Frisks, Force, and the Fight Over Civilian Review Before the Rebellions

Continuing the trend, this post is another excerpt from the dissertation. It comes at the end of an overly long introduction to an overly long chapter on police reform, patrol practices, and street riots from 1961 to 1964 (up to but not including the mid-July Harlem uprising). It’s a draft so the usual caveats apply. In fact, the ink is barely dry. I wrote the final few paragraphs this morning. I’m posting it because a) I always appreciate feedback and b) the material is relevant for the police reform movement today. Let me know what you think. (Yes, I know it’s probably too long as a chapter intro.)

(Final note: Willie Philyaw, mentioned below, was shot and killed by Patrolman John Tourigan in North Philadelphia in October 1963. Tourigan, who was white, claimed Philyaw, 24 and black, attacked him with a knife. Witnesses disputed the account. Philyaw drew police attention because he had stolen a watch from a corner store. Hours after his death, 700 area residents rioted, breaking store windows, looting, and smashing the windshield of a police cruiser. Residents of essentially the same North Philly blocks would lead a much larger uprising ten months later (which I wrote about here.)

The NAACP, similar to other liberal critics of police brutality, concluded that the cases in their files from Philly residents amounted to “isolated incidents by Maverick Officers.” The organization essentially argued: Both the arbitrary, discriminatory violence and the lack of accountability were “disturbing” but the Philadelphia Police Department on balance was made up of hard-working, competent professionals.

This was a common reflex of postwar liberal reformers who couched their criticisms in an overarching acknowledgement of the dangerous and often thankless work that police officers performed. The more radical CORE, too, which advocated jury trials for every brutality case, focused on the lawless incident as opposed to the broader police program. This pattern of critique aligned with the tendency of liberal critics to emphasize—as the nub of the issue—the racial prejudice of individual officers. Their prescribed solutions consequently boiled down to hiring better-educated officers and training them in self-restraint.

The movement to establish civilian review boards was an ideological offshoot of this brand of liberal reformism. To opponents in police unions and some municipal administrations the boards represented a radical and subversive assertion of outsider control of police departments by non-experts intent on sowing anarchy and destroying the peace. In actuality, review boards fundamentally accommodated the prerogative of police to set their own priorities and in effect buttress a racially unequal social order.

This proved particularly unfortunate in the war on crime of the late 1950s and 1960s when police departments nationwide shifted to a more systematic aggressive street patrol—that is, the sort of policing that the liberal critique was constitutionally ill-suited to challenge. The failure of the review boards—and of liberal reforms more generally—and the escalation of aggressive patrol strategies like stop-and-frisk were nothing short of a provocation to poor urban residents of color.

Notwithstanding the strategic limitations of focusing on specific incidents—where often the facts were fuzzy or unknown and the bar for prosecuting the police officer was impossibly high—racially-charged police violence galvanized two constituencies to take the political stage: civil rights organizations and police unions.

Police violence against racial minorities had a specific, potent valence in the early 1960s. Repeatedly, since the mid-1950s, national and black media outlets had depicted white Southern vigilantes and local police officers mete out horrific violence against black people. From the lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till by white vigilantes in Mississippi in 1955—the national black periodical Jet had circulated images of the mutilated corpse—to the high-powered fire hoses and police K-9s that Public Safety Director Eugene “Bull” Connor set upon young black desegregation demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963, black Americans from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles had recourse to a powerful analogy to protest injustice in their own backyards.

In this context a bizarre, tragic, and somewhat mysterious police killing of a suspected shoplifter [Philyaw]—who may or may not have attacked the officer—gained clarity and moral urgency as another example, in a long line, of “Jim Crow, Philadelphia Style.” Due process denied became a powerful symbol of the “justice” black people endured under white rule.

Police unions depicted the Southern analogy as an ideologically motivated ploy by a subversive element seeking to discredit police officers as the first line of attack on the American system of free government. Police also rejected this vein of argument out of workplace solidarity. When Cecil B. Moore said the NAACP would obtain an arrest warrant for Patrolman Tourigan in the “murder” of Philyaw, the Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police—also home to the national organization—swore to defend their “brother-in-blue.”

This “us” versus “them” logic carried over to the fight over police review boards, which gained national momentum after Philadelphia established the first independent civilian board in October 1958. Over the next six years police unions mobilized rank-and-file members and public officials to counter groups like the ACLU and the NAACP that typically drafted the model ordinances. The unions were overwhelmingly successful in stifling even modest board proposals and at the least minimizing their jurisdiction.

Thus, Rochester, New York, became the only city to create a civilian review board through the democratic process, in spring 1963, in large part due to a newly powerful black electorate. Police opposition ensured it would amount to a token reform, a purely advisory fact-finding tribunal restricted to use-of-force incidents.

For people in the street—unaffiliated with formal civil rights organizations, who perhaps identified primarily as residents of a block or a neighborhood—police killings sat on the extreme end of a spectrum of police violence that included the arbitrary and discriminatory power of officers to assert their authority over black people as they saw fit, with impunity.

For young men and women, the local beat cop—running them off street corners, throwing them down stairs, raiding their homes and destroying their property, shaking them down at the station house, cursing them out in front of their friends, patting them down on the street, beating them for invoking their rights, and jailing them for hours, even days, to question them about crimes they did not commit—he represented, and often was, a street-corner tyrant greasing the wheels of an unjust system that to them resembled South African apartheid more than a democracy. And so police officers making routine arrests continued to find themselves surrounded by hostile onlookers looking to vent their anger at the police, who sometimes forcibly intervened to free the prisoner and stop the criminal process in its tracks.

Civil rights activists mobilizing around police violence always tried to keep this broader platform of issues in view. But a reactive strategy engineered around ensuring a just outcome for specific incidents also most advantaged, and probably emboldened, their more powerful police-allied critics who capitalized upon the ambiguous facts of the given situation to demean opponents as ideological subversives. This strategy worked since the American public—almost 90 percent white—was generally more sympathetic to the police than to criminal suspects in poor, urban, and minority neighborhoods.

Additionally, proponents of civilian review boards shied from more forcefully confronting police policy, often quick to acknowledge and accept the expertise of high officials. That proved detrimental to the residents most directly affected by aggressive patrol strategy. Ultimately, the focus on use-of-force incidents obscured the far more common use of invasive stop-and-frisk policing that, by 1961, was quietly becoming the official policy of urban departments nationwide.

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