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Why Police Reform Is Not Enough

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The conversation about how to improve policing is often focused on accountability, diversity, training, and community relations. Policing and social justice expert Alex Vitale argues that these reforms will not produce significant results, either alone or in combination. The core of the problem is the nature of modern policing itself.

In this edited excerpt from The End of Policing (Verso 2018), Vitale looks at police training in the context of policing practice based on “Broken Windows.” That widely adopted theory directs police to assert control over relatively minor incidents—for example the unlicensed sale of cigarettes on the street that ended with the death of Eric Garner. Garner was an unarmed African American man who died after being held down and placed in a chokehold by Staten Island police officers in 2014.

Broken-windows policing is 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 that involve more arrests, more harassment, and ultimately more violence. As inequality continues to increase, so will homelessness and public disorder, and as long as people continue to embrace the use of police to manage disorder, we will see a continual increase in the scope of police power and authority at the expense of human and civil rights.

Diversity and multicultural training is not a new idea, nor is it terribly effective.

The order to arrest Eric Garner came from the very top echelons of the department, in response to complaints from local merchants about illegal cigarette sales. Treating this as a crime requiring the deployment of a special plainclothes unit, two sergeants, and uniformed backup seems excessive and pointless. Garner had experienced over a dozen previous police contacts in similar circumstances, including stints in jail; this had done nothing to change his behavior or improve his or the community’s circumstances. No amount of procedural training will solve this fundamental flaw in public policy.

Many advocates also call for cultural sensitivity trainings designed to reduce racial and ethnic bias. A lot of this training is based on the idea that most people have at least some unexamined stereotypes and biases that they are not consciously aware of but that influence their behavior. Controlled experiments consistently show that people are quicker and more likely to shoot at a black target than a white one in simulations. Trainings such as “Fair and Impartial Policing” use role-playing and simulations to help officers see and consciously adjust for these biases. Diversity and multicultural training is not a new idea, nor is it terribly effective. Most officers have already been through some form of diversity training and tend to describe it as politically motived, feel-good programming divorced from the realities of street policing. Researchers have found no impact on problems like racial disparities in traffic stops or marijuana arrests; both implicit and explicit bias remain, even after targeted and intensive training. This is not necessarily because officers remain committed to their racial biases, though this can be true, but because institutional pressures remain intact.

American police receive a great deal of training. Almost all officers attend an organized police academy and many have prior college and or military experience. There is also ongoing training; large departments have their own large training staff, while smaller departments rely on state and regional training centers. Many states have unified Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) agencies that set minimum standards, develop training plans, and advise on best practices. While police training standards are still more decentralized in the United States than in many countries that have national police forces and academies, the new POST system has gone a long way in raising standards and creating greater uniformity of procedures.

In some ways, training is actually part of the problem.

However, even after training officers often have inadequate knowledge of the laws they are tasked to enforce. Police regularly disperse young people from street corners without a legal basis, conduct searches without probable cause, and in some cases take enforcement action based on inaccurate knowledge of the law. In Victoria, Texas, an officer assaulted an elderly man he had pulled over for not having a registration sticker on his license plate. The man tried to explain that the vehicle had a dealers’ plate, which in Texas is exempt from the sticker requirement. When the officer refused to listen, the man attempted to summon his boss at the car dealership where the confrontation was occurring. Rather than working to resolve the mistake, the officer attempted to arrest the man and in the process injured him with a Taser so badly that he was hospitalized. In the subsequent inquiry, the officer insisted that the man’s passive resistance was a threat that had to be neutralized. Since the incident was recorded on the dashboard camera of the police cruiser, the officer was fired.

The training police receive at the academy is often quite different from what they learn from training officers and peers. The emphasis is on strict discipline and rote learning of laws and rules, and emphasizes proper appearance over substance. Cadets are given little in the way of substantial advice about how to make decisions in a complex environment, according to memoirs by two veteran officers, Peter Moskos and David Couper. Even sympathetic portrayals, such as the reality television show The Academy, provide stark evidence of a militarized training environment run by drill sergeants who attempt to “break down” recruits through punitive drilling and humiliating personal attacks. When officers start working, the first thing their peers often tell them is to forget everything they learned in the academy.

In some ways, training is actually part of the problem. In recent decades, the emphasis has shifted heavily toward officer safety training. Seth Stoughton, a former police officer turned law professor, shows how officers are repeatedly exposed to scenarios in which seemingly innocuous interactions with the public, such as traffic stops, turn deadly. The endlessly repeated point is that any encounter can turn deadly in a split second if officers don’t remain ready to use lethal force at any moment. When police come into every situation imagining it may be their last, they treat those they encounter with fear and hostility and attempt to control them rather than communicate with them—and are much quicker to use force at the slightest provocation or even uncertainty.

The basic nature of the law and the police is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo.

Take the case of John Crawford, an African American man shot to death by an officer in a Walmart in Ohio. Crawford had picked up an air gun off a shelf and was carrying it around the store while shopping. Another shopper called 911 to report a man with a gun in the store. The store’s video camera shows that one of the responding officers shot without warning while Crawford was talking on the phone. In Ohio it is legal to carry a gun openly, but the officer had been trained to use deadly force upon seeing a gun. The officer involved was not charged, and Crawford’s girlfriend was intimidated and threatened while being questioned after the incident.

Similarly, in South Carolina, a state trooper drove up to a young man in his car at a gas station and asked him for his driver’s license. He leaned into the car to comply and the officer shot him without warning: See unexpected movement, shoot.

Part of this emphasis on the use of deadly force comes from the rise of independent training companies that specialize in in-service training, staffed by former police and military personnel. Some of these groups serve both military and police clients and emphasize military-style approaches and the “warrior mentality.” The company CQB (Close Quarters Battle) boasts of training thousands of local, state, and federal police as well as American and foreign military units such as the U.S. Marines, Navy SEALs, and Danish, Canadian, and Peruvian special forces. Its emphasis is on “battle-proven tactics.” Trojan Securities trains both military and police units and offers police training in a variety of weapons in numerous settings, including a five-day “Police Covert Surveillance and Intelligence Operations” course.

This problem is especially acute when it comes to SWAT teams. Initially created in the early 1970s to deal with rare acts of extremist violence, barricaded suspects, or armed confrontations with police, these units now deal almost exclusively with serving drug warrants and even engage in regular patrol functions armed with automatic weapons and body armor. These units regularly violate people’s constitutional rights, kill and maim innocent people—often as a result of being in the wrong location—and kill people’s pets. These paramilitary units are increasingly being used to respond to protest activity. The militarized response to the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in 2014 following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was African American, may have served to escalate the conflict there; it’s probably no accident that the Saint Louis County police chief’s prior position had been as head of the SWAT team. These units undergo a huge amount of in-service training, funded in part by seizing alleged drug money.

The federal government also began to fund training and equipment for SWAT teams in the 1970s as part of the last round of major national policing reforms, which were intended to improve police-community relations and reduce police brutality through enhanced training. These reforms instead poured millions into training programs that resulted in the rise of SWAT teams, drug enforcement, and militarized crowd control tactics.

By conceptualizing the problem of policing as one of inadequate training and professionalization, reformers fail to directly address how the very nature of policing and the legal system serve to maintain and exacerbate racial inequality. By calling for colorblind “law and order” they strengthen a system that puts people of color at a structural disadvantage and contributes to their deep social and legal estrangement.

At root, they fail to appreciate that the basic nature of the law and the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it.

The Justice Department makes the same mistake in its report on the Ferguson Police Department. It relies heavily on improving training and expanding community policing initiatives to address racial bias and excessive use of force. It also calls for police to acknowledge their historical role in racial oppression, as was done by FBI director James Comey in a speech in 2015 and, to a lesser extent, Commissioner William Bratton in New York. Otherwise, the document largely lays out procedural reforms designed to make the policing process more democratic through internal consultation with officers and their unions and external consultation with the public. Departments are urged to think of how the community will perceive their actions and to pursue nonpunitive interactions with people to build trust. These reforms may improve the efficiency of police bureaucracies and improve relations with those active in police-community dialogues between communities and the police but will do little to address the racially disparate outcomes of policing. That is because even racially neutral enforcement of traffic laws will invariably punish poorer residents who are least able to maintain their vehicles and pay fines. Well-trained police following proper procedure are still going to be arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden will continue to fall primarily on communities of color because that is how the system is designed to operate—not because of the biases or misunderstandings of officers.

This edited excerpt from The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale (Verso 2018) appears with permission of the publisher.

Alex Vitale is professor of Sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and a visiting professor at London Southbank University. He has spent the last 25 years writing about policing and consults both police departments and human rights organizations internationally. Vitale is the author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics and The End of Policing.
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