The University of Maine’s philosophy department recently welcomed Dr. Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College in New York. He is also the accomplished author of “The Art of Policing,” a 2017 book analyzing the flaws in police departments around the country.
On Thursday, Oct. 20, the discussion was held in a live Zoom meeting, which was recorded and opened to the public. Dr. Brian Pitman, assistant professor of sociology at UMaine, facilitated the event. The Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine and the McGillicuddy Humanities co-sponsored the discussion.
Vitale examined popular police reform methods in the country in his talk. He discussed why the methods are simply not enough, and elaborated on ways to fix the widespread problem.
Vitale credits his experience working for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness over 30 years ago for sparking his interest in police reform. He has spent decades researching and analyzing the police system as a whole and shared that the issue with police brutality is fundamental, and cannot be helped through current reformation efforts.
After 18-year-old Mike Brown was killed by police in 2014, the Obama administration created police training recommendations like implicit bias training, de-escalation training and body cameras. These recommendations hoped to restore public trust in the police, but haven’t been as effective as the administration had hoped.
“The police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd had received implicit bias training, de-escalation training [and] mindfulness training,” Vitale said.
In northern parts of the U.S., racism and colorism still run rampant in policing by way of racial profiling, unwarranted arrests and segregation into ghettos. Vitale’s main exigence is that in such a violent and socially significant issue, surface-level training exercises are ineffective and designed to be useless.
Many issues that affect people that the police are dealing with aren’t deemed in society as policing problems. One of Vitale’s examples is the war on drugs — no lives have actually been saved, and no drug access has been prevented. Instead, the war on drugs has been a tool for demonizing political enemies and for stirring up racial resentments.
Overall, countless issues with modern-day policing are due to law enforcement traditions. These issues cannot be patched up with bias training or wearing a body camera. Research that Vitale cites explains that police brutality events and killings have increased since body cameras were worn more.
The reality is that the use of violence is central to the police mission. They know they can’t do their job without violence, and they know, as a result, that in general, their use of violence will be protected,” Vitale said.
After Vitale shared his research and perspective, other panelists weighed in on his statements and on his book “The End of Policing.” Wendy Allen of the Restorative Justice Institute stated that her work in restorative justice circles has been incredibly helpful in helping young adults with criminal records. Marion Anderson, a campaign organizer with the National Council for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and girls, shares their experience with law enforcement biases.
“Unless you’re doing this work from sort of a queer, Black, feminist lens, it’s not inclusive enough,” Anderson said.
According to recent census data, 95% of Mainers identify as white, making it the whitest state in the nation. Anthony Jackson, who grew up in Brewer, Maine, shared that he was a part of only two or three families of color in his area. While he worked with the Brewer school system and saw their budget, he noticed that a school resource officer made more money than school counselors, school psychologists and teachers did.
Vitale urged the audience to continue the conversation and learn more about social structures in the United States.
If you want to view this conversation for yourself, the Zoom recording can be accessed at https://video.maine.edu/media/The+End+of+PolicingA+A+Conversation+with+Dr.+Alex+Vitale/1_lun65vqs.
Closed captioning and a transcript is also available.