police violence in Ferguson, Baltimore, and throughout the country, scholars of law and policing seem to be approaching the issue with renewed vigor and public urgency.

The last year alone has seen the publication of James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own, Andrea Ritchie’s Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, and Angela J. Davis’s edited collection Policing the Black Man, as well as Paul Butler’s Chokehold: Policing Black Men and Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing.

Butler’s and Vitale’s books, though different in tone and scope, espouse a similar political message: reform will not be enough. To end police violence we must remake policing itself.

As the scope of police work widens, it continues to carry the same punitive ethos, eschewing more compassionate alternatives such as welfare and social services.

Butler takes a personal approach to the problem of policing, using his experiences as both a former federal prosecutor and a black man who has been wrongfully arrested to explain the pervasive physical, mental, and economic violence of the criminal justice system. The book’s title is not only an invocation of the practice that Daniel Pantaleo used on Eric Garner but also a wider metaphor for the policing of black men: “A chokehold is a process of coercing submission that is self-reinforcing. A chokehold justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance because of the vise grip that is on it,” Butler writes. “This is how the process of law and order pushes African American men into the criminal system. This is how the system is broke on purpose.”

The choke hold, in Butler’s telling, represents not just overt forms of state violence but also the withering of the welfare state, indifferent or neglectful enforcement of environmental regulations, the closing and underfunding of schools, and the use of prison construction to stimulate rural economies at the expense of urban neighborhoods, among other issues. Although Butler doesn’t fully explore the potential of this metaphor as an explanatory tool (and at one point walks back the extent of the metaphor, claiming it applies only to black men2), the brilliance of the choke hold as a construct is that it illustrates strikingly both the violence of policing and the way the police can use any sign of resistance to excuse further violence.

Although Garner was confronted by police for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, it was his resistance to Pantaleo’s initial attempt to handcuff him—by swinging his arms away and saying, “Don’t touch me, please”—that the officers reacted to, putting him in a choke hold and slamming him against a window and the sidewalk; as a result, he died before he could get to a hospital. As Butler argues, we should not see this as a case of “bad apples” or a lack of training; rather, “the problem is police work itself.”

Vitale largely agrees with Butler, and provides an invaluable overview of the ideological and material conditions that have led to modern policing and mass incarceration. For instance, he notes that the order to arrest Eric Garner “came from the very top echelons of the department,” as part of a broken-windows-theory-inspired attempt to drive out undesirable behaviors and people. Vitale sees broken-windows policing as “at root a deeply conservative attempt to shift the burden of responsibility for declining living conditions onto the poor themselves and to argue that the solution to all social ills is increasingly aggressive, invasive, and restrictive forms of policing.”


Police Brutality, a Horror Story

By Kinohi Nishikawa

As the scope of police work widens, it continues to carry the same punitive ethos, eschewing more compassionate alternatives such as welfare and social services. Like Loïc Wacquant before him, Vitale explicitly links attacks on and cuts to (never robust) welfare-state programs to the increasing presence and funding of the police, and argues that leaders in both parties “have embraced a neoconservative politics that sees all social problems as police problems.”3

One of the difficulties with policing, then, is that the police are being tasked with solving problems they have neither the tools nor the training to solve. Vitale quotes David Brown, the former Dallas police chief who in 2016 said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Despite their expanding presence and the ever-wider range of problems they are forced to deal with, the police have a fairly limited set of tools with which to approach any problem. A cop is not a social worker or an educator, and increased patrols and incarceration do not provide an alternative to the underground economy that is often the only viable option in the impoverished communities that are home to our nation’s highest rates of crime and violence. No amount of training can change this: “The reality,” Vitale writes, “is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.”

Recently, Vitale participated in an illustrative debate at Brooklyn College with the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald.4 Mac Donald, a proponent of broken-windows policing and an opponent of welfare, provides an excellent example of the ideology of policing that sees police as the best, or even the only, solution to the public’s problems. Loading her argument with heart-breaking stories of crime and violence in impoverished, largely African American communities, as well as stories of community members meeting with police officers to ask for more enforcement to get rid of the young men who hang out in front of their businesses, or to drive away the drug dealers in the lobbies of their apartment buildings, she repeatedly asks Vitale, “What are the police supposed to do” when the community asks for help?

Although Vitale provides examples of alternatives to policing ranging from working with violence disrupters (who intervene in conflicts in an attempt to cut them off before they become deadly, and thus prevent the cycle of violence that costs so many lives) to providing public-housing complexes with doormen to ensure building security, Mac Donald returns to the question. This rhetorical trap—which Vitale, to his credit, largely avoids—seeks to present the police as the only tenable solution to the community’s problems.

Reform will not be enough. To end police violence we must remake policing itself.

It never seems to occur to Mac Donald that she is posing the wrong question. Rather than asking, “What should the police do?” we should instead ask, “Why should the police be involved?” and “How can these problems actually be solved?” The police do not give young men a different place to hang out, or fix the broken locks that let the drug dealer set up shop in an apartment’s lobby; they simply make the young men move and throw the dealer in jail. The economy and support structures remain the same; the “problem” (namely, young, black men) is displaced.

One of the great strengths of both Butler’s and Vitale’s works is a commitment to ending our reliance on policing: Vitale, for example, ends each chapter by considering suggested reforms, outlining the limitations of reform, and then offering alternative strategies to policing and punitive approaches. Vitale is under few illusions about the difficulty of this task, noting that the task of ending policing will require a shift in our governing ideology, from one that sees crime and poverty as a personal failing only to be dealt with through intimidation and punishment to one that invests in communities, empowers them through a massive redistribution of wealth and resources, and does not seek to manage poor and minority communities with violence.

In Chokehold, Butler is as focused on what can be done now as he is on building the movement to come. For the African American men who, in his telling, are most at risk of enduring the violence of the criminal justice system, he offers an entire chapter called “If You Catch a Case: Act Like You Know,” in which he advises black men on how to act if they are stopped or arrested by the police. Butler’s prescriptions here will, I imagine, be considered the most controversial part of the book.

When stopped by a cop, Butler advises, a black man should be totally submissive and acquiescent, stopping short of revealing something incriminating. Do not stand out of the crowd, he cautions. Do not linger with a group of black male friends. Do not wear a hoodie, run fast, wear low pants, or laugh too loudly. All of these actions can be, and have been, cited as reasons for stopping black men. This scrutiny is, in Butler’s words, “the hard stare” of active surveillance: “The law of stop and frisk enforces a conformity about race but also restricts any kind of standing out from the crowd. … The cops don’t only enforce criminal law; they also enforce the politics of respectability.”

Butler’s aim here is not to endorse these practices but rather to make the reader aware of what he calls the “horror story” inherent in the policing of black men. The author’s personal history becomes especially salient at this point, as he makes it painstakingly clear how the outcome of his own arrest did not depend on his innocence but instead on his background as an Ivy League–educated prosecutor who was able to hire the best attorney in the city. This can lead to what sometimes comes across as a callous pragmatism (he suggests, for instance, that Kalief Browder would be alive if he had taken a guilty plea), but the impact of his argument is clear. Truth and justice are not the main concerns of our criminal justice system.

Reading these works together, it is difficult not to recoil at the violence embedded in policing, and those of us who have been lucky enough to avoid it should approach both books aware that it is luck (and not personal virtue or fealty to the law) that has allowed us to escape that violence. Considering the scope of its polemical argument and attention to detail, The End of Policing is impressively brief; it is is exactly the sort of introduction to the problem of policing that we have needed. Butler’s more directed focus and personal touch provides an important perspective, and while his arguments can often feel unevenly developed, Chokehold offers powerful and disturbing insight into what it is like to live with the constant threat of police violence.

Both works, however, make it clear that there is much left to be done and said. Despite the gains of the Movement for Black Lives and the election of sympathetic district attorneys, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, the violence of mass incarceration and policing will be with us for some time to come. It is imperative that we understand the scope of what needs to be confronted. Another world is possible, and works like these help us see the way.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Egon Bittner, “Florence Nightingale in Pursuit of Willie Sutton: A Theory of the Police,” in The Potential for Reform of Criminal Justice (SAGE, 1974), p. 23.
  2. Butler writes that “the Chokehold is at the intersection of blackness and maleness, and it is about the social and legal response to that specific identity. This response is mainly horrific, but the violence of the law is not limited to black men. African American women aren’t doing any better overall, but criminal justice is not the primary instrument of their subordination.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t go much further in explaining either why the choke hold should refer solely to African American men nor what the primary instrument of the subordination of African American women is. Readers interested in the intersection of the criminal justice system and African American women should look to Andrea Ritchie’s Invisible No More.
  3. See Loïc Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) and Punishing the Poor (Duke University Press, 2009).
  4. A recording of the debate was streamed as an episode of Daniel Denvir’s excellent podcast, The Dig. Denvir interviewed Vitale on an earlier episode of the podcast.
Featured image: Two police laughing in full riot gear during the presidential inauguration. (2017). Photograph by Spenser H / Unsplash