American Policing Has Always Been About Enforcing White Supremacy

Police scholar and author Alex S. Vitale gives a thorough explainer on the history of police forces, how we got to this moment, and a radical reimagining of our future.
Protesters kneel in front of Lafayette Square near the White House on June 3 to protest the police killing of George Floyd.
Protesters kneel in front of Lafayette Square near the White House on June 3 to protest the police killing of George Floyd.

Alex S. Vitale has had a busy week. The Brooklyn College professor and author of “The End of Policing,” and his academic peers, all experts in the history of American policing and police brutality, have been called on a lot since mass protests sprang up nationwide in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade.

The good news is that the ideas that Vitale feels like he, along with his colleagues and many on-the-ground activists, have been screaming about for years, are finally entering the mainstream. You’ve probably seen calls on your Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds to increase anti-bias training, prosecute officers who use excessive force against Black civilians, and to “defund the police.” These demands cut to the core of Vitale’s work. In his book “The End of Policing,” Vitale writes that in the desire to frame “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 served to maintain and exacerbate racial inequality.”

I got a chance to speak with Vitale over the phone for nearly an hour on Thursday morning about how we got to this moment. We talked about the history of police forces and their initial ties to slavery, the limitations of individual “good cop” narratives, and what calls to “defund the police” and funnel that money into community initiatives really mean.

One thing remained clear throughout our discussion: There is no reforming racism out of American policing, because it is built into the system’s very bones. When I asked him if white supremacy had been a vital component of American policing since day one, Vitale did not mince words. “Yes,” he said.

You write that the current form of policing we see in America is “based on a mindset that people of color commit more crime and therefore must be subjected to harsher police tactics.” Are our police departments in any way reformable in their current state?

There are things that we could do to reduce the harms of policing. And groups like Campaign Zero have identified a few things that have some evidence behind them, but this won’t really change the kind of gross injustices at the heart of the way we are utilizing police in the United States. So while these horrific killings [of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor] have galvanized anger, a lot of this is also driven by the everyday overuse of policing, especially in our poorest communities.

I want to dig into the history, because I feel like people don’t quite understand how we ended up at this point. Can you talk me through a little bit of the history of American police departments and the enforcement of white supremacy? How closely are these things linked?

Policing gets formed, for the most part, in the late 18th and early 19th century, in both Europe and the United States. In both contexts, there are three primary drivers of the formation of new police departments: colonialism, industrialization, and in the U.S., slavery. Policing emerges when there’s a crisis in each of these forms of exploitation, to the extent that a system of more modern social control is needed.

“The very first police force that meets the definition of a modern, 24-hour, uniformed, law-enforcement-oriented force is actually the Charleston City Watch and Guard, which is formed in the 1790s to manage a mobile slave population.”

- Alex S. Vitale, Author of "The End of Policing"

I would argue the very first police force that meets the definition of a modern, 24-hour, uniformed, law-enforcement-oriented force is actually the Charleston City Watch and Guard, which is formed in the 1790s to manage a mobile slave population that works outside the home of their owners. And the minority white population at that time was terrified about the possibility of slave uprisings, revolts, etc. So they needed a force that could manage that mobile slave population, prevent them from forming reading groups, being disorderly in the street, participating in religious activities, going to speak-easies with little bits of pocket money that they were able to obtain. But we don’t hear about that force as the origins of policing, because their primary objective under the law was to manage slaves. In northern police forces, slavery is also a factor, because one of the functions of early policing in the north is the capture of escaped slaves and returning them to the south. But more importantly for the formation of policing in the north is really the management of this massive new immigrant population that’s being molded into an industrial workforce.

Early policing in the middle of the 1800s is not really focused much on crime. In fact, there’s terrible corruption in that early police [force], and they’re often working with the criminals. Instead, what it’s doing is it’s trying to micromanage the public behavior of these immigrant, working-class populations. Controlling what’s happening in the taverns, checking the length of women’s skirts, preventing people from boisterously congregating, and a whole set of “nuisance laws” that really weren’t about crime but were about trying to stamp out what was perceived to be disorderly and unproductive behavior, like public drunkenness.

And were those nuisance laws always at their core designed to target immigrant populations and populations of color?

Absolutely. In part, because what we’re talking about is behaviors that are associated with new immigrants and working-class populations. Rich people drink alcohol in fancy restaurants and their homes. Poor people drink alcohol in overcrowded taverns that spill out onto the streets, on their front stoops. So even the objective enforcement of the law will fall disproportionately on these more vulnerable populations. There’s a famous 19th-century saying, that “the law in its majesty forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, stealing bread, and begging in the streets.”

So then there’s just one other factor for the origins of U.S. policing, which is colonialism. The U.S. had police forces like the Texas Rangers, whose primary objective was to drive out Native American and Spanish and Mexican landowners to make way for white settlement in the South and Southwest.

So essentially from day one, whiteness and white supremacy are tied deeply into what we think of as modern policing.


You also write about the increasing militarization of American police departments, especially since the late 1960s. I’m curious if you could talk me through that a bit.

Militarization is not just about hardware. The militarization of policing is also about a set of tactics and strategies used by police. It’s about training and the formation of all kinds of specialized units, like drug units and gang units and gun interdiction units, that have all taken on a military esprit de corps. And this is driven, in large part, by directives from political leaders to the police, to wage a war on drugs and a war on crime, a war on gangs and a war on immigrants and a war on terrorism. The warlike stance of the police is not an accidental overreaction. They’ve been told, in no uncertain terms, that this is what’s being asked of them.

You also talk about “the warrior mentality” that police have been trained to have. What exactly is that mindset, and what sorts of behaviors does that then encourage?

One of the problems with the warrior mindset is that it causes police to view the public as an oppositional force to be neutralized. This has led to a whole series of really egregious police killings, where officers have come to believe that any sign of threat is an existential threat to them and must be immediately neutralized. I don’t know if you remember [John Crawford III], African American guy in a Walmart [in 2014], trying to legally purchase a [BB] gun, which he had in his hand. An officer arrives on the scene, and sees a Black man with a [BB] gun, and kills him.

There have been a number of these cases, where, for instance, a Black person is in a car and is pulled over and says, “I have a legally registered gun.” The officer sees the gun and then shoots the guy in an open-carry state, right? So it’s this neutralization mindset, which, of course, is always applied unevenly by race.

How does that tie into some of what we’ve seen over the last week, like armed groups of white men in Philly claiming to “protect police,” who are then using pepper spray against peaceful protesters, many of whom are Black. What is the dynamic playing out there and is there a historical precedent for that?

Policing claims to be politically neutral, but it never has been. It is a force for maintaining a certain version of “order” that benefits specific groups disproportionately. So when officers assess what’s a threat and who’s an ally, this is always done through a political lens. White supremacists and evangelical Christian extremists and Oath Keepers are seen as the keepers of order along with the police, while African-Americans fighting for community investments and more political power are seen as inherently disorderly and destabilizing.

And so right-wing groups have always been a kind of natural partner to the police, especially in relationship to political policing. So groups like The American Legion have aided police. They’ve facilitated the blacklisting of people, gathered intelligence on organizations, and historically have been used to break up political meetings and union strikes at the behest of local police. In addition, there’s a long history of business involvement in political policing, offering police bribes and unofficial paychecks, to act as basically private security to discourage unionization and break up labor organizing.

“The racially disparate outcomes are baked into the decision to turn these problems over to the police to manage. The violence is baked into the decision to turn these problems over to violence workers.”

- Alex S. Vitale

Over the last century, police have been asked to take responsibility over increasing areas of public health and safety — overdoses, wellness checks, domestic violence disputes. You point out in your book that often, you then end up with police officers who, (a) do not have training to deal with these expanded responsibilities and (b) don’t even have a clear education and understanding of the laws they’re supposed to be enforcing. How did police become responsible for this crazy breadth of public health and safety issues, without any requirement for proper education?

First, let me take on the proper education part. One of the things we’ve been hearing over the last five years is that there are problems with police training. So we want to give police CIT [Crisis Intervention Team] training, and deescalation training, and anti-bias training. First of all, there’s no real evidence that any of that training works. Second of all, a fair amount of it is contradictory. You cannot train police to do every job in society. Police are violence workers. They should be limited to those tasks where we can’t come up with a nonviolent alternative.

So how did they end up in this massively expanded role in society? It’s tied to neoliberal austerity politics, which says that the only thing the government can do to help people is to take its resources and invest them in the already most successful parts of the economy in hopes that some of that wealth will magically trickle down to everyone else. There’s a bipartisan consensus across the board that the government can no longer meaningfully intervene in the economy, except to subsidize the already most wealthy, and that they cannot go forward anymore to provide any kind of decent social safety net. The result [is] massive wealth inequality. The result of that has been mass homelessness, mass untreated mental illness, mass untreated drug problems, mass under- and unemployment, and the black markets of drugs and sex work and stolen goods that go along with that.

Instead of going back and saying, “Oh, maybe we should actually house people,” or, “Maybe we should actually set up youth employment programs,” we turn those problems over to the police to manage. Then when there’s violence and racially disparate outcomes, we say, “Oh, well, maybe the police need more training.” No. Narcotics units don’t need anti-bias training. We need to get rid of the war on drugs. The racism [and] the racially disparate outcomes are baked into the decision to turn these problems over to the police to manage. The violence is baked into the decision to turn these problems over to violence workers.

So what’s the alternative?

It’s mostly budgetary. What I advocate and what people are doing across the country is they’re doing community needs assessments. What are the public safety challenges, the health and security challenges that their communities face that have been turned over to police to manage? Then once we’ve identified those things, we can start talking about what specific interventions would be better. Is it a youth violence problem? Is it an opioid overdose problem? Is it a problem of homeless encampments? Is it domestic violence? Whatever those problems are, we have evidence-based alternatives that we could be relying on instead of policing. Then we need communities to demand their elected officials to shift resources from policing and jails into these targeted community-based interventions — violence interrupters, domestic violence programs based in the community, safe injection facilities, drug treatment on demand, building high-quality youth centers with real staffing to help young people. These are the things that make their community safer and healthier, not our police.

It’s been very striking, if not surprising, to watch governors and mayors in predominantly blue states and cities, often who ran on progressive platforms, kowtow to police departments. What’s going on there?

Well, I think a big part of the problem is that the mainstream of the Democratic Party has capitulated to the idea that there’s no alternative to neoliberal austerity. They’ve cast their lot with the billionaires in the hopes that the billionaires will provide them some little relief so that they don’t end up being Detroit. And so that means that they refuse to tax the rich and refuse to provide decent services and that when problems emerge, they define those problems as ones of individual and group moral failure to be criminalized by policing.

Because the alternative would be to acknowledge that these problems are the result of market failures. But if the mayors did that, then that would demand that they intervene in those markets, [which] goes up against what their campaign contributors in this oligarchic class want. The Democratic Party will never get to the base of this problem until they quit taking money from billionaires and become a real party of the working class and poor.

Protesters hold up their phones outside the White House on June 3 during a demonstration against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.
Protesters hold up their phones outside the White House on June 3 during a demonstration against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.
ERIC BARADAT via Getty Images

Wednesday evening, Mayor Garcetti in Los Angeles announced that he plans to cut $100-150 million from the LAPD budget and reinvest that money into communities of color. And we’ve seen similar calls to “defund the police” across the nation. Do you feel like this moment is different? Are we primed for change?

It’s not an accident that “defund the police” has become a major message from this movement and that we’re seeing concerted action on this front. This is the result of years of struggle on the ground. There are dozens of cities that before this week were already calling for defunding the police, but they were being ignored by the media and ignored by politicians because it was threatening to the political order. And now that anger about the failure to deal with these demands is unleashed on the streets and channeled into these already existing budget battles. This is not just Los Angeles, right? Nashville. Portland. I’m sure you saw the open letter from [Mayor Bill] De Blasio staffers [demanding “radical change”]. I mean, that is an uprising in his own office.

Just in case any of our readers don’t understand what it means when they see calls to “defund the police,” can you explain what defunding police would look like on a practical level?

“Defund the police” captures a continuum of ideas. On the one hand you have these very specific campaigns on the ground who’ve identified specific dollar amounts. In Minneapolis, they want to take $45 million out of the police budget. In New York they want to take out $200 million from the police budget. In Los Angeles, $150 million. And then they want that money transferred to address community needs. It’s very concrete. Usually these numbers are based on budget assessments.

That’s really the exciting model, but there’s also a longer-term philosophical element to “defund the police” for a lot of people. It’s tied to this concept of prison and police abolition. It’s about trying to imagine and build a more just and equitable world where we don’t have to rely on policing to manage regimes of exploitation. It has these immediate concrete needs that might be a road map towards a more fundamental change in society.

When there is a rash of public criticism of police and policing, it sparks defensiveness and a rush for people to say, “Well, I know a cop who’s a good person. Not all cops are bad people.” And — of course! — there are good people who go into law enforcement. I’m curious how you encourage people to tease out the difference between an individual’s morality or goodness, and the ineffectiveness or the intrinsic issues of a structure.

I’ve been a police scholar for the last 20 years. I work with and write with and know police all over the world. And most police wake up in the morning or join this job with some idea about trying to help people. They think they’re doing something positive. They may be misguided in this understanding, but they don’t all come at it maliciously. Some [police officers] have become jaded and unnecessarily violent and racist. But I don’t think that is the majority of officers. A strategy of trying to weed out a few bad apples or make the training better so they don’t become bad apples really, or hire more diverse officers because that will somehow magically make policing better — this all misunderstands the structural imperatives that drive the violence, discourtesy and injustice. We need to have a structural analysis of the mission that police have been given rather than tinkering around with the attitudes of individual officers.

And you point out in your book, which I found so striking, that there is little evidence that diversifying police departments actually changes outcomes.

There is no evidence. In fact, the only evidence that we have is that in some cases it makes it worse. Most studies show it has no effect, good or bad, but a few studies actually show that African-American officers are more likely to arrest Black people than their white counterparts in similar situations.

Does that indicate to you that police officers are simply being funneled into a structure and an ideology that is inherently encouraging these kinds of racist behaviors?

Yes. When we tell the police that they’re at war with the public, when we tell the police that they are the only tool to solve community problems, this will inherently lead to problems. Because what tools do the police have to solve our community problems? Guns, handcuffs and ticket books and threats and harassment. And these tools are inherently demeaning, degrading and violent. If we don’t want degrading and violent treatment, don’t get the police involved.

I’ve also noticed an uptick in “feel-good police content” from the protests popping up on a lot white peoples’ social media feeds; photos of officers taking a knee or hugging a Black protester. What do you make of the impulse to post stuff like that? And what are the limits of that feel-good content?

So Derecka Purnell wrote a piece for The Appeal that [argued] we should not be embracing the police in our protests. That this is a fake narrative that imagines that the problems are just ones of superficial attitude adjustment. [Feel-good acts of solidarity] are really symbolic public relations designed to deflect legitimate anger about our overreliance on policing. We don’t really care what the attitudes of those officers are. We don’t want them in our lives. It’s not a matter of what race they are or how enlightened their ideas are about racism. It really doesn’t matter.

I think that that is something that white people who have not had to deal with overpolicing are struggling to grasp, though perhaps something more white people are beginning to grasp. I think there’s a comfort in imagining that it’s just about, “What if people were just kinder?” But what you’re saying is that this is a structure, this is innate, this racism is baked in from day one. So, given all of that, are you hopeful in this moment?

I’m pretty pessimistic about the situation in Washington. [President Donald] Trump is trying to weaponize the police and the military for political purposes. He’s going to campaign on a law-and-order platform of putting down the protests, and he’s using police and the military to help accomplish that for him. And the Democrats really have nothing to offer. [Former President Barack] Obama’s address to the nation last night was horrible. It made him instantly irrelevant in the current conversation. He had nothing to offer people, except to trot out the same tired list of reforms that were implemented in Minneapolis and had no effect.

But at the local level, I’m more hopeful. We have these organizing campaigns all across the country to defund the police, to redirect resources into community needs. And these movements are growing and becoming more powerful. And policing is ultimately a local matter. It’s not a federal matter. So we can really make huge changes at the local level, no matter how messed up the situation in Washington is.

So for people who see what’s going on and say, “My eyes are open. I want to be part of the change. I want to be part of the solution.” What should they be doing?

It’s such a difficult circumstance. We still have an active pandemic underway. So people have to be responsible about [protesting in the streets]. They have to wear masks. They have to avoid unnecessary contact. And they also have to explore alternative ways of expressing their anger.

People need to be putting more signs in their windows, standing out on their stoops with signs and doing car caravans. We need to be creative and we need to lean on our elected officials and demand that they provide us with some basic modicum of justice in this matter. And that can involve phone calls and Twitter storms and letters to the editor. We need to be operating on all fronts.

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