Home | Podcasts | Pulling Back the Legal Curtain Episode 7 (Part 1): Divest the Police Featuring Alex Vitale

Pulling Back the Legal Curtain Episode 7 (Part 1): Divest the Police Featuring Alex Vitale

Jan 19, 2023


Podcast Transcript:

This is a rare treat, all right? Well, for me to record it, it’s a rare treat. It’s not a rare treat for me to get, for me to get to talk to this guy. But we have today, professor Alex Vitale and I’m gonna give him a little introduction. He is a professor of sociology, coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and CUNY graduate Center, visiting professor at London South Bank University, been writing for 30 years about police departments and human rights. He has lectured from Harvard University to London to South America. I’m sure everywhere in the world. He’s also lectured to me in various bars and dinner tables. And most recently is the author of a book “The End of Policing,” which got incredible notoriety. And if you ask me, was probably the impetus for the defund the police phrase, which Alex neither created nor I think really loves that much. Is that right Alex?

Yeah. I wouldn’t say the impetus for it. I think, the movement had its own motivations, but not a lot had been written. And so my book became a way for people who weren’t already part of the movement to try to figure out what the hell this thing is. And that phrase is not something that I had ever heard before. And it’s important in some ways, because it’s signaled a rejection of traditional police reform and it said we should go where the money is. This is about too much policing. So in that way it was really important. The downside was, is that it’s only half the equation. It’s the kind of negative half of the equation and doesn’t communicate all the positive aspirational desires of the movement about creating new ways to produce public safety, new infrastructures. And so I think that hurt the movement in some ways.

Yeah, you know what, Alex, I wanted to ask you and I think we’ve talked about it. So that phrase, when anybody, anybody, no matter where you lean on the spectrum of what you think about policing and what needs to be done or not, when you hear that phrase, you can’t help, but at first, if you’re not knowledgeable about it, go wait a minute, that sounds like a bad idea, right? So that’s what everybody thinks when they hear it at first. Then when you learn about it a little more, you’re like, I think you you go to another phase and you go, wow, wow, wow. Now that makes sense. Some of it makes sense and I’m open to debate about that. But then the third thing happened, this phrase sort of had three lives that third life I think was it then got weaponized by people on the right side or people who didn’t wanna do this and politicized, and really effectively, what do you think about that?

Well, it got weaponized by people with political power who have come to rely on policing to fix their political mistakes. That’s the way I think about it. And the fact is, is that elected officials in both parties big city mayors, state governors, the feds, they don’t have a plan to do anything about homelessness. They don’t have a plan to really address the opioid crisis. They don’t have a plan to deal with the huge numbers of people experiencing mental health crises. They don’t have a plan to fix the schools and they use police to manage the consequences of their failure to have any real plan to address these problems. And so they need police to make all their other deals possible. And so while they intellectually understand that policing doesn’t really produce justice, isn’t really producing public safety, what it is doing is it is managing problems in a way that allows them to maintain their power plays.

Right, so I think, so you’re a politician at any level, lower state level or even higher, now you’ve weaponized this defund the police phrase and said, well wait, I’m gonna go against it and that’s gonna help me garner votes because if this fear-based factor out there people are gonna be scared if I go against the defund, but course don’t defund, more police, more funding, people are gonna vote for me, I’m gonna stay in power. But again, it doesn’t really solve the problem. I think that’s kind of what.

And it also didn’t turn out to be true politically. If you look carefully, right, the state that fared the worst in the national elections was New York. And that was the state where moderate Democrats did everything they could to embrace right wing talking points about crime, where they completely capitulated to the most conservative views about this. And the result was a lot of people just stayed home. And that allowed Republicans to take like a record number of seats away from Democrats in the congressional elections. And in states where there were progressive Democrats running who embraced new language about how we produce public safety, those people won. The squad is getting bigger, so to speak. The progressive left in Congress is getting bigger and the conservative center of the Democratic party is shrinking. Adams here in New York came under a lot of pressure for undermining the Democratic party with all this pro policing tough on crime talk. ‘Cause it just plays into the Republican game plan.

Yeah, it’s funny, and I know you’re lecturing with Mayor Adams in another week or so, right? You’re gonna be on The Scene.

Not with him, about him.

Well, so if you sat down, if you sat down with Mayor Adams right now, he’s on his reelection campaign, let’s fast forward. And he’s going, all right, I’m running for reelection and I want some advice from you professor Vitale about this issue, this defund the police movement or reform of the police movement. What would you tell him as a politician? Here’s what I’m advising you.

Yeah, well, you know, I’ve known Eric a long time and I’ve had this conversation with him and with De Blassio and others. And I spoke to many of the mayoral candidates in the last election. And what I tell them is, is that you need to take control of the public safety discourse in a positive direction, by saying you’re gonna be the person who has a real plan to actually create safer and healthier communities in a way that policing just doesn’t successfully do that. And most people, especially in high crime communities understand that there are profound limitations on relying on policing. But what they’re told is they can have policing or they can have nothing. And when they’re given that choice, a lot of them will choose policing. And what I say to candidates is you wanna give them other choices. New York City is filled with community centers in public housing developments that are empty, because there’s no funding, for staff, programs fixing them up. And if you said to those communities, look you’ve got $20 million to spend on public safety in your community, would you rather create a new police anti-crime unit? Or would you rather have the community center in your own public housing development fixed up? They choose the public housing development, but they’re never given that choice.

So your advice to politicians running on this issue would be to really get the message out it sounds like.

Yeah, to embrace this idea that yes, public safety and public disorder, these are very real issues. I wrote a previous book called “City of Disorder” about the politics of this in New York City in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. And I said, look, yes, these are real concerns, but just sending the police and sending more people to prison turns out not to be very effective, is extremely costly and ignores the fact that there are lots of other things that we could do. We could double down on community-based anti-violence efforts. We could create family support centers. Council member Tiffany Caban and I have been proposing something along these lines. We could bring more counselors back to schools and have crisis intervention plans for students in real distress who are the source of so many of the problems that people are worried about. So we have real things that we could do and we should lift that up and we should, push back against this. Well, we need a balanced approach narrative that a lot of people have been spouting as the kind of enlightened way forward, which is, yes, we need these alternatives in balance with policing, but when you look, it’s 99% police and 1% alternatives at the funding. Right? That’s not balanced. If you really want to talk about balanced, right? Let’s have 5 billion for policing and 5 billion for these alternative interventions, but instead we have 11 billion for policing and a few hundred million for one-off underfunded community-based approaches.

Well, it’s interesting. So now you get to the money and that’s really the root of it all. Alex, I know, I know you’ve talked about it a lot, right? So it all traces back to where your priorities are in your budgetary constraints. So we live in New York, I know you’re wearing a Houston Astros hat, but you are a New Yorker. Let’s just make that clear. You’re a Brooklynite like me.

I’ve been here for 30 years.

That’s right. So let’s, let’s keep it real clear to anybody watching this who you really are, where you come from. You come from an interesting background, but boy are you a New Yorker for sure. But the money, the money is what talks, right? And that’s at the root of all this, where are you gonna shift your resources? So that’s really why I wanted you to come on and talk to me. You know I’m a personal injury lawyer, so everything I do is centered on dissuasion through money, right? If you do something wrong, negligent or otherwise, someone like me is gonna come along to hold you accountable financially. Now that has, in my opinion, and I’ve been doing, I haven’t written much like you but I’ve been suing people for 30 years and I like to believe that what we do has a benefit to society in dissuading people from doing things. So for example, at its simplest example, I think people shovel their sidewalks oftentimes, sometimes they do it ’cause they don’t want someone to fall and get hurt. But I think many times they do it because they don’t want someone like me helping somebody that’s hurt and suing them. Fine, that’s a good thing. I think people drive within the speed limit and don’t drink and drive and don’t text and drive at times because they’re afraid of potential financial responsibility or fallout. I think what we do keeps corporations in line, keeps the medical profession in check. So we provide a really nice check on society to some degree. It’s not perfect, but a pretty good one in that aspect. Now we also sue oftentimes municipalities for police misconduct. I know you know a lot more than me and I actually am in the forefront of this too. But I know you know way more than probably anybody about police misconduct and the fallout and the financial thought. So something struck me. There was a Washington Post article I guess a couple months ago. You and I talked when we were out one night, and I said, what do you think about this? Where they were talking about insurance companies regulating police departments to some degree because something like 85% of the municipalities in the country are not self-insured, they’re small. So they actually go out and ensure their police departments. Obviously New York is not one of them. New York has enough money, so we’re self-insured. So if I sue the police department and win, we pay it, the taxpayers pay. And that’s a different problem. But we have the money to do it. But now what’s sort of happened is these other municipalities where insurance companies are the ones giving the policies, have now stepped up in the last, let’s say I actually, it’s not that new. I actually researched it a little bit more, because if I’m gonna talk to you, I better know what I’m talking about, right? And I said, wow, this has been going on for a while and insurance companies are affecting policing and in fact they shut down an entire police department in south of Los Angeles, I learned. I was like, wow, that’s unbelievable, ’cause they said, we’re not insuring you anymore. Goodbye and goodbye department. A small department had to be taken over by LA and they’ve issued pamphlets on like police chasing and things like that, things that you have a lot of expertise on. And I said, wow. To me, at first I said, and I don’t like insurance companies. That’s who I fight with all the time, right? I’m no fan of them. But I said, wow, this to me seems like a positive effect and seems like a quicker effect in effectuating change than something you’re trying to do, which is you’re trying to get education out there, educate the masses, get the message out there and effectuate change. And I think I love what you’re doing, I’m behind it a hundred percent, but it’s a slow difficult and probably frustrating process. My process, even though it’s sometimes we think it’s slow and frustrating, sometimes can be quicker. And in this case I said wow, I think this insurance aspect of changing a regulating police departments falls in line with a lot of what you’re trying to do in a different way. So I said, boy, I gotta ask you about it. What do you think?

So there’s a lot to unpack here and there are a lot of people who are more knowledgeable about the implications of the 1983 litigation than I am. But there is a lot of research that has come out very skeptical about the practical consequences of police misconduct lawsuits. We have not seen it really feedback into and this is crucial here, into actual on the ground meaningful changes in the way policing is conducted.

Right, so lemme stop you there Alex. So basically what you’re saying is guys like me in all of our lawsuits haven’t been able to get the policing.

That’s right, that’s right.

So you’re opening up this door to a new mechanism, which is interesting and let me just say part of the reason why this may not have been as successful as people hoped is that it rests on a kind of deterrence theory, which you outlined, right? Using the threat of financial penalties to alter behavior. It turns out that some behaviors are more amenable to that kind of tweaking than others. So getting someone to shovel their sidewalk doesn’t require an entire change in how they view the world. It is not a massive transformation, right? They hire a company to come and shovel their sidewalks that is slightly cheaper than the risk of getting sued.

That’s right.

And so that’s amenable to that kind of incentivizing. But what policing does is turns out not to be so simple to incentivize in that way. And this is the potential problem even with this idea of the insurance companies intervening. So you’re right, this has been going on for a while in fits and starts mostly targeting very small and some, moderate size police departments, not the big cities.


But it is not creating massive transformations. If you look carefully, what they’re doing often is they’re asking for a change of policy, a procedural change. And this is the same as a lot of the changes that the police reform folks have been asking for, going back to Obama’s task force on 21st century policing and in a whole army of consultants. So a department will change a use of force policy, they will change a vehicle pursuit policy. But even the article in the Washington Post pointed out that it’s not reducing the number of vehicle pursuits. They’re often ignoring the policy and it’s not creating these deep transformations. Now here’s the deal. I think that there is tremendous potential leverage from these insurance companies. And I would add in addition the bond rating agencies that rate the debt from these small communities, which I think is endangered by both police settlements and police pensions that are bankrupting these cities. And I’d love to see the bond ratings agencies get more involved in pressuring municipalities to do this. But what they have to quit doing is thinking the fix is gonna come with a change in written policy and a few hours of training and instead pressure these municipalities to quit using police and vehicle enforcement altogether.

Also, Alex, why can’t they do that?

They could, they could.

One more police chase that results in an accident from you guys, ’cause we’ve had 10 and we’ve paid out on 10 of them. So the next one that happens during your next policy period, you’re canceled. And when your insurance is canceled, your department is finished. Isn’t that gonna motivate a sergeant or an an officer there to say that’s the end of police pursuits here?

No, it seems like it should and it might result in some collapses of more police departments. But look what happened in that community in southern California. Their policing was taken over by the LA County Sheriff’s Department, which has not changed its vehicle pursuit policy.

That’s a good point.

And is responsible for a lot of misconduct and civilian deaths. So the problem is, is that these local communities have made a decision about how to produce what they perceive to be safety. And as long as they keep imagining that the tool they’re going to use for that is policing, these bad outcomes will persist. Now, perhaps we can make some minor adjustments, but until we do what Berkeley, Philadelphia, and some other cities are beginning to do and do things like, oh guess what, not only are these pursuits expensive and dangerous, they don’t make anyone safer. They don’t produce better driving behavior. Let’s take it away from the police. It’s an engineering question. It’s a public health question. It’s an insurance question for individuals and their liability for misusing their vehicles. Let’s turn it over to those people and just get the police out of it.

Wow, but you’re advocating and I know you’ve been a strong advocate, for really a fundamental change in the basis of the way people actually think. You’re really attacking the root and the base in saying that then the trees and everything that sprouts from it will change for the better. And what I’m saying here is that that that seems to be a very difficult task, to now change the basis of someone’s belief, their core beliefs, especially ones that are so naturally aligned with people’s fear of living in a society and the police are so aligned with my belief of safety and it’s only someone like you with your experience or someone like me who’s had years and years of experience of seeing police misconduct also, that maybe has a little bit of skepticism when we look at police departments and says.

Well, I don’t think that’s really true anymore. I am on the road pretty much every other week in a different community talking to people who actually live in these communities and they want something other than policing because they know better than everyone, all the terrible costs that come with turning a problem over to the police, the violence, the racism, the discrimination, and the failure to actually solve the problem. So I think there have been big shifts in the public understanding of this and we have some survey data that shows that if you ask people would you rather have more police or a non-police crisis response team that can handle drug emergencies, mental health, they say they want non-police alternatives consistently all across the country. So it’s about giving them these credible alternatives. And I think this does not negate the potential value of litigation. What it does is it says the solution is not superficial procedural demands. What the insurance companies, what the ACLU lawyers who do the pattern and practice cases, what they should be calling for is get the police out of traffic enforcement, get the police out of drug enforcement, create non-police violence reduction programs in the communities. So we still need that pressure on these municipalities, but the demand needs to change.

Well, you know, it also sounds like maybe the question has to change. In other words, when you put a question out to people and you say, well here’s an agenda item on a legislative, if you can vote on this, defund the police, the answer’s gonna be no in 80% of the case. But if you say, well wait a minute, if it’s reallocate the funds of the police, if I gave you this choice, the answer’s gonna be overwhelmingly.

That’s fine. Yeah, that’s fine. I don’t care about this three word phrase. Defund the police. Like I said, I never use it. What we talked about was invest divest. We need to invest in new infrastructures of public safety that can allow us to divest our reliance, divest from our reliance on policing. So this is about creating something new. And so there are things we can do to make our city straight safer that don’t involve the police. I always say, look, I owe my life to civil engineers in London multiple times over, because they had the good sense to paint on the pavement look left.

So that I didn’t step off into traffic ’cause I’m used to looking the other way. And that had nothing to do with police. And yet it’s a tremendous public safety intervention.

I don’t think policing that issue. That’s interesting. I think it is a base of fundamental way of asking the question. So if you say divest, that sounds so much different than when you say defund the police. And as you know, and I know being in my business, people’s attention span and ability to digest an issue and come to a determination is very short. So first their attention span’s short and then people make judgements. Jurors, oftentimes when I’m in court, listen, when I try a court case, I say, when we open to a jury, we teach our young lawyers, and I know I do it myself. I say it’s a summation. My opening is a summation. I need to win or lose the case there. Or even before there, maybe in jury selection, because I know people’s attention spans and their decision making is gonna come quite really fast. So I think these concepts, when they got weaponized with that phrase, defund the police, it really, I think had a negative effect on everything you were trying to do. For me, I found it very frustrating that it did that. And I like invest, divest way better.

I share your the concerns and the frustration, but I think also a lot of that discourse was happening in relationship to federal politics, to Congress and the president who are largely actually irrelevant to this issue. It’s a local issue. And if you look at the discourse happening at the local level where organizations and community groups are actually calling for change, they don’t really use that defund the police language either. They’re like, we want counselors in our schools instead of armed police. And they’re very concrete about it and they’re winning about 40 cities in the last two and a half years have eliminated their school police departments because of local pressure.

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