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GB and US: How far? How close?

John Atherton

Urban Policing: The Anatomy of Two Reforms

2. USA: The Velvet Glove

Laura Maslow-Armand

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The role of police in urban cities has historically been to control those classes which society views as "suspicious" and "criminally-inclined" which is synonymous with the poor black and Latinos.
M. McKeen, former lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department.

  • 1 Reiman quoted by Ben A. Menke Mervin F. White, William L. Carey, "Police Professionalization: Pursu (...)

1Although policing in the United States is a fragmented, thoroughly decentralized, governmental service, it has been almost uniformly resistant to various external pressures for reform. Except for the rare large city police force, American law enforcement agencies have barely responded to a century's efforts to professionalize their activities, to bureaucratize their structures and to remove them from the corrupting influence of local politics. Apart from the spotty improvement in the quality of police training and specialization, or the introduction of modern equipment, progressive "good government" crusades failed to reform the police. Efforts to increase police autonomy ran counter to widely held attitudes about the role of the state and its agents. "The characteristic of autonomy, the right to be relatively free from external influence and review is incompatible with democratic social contract theory."1 Americans are unwilling to relinquish civilian control over law enforcement and prefer to keep the police, no matter how inefficient and corrupt, directly responsive to local government.

2A second reform tradition tried with even less success, to strengthen rather than weaken community supervision of the police. Populist reformers, in one period or another attempted to bring policing closer to the citizenry, or at least to a varying se of that citizenry Without reviving the citizen-militia of the colonial past the populists wanted police policy (like, educational, policy) to be directly formulated by local civilian boards and they wanted police officers to be disciplined for violating community norms. In the wake of each populist wave, paper mâché commissions and toothless external review boards were created but police practices remained unchanged. The law enforcement agencies became experts in manipulating public sentiment, using statistics and images to persuade the local population that disorder was rampant and that only the police possessed the special skills needed to combat it. Significant police discretion was maintained.

3It is then all the more deserving of interest to note that urban policing, which stood firm during the hundred year reform war of progressives and populists, has been radically transformed over the past decade. Even more remarkable is the fact that agenda for this recent transformation came from the black community which long had been the privileged victims of police malpractice and whose petitions for redress were completely ignored until the by no means accidental confluence of ghetto riots and rising crime rates.

4Profound changes in the recruitment and training of police personnel and in the organization of city patrol have produced visible, easily measured, improvements in cities as varied as Detroit, Atlanta, Newark, Birmingham and Washington D.C.

  • 2 The modification of police practice and community opinion have been studied in depth by a research (...)

5-Citizen complaints against the police for verbal or physical abuse have decreased in every city under black governance. Measured against the level of 1975, the number of complaints registered in Detroit today is 64 percent lover.2

  • 3 Archives of the Atlanta Police Department made available by the Public Safety Commissioner George N (...)

6-The number of police homicides has been sharply reduced. Both locally and nationally blacks are still disproportionately the victims of police shootings and police killings, but in a growing number of cities the police have been effectively trained - and legally constrained - to use alternative methods of controlling or apprehending a suspect. In Atlanta, for example, there were 18 persons killed by the police in 1973 but no more than five in the years following 1977.3

  • 4 The 1970 poll was part of an unpublished doctoral thesis by W.J. Mathias Jr., "Citizen's Perception (...)

7-A dramatic modification of the attitude of black citizens towards their local police. Again in Atlanta 50 percent of blacks questioned in 1970 thought that whites were treated more favorably than blacks wheress our 1983 telephone revealed that the percentage holding this attitude has dropped to 17 percent.4

8-More cooperation by ghetto residents in crime prevention and Control. Information is provided more readily to the police, and black citizens, even in the most disadvantaged areas, have formed tenant patrols and neighborhood watch units that reportedly have decreased the incidence of certain forms of theft.

  • 5 Otwin Marenin, "Police Performance and State Rule: Control and Autonomy in the Exercise of Coercion (...)

9Why have these modifications of traditional police behavior taken place? It has been said that a society has the police it deserves. What societal changes have occurred in the United States over the past decade and a half that produced such transformations? These questions, which cannot be answered here in full, are of interest to a number of academic disciplines as well as to law enforcement practitioners. Insights be gained regards communal life in the ghetto, or the delivery of municipal services in declining cities under black executives. Transformations of certain police forces may encourage additional reform and the modification of organizational practice in other fields. Most important, as a growing body of literature attests, "studies of the police open a window on the nature of the state."5 Police agencies, as intermediaries between the state and the public, reflect prevailing public policy and; public resistance to that policy. The police interact with both the state and the population they serve arid control and therefore shed light on political processes that they also help to modify.

10What is the black agenda for police reform and why was it finally given a hearing? How did the police themselves react to the aggressive implementation of this reform agenda? And finally what were the legal changes in the context of policing that placed additional constraints on police brutality use of excessive force, and discriminatory police practice?

  • 6 Stephen Leinen, Black Police, White Society (New York: New York University, Press, 1984) p. 146.

11It is widely known that police forces, everywhere in the United States, were predictably discourteous, scornful, and violent towards black suspects and black citizens is general We have ample documentation that police officers in the North and the South behaved like modern slave patrols. It's like Harlem all of a sudden becomes their own private plantation and they are the overseers."6 It is less widely known that the same police forces were generally indifferent: to black calls for help, indifferent to pervasive lawlessness in the ghetto, and, in a large number of cases, actually protective of organized crime rackets.

  • 7 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam, 1968), p. 309.

12Until the decade of reform, police response to calls for help from the nation's black ghettos was either too slow or simply nonexistent. In its 1967 report, the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that the Cleveland police took almost four times as long to respond to blacks reporting robberies as to whites.7 Testimony gathered by the presidential commission investigating the riots insisted on the inadequacy of the police presence in the black neighborhoods or its perverse, harassing nature. White police officers would arrest ghetto blacks for minor violations that were routinely overlooked in white communities.

13For most of the period following World War II and until the 1970s, the only institutional change that was prompted by these grievances was the formation of internal "community relations" units whose sole purpose was to improve the public image of the police. But the very marginality of these units irrelevant, if not harmful, for promotion and prestige within the police department, led them to be scorned by both the police and the ghetto. The prevailing wisdom was that abusive police behavior, like police corruption, was a fact of life, rooted in an unchangeable police subculture; police brutality was considered a justified defense against the urban jungle. The police well knew that public interest in police malpractice was only a passing fashion, which would flare up from time to time but which was easily satisfied by the announcement of some insignificant departmental change, or the arrival of a new police chief.

14In the decade of the 1970s, however due to a number of parallel historical trends the black agenda for reform was in fact imposed with surprising thoroughness in numerous large heavily black cities across the United States. Of the various factors pressing for change the most essential was the black protest movement in its successive phases. It was the evolving nature of the black movement that created both the national receptiveness and the local channel for implementation.

15Each phase led rapidly into the next without warning: civil rights marches, then ghetto riots, and then increased electoral participation. The civil rights phase contributed, two elements. After the mass mobilization and the morally uplifting struggle, black Americans would no longer passively accept the perpetuation of systematic police abuse - being stopped for no reason, questioned with insults, being beaten, then unjustly accused and arrested on trumped up charges. Also, the public attention generated by the civil rights demonstrations meant that television viewers nationwide now witnessed what had previously been reserved for a circle of sympathetic Southern whites: uncontrollable police brutality against non-violent black and, white marchers.

  • 8 See the persuasive study by James W. Button, Black violence: The Political Impact of the 1960s Riot (...)
  • 9 Report of the National Advisory Commission, p. 17.

16The next phase was the ghetto uprisings of the 1960s which left hundreds dead and extensive property damage. Although the political and economic consequences of the riots are still being evaluated, there is widespread agreement that the spontaneous explosions were directly responsible for the formulation and at least temporary implementation of various redistributive policies.8 The riots also focused national attention on the need for police reform. The Kerner commission of, inquiry persuasively linked police misconduct and ghetto rioting: "The abrasive relationship between the police and the minority communities has been a major - and explosive - source of grievance, tension and disorder."9 Without reform, the riots would surely recur.

17Had it not been for the third phase of the black movement, itself a consequence of the two previous phases police reform would have been as ephemeral as the many other community improvement grams instituted in the late 1960s in the wake of the ghetto riots. It was, in fact the electoral victories on the local level of new black mayors and black city councilmen in municipalities from Gary Indiana (1967) to Detroit (1973), from Birmingham (1979) to Chicago (1988) that provided the administrative mechanisms, the local political climate necessary for the profound modification of police practice.

  • 10 Until the late 1960s, black policemen few in number were kept on the lowest rung of the police hier (...)

18The major political forces were now arrayed on the side of the black reformers. Not only did this issue unite the middle class black and lower class black, both victims of police harassment and police inadequacy, but it also won the support of the local civic elites, the local business leaders and all those eager to quiet the angry black masses. Those who on the contrary, opposed changes in the recruitment or "autonomy" (which meant autonomy to beat black suspects) of the local police forces were the Northern white ethnic working, class communities who also lived in the riot-torn cities and who considered the precinct officers as the most respected and admired, elements of the tightly-knit ethnic clan. The prestige of the Italian-American in Newark was linked to his domination of the city police force. In the South, lower class whites, aided by the Ku Klux Klan, protested vehemently and often violently against any change in the number of black patrolmen, in their ranking, or in the powers they were entitled to exercise.10

19The urgency of police reform was lifted from its status as a simple race issue by the nationwide preoccupation with sharply rising crime rates: from 1952 to 1960 an 85 percent increase in serious crime from 1961 to 1968 another 100 percent rise. Urban crime became the object of a new national crusade, launched in tandem with the War against Poverty. Under Presidents Johnson and Nixon three anti-crime strategies were applied: a massive infusion of federal funds into the criminal justice system and particularly for the police; a federally-financed and orchestrated examination of every facet of the law enforcement process; the elaboration of two, antithetical, nationwide techniques to combat crime and disorder.

  • 11 J. Rosche "Crime as an Issue in American Politics, in The Politics of Crime and Criminal Justice ed (...)

20In 1969 Congress authorizes $63 Million the law Enforcement Assistance Administration (founded in 1968 and dismantled in 1982). In one single year (Fiscal Year 1973) $1.75 billion was allocated for new police equipment, salaries personnel, training and innovations in patrol tactics. "Between 1968 and 1981, the federal government spent more than $8 billion on crime through the LEAA while state and local governments spent 25 to 30 times more."11

21The first scientific studies of police methods to emerge from the newly founded criminal justice departments and private research institutes showed that what most patrol officers were doing was useless for reducing crime or even for increasing the feeling of security of city residents Lacking experimental evidence of the value of any type of police patrol whatsoever, President Nixon nonetheless tried to appease the swelling "law and order" constituency by the creation of "tough cop" squads, heavily equipped and trained to saturate riotous zones; other funds went for stakeout units waiting in city, stores and buildings to surprise burglars and drug dealers. This hard line even further antagonized the black communities who were now terrorized by the SWAT, STRESS and BOSS units which were responsible for the deaths of both, police participants and innocent civilians.

22As the demographic concentration of blacks in large Northern cities enabled them to elect mayors pledged to police reform and to the elimination of the "tough cop" units, and as national funding for costly programs and expensive gadgetry began to diminish in the mid 1970s, an "officer friendly" strategy was promoted which aimed to improve the attitude of the police towards blacks, and of blacks towards the police. In the final years of the Nixon-Ford administrations, America hesitated between the iron fist and the velvet love under President Carter, the latter was made a national, priority.

Institutional response of the police

  • 12 Thomas A." Johnson et al, The Police and Society (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1981), pp. 163-1 (...)
  • 13 Statistics made available by the Police Foundation, Washington B.C. A survey made by the Equal Empl (...)

23Sceptical of any externally imposed reform, the urban police forces, a homogeneous conservative hand of blue, responded to civilian criticism with a defensive collegiality. Underpaid and understaffed, the street patrol overestimated the animosity of the general community which has always been highly supportive of law enforcement personnel) and even that of the black community. Inward looking the urban police of working class or lower middle-class background, often related to other policemen, are persuasively socialized into an anti-black, anti-civil libertarian police ethos by three key elements: veteran officers whose recommendation weighs heavily for promotion; the increasingly strong fraternal organizations within the department (some police officers have joined the Mafia-ridden Teamsters union); and the narrow social world in which they evolve, usually limited to other police families within the same European ethnic group. As a result the police "displays a cohesion unmatched by most other occupational groups."12 How then did the black community, the particular object of antipathy on the part of most Irish-American, Italian or Polish American patrol officers,13 modify the behavior of this brotherhood?

24The police agencies in large cities were attacked sharply from every angle by a concerted black offensive. The strength of this attack was without precedent and differed markedly in its aims from the traditional effort of urban ethnic groups to be represented on the police force. Four points of pressure coexisted: guerrilla warfare in the street; lobbying and litigation on every governmental level by civil rights organizations; the appointment by newly elected black mayors of a cadre of progressive, highly educated black police managers; the hiring of large numbers of black and Hispanic recruits, and female recruits, white, black and Hispanic. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the black percentage alone almost doubled reaching 14 percent in the departments of the nation's 50 largest cities.13 In 1986 there is a black police chief presiding over the departments of five of the ten largest cities.

25Whereas in the past a token handful of non-white policemen had been easily rendered impotent by being coopted into the police fraternity or being forced to keep silent in the face of widespread police brutality towards black citizens today a broad wedge of politically conscious, black and Hispanic "rookies" have split the cohesive police culture into separate weaker subcultures, each organized into its own distinct police, fraternity with divergent corporatist or political aims. The most adamant racists among the ranking officers have resigned from the force or have moved to the more hospitable county and suburban departments.

  • 14 John Van Maanen, "Making Rank: Becoming an American Police Sergeant," Urban life, 13. (July-Oct. 19 (...)
  • 15 Leinen, p. 43.

26The consequence of this four-pronged black assault has been the examination and revision of every facet of urban policing. Each component of the hiring and promotional process has been re-weighted to favor "demographics currently fashionable,"14 that is to say, non-whites and women. Training academies now emphasize service to the community instead of only firearm practice and self-defense. Patrol has been de-motorized decentralized and de-specialized with the extension of team policing units, mini-precincts and, zone command. "Well... the whole climate of the job has changed since [the riots]. People are now promoted mostly on the basis of how well they do a job not whether they are a certain color. A lot of this change has come about through the activities of civil rights groups. Blacks became united, especially in this job. They became so to speak a force to be reckoned with... The department and the mayor [of New York] were afraid of repercussions. Complaints of discrimination might, leak to the newspapers… Basically, the department didn't want any waves so a lot of concessions were made."15

Community response

  • 16 This was the conclusion of tenant association presidents, police officers and tenant potrol captain (...)

27For the first time in this century civilians, are being encouraged to participate in crame prevention through tenant patrols, warning networks and neighborhood watch systems. This coproduction of police services by those directly concerned is an urban social phenomenon of great significance. It has allowed the maintenance of a certain level of protection in a period of fiscal austerity and layoffs (Newark was only 900 ficers today, half of its 1975). As a result there is less outspoken citizen discontent with the general decline of municipal service in cities with declining resources. Moreover citizen participation seems to have contributed to falling crime rates for certain forms of theft in low income areas.16

28Community mobilization to fight crime is the most prevalent form of grass-roots organizing today the only form to survive the activism of the late 1960s or the dampening effect of black mayoralty elections on black militancy in general. We might say police relationship with the ghetto whether hostile or collaborative, is a privileged motor for group activity. Even lower class blacks who have become increasing passive in the face of severe unemployment and poor housing have been stimulated by this saw style of urban policing to form self-help organizations that improve the sector morale, and sense of efficacy in disadvantaged neighborhood

Societal response

29During the decade and a half of black civil rights demonstrations, ghetto riots and black electoral victories, and against the background of a growing but more educated preoccupation with rising crime rates, there were also numerous changes in the legal context of policing. These changes were the fruit of national coalition politics and concerted litigation and therefore, are more vulnerable to shifting political winds than are the institutional modifications described above. In the last few years, some of the procedural changes imposed on the police during the 1960s and 1970s have been weakened by more recent legislative or judicial decisions.

  • 17 Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 98 Sct. 2018 (1978).

30Three of the most significant legal constraints on the autonomy and discretion the police are the Miranda rule of 1966; the revision of many local or state deadly force statutes; and the creation, in 1978, of a municipal liability for harms caused by governmental employees, hence by the police. The municipal liability, affirmed in the case Monell v. Department of Social of the City of New York,17 allowed an individual whose constitutional rights were denied by brutal or discriminatory police behavior to sue the city government for millions of dollars in damages. Since frequent suits would cause a rise in local property tax rates in order to recover the lands needed for payment of damages the local citizenry, as well as the lo-business elite, pressured the police department to modify its practices Monell has produced reform in some of the most recalcitrant Northern urban departments.

31These legal and judicial restraints are the political victories of a literal coalition that no long public support. As a consequence of this national change in attitude which surprisingly grows stronger as the rate of violent crime decreases serious efforts are underway to emasculate or eliminate the procedural impositions of the 1060s and 1970s.

  • 18 Testimony of Dr. James J. Fyfe (former police officer in New York and now professor of criminal jus (...)

32The Miranda rule, which the present journey General has branded an infamous decision, "has already been weakened by recent Supreme Court rulings. Similar to the pattern that could be observed when public opposition to mandatory busing or to affirmative action had subsided on the part of those directly concerned by its implementation, the Supreme Court handed down decisions opposing these integrative strategies. The moving force was not the proven inadequacy of the specific reforms imposed nor a fear of racial conflict or violence due to their application, but a sweeping ideological shift throughout the body politic. Thus, in 1984 the Supreme Court introduced two loopholes in the Miranda decision even though police opposition had long calmed down and even though studies of its present effect indicate that only a negligeable number of cases are lost because of its violation.18 The two loopholes - the good faith test and the inevitable discovery test - are sufficiently large as to allow yesterday's abusive practices to pass through.

  • 19 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, (Washington: US Department of Justice, 1983), Question 2 (...)

33Today there is no longer a national desire to fetter the police and no longer a national willingness to allow an aggrieved minority to do so either. In 1982 70 percent of the whites and 52 percent of the blacks questioned said that the "Police can't really do much about crime because the courts have put too many restrictions on the police."19 Support has increased among members of both races for stiffer sentences harsher penalties more systematic use of capital punishment.

  • 20 Atlanta Journal, (May 25, 1982).

34Today it would seem that the battle against police malpractice has lost its enthusiastic batalions and its numerous foot regiments. The black community today is now less concerned with police brutality and more with police laxity. As a black city councilman in Atlanta declared. "The police were sort of bullish then and needed to be dropped down a notch. Now they’re down two notches and need to be helped up a notch."20 No longer the recipients of disproportionate police force, the Afro-Americans are still the disproportionate victims of violent and personal crime. Many blacks now fear that the new salt and pepper police departments have so effectively instructed their officers to be courteous community servants that the police will be no match for increasingly brutal criminals.

35The result these conflicting trends and competing pressures may be an even more anarchical patchwork of varied, police conduct in the United States. The reformed police departments of black governed cities under extremely strict limitations governing the type of firearm and bullets allowed the right to shoot a fleeing felon the manner of apprehending and questioning suspects will coexist with more numerous unreformed departments obedient to vague or nonexistent state statutes with police personnel unbridled by a renewed national indifference.


1 Reiman quoted by Ben A. Menke Mervin F. White, William L. Carey, "Police Professionalization: Pursuit of Excellence or Political Power," in Managing Police Work: Issues Analysis, Perspectives in Criminal Justice, 4, ed. Jack R. Greene (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1982), p. 97.

2 The modification of police practice and community opinion have been studied in depth by a research team directed by Dr. Geneva Smitherman whose findings were entitled "Deadly Force and its Effects on Police-Community Relations" (Detroit: Wayne State University, January 1984) and which Dr. Smitherman kindly made available to me.

3 Archives of the Atlanta Police Department made available by the Public Safety Commissioner George Nappen.

4 The 1970 poll was part of an unpublished doctoral thesis by W.J. Mathias Jr., "Citizen's Perceptions toward Law Enforcement in the Model Neighborhood Area," (Atlanta: Georgia State University, 1970), p. 72. In. 1982 and again in 1983 we conducted our own telephone survey of 600 Atlanta adults and questioned them about police practice and their attitudes towards city government in general.

5 Otwin Marenin, "Police Performance and State Rule: Control and Autonomy in the Exercise of Coercion," Comparative Politics, 18 (Oct. 1985) P. 120.

6 Stephen Leinen, Black Police, White Society (New York: New York University, Press, 1984) p. 146.

7 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam, 1968), p. 309.

8 See the persuasive study by James W. Button, Black violence: The Political Impact of the 1960s Riots (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

9 Report of the National Advisory Commission, p. 17.

10 Until the late 1960s, black policemen few in number were kept on the lowest rung of the police hierarchy, assigned exclusively to blade neighborhoods; in Atlanta until the 1950s blacks were only allowed to arrest other blacks and were told to call their white supervisor who would come to arrest a white suspect. It is amusing to note that the Ku Klux Klan protested in court against the hiring of additional black policemen, saying that it was unconstitutional to hire them with such restrictions on their authority.

11 J. Rosche "Crime as an Issue in American Politics, in The Politics of Crime and Criminal Justice eds Erika S. Fairchild and Vincent J. Webb (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1985), p. 19.

12 Thomas A." Johnson et al, The Police and Society (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1981), pp. 163-173.

13 Statistics made available by the Police Foundation, Washington B.C. A survey made by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1975 found that police officers were 10.3 percent of the 332 municipal agencies questioned. Between 1972 and 1981 in those same municipal agencies, there was an increase of 72% in the number of blacks holding the rank of sergeant or above.

14 John Van Maanen, "Making Rank: Becoming an American Police Sergeant," Urban life, 13. (July-Oct. 1984), p. 158.

15 Leinen, p. 43.

16 This was the conclusion of tenant association presidents, police officers and tenant potrol captains interviewed in Atlanta in 1982 and 1983. Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit has found the same decrease after his reform of the police department, which he called "his most significant achievement" (New York Times, Jan. 12, 1984). The same conclusions were found in other cities with black mayors and black police commissioners (see Halter heavy, "Can Black Mayors Stop Crime?" Ebony, 39 (Dec. 1983), pp. 116-122). This decrease goes beyond the nationwide decrease in serious crime since 1982. From 1982-1985 there were 2 million fewer crimes recorded (International Herald Tribune, June l0, 1985, p. 2).

17 Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 98 Sct. 2018 (1978).

18 Testimony of Dr. James J. Fyfe (former police officer in New York and now professor of criminal justice at American University) before the Judiciary Commission of the House of Representatives. The Miranda rule required the police to warn a suspect (in his own language) of his right to remain silent, to have an attorney present, and that anything said might be used against him. Absent this warning, the suspect's testimony would not be admissable evidence.

19 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, (Washington: US Department of Justice, 1983), Question 2, 46.

20 Atlanta Journal, (May 25, 1982).


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