Author says common policing reforms don’t work

Author says common policing reforms don’t work

In mid-January, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, after extensive review, concluded that the Troy Police Department’s investigation into the death of Edson Thevenin—who, after fleeing a DWI stop, was shot seven times by an officer—was “deficient and incomplete.” But even if there were sufficient evidence to charge the officer with a crime, which there is not, doing so would be “impossible,” the AG’s report says, because Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove allowed the cop to testify before a grand jury regarding the shooting without waiving immunity.

After cataloguing the department’s myriad missteps, the report recommends that the TPD (1) improve “its investigative approach to officer-involved shootings,” (2) change its policy on shooting at vehicles, and (3) adopt body-worn and dashboard cameras. An accompanying press release called these three suggestions “urgent and systemic reforms.”

While Troy Mayor Patrick Madden believes there are “factual inaccuracies and errors” in the report, he also supports the proffered reforms. The departure of longtime police chief John Tedesco one month before the release of the AG’s report has allowed the mayor, in naming a new chief this month, to cast this latest appointment as “the beginning a new era.”

“At one point in time, Troy was nationally recognized for its community policing initiatives,” Madden recently told WAMC. “I’d like to bring us back to that. I’m not saying that we’ve discarded that but I don’t know if we’ve kept as current on that as I would like.”

Community policing, body-worn cameras, sensitivity training, increased workforce diversity, civilian review boards—unfortunately, “there’s no evidence that any of this makes any difference in the scope and intensity of policing,” Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, told dozens of people last Thursday at Oakwood Community Center in Troy as part of the long-running James Connolly Forum.

According to Vitale, a problem more fundamental than any sort of crisis in public confidence renders these reforms pretty much useless—namely, a “rapacious neoliberalism that is perfectly happy to grind people into horrible poverty and then use policing to manage the consequences of their conditions.” The problem, in other words, is inequality.

Take community policing, which rests on the idea that police better serve communities when they get to know them through lots of meetings. In this model, neighborhood problems are recast as policing problems. “The police become the only part of local government that says to the public, ‘Every day, come and bring us your problems, and we’ll try to figure out how to solve them,’” Vitale said.

Problem is, cops can’t really offer jobs, build affordable housing, or dispense mental-health or addiction treatment—the kinds of goods and services a “movement for racial and economic justice,” which Vitale supports in lieu of the endless search for the best police training regime, might work to secure for every American.  

Those perks cost money, which localities seem more inclined to allocate toward policing. Vitale pointed to a report published last year by the Center for Popular Democracy, the Law for Black Lives, and the Black Youth Project 100 that supports this perception. “There’s always money for more police,” Vitale said.

Judged according to Vitale’s framework, the AG’s proposed reforms for the Troy Police Department do not seem “systemic.” They seem procedural. Their implementation may persuade some members of the public that something has been done and, at a much more granular level, may make the city’s officers less likely to shoot at moving vehicles. Is that enough?

Alex Vitale: “The End of Policing” at Oakwood Community Center, Troy on Feb. 15.

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