Legal Cynicism — Is It Any Good?

I’m beginning to look into the concept of legal cynicism. I’m somewhat amazed that I haven’t encountered this idea before now. (You can see a recent popular application of it here.) My dissertation argues, in part, that get-tough police practices in the 1950s provoked a rise in individual and collective resistance to arrest and stop-and-frisk in poor urban black neighborhoods.

Increasingly, it seems, by the late 1950s black residents were gathering around street stops or interfering with arrests, through taunts, throwing bricks or bottles, or actually fighting the police and trying to rescue the prisoner. The crisis of “cop-fighting,” as the press called it, crested in 1961-1963, and then blossomed, as it were, into the full-blown serious urban uprisings of the 1964 to 1968 period.

Throughout this period — occurring simultaneously — violent crime rates started to inch up. In some cities, violent crime skyrocketed. In 1965, Detroit had the highest number of murders since 1930. Worse, it was increasing at a truly alarming rate:

Detroit murders by year:

1964 — 136
1965 — 201
1966 — 252
1967 — 331

Murder jumped by 47% between 1964 and 1965. Those numbers rival the increase in murder that some cities experienced in 2015; the national increase was around 15%.

What was going on?

Historians and criminologists have blamed a larger generational cohort of young men — the baby boom — who came of age in the 1960s. This demographic is typically responsible for the vast majority of violent crime. Youth unemployment, especially for young black men, in cities like Detroit got worse in the 1960s and then continued to slide in the 1970s and 1980s. In Detroit, in the mid-1960s, one in three black men aged 18 to 24 was unemployed. But there are no hard-and-fast answers for why crime rises or falls. All we know is that, issues with local crime statistics notwithstanding, violent crime, especially murder, started to climb nationally in the 1960s and in some cities it skyrocketed.

One potential explanation is legal cynicism.

Sociologist David S. Kirk and criminologist Mauri Matsuda define the concept as follows: “Legal cynicism is a cultural frame in which the law and the agents of its enforcement are viewed as illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill equipped to ensure public safety.”*

The majority of young black men in poor urban neighborhoods in the 1960s saw the police as an illegitimate force — famously, in the words of James Baldwin, as an “occupying army.” They had good cause to see the police this way. In the 1960s, officers typically were openly racist, referring to black men as “boy,” or worse. Police were quick to use their nightstick or billy to force compliance with their commands.

Another way police were illegitimate was that they were slow to respond to reported crimes. In Cleveland, for example, federal investigators found that this was the chief complaint of black residents, who accused police of corruption and racism as reasons for their belated response or indifference to intra-racial crimes. Wayne R. LaFave, in his 1965 study of arrest law and practices, quotes a black assistant prosecutor summarizing this presumption: “There is too much of a tendency on the part of police officers, juries, and even judges to dismiss Negro crimes of violence with the saying,‘It’s only Negroes, and they’ve always been like that.’”

Under- and over-policing had a profound, tragic effect on black communities — as it does today. It both provoked resentment and hostility and discouraged residents from seeking out police as arbiters of conflicts, as peacekeepers. It created a world in which a kind of extralegal street justice could thrive — where people took matters into their own hands.

And when police did show up to investigate a reported crime or disturbance, their every move was watched by suspicious onlookers. One study of police work in several major cities, from 1967, made the important discovery that “[m]ore Negro citizens are present in the typical police encounter with Negroes, however, than whites are present in a typical police encounter with white citizens.” In Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, the research team documented that in nearly 30% of all police interactions with African Americans on the street, at least five bystanders were present.

In interviews for a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, officers reflected on how a crowd of spectators affected their work. “If you stay there over that limit and most of the time you’re there your prisoner is real difficult, you might have a riot,” one commented. “It could create a riot because this guy won’t come along with you now. He’s not going to draw this large crowd and then meekly go with the police. He’s drawing this crowd to show them that he’s a man and nobody’s going to get the best of him.”

Another officer, apparently trying to demonstrate his sensitivity, remarked: “You don’t dare do anything to a woman that’s in her 50s, in an all-Negro area. Because you know how they like their mamas—the matriarchal society they have there.” The officer recalled an instance when, after a struggle to place handcuffs on their prisoner, the police headed to the street, while “the crowd was getting hostile. I mean, they were yelling and screaming. I mean, it was getting kind of violent. So, when the wagon got there, we just took off.”

Are these examples of legal cynicism? They clearly evidence distrust and anger — on the part of residents and police.

Yesterday, I tweeted two thoughts about legal cynicism.

I need to read more of this literature before I can decide if the idea has merit, and applies to the 1950s-1960s. Either way, I’m not making a strictly causal argument in the dissertation, so I’m not too concerned with incorporating the concept whole or refining it to advance it theoretically. I’d be curious to know others’ thoughts about the concept.


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