Between 80,000 and 84,000 police and security guards patrol the halls of public schools. They are there to look after children but also to police them and, as Alex S. Vitale, author of the recently-released The End of Policing points out, policing is not an act of care. It has become, he explains, a fraught act of containment. And the growth of the in-school police force, as well as the militarization of the out-of-school police force, isn’t going well for children. Little boys with toy guns have been shot. Some 75 percent of the in-school arrests in the state of Virginia are of black children, even though only 39 percent of the state’s public school students are black. The police are on the job, but it’s unclear that they are effectively working to help kids.
Fatherly caught up with Vitale to talk about how children think about police, how they should think about police, and why parents who fear the long arm of the law might be right to feel that way at this particular moment in history.
There are a lot of police on the streets and in schools. What is the danger of children encountering the police too often?
There have been many young children killed by police for having toy guns or what the police thought was a gun. In addition to those fortunately pretty rare extreme circumstances, we do have a much broader problem of over-policing in poor communities. This takes a wide variety of forms. It includes the use of police in schools, it includes the criminalization of young people out on the streets through all kinds of low-level disorderly behavior that oftentimes isn’t even criminal. It takes the form of continuing to treat lots of juveniles as adults in the criminal justice system.
There’s research that shows that children who were exposed to traumatic encounters with the police in early childhood develop a deep distrust in the police, and in our broader legal institutions. This is highly damaging to them and undermines the potential of any kind of future positive police-community relations.
Why do you think that some communities are over-policed and militarized rather than others?
There is a widespread problem that in too many parts of the country, police view young people of color as automatically disorderly, threatening, and potentially criminal. They treat these young people in a degrading manner, and that produces really negative responses from these young people.
Just to be clear, there’s militarization, and then there’s over-policing. There’s a connection between the two, but if we’re talking about over policing, let’s use that term. There’s a lot of over-policing that is not militarized.
What do you recommend, then, in terms of dialing back?
Let’s start by getting police out of schools. All research shows having them there is a bad idea.
The whole thing is premised on a false notion. We get school policing because in the mid ’90s, we got Columbine, and the rise of the myth of the childhood superpredator. That myth comes from this super conservative criminologist John Dilulio. He said, based on no real research, that we were on the verge of producing a generation of youthful superpredators who would just as soon kill you as look at you, and that we should expect a wave of explosive youth violence and criminality. Every single year since he made that pronouncement, youth crime has declined.
The other thing to keep in mind is that at Columbine they had armed police there, on duty, in the school, and it made no difference at all. The vast majority of school police are placed in urban, inner-city schools where there’s no history of mass shootings and there’s no reason to think that they’re going to be able to successfully prevent this.
How do these children in public school settings see the police that are in their schools?
They feel like they’re going to school in an armed camp, and they’re often treated in a degrading fashion. Sexual harassment of female students is common. I think some cop just got arrested in the news today for having groped students under the pretext of searchings. It sends a message to them that where they’re going to school is not safe, when in fact, it is safe for the vast majority of the students. To the extent that it’s not safe, we should be using restorative justice models and community schools models to try to address the kinds of safety problems that exist, rather than driving kids into the criminal justice system.
What is a community school model that has been getting traction?
The community school model is really interesting. They’re doing this in some places in the US. Salt Lake City has a great program that is funded in large part by the United Way, you know, that radical, crazy group, the United Way. They’re seeing that a lot of the problems that schools face are external to the school. They’re the problems of the community, of the families of the young people and the challenges that they face. The school is an institution that has a pretty high regard in the community, even when it has problems. The feeling was, “Look, schools are empty after school for the most part, and they are highly regarded in the community. Why don’t we use the school as a hub for the provision of social services that could help families deal with problems that they’re facing, that might include the ability of their children to be successful at school?”
It’s about providing resources to young people: counseling, after-school programs, pro-social activity, but also making services available to families. Maybe the families have drug use or substance abuse problems. Maybe they have mental health problems. Maybe they need help with benefits, maybe they’re not getting the food stamps they need or the housing assistance that they need. If you can stabilize the family, the student benefits from that.
If there’s violence in the home, there’s neglect in the home, there’s inadequate nutrition in the home, all these things contribute to poor school performance and then we want the police to fix it. Instead, let’s solve the problem in the home.
It feels like part of the solution here would be about addressing community problems like hunger. What can the police do about a hungry kid?
If I’m a kid and there are cops in my neighborhood that I don’t trust, how does that affect my likelihood to go to the police?
Young people distrust and resent the police because they are subjected to constant harassment and criminalization, often, generally, or for no legitimate reason. They’re just hanging out after school with their friends. They’re just playing on the corner with their friends and the police treat them as bad kids in need of abuse. And you just talk to young people in these communities and all you hear are horror stories of low-level harassment, degrading treatment, and disrespect from the police.
What does that do?
They feel that they do not have full status as participants in American life. It degrades their sense that they are included in the rest of America. They develop an angry resentment to major institutions in our society. That becomes a recipe for alienation and that makes it more difficult to work your way in the mainstream society. It also contributes to things like gang formation.
In a neighborhood where nobody feels comfortable calling the cops when there actually needs to be some kind of authority figure, who do they call?
That contributes to the carrying of weapons and the formation of gangs, because despite all the constant police harassment, these kids actually aren’t safe. The harassment doesn’t really do anything about the underlying problems that are making the neighborhood unsafe. The cops feel frustrated, so then they just double down on the stuff they can do, but that stuff actually doesn’t work. It just further alienates these young people. It’s a vicious cycle.
Who do kids call when they can’t call the police?
They call their cousin who has a gun.
And they know their cousin and trust their cousin.
SWAT teams are used, often, in these communities to bust low-level drug complaints. How did SWAT teams begin to form and be utilized this way in local police departments?
SWAT teams emerged in the wake of the radical social movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. The first SWAT team was created in Los Angeles, and its first assignment was to raid a Black Panther headquarters. That then turned into a shootout. As part of the police reform efforts, of the 1970s in the wake of riots, there was an effort to professionalize police. That meant that the federal government gave them lots of money for modernization programs, which included, in many cases, the creation of SWAT teams, as well as more patrol cars, better radio communication systems, etc. In the 1990s, as there was an uptick in crime in the 1980s, you get the Clinton Crime Bill, which provides another huge infusion of resources for policing. You get the creation, in 1996, of the 1033 program, that allows the direct transfer of military hardware from the Department of Defense to civilian police forces. After 9/11, you get the creation of terrorism grants through the Department of Homeland Security that channels literally tens of billions of dollars of military hardware into local police departments.
All of this leads to the creation of a wide-variety of paramilitary policing operations.
They serve very little public safety purpose and it contributes to some of the most dangerous and abusive practices. Militarized raids of people’s homes based on very flimsy information in the middle of the night take place and people have no idea what’s going on. People pull guns out in self defense and are killed by police. They have heart attacks. Their children and pets are injured or killed. This would never be tolerated in wealthy neighborhoods.
How come local police departments in smaller towns are getting as much money for SWAT teams and other militarized police programs as big cities?
They’re getting a lot of this money, and part of it is just cynical politics. If you’re gonna create a big terrorism grant program, senators in Iowa and Michigan and Ohio want their share, even though the real threats of terrorism are highly concentrated in New York, and Washington, and a few other places. But everyone wants some of that money, so then they come up with these formulas so that Idaho gets its share of military equipment to deal with the terrorists.
Is the solution to have the police be more active in communities in ways that aren’t punishment-based?
I want to say something a little controversial, maybe. I think that there’s been a mistake made by some researchers and advocates who think that the solution to this problem is to restore trust between young people and the police by having police be involved in more activities, or giving them more training about the outlooks of young people to improve their communication skills with young people.
What I think needs to be done is a dramatic reduction of the role of the police in the lives of these young people, not an expansion of their role into more aspects of their lives. Instead, we need to look at credible, evidence-based alternatives in dealing with the problems that these young people face. Policing is never going to be able to fully overcome its structural role as a coercive force.
How do you talk to your kids about the police?
Well, it’s complicated. I have two girls who are under 10, and so we tell them that if there’s an emergency and they need help, that they can get help from a police officer, or a firefighter, or someone running a business. I tell them that there are lots of people who can help them, but also that police can produce problems for people and that they should be aware of that.