Defunding the Police: Part IV, Policing and Racism

Under the pressure of racism to resist the results of the Civil War and the rise of blacks, both in the north and the south, policing entered a different stage of ineptitude, widespread corruption and partisan politics when police forces were politicized and made instruments of corrupt party machines, facilitated because the control of police had been left in the hands of local authorities. Police were not public servants so much as political operatives.

Then the police under the pressure of the Progressives were professionalized (1920-1980) and new technologies, such as patrol cars and two-way radios, were introduced. A new emphasis was placed on rehabilitation as well as prevention by means of humane treatment of the mentally ill, creating healthy working conditions and building decent public housing. Social problems were to be dealt with positively. But this model came to be identified with detached bureaucracies and a cold enforcement mold. In the 1980s, efforts were initiated to replace the model with the idea of community policing.

In all of these stages of so-called reform. the mixture of the French, British and the German models increasingly favoured the German. However, tackling underlying causes shifted over time and never embraced the most fundamental underlying cause of all, the economy and the mal-distribution of resources. Further, abstract norms that provided guidelines borrowed from the British model seemed to be observed more in the breach. Offences against those guidelines were publicized rather than obedience to them enforced.

Each of the stages of transition was triggered by widespread public discontent and upheaval and special committees to look into reforms. Thus, the era of the inauguration of community policy got its boost from the increase in crime, the anti-Vietnam War protests and President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) and the Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. As well as unfair economic distributive practices in employment, housing and educational opportunities, the Kerner Commission identified racism as an underlying cause of many of the 1960s riots. Police were accused of inadequate training and accountability, brutality and harassment, and disastrous community relations traced to police estrangement from the communities they served. Finally, here was a commission, one in a long series, but the first to call out both racism and economic inequality. But the Kerner Commission and its recommendations were ignored.

However, the Kerner Commission was the exception in its conclusions and only the norm in the failure to implement recommendations. In Watts in Los Angles in 1965, six days of riots and burning followed the arbitrary arrest by 27 squad cars of police of several brothers and the mistreatment of their mother near their home followed by the arrival of thousands of national guardsmen. In Newark and Detroit in 1967, thousand of militarized police and national guardsmen suppressed protests and arrested thousands. Selma, Alabama offered another example of extreme police violence.

Suspects in the June 1964 abduction and murder of one black and two Jewish civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (we named three co-op houses in Waterloo after them), in Neshoba County, Mississippi were released from prison. It took 41 years before Edgar Ray Killen, the Klu Klus Klan leader who orchestrated the “Mississippi Burnings,” to be arrested and eventually sentenced to three consecutive 20-year prison terms.  No one was punished for the murder of Medgar Evans and Violet Liuzzo.

The inquiries that followed protests and riots yielded almost identical results. A very few, such as the 1968 Kerner Commission mentioned above, blamed systemic racism, economic discrimination in housing, employment and the injustice system caused in part and grossly exacerbated by the brutality of the police. (Cf. Stephen M. Gillon, “Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism.”) But most inquiries blamed agitators and civil rights workers no matter the amount of precipitating injustice and the violence of the police followed by almost Initially, professionalization was identified with alienation and estrangement. In other words, the professional model of policing came face to face with the same problems identified at the core of current community policing practices. Community relations to replace public relations became the inadequate initial response, but this approach soon gave way to community-oriented policing. “In 1974, the Kansas City Patrol Experimented demonstrated that increasing routine preventive patrol and police response time had a very limited impact on reducing crime levels, alleviating citizens’ fear of crime and increasing community satisfaction with police service. Similarly, a study on the criminal investigation process revealed the limitations of routine investigative actions and suggested that the crime-solving ability of the police could be enhanced through programs that fostered greater cooperation between the police and the community (Chaiken, Greenwood, and Petersilia). The idea that a closer partnership between the police and local residents could help reduce crime and disorder began to emerge throughout the 1970s.”

Instead of the racial and ethnic conflict being undermined, a new emphasis was placed on the partnership of the community and the police. “An innovative project in San Diego specifically recognized this developing theme by encouraging line officers to identify and solve community problems on their beats.” (Boydstun and Sherry).

Though supposedly improving police-minority group relations and strengthening the principle of equal protection under the law as operative guidelines and goals, there emerged too many sensational examples in which community policing model undermined such goals. Neighbourhood watch programs were invaded by vigilantism intended to keep strangers (blacks) out of communities. These activities sometimes extended to individual assaults on innocent civilians. Further, team policing to replace professional detachment became a method of inculcating a police culture of cops under siege and an emphasis on a common self-protective ethos. Don’t rat on your fellow officers.

The German model was revived wherein crime fighting is viewed simply as one aspect of maintaining law and order in society. Setting and supervising food and food packaging standards, psychological services to the mentally ill, health services to drug addicts, all become part of an overall approach to public law and order. That shift entails close cooperation among many agencies and an effort to shift some responsibilities police have assumed to other bureaucratic units. However, unless the mal-distribution of goods and services is tackled, redistribution of efforts will be as likely to fail as happened in both the community policing and the professional models.

The results were generally the same. In North Minneapolis in 2015, Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man, was shot by a white office who was eventually not even charged. In 2016, in nearby St. Paul, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man was stopped by police for a broken tail-light and shot dead in front of his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. This time, Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer was charged, but he was acquitted. The killing of Floyd George in Minneapolis was but one in a long list of unjustified killings of black men by police officers.

Why? In Minneapolis,

  • Black unemployment is twice that of whites
  • Only 25% of blacks owned their own homes compared to 75% for whites
  • The median income for blacks is half that of whites
  • Blacks were nine times more likely to be arrested for minor offences, earning a police record and almost a guarantee of unemployment
  • A pattern of discrimination and persecution of black police officers
  • The emergence of a culture of impunity.

But the results thus far were not identical to previous incidents of unjustified violence by white police officers against blacks. The event had been videotaped. The officer who committed the murder was charged, not just with manslaughter but with murder. His three fellow officers were charged with abetting the crime. Protests, and a few riots, broke out right across America and around the world. White protesters generally far outnumbered black ones. Further, instead of protests turning into riots, initial riots, assaults of property and widescale theft were replaced almost entirely by peaceful protests. Instead of more commissions, initiatives were taken to reform the police, to reallocate funds from them to specialized intervention units for mental health problems and, in a few cases to dismantle police forces and replace them by security and safety services.

I venture a prediction, however. Community policing will increasingly be replaced by the equivalent of charter schools through the creation of private associations identified with common goals and strategies. These will be able to hive off public surveillance, look after the interests of the group, co-opt and protect members. The self-interest of individuals will become subsumed within a larger organization in which individuals will receive recognition and status through the role they play. The cost will be a loss of privacy as a public unit closer to home takes on the responsibilities of overseeing all activities – whether one wants to cut a tree down or add a garage to one’s home. Thus, the robust and activist state functions will be increasingly assumed by local organizations, but they will be even more impotent in dealing with the inequities produced in the development of global capitalism and the inevitable victims that result.

Systemic racism and the police as the face of such a system of structured inequality will be gradually replaced by systemic reification of classes and divisions between natives and foreigners. The definition of a crime will be tremendously broadened while the impotence of any supervisory or accountability system to prevent poverty or undermine the underlying sources of crime will become further exposed. Individual liberty will be further limited for the sake of community solidarity. Policing as an ethical power of the state to provide limits and boundaries to civil society will take on a more general meaning rather than being the preserve of a specific paid force with the legal power to use violence to enforce community standards.

The injustices will remain.


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