Consider the following scene:
Two things. Old law review articles are filled with gems like these. This scene is taken from the classic “Philadelphia Police Practice and the Law of Arrest” (U Penn L. Rev., 1951; p. 1203). PDF is available here. I love this passage because it gives me reliable information packaged with a powerful anecdote. Now I got a story, directly observed at the time, that I can use. The authors, Paula R. Markowitz and Walter I. Summerfield, Jr., reviewed arrest records, interviewed criminal justice officials, and observed police on patrol.
The latter is so important. Without that, I can’t trust what you’re saying. This goes for journalists and activists today. Go on patrol. Watch police officers work. Then report what you see. You can, and should, enrich direct observation with context and data, but first tell the story of policing as it happens on the street.
Since I can’t travel back and watch police work in the 1950s and 1960s, I cherish articles like these. Plus, at that time, police said all sorts of crazy things to academics and journalists. Racism simply wasn’t a problem yet for police officers; it didn’t get them into much trouble with their superiors, the only trouble that mattered. That would change by the mid-1960s. Police started to realize they could get in trouble for using a racial slur in front of a reporter.
Second, I chose this passage because it speaks to a problem I am trying to understand better. The above anecdote reads to me as very tragic. For the obvious reason, the officer is clearly racist. There’s something else going on, however, that is less explicit. Here’s a man, a black man who lives in a tough neighborhood, who just witnessed a terrifying crime. He saw a man pull out a gun and shoot up a bar. The cop could not care less. He showed up because that’s his job. When he saw it was a black man–even one “well-dressed”–complaining about violent crime, he decided to harass the man instead of using his valuable intelligence to track down a dangerous individual.
Clearly, this witness did not abide by the “no snitch” rule. Clearly, we can see the roots of “no snitching” in interactions like these. Of course, it’s just one story. But I’ve seen dozens of cases like this. Fearful residents call cops to handle a dangerous individual. Cops arrive and then proceed to harass, brutalize, and even arrest the complainants. They do nothing about the violent criminal.
This, in a nutshell, is the historic problem of over- and under-policing in poor, urban, and predominantly minority neighborhoods. It continues today. It is perhaps less brazen, but it continues all the same.
The over/under problem of policing cries out for more policing. If only the cops would just do their jobs, the reasoning goes. I agree with this up to a point. Cops should try to solve more crimes. That would bring justice to the victims and their families and communities. But I worry about the impulse to have police do more. Do more of what is key here. Proactive patrol? I’m not so keen on that. When black residents in the 1950s and 1960s complained about over-policing, they sometimes complained about incidents like the one above. More often they had in mind the top-down, quota-driven stop-and-frisk campaigns, which got going in the late 1950s; the illegal home raids; and the trigger-happy cop.
Perhaps, the over/under problem presents a case of two ships passing each other at night. Community members want “more” police protection. Police respond with arrests, frisks, and so on. Is that justice? Does that offer residents greater protection? I haven’t seen any evidence that unequivocally supports zero-tolerance or Broken Windows policing as a crime deterrent. Yet we can’t seem to shake our faith in it. It certainly “seems” responsive to community needs. It’s a better service than what that Philly cop provided in 1951 (though that is an example of reactive policing).
Tragically, after all these years, we haven’t changed our approach to the men on the corner. Some residents want them gone. Perhaps these residents are “respectable” folk. Perhaps not. Either way they want safe streets. Plus, some may know the men are involved in the drug trade. Surrounding them are abandoned buildings, derelict streets. The last thing these residents want to encounter on their way to the store is a small crowd of young men who are up to no good. So they phone police. The cops arrive and “handle” the situation. They clear the corner. So it goes on.