Check out our crowdsourced resources for local government wildfire response.

Registration is now open for #ELGL20: Local Gov Oktoberfest! Register today!

Podcast: Reducing Reliance on Police with Alex Vitale, Brooklyn College

Posted on September 4, 2020


Alex Vitale GovLove

Alex Vitale

Alex Vitale
Professor of Sociology
Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project
Brooklyn College
Bio | Twitter


Making communities safer. Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, joined the podcast to talk about rethinking public safety and his book, The End of Policing. He discussed how past policing reforms have not been successful at changing outcomes and the need to solve community problems in new ways rather than just using the criminal justice system. He also shared examples from across the country of how cities are reducing the role of police (Examples: The Ithaca Plan, CAHOOTS, Cure Violence, and City of Berkeley).

Host: Ben Kittelson

Subscribe:Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyRSS Feed


Learn More

10 Ways to Reduce Our Reliance on Policing and Make Our Communities Safer for Everyone

Code Switch: How Much Do We Need The Police?

Alex Vitale Website

The Policing and Social Justice Project

The Only Solution Is to Defund the Police

“We have to articulate a different vision of justice”: Alex S Vitale on why the police should be abolished

Envisioning an America Free from Police Violence and Control


Episode Transcript

Message

ELGL Oktoberfest is coming. Instead of gathering in person this year for a few days of learning and fun, we’re going all digital. So for the whole month of October ELGL members from across the country will be gathering together virtually, to talk all about local government. We have three tracks to choose from plus summits on Creative Placemaking, Innovation and Strategy. It’s going to be a great time. To get you even more excited, here’s a couple of our amazing speakers. Brian Platt from the City of Jersey City, New Jersey is joining us. Dr. Farris Muhammad from the City of Peoria, Illinois, and Tina Walha from the City of Seattle, Washington is going to speak at the conference as well. You can learn more at the ELGL website and register for the best conference of the year. Go to elgl20.org. That’s elgl20.org to learn more.

Ben Kittelson

Hey y’all. This is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co-host We’ve got a great episode for you today. We’re talking policing. So before we get into our episode, I’ve got a reminder about the ELGL annual conference. It’s going to be going digital and it’s gonna be taking the whole place, the whole month of October. We’re calling it ELGL Oktoberfest. Details are available now if you go to the ELGL website, but our goal is to spread that digital conference out over the full month to avoid that Zoom burnout. And the best way to support GovLove is by joining ELGL and going to ELGL events. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. GovLove is also looking for your feedback. You can go to govlovesurvey.com and tell us a little about you and what you think about the podcast. Knowing more about you helps us make govlove better. That’s govlovesurvey.com. Now let me introduce today’s guest, Alex Vitale is a Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. He has spent the last 30 years writing about policing and consults with police departments and human rights organizations internationally. Professor Vitale is the author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He’s also the author of The End of Policing, which, which I read recently, and we’re gonna we’re going to talk a lot about today. His academic writings on policing have appeared in Policing in Society, Police Practice and Research, Mobilization and Contemporary Sociology. He’s also a frequent essayist, and his writings have appeared in publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian. And so with that, Professor Vitale, welcome to GovLove. Thank you so much for joining us.

Alex Vitale

Oh, you’re most welcome.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. So um, normally, one way we begin our GovLove interviews is talk about people’s path into local government. But I guess for you I’m curious that how did you end up kind of dedicating so much of your career kind of and research to policing? What was maybe, you know, what was the path or what what led you to kind of focusing on this this area?

Alex Vitale

Yeah, well, I didn’t start off in academia doing this work. I started working at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, doing policy work around housing and social services delivery, which is more or less what I had studied in college. And it was during this time that we began to see the real ramping up of the criminalization of homeless folks. And so my boss at the time asked me to look into this and it was clear to me that what was going on was that the City of San Francisco had more or less, you know, given up on the possibility of actually housing folks and had turned the problem over to the police to kind of keep a lid on to manage city and of course, this was a what was going on in cities in most parts of the country, either then or shortly after that. And then I went back to graduate school in 93, to do more kind of urban policy stuff, right as Rudolph Giuliani was elected in New York where I had moved and, you know, got pulled into responding to that, and kind of shifted my focus more and more on understanding how policing fits into a larger nexus of urban public policies, and thinking about what the trade offs are between turning a problem over to police versus trying to deal with it in more in some more substantial way.

Ben Kittelson

And so, when you start looking at like the, I assume that’s what kind of your your first book is about, is that could that quality of life campaign and the shift in policing strategy in New York. What was, what did you kind of see what was the, what did you kind of find when you were, I don’t know, observing that or researching that?

Alex Vitale

So look, cities are facing incredible pressures due to global competition, and their abandonment by the federal government. And, and no city wants to be Detroit, right. So cities are trying to figure out how to navigate this, this somewhat fairly hostile environment. And so what most of them have done, including New York and San Francisco and many others is that they’ve embarked on a strategy of basically trying to subsidize those segments of the economy that are best linked into the global economy. And what this often results in, is kind of subsidizing the already most successful parts of the economy in hopes that some of that, some of their success will trickle down to the to the city at large. And that has produced a kind of resurgence of downtown real estate and some some gentrification of the central city but it’s not really done anything for outlying neighborhoods for, you know, working class and poor communities of color. And so it’s produced this tremendous inequality, mass homelessness and disorder that then has engendered this kind of rise of neoconservative urban politics from people like Giuliani who’s like, well, I’ll have the same economic policies of subsidizing Wall Street, but at least I’m going to drive the homeless people out of public spaces.

Ben Kittelson

So it’s like this unintended effect of like, making downtown better as you’re kind of ignoring other parts of the city or other issues. And then and then the reaction to those those issues when they arise, is this kind of this heightened police state for, for lack of a better word.

Alex Vitale

Yeah, I mean, Denkens took what discretionary money he had and put it into policing. And, and before, but before that, he took what he had and put it into Wall Street and that left him with nothing to deal with housing and …. before him had overseen, you know, the turning of SRO’s and low income housing, into market rate housing and hotels in a way that put hundreds of thousands of people on the streets and then left it for Denkens, who really continued to subsidize commercial real estate. And then instead of, you know, using what resources he had to build affordable housing, he went to Albany to get you know, new taxes to hire more police, manage the consequences of all this.

Ben Kittelson

I’m curious, for for someone like you that’s kind of been working on this for I think if I said 30 years, like, what’s it been like to see kind of your research and this this new conversation about rethinking policing and defunding the police, kind of thrust into the national spotlight?

Alex Vitale

Yeah, well, it’s it’s definitely the national spotlight in a way that I was not anticipating. I mean, I was very busy before this, I was giving 50 talks a year going to 20-25 cities a year. I mean, I was on an airplane every other week before COVID, traveling around the country and also internationally and seeing this movement kind of percolating on the ground in all these different cities, but I don’t think anyone anticipated this, you know, outburst of sustained protests and anger that’s so focused around, around these demands, which, which again, I had been seeing percolating, so I wasn’t completely surprised, but it’s certainly, you know, it’s obviously it’s, it’s gratifying. It’s also exhausting, and it’s also a burden to be seen as a kind of spokesperson for a movement as a kind of academic at some removed from what’s happening on the ground.

Ben Kittelson

And, yeah, I agree like, I think we I was at a budget office in the City of Durham and we got push-back from community organizations. And they were, you know, talking about defunding the police back in, I think that must have been 2018. Our budget process back then. So it wasn’t, it wasn’t like totally new. But this this new attention and kind of mainstreaming of the idea, I think, is what, like, totally surprised me about kind of this summer and obviously, like, that starts with, you know, the murder of George Floyd and then the resulting protests, but that’s really like, like taking hold in a way that I think, I would imagine almost no one expected.

Alex Vitale

Yeah, and it’s not just that there have been such extensive and, and militant protests, but also, you know, no one’s holding up a sign calling for another police community meeting. Nobody’s holding up signs calling for more anti bias training for police. No one’s really even calling for body cameras anymore. There’s been this radical shift, and I mean that in both senses of dramatic and also a more radical analysis that says, actually we want you to quit using the police, not fix the police. You know, we want you to actually do something about the homelessness problem, actually fix the schools, actually provide services in communities with problems of violence and homelessness and overdoses and all the rest. And so, you know, it’s been the uniformity of that, of that line of demands that that has also been surprising.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, one and you it’s a great segue into my first question kind of about your book and, and I so full disclosure, I had to listen to the audio book version because it was like out of print everywhere. So, but the kind of the first section your book talks about how the reforms of police reforms have not really worked and so for, you know, I think about kind of the the maybe the median local government out there across the country, like they may not have even got to some of these reforms that the progressive, you know, police departments have been implementing for, you know, the last few years. So, and so like, you know, they’re behind the ball for something that doesn’t have the impact that they hope it would. What, so I guess for for you like what are those reforms that, you know, police department have tried and like why, you know, why haven’t they had the impact that, you know, reformers thought they would?

Alex Vitale

Yeah, so the reforms, I think, can be seen most clearly in President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. So these reforms kind of revolve around the idea of procedural justice, which is the idea that when people in the criminal justice system take the time to explain why they’re doing something and follow proper procedure and listen to every one side of the story that people feel better about the outcome, even if they end up getting a ticket or a fine or sent to jail or whatever. The problem is that this doesn’t deal with questions of substantive justice. So what you get is a set of reforms that are designed to make police seem more professional, be less biased, have more transparency and accountability, but they never question the huge expansion of the role of the scope of policing. So this takes the form of things like implicit bias training, de-escalation training in Minneapolis, they had that plus like mindfulness training, creating body camera systems, systems to identify officers who are like repeat sources of citizen complaints and hopes of staging some kind of intervention in Minneapolis, they also had changed the use of force policy around chokeholds, around sanctity of life, they created an affirmative obligation that officers must intervene if one of their colleagues is engaged in misconduct. And none of this worked, right? The officers who are involved in the death of George Floyd had all had all of this training, and people just watch this video of them, you know, kind of careless, not carelessly, but in a kind of trivial manner, just kill this guy and watch him be killed and do nothing about it. And so, you know, implicit bias training is this idea that the problems of racial disparities and police violence, arrests, etc, are because individual officers have these unconscious biases that are interfering with their discretionary decision making. And this this just can’t possibly be the case. And this training just can’t possibly make any difference because first of all, we got a problem of explicit racism in American policing. That’s that’s pervasive. But also, we have a problem of structural racism, which is that when elected officials turn the problems of black and brown communities over to the police to manage, that’s going to produce racial disparities regardless of the motivations or biases of individual officers. And the best example of this would be the war on drugs, which was created in its origins as a kind of racist political project by the Nixon administration that never had anything to do with public health or public safety. And at that the burden of that has fallen entirely on communities of color. And the solution to that is not to give narcotics officers anti bias training, it’s to have a total rethink on why we’ve turned the drug problem over to the police to manage. And I’m also, you know, very skeptical of things like community policing, which is about, you know, the community bringing its problems to the police to kind of try to figure out a solution to them. So the research shows that the “community” that the police end up working with is not very representative of the community, tends to the more elite and conservative elements, but also, you know, what tools do police have to solve community problems, arrests, ticket books, hand guns, you know, they have tools of coercion and violence. And what communities are saying is what they’d like their problem solved without coercion and violence. And, and so that’s not really the reform that people are asking for. They’d like to see actual improvements in community mental health and substance abuse services, actual investments in neighborhood based anti violence initiatives. You know, body cameras have not shown success. We’ve got a couple of very high quality experimental studies that show that they don’t produce any reduction in citizen complaints. They don’t change use of force rates, they don’t change arrest rates and cities keep using them because they’re using them for evidence collection, which is great for the police department, but it’s not changing the impact of policing on on over policed communities.

Ben Kittelson

Well, so of those kind of reforms, I think the community policing want to I always find the conversation about that looks really interesting is that like ideally, you know, having police officers that represent the community, that are engaged with the community like should like should improve like outcomes and kind of improve policing but you know, I think from from your book and from like, some of the other you know, stuff I’ve read and listen to about this, it’s, you’re asking them to do to treat people with like kind of base level of respect that like other communities in cities get and so it’s almost like you’re you’re, you’re assuming that their their, their their current actions of mistreating these these populations, you know that, you know that that’s a part of the part of the expectation and that needs to be. And so, you know, changing it to community policing is not very, you know, isn’t really solving the problem. This is, it’s this broader structural problem.

Alex Vitale

Yeah, and when political leaders, right, tell the police, get the, get the gangbangers. Do whatever it takes. Get the kids, get the drug dealers out of the park, do what it takes to get the drug dealers out of the park, you know, do what it takes to get the homeless people out of a commercial district. Well, policing is not going to be friendly and respectful. They’re going to do what it takes. And they are violence workers and so there will be violence and then to try to paper over that with some some spending more money on like, you know, de-escalation training, it’s kind of ludicrous because they don’t want to de-escalate, they want to clear that corner. So instead of thinking we can solve this with yet more millions of dollars for training, maybe we should actually figure out why the drug dealers are in the park and come up with some strategy for addressing that. Looking at, you know, decriminalization, harm reduction, targeted economic investment initiatives. I’m a big fan of the Ithaca plan that was developed by the Mayor of Ithaca, New York as a comprehensive alternative to policing to deal with their drug problems in Ithaca.

Ben Kittelson

What’s in, I haven’t heard about that plan. We’ll have to link to it in our in our show notes.

Alex Vitale

Yeah, you can put a link to it and look it up. But it calls for harm reduction strategies, improvement in drug treatment services, economic development initiatives in areas where a lot of young people turn to drug dealing as a kind of job of last resort, things like that.

Ben Kittelson

Are there other cities that you’ve seen that are kind of getting at these, like root cause, like the root cause of problems that, you know, have so far been, you know, police officers have been asked to deal kind of at the end of the the problem rather than, you know, the root cause?

Ales Vitale

Well, just in the last couple of months, we’ve seen a number of cities decide to pull back school policing. Portland, Maine, and Oakland, California, in Milwaukee and Minnesota, in Minneapolis. You know, there’s, and there’s similar discussions in a lot of cities and replacing those school police by bringing back the counselors that that were defunded over the last couple of decades and looking at restorative and transformative justice programs to help better manage school discipline. And, and really trying to bring an end to this, this misguided school to prison pipeline. And you know, in most of these cities, the funding for the school police was coming out of the education department budget. And, you know, we can look at like cities that are looking at alternatives to using police on mental health and substance abuse crisis calls. So there’s a lot of talk about the so called Cahoots model in Oregon, where they part where they’re part of the 911 system links to a nonprofit, public health care provider that’s developed an outreach capacity, a 24 hour crisis outreach capacity to deal with overdoses, mental health crises, a homeless person in distress and they just don’t send the police on those calls anymore. Albuquerque is looking to do something very similar. Los Angeles is exploring that,  there is a very strong proposal from the Public Advocate in New York City to do something similar here.

Ben Kittelson

When I think that area is one that I think there could be some consensus around. Because a lot of the feedback I know that police departments have provided the cities and communities I’ve worked for is like, they don’t want to be doing those calls anyway. Like, they are not there that you know, you don’t sign up to be a police officer to respond to mental health calls or homeless calls. You want to do it to prevent crime. And so and, and, and at the same time, we don’t, there, there are probably better people that we can send them to respond to those issues. And I know we talked to the Chief Administrative Officer from Albuquerque, New Mexico where they are, they are starting to do that and kind of move some of those calls off of the the workload of police officers and on to you know, mental health professionals or other kind of first responders.

Alex Vitale

Yeah, it’s very exciting. It’s a it’s a an opportunity right now, I think for some experimentation and and these things that I lead with are kind of the low hanging fruit but I think also we need to look at efforts to get police out of the sex work business. You know, we can look at examples in New Zealand, Australia in Nevada, where sex work has been decriminalized or some kind of legalization regime has been put in place and we we get it out of the black market, we create more transparency, we reduce the risk of violence and exploitation and we reduce the risk of police corruption and abuse which which is which is legendary in these vice units.

Ben Kittelson

What about kind of some of these other areas that like, that require kind of a root cause like solution? Like, are there like some solutions like, if a city wants to say hey, you know, we don’t, we want to start to shift and solve some of these problems in our in our neighborhoods and in you know, in our communities. What are what are some other things that they can, they can be trying or maybe that they should look into?

Alex Vitale

Well, obviously, they need to be targeted to whatever the public safety challenges are that a specific community faces. And so the first step is to really do a kind of community by community needs assessment. And that’s exactly what they’re talking about doing in Minneapolis. Figure out what the problems are. And then let’s look at examples of what we might do instead, and start experimenting and trying to roll these things out in ways that allow us to dial back our reliance on policing. Now, some of these are going to be kind of immediate, sort of behavioral interventions, the like a crisis response team, or like credible messenger initiatives that try to deal with youth violence, but we also need the longer range intervention. You know, we need to actually put people in housing, and that’s not going to happen overnight. We need to do something about profound economic disparities based on you know, questions of race and, and immigration status. You know, we need to look at some of the historical legacies of inequality and begin to directly address these. I think, was it Durham, that that is having a serious conversation about reparations, that or it might not be Durham, but it’s another city.

Ben Kittelson

The City of Asheville.

Alex Vitale

Could be Asheville. Right. And I think we need to look at things like that. Maybe we don’t have to use that language, but we have to, you know, make a serious effort to try to address these profound disparities. And I think, you know, we can find some resources for doing that by dialing back, you know, the huge expenditures that are going into policing, jails, probation, etc, that that really aren’t, you know, adequately addressing the problem and sometimes making it worse.

Ben Kittelson

What was that, for the youth violence? What was that intervention program that you mentioned?

Alex Vitale

Yeah. So, you know, this idea of dialing back policing. It’s not just about the little things, you know, it’s we have some pretty good evidence to support, you know, interventions to deal with serious violence, homicide shootings. We’ve got strong studies in places like Baltimore and Chicago and New York, that support what we call kind of Cure Violence or Credible Messenger Interventions. And these are initiatives that hire people from high gun violence communities, who may have themselves have a history of violence or street involvement or involvement in the criminal justice system, to work with younger people in the community to try to break that cycle of violence. You know, one of the things we know about a lot of this violence is that it’s not organized. It’s not tied to like drug dealing. It’s a lot of interpersonal beefs driven by a long history of trauma. Most of the young people involved in violence have been the victims of violence and have never had that victimization addressed. So these credible messengers are out talking to young people. Let’s say someone gets shot or stabbed and ends up in the hospital, they go to the hospital and begin to try to work with that young person so that when they get out, they don’t go and shoot the next person. They try to work out like rumor control, do little truces between people who’ve been beefing at each other for a while. That can dramatically reduce the homicides and give us space to work on things like creating Summer Youth job programs, getting students back into school, connecting them with pro social activities, job training, whatever it is that we think will make a difference in that specific local context.

Ben Kittelson

Oh, interesting. That’s yeah, that’s such a like a, and then that seems like it’s probably less less costly than, you know, a new, a new police unit of officers.

Alex Vitale

Absolutely. And you know, the research here in New York, they took paired neighborhoods with similar demographics and they gave one at one of these Cure Violence programs and use the other one as a control. And over a two three year period, they found 50% reductions in homicides in the Cure Violence sites, compared to the other sites. I mean, these are dramatic findings.

Ben Kittelson

What, so maybe for a community that like doesn’t have as much control over some of these like laws or maybe doesn’t have as big of a budget as like a City of New York, are there like, I don’t know, like some small like, like, small like low hanging fruit things, but like, you might be able to get, you know, easy buy in for from, maybe not easy but buy in for from a police department or for from a community to to kind of begin this step down the road, they’re like, yeah, maybe I’m not overnight going to, you know, cut the police department by, you know, whatever percent and open a mental health response unit. But, you know, maybe there’s a couple of things that we can kind of start doing to like, shift the conversation if I’m, you know, the city manager kind of on a decision maker in a maybe a smaller city.

Alex Vitale

Well, look, the last trip I took before COVID was to Portland, Maine, where they’re having a big conversation about school policing. They only had a couple of officers assigned to high schools. But that money was coming out of the education department budget. And so I was on a panel with the chief of police and a member of the school board to, you know, talk about, you know, kind of debate this issue, and about a month ago, they voted to shift all of that funding for school police into hiring more counselors, who are cheaper, and you know, who can just develop a much healthier relationship with kids and, and more directly address the kind of challenges that they bring into school that can lead to discipline problems. And those counselors can also set up alternative disciplinary systems that get kids to work with the system instead of against it. So that’s a pretty straightforward initiative right there. I think that and we’ve got a lot of small towns with school police. I think we could, we could get armed police increasingly out of traffic enforcement, we ….them with civilians, and that’s much cheaper, and it’s just so much less likely to lead to an escalation of violence.

Ben Kittelson

Mm hmm. Yeah, that’s that’s I think that’s such a …

Alex Vitale

It’s Berkeley, California, for example, that is doing this.

Ben Kittelson

Oh, they are Wow, really. So is that….

Alex Vitale

And Minneapolis is talking about it also.

Ben Kittelson

What does that look like, like in those cities? And if you don’t know, that’s fair if that is that like changing sworn personnel to civilian personnel and kind of having them still, you know, out in vehicles with with police markings on it or what does it look like I guess?

Alex Vitale

I don’t think we know all the details yet. This is, they are beginning the process of implementing this. Here in New York, we have a tiered system. So in New York, yes, we have, we have a Traffic Bureau, that right now mostly just does directing of traffic. And they have, you know, marked police vehicles, but they’re not armed and they don’t have arrest powers. They can write certain kinds of tickets for moving violations. So you could expand that authority to write moving violation tickets, you could give them training to do accident investigations. If people need to report an accident, they could respond instead. So that you can get that insurance paperwork taken care of. They cost about half what sworn officers cost, possibly even less, possibly even less, depending on questions of overtime.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Yeah, that’s the that’s the I feel like the thing that I’ve been learning and as I’ve learned more about the issue and thought about is like, some of the solutions are way cheaper than adding 10 more police officers and, and it’s just that we got to think about them and think about solving these issues in new ways rather than kind of the tools we’ve always used as cities.

Alex Vitale

That’s right. And also, when we do think there’s a need for a social services intervention, we have this tendency to just pair it with the police, like somehow police have to be at the center of anything that has the name public safety in it. And this just isn’t true, right. We could turn whole problems over to public health authorities. Civilian interventions of various kind, counselors and just completely remove the police from from these situations. Perhaps, you know, they’re available, you know, in in as a last ditch kind of backup in in, you know, these fairly rare cases where you need some kind of armed response. But really I mean, officers do not use their weapons, this is very rare they spend almost no time actually dealing with violent crime. You know, it’s estimates about, you know, one to 5% of their time is spent on really serious crime. So let’s let’s pull away as much of that as we can.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, it’s like, if an officer makes a felony arrest or something that they’d be like, you know, Officer of the Month that month because it’s so rare like in the as like a workload measure for most police departments.

Alex Vitale

That’s right. Most uniformed patrol officers make about one felony arrest a year.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. So like, yeah, so needing that full tooth like I, you know, armed to the teeth response to any call is like just not realistic with the actual, you know, crime profile in most communities.

Alex Vitale

That’s right.

Ben Kittelson

Um, so I’m curious, I feel like often our policing conversations are centered around the around New York City. Do you think that and that is obviously, you know, not representative of most police interactions in the country in most cities across the country? Do you think that, I don’t know, what what do you think of that? Do you think that’s like a helpful way to way to frame policing as a, I don’t know, as a as a specialty or as a like a public service and when you’re trying to like implement, you know, you know, things that are in another city and it just seems like it warps maybe how we think of police and what we what we think police should be doing because the biggest example is like a much different community than, you know, the police in your hometown often.

Alex Vitale

Well, I mean, on the one hand, the I believe now you know, the majority of the American population lives in pretty big cities. But I actually completely agree with you. Now, there is research that’s happening in other kinds of settings. It doesn’t get the media attention, so that the public conversation is dominated by what’s happening in the big cities for the most part, but I certainly agree that we need more attention to small town police departments, sheriff’s sheriff’s have really avoided a lot of scrutiny here. And they, they they can be a source of major problems, that huge costs for county governments also abuses in local jails. And and in the way they they conduct policing and this kind of really profound culture of impunity often in these rural sheriff’s offices, because they’re operating in this you know, we support the troops environment where it’s kind of anything goes. So I think there needs to be a lot more attention to that, but also more attention to what are the public safety challenges in rural America. And there’s a great book called Policing Methamphetamine about West Virginia, about rural West Virginia, that talks about just the failures of the drug war in this very specific rural context and forces us to think about really whether or not we’re going to be able to police our way out of the opioid or methamphetamine problem.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah, that’s such a different challenge, I guess, for that a lot of these communities in rural areas especially have not faced before and, and, you know, yeah, and there’s definitely a racial component to this as well, that you know, that the response is so much different than it was for the, you know, the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80s.

Alex Vitale

It’s not completely different. I think there’s more of a rhetorical difference than a practical difference. I mean, if you go into southeastern Ohio, West Virginia, Southern Indiana, I mean, these are overwhelmingly white communities and the drug war, the criminalization of drugs is running rampant in these places. So we have not seen this kind of mythical turn to treating it as a public health problem. This is this is mostly been rhetorical and not really in practice.

Ben Kittelson

Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. I guess the way it gets framed all the time, is that it’s so much different. But if the if the outcomes are the same, I guess it’s not that it’s not different.

Alex Vitale

That’s right.

Ben Kittelson

What else? What haven’t we covered? I think about about your book or kind of some of your research that, you know, maybe your city leaders or folks working in local government should be aware of or thinking about, as they, you know, think about public safety in their own communities.

Alex Vitale

Well, I think we could talk for a minute about police unions, I don’t really cover in the book. But that has been the you know, the topic of a lot of conversations in the last few months, in the last few years, and I think and also there’s some some real organizing in places like Austin, Texas and San Francisco, California, where people have called for more accountability, not so much of the police shame, but of the politicians who sign these preferential agreements with the police unions, right? As I’m sure your listeners are well aware, right. These are two sided agreements. The police don’t get to just put whatever they want in there. You know, political leaders have to sign off on it. And for too long, these political leaders have have given these police unions a pass. And this is produced, you know, this has helped reinforce a kind of culture of impunity, and also undermined, you know, public credibility of the police in I think profound ways. And so, I think, you know, city leaders have got to be much more aggressive in how they approach these collective bargaining agreements with with these police unions.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, it’s also just raising awareness about what kind of stuff can get stuck in there because I do sympathize a little bit with council members that might go, hey, we can’t give you a 5% pay increase that you’re asking for. But, you know, we’ll agree to like some, some other like non monetary benefits that, that you put in your agreement, like, and it’s just what are the other what are the next level impacts of saying that of changing like discipline procedures or, or, you know, or whatever else kind of gets stuck in, in these union contracts, than just like, hey, it’s saving you, you know, a couple, you know, some some money in this budget process or whatever.

Alex Vitale

Yeah, you know, if teachers lobby for, you know, extra job protections, you know, what’s the worst case scenario, that got not a great classroom teacher, which is important, and I think you know, needs to be addressed, but they don’t kill anybody. So you know the standards should not be the same and really when the when the teachers come knocking you know they’re asking for money for chalk and teachers aides and things like that and they’re not asking for for tanks and sniper rifles.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah yeah. So what what’s kind of next for you? Are you gonna, is there kind of a new area of this maybe topic or that you’re you want to focus research on or is there, What do you kind of see coming down, I don’t know, come down down the pipe for you in either your research or kind of some of the work you’re doing around consulting and and in the Policy Center?

Alex Vitale

Well, I think one area that I didn’t cover in the book in part because I just didn’t feel like I had enough to work with was the area of domestic violence. And since since I wrote the book, a lot more scholarship has been done on this. Leigh Goodmark at the University of Maryland Law School has written a tremendous book called Decriminalizing Domestic Violence. Aya Gruber, who’s also law professor has written a book about carceral feminism. And of course Beth Ritchie’s amazing book Arrested Justice, which had already been out, all detail the ways in which the kind of turn in the 90s of taking what had been mostly community based anti domestic violence initiatives and turning them over to the criminal justice system through the Violence Against Women Act, which was part of the 94 crime bill, that all this was actually a pretty bad decision. That it has not improved outcomes for victims of domestic violence, and it has led women and we are mostly talking about women here but not entirely. Just don’t call the police, don’t call 911. They just try to deal with it as best they can because they fear that the criminal justice system is actually going to make their situation worse and the reality is that in many cases it does. So we need a total rethink on this. We need to first of all, you know, a lot of victims of domestic violence don’t want to just escape. They don’t just want their victimizer to be punished. They want to try to fix their families. But the current model just does not allow for that. There are no supports for families, there no sustained interventions to try to work through these problems. It’s either arrest the perpetrator or help the victim escape. And often that’s not the solution that people want.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah, it’s a it’s a softer touch and more and more yeah, this all you’re not gonna solve that with a police officer, you know, taking taking somebody away.

Alex Vitale

Yeah, turning this problem over to prosecutors and police and creating like mandatory arrest policies and and changing the standards for prosecutions, making it easier to get stay away orders. These things just haven’t actually shown benefit for victims.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. That one seems like such a an obvious like, hey, yeah, of course like make that a crime and that’ll discourage it. But yeah, you’re right. If it’s not having the outcomes that you expect it’s time to rethink the policy decision to lead that, though, that we thought would.

Alex Vitale

You know, part of the problem was that the the conversation was turned over to lawyers to think in terms of using the mechanisms of the law and the criminal legal system. And they really didn’t have any connection to the community based movements that were actually trying to support victims, figure out what was going on with families. And if we poured all those criminal justice resources into these community based women led organizations that were embedded in neighborhoods that spoke the languages of the people that live there, etc. I think we would see, you know, dramatically better outcomes.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think my one of my, like big takeaways from, you know, the conversation around rethinking policing and defunding police and, and this whole, you know, new world, we’re kind of living in, this mainstreaming of this conversation that they’ve been around for a while this is that we just have to be more creative about solving these solutions. It’s not, or stop using the same tools and start talking to the community groups that are out there doing the work already. And and you know, think more creatively than than just adding police officers to a city’s budget, but I feel like that’s a takeaway that anybody in local government could could get behind is like, well, let’s think more creatively and think more and look for more interesting, more, more effective solutions than than the ones that we have.

Alex Vitale

Yeah, one of the attacks against the kind of great society programs of the 60s and 70s where you can’t wasn’t you just can’t throw money at a problem, which of course we never really did. But today we need to say, well, you can’t just throw police at every problem.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah. All right. Well, um, well, our traditional last question on GovLove is to allow our, our guest to pick the exit music for their interview. So if you could be the GovLove DJ, professor, what song would you pick as the exit music for this episode?

Alex Vitale

Well, I didn’t have much time to think of this. But I was thinking of Michael Franti and Spearhead which is a great kind of reggae group that’s been around for a long time and I’m a fan of their song Yell Fire.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Well, that ends our episode for today. Thank you Professor Vitale, for coming on and talking with me. I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing your expertise.

Alex Vitale

You bet. My pleasure.

Ben Kittelson

For our listeners, GovLove is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online on elgl.org/govlove or on Twitter at the handle @govlovepodcast. The best way to support GovLove is by joining ELGL. Membership is $40 for an individual or 20 bucks if you’re a student. You can also sign up your whole organization if you really want to show your love. Subscribe to GovLove on your favorite podcast app. If you’re already subscribed, help spread the word about GovLove by telling your friend or colleague about this podcast. We are the go to place for local government stories. GovLove is looking for your feedback. Go to govlovesurvey.com to help us make govlove better. With that, thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.


Close window