Police Politics, Then and Now

The recent police shooting deaths of African Americans and the protests they have inspired have started a conversation about racial justice and policing. To some degree, I think that conversation is richer and more promising than it was in the 1960s.

Partly I think it is a matter of information. We simply know more about what police do on the beat, how to train them in the use of force, and what sorts of tactics most offend and anger urban residents. Those were new facts in the 1960s, at least to the broader white public. Even among scholars, before 1960 it was virtually unknown what police did everyday, in what situations they used force, how they decided whether or not to make an arrest, etc. The riots drew attention to these issues. President Lyndon Johnson appointed commissions to study policing and police-community relations. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, established in 1957, and the Community Relations Service, established in 1964, also gathered data from cities across the country. Not coincidentally, the fields of rioting and policing came to prominence in the 1960s.

Today, protesters and community conflicts are once again forcing the federal government and many city governments to pay attention to police procedure and injustice. Government officials are taking concrete steps to unearth more facts and hold police officers accountable. President Barack Obama has convened a task force on policing. Let’s hope the task force moves beyond procedural reforms–though those can be important–and recommends substantive change. We need to rethink strategy, not tactics alone.

The political situation today also is different. After 50 years of “get-tough” police policy, Americans seem to be more critical of the “quick-fix” carceral solution than they were in 1968, the ur-law-and-order moment that landed Richard Nixon in the White House and set us on the path of mass incarceration.

Concluding the “positive” side of this piece, I want to say that we are a less racist country today, that on balance we are more willing to trust and credit the claims of police misconduct made by African Americans against police officers, but after following most of the commentary over this past year I cannot say so with confidence.

Besides, for me, more important than how we respond to controversial incidents is how we think about overall police strategy. Letting disputed police encounters drive policy may only fuel myopic policy-making and partisanship. Plus, no one can agree on what happened. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently made this point well: “We ask ourselves, ‘Were [the police] justified in shooting?’ But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, ‘Were we justified in sending them?'”

In the minus column, the conversation today remains as mired in the same partisan talking points, and too many politicians display the same stubborn indifference to the situation of poor people, as was the case in the 1960s. We continue to ask police to do too much, to be the jailer and the social worker.

Specifically, we continue to emphasize the prevention of crime through police officers instead of redistributive policies. As a result, we allow what Jill Leovy has aptly called the “plague” of black homicide deaths to continue to destroy black people’s trust that the government cares about their lives and livelihoods.

Proactive police strategy, like broken windows or stop-and-frisk, lacks adequate empirical proof as a crime deterrent, not that we could ever justify placing an entire community under surveillance. Its implementation through quota-driven top-down policy targeting minority neighborhoods tends to be unconstitutional. And it carries the historical stigma of racial harassment that has fueled the distrust and hostility that black residents continue to feel for the police.

The political situation also supports an opposite reading than I gave above. We are living through a neoliberal moment, when government officials prefer austerity-driven private solutions to social-welfare and other public investments. In the 1960s, President Johnson and Great Society liberals at least offered HUD money alongside all that riot gear.

So, I am hopeful. But as a historian, who has seen this once before, I’m skeptical about the possibility of meaningful change when it comes to the police, in a country that does not care about poor people.

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