Liberals and the Police in the 1960s

[I presented this paper at the 2018 US Intellectual History Conference in Chicago.]

The “Bearded Professor” and the Police: How the Social Scientists of the Kerner Commission Helped Bolster Police Authority and Power after the Urban Rebellions of the 1960s

In November 1967 the Kerner Commission invited big-city police chiefs to D.C. to discuss the past, present, and future of policing. At this meeting, Los Angeles Police Chief Thomas Reddin shared his worry that the Commission had the worldview of “a bearded professor.” For Reddin and conservative defenders of police, the “bearded professor” was a stand-in for left-wing and elite.

In contrast, Reddin praised his arch-conservative predecessor, William Parker, for “keeping some people attuned to the fact that the reality of the street is different from the reality of the drawing room where you have an intellectual discussion.” Intellectualism in this context was a smear. Yet, in this same meeting, Reddin called 1967 the “year of the cop” in recognition of the greater resources and power given police by Congress, state legislatures, and municipalities responding to urban unrest. Even Reddin could see that liberals supported and, in some cases, led this change.[1]

Historians have placed liberals at the center of a story about the postwar expansion of the carceral state. It has become axiomatic to tie postwar police history to the rise of mass incarceration. The new consensus points to President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to declare war on crime and create the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance in 1965 as a turning point in this story.[2]

Yet liberals in the 1960s were intervening in a war on crime begun by big-city police and mayors decades earlier. And the federal resources liberals authorized for police in the 1960s mostly went to training and education. A more profound legacy was the contributions of liberal social scientists in elevating the role of police in urban life and giving them new purpose as an apolitical technocratic crime-fighting service. Despite espousing different visions of law enforcement, Reddin and the bearded professor had important interests in common.

In my remarks today, I will focus on one liberal social scientist. Albert J. Reiss, Jr., was a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for Research on Social Organization at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Reiss was responsible for several critical intellectual breakthroughs on policing in the 1960s. Reiss was one of a handful of academics who pioneered research on crime victimization rates. His 1966 study was an important precursor to the National Crime Victimization Surveys that began in 1972 and continue to this day. Reiss innovated the use of systematic field observations of police deployments in a study on Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., over the summer of 1966. This research not only introduced the phrase “police-citizen encounters” into the lexicon of academics, Reiss also coined the now-commonplace distinction of “proactive” versus “reactive” policing. His argument that police-initiated tactics provoked greater hostility from the public than citizen-initiated calls-for-service may seem obvious today but was novel at the time.[3]

Reiss was still formulating his views on policing in the 1960s based on this ground-breaking research, but his public and private writings suggest four interrelated core beliefs. First, policing was a public service that government had a duty to provide in an equitable fashion to every citizen. Second, liberals were too preoccupied with stopping police brutality at the risk of ignoring the empirically-greater problem of state indifference to rampant crime and disorder. Third, proactive policing was controversial but necessary to regain control of public spaces and deter crime. Fourth, procedural regulations were sufficient to curb police abuses.[4]

In short, Reiss made the liberal case for stop-and-frisk tactics, for expanding police budgets, for giving police a greater role in urban public spaces, and for a technocratic top-down war on crime that urban police departments, one by one, had been embracing since the late 1950s.

For all his ingenuity as a scholar, however, Reiss and his liberal allies underestimated the relative autonomy and power of police to set their own agenda and to enlarge the sizable mandate given them by the late 1960s. Moreover, Reiss seemed oblivious to the power struggles between chiefs like Reddin and a more assertive rank-and-file, and how procedural reforms would have to reckon with this new politics of urban policing that arose in the late 1960s.

Reiss got the opportunity to share his insights on policing with the Kerner Commission at their meeting on September 21, 1967. President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July, less than a week after the start of the Detroit rebellion. Detroit’s riot was one of the most destructive and lethal in U.S. history. Forty-three people died—thirty-three were black. Detroit Police killed nineteen people, fifteen of them looters. In Newark, where rioting started a week before Detroit, twenty-three people died. Twenty-one victims were African-American. State and local police killed fourteen people. In both cities, fourteen of the twenty-two looters killed by police were shot while running away. In both, the violence started when aggressive, though routine, police actions against African Americans drew an angry crowd. Police violence in Detroit and Newark was exceptional in its scale and severity among urban rebellions in the 1960s, but the role of police in sparking and escalating confrontation with black civilians was not.[5] The Kerner Commission therefore early on emphasized policing as a key cause of mass discontent and invited experts like Albert Reiss to help define the problem and identify solutions.

In his remarks before the Commission, Reiss drew upon his extensive research on police-citizen encounters in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C to give an idiosyncratic but grounded view of street policing in high-crime urban areas. That field work showed that police were brutal at a higher rate toward whites than blacks, police aggression was often a response to antagonistic citizen conduct, African Americans were more likely to show hostility toward police, and police were typically civil but impersonal with African Americans. Reiss described policing as a provider-client relationship, where the citizen expected a personal touch and the police demanded complete deference. And the police service that poor urban residents received, Reiss noted, was markedly unequal. Three-quarters of police working in predominantly-black precincts privately expressed some prejudice; about half voiced “extreme prejudice,” viewing African Americans as sub-human or animals. This latent prejudice then became overt during riots when police resorted to retributive violence and street justice to reassert control. As remedies, Reiss recommended better supervision of line personnel and “high professionalization,” or hiring better-educated candidates and paying them a professional wage.[6]

Despite acknowledging deep structural problems in urban police departments, Reiss advocated an increase in proactive tactics to tackle street-level disorder and respond to public crime fears in low-income urban districts historically under-served by the police. Girding these ideas was a belief in the power of procedural reforms to regulate rank-and-file discretion through top-down accountability. As a check on police abuses, Reiss proposed “The Citizen’s Receipt for Service,” a literal slip of paper that police would provide to a citizen after, say, a street stop, giving “name, time and place, reason for contact, what kind of service was extended.” “I don’t know why we don’t do it,” Reiss said. “And I would be willing, perfectly willing, then to see much more of the so-called stop and question. Why not? If an officer stops and questions me he puts on there why he stopped and questioned me.” Reiss was not unaware of criticisms of stop-and-frisk policing, he just believed the root of the problem was perceptual.[7]

In place of belief, Reiss provided data. He confidently asserted that stop-and-frisk policing was “very productive,” since one in four street searches his team observed discovered weapons. “There is no question the police do not do it indiscriminately,” Reiss added. “They always have a reason for making the particular stop and search.” This line of argument surprised Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, a Democrat and chair of the Commission, who had vetoed a stop-and-frisk bill one month earlier, for the second time in two years. Kerner noted that in many cases police returned the weapons and made no arrests, and police departments were the biggest lobbyists for stop-and-frisk laws. Reiss emphasized that a Citizen’s Receipt for Service would resolve many of the problems associated with the practice. He also argued that the stop-and-frisk controversy revealed a more fundamental problem. It was “interesting,” he said, that African Americans resented being stopped and searched but whites did not. This “sensitivity on the part of the Negro,” Reiss believed, arose not from an informed critique of the practice but “from a more general hostility…towards the police.” It was irrational, in other words.[8]

The final Kerner Report adopted the views of Reiss on black perceptions of police, almost literally. We can see this influence in the drafting of the famous Chapter 11, “The Police and the Community.” In November 1967, Paul G. Bower, assistant director for research on public safety issues for the Commission, began seeking feedback on chapter drafts from top policing scholars. The chapter was written by Commission staff, including Bower, based on working papers by nationally-renowned police scholars like David Bordua, Jerome Skolnick, Herman Goldstein and Frank Remington, James Q. Wilson, Albert Reiss, and others. In a reply to Bower on his latest draft in February 1968, Reiss argued that African Americans resented the police because police were forced to fill a void left by other failed state institutions. In this spirit, he proposed the addition of one sentence: “The policeman in the ghetto is the most visible symbol of a society from which many ghetto Negroes are increasingly alienated.” That line appears virtually unchanged on page 157 of the Kerner Report.[9]

The emphasis on the symbolic threat of police, however, downplayed the actual physical threat, the real terror, policing posed in the day-to-day lives of young men of color. Herman Schwartz, a law professor at the University of Buffalo, centered this point in his feedback to Bower. Schwartz argued that “the policeman is more than a symbol—he is an active agent of repression in his own right.” “The symbolic aspects of ‘get your ass out of here, boy,’ or a night stick in the ribs, or an unjustified shakedown or wall frisk,” Schwartz continued, “seem decidedly secondary to the very tangible psychological and physical insult.” Schwartz rejected the “war on crime” paradigm of postwar policing and wanted the Commission to warn the public of the dangers of “get-tough” tactics and to emphasize the limits of policing in the control of crime. Schwartz wondered why the chapter used almost no example from the twenty-three case studies produced by the Commission. These so-called Field Research Reports had provided the raw materials for the eight riot profiles in Chapter 1 of the final report, but their inventory of police negligence and abuse seemed to inform few of the conclusions of Chapter 11.[10]

Reiss was motivated by a genuine desire to improve the lives of people burdened by high poverty and crime in America’s inner cities. But like many white liberals at the time, he believed that African Americans were culturally ill-disposed to northern urban industrial society and thus incapable of enforcing the norms of a well-ordered society. Thus, police had to provide a moral backbone in a community that had none. In his February 1968 letter to Bower, Reiss shared his “pessimism” that this mandate would succeed. “I fear that much of what we call for these days is based on a supposition that there is organization in the ghetto community to which we can link other organizations. But I don’t think so. What sets the Negro ghetto community apart from the historic ghetto communities is precisely a difference in organization. The immigrant ghetto communities were preserving something; the Negro ghetto community seems to preserve nothing.” Here, Reiss was quicker to blame so-called black cultural pathology than the structural racism that had produced the ghetto.[11]

Yet it is important to recognize that Reiss saw policing as uniquely valuable in controlling violence and providing immediate relief to the problems of disorder arising in circumstances of extreme hardship. In a letter to Bower from November 1967, Reiss rejected the premise of police-community relations as a public relations stunt that ultimately masked the state’s obligation to protect citizens from private civilian violence. “Any policy that is based on making people feel better about the police at the expense of making it a better place to live in the sense that the probability of victimization is reduced and that people’s problems are met is ill advised.” Reiss argued that police-community relations came “at the expense” of crime-fighting because he understood that proactive tactics like stop-and-frisk that he believed were necessary to keep order were likely to cause strain between police and minority communities. Yet he was willing to accept that strain in the service of a laudable goal. Indeed, he emphasized as equally the citizen’s duty to cooperate with police and obey their commands, arguing that a citizen “should be sanctioned for being abusive toward the police.” Reiss shared the growing liberal discontent with street disorder, as seen in the movement in the 1960s to repeal the centuries-old right to resist unlawful arrest.[12]

In making the liberal case for stop-and-frisk and the right to safety from criminal violence, Reiss entered a fractious political debate on the side of law-and-order. He may have been trying to inject a note of scholarly detachment and moral rigor, but he seemed to underestimate the growing political power of police to advocate similar ideas for their own ends. In 1959, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), one of the largest national police organizations, had 194 lodges. Ten years later, the union had 733 lodges with 80,000 members. Rank-and-file militancy transformed the picture of police reform. In the second half of the 1960s, rank-and-file unions engaged in “Blue Flus” to win higher wages, formal grievance rights, and due process during disciplinary hearings. They endorsed political candidates, promoted ballot initiatives, and pursued litigation. Through statewide and national organizations, police launched an ambitious legislative program to obtain stop-and-frisk laws, harsher penalties for resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer, and antiriot equipment. The unions also secured contracts with special “bill of rights” provisions making it much more difficult to hold police accountable for their own street-level harassment and violence.[13]

It is ironic that a scholar as astute and careful as Reiss who made his mark in part by documenting police-citizen encounters failed to see how the rising dominant political force within police departments was dramatically changing street policing. In fairness, it was all so new. A month before the Detroit rebellion, hundreds of police officers staged a Blue Flu to protest the city’s refusal to negotiate a first contract. One month after the rebellion, the Detroit Police Officers Association and the city of Detroit finally reached agreement on so-called non-economic issues. Officers won the right to a lawyer in disciplinary hearings and the right to wait twenty-four hours after a misconduct allegation to make a written statement. Over the next five years the union expanded these rights and fought every reform to impose outside oversight, including any attempt to gain access to officer personnel files. Kept secret, these files made it impossible for liberal reformers like Reiss to track problem officers and adequately supervise the ranks. The DPOA took their fight to the public as well. In 1969 the union led a campaign to unseat a liberal black judge who discharged 120 African Americans, mainly women and children, detained by police in a mass arrest; they formed a committee made up of police, fire-fighters, and a white homeowners’ association to elect a law-and-order mayor; and they negotiated a second non-economic contract strengthening their rights in disciplinary proceedings, including the automatic purging of reprimands from personnel files after three years.[14]

Police unions like the DPOA understood what liberal academics like Reiss seemed to forget or underappreciate. Police reform was inseparable from the political struggle over resources. Reiss joined white liberals from President Johnson to Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh in supporting expanding police budgets to professionalize the police service. Yet at the local level, as Cavanagh knew well, the request for more police resources was intensely controversial because cities faced zero-sum choices about how to support riot-torn neighborhoods. Although the Kerner Report was received by police as a liberal document—another entrée in the pantheon of naïve liberal statements blaming police for society’s woes—the social scientists who did the most to shape the report’s views on policing embraced the “thin blue line” vision of law enforcement as the bulwark against urban disorder. Just how liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan complaining about welfare dependency set the stage for Reagan conservatives, liberal scholars of police in the 1960s were quite adept at promoting and justifying policies that empowered law-and-order conservatives. Bearded professors proved useful after all.


[1] Public Safety Hearing, November 2, 1967, 308-9, 311, 313, Box 1, Series 4, Kerner Commission, LBJ Library.

[2] Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 703-734; Elizabeth Kai Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016); Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Kohler-Hausman, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); National Research Council, The Growth of Mass Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2014).

[3] Albert Reiss, Jr., and Donald J. Black, Studies of Crime and Law Enforcement in Major Metropolitan Areas, Vols. 1-2 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1967); Albert Reiss, Jr., The Police and the Public (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Albert D. Biderman et al., Report on a Pilot Study in the District of Columbia on Victimization and Attitudes toward Law Enforcement (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1967), 122.

[4] Albert Reiss to Paul G. Bower, November 3, 1967, November 3, 1967, 1-4, Box 5, Series 21, Kerner Commission, LBJ Library (Kerner Commission microfilm, Reel 13, frames 0284-0287).

[5] Albert Bergesen, “Race Riots of 1967: An Analysis of Police Violence in Detroit and Newark,” Journal of Black Studies 12, no. 3 (1982): 261-274; Alex Elkins, “Battle of the Corner: Urban Policing and Rioting in the United States, 1943-1971” (PhD., Temple University, 2017), 370-378, 439-440.

[6] Statement of Albert Reiss, September 21, 1967, 1663-1680, Box 3, Series 1, Kerner Commission, LBJ Library.

[7] Ibid, 1715-6.

[8] Ibid, 1717, 1719-20; New York Times, August 4, 1967, 12.

[9] Albert J. Reiss, Jr., to Paul G. Bower, February 15, 1968, 1, Box 1, Series 21, Kerner Commission, LBJ Library; National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968), 157.

[10] Herman Schwartz to Paul G. Bower, February 17, 1968, 2-3, Box 1, Series 21, Kerner Commission, LBJ Library.

[11] Reiss to Bower, February 15, 1968, 5.

[12] Reiss to Bower, November 3, 1967, 4; Reiss to Bower, February 15, 1968, 3; Paul G. Chevigny, “The Right to Resist Unlawful Arrest,” The Yale Law Journal 78, no. 7 (1969): 1128-1150.

[13] Elkins, “Battle of the Corner,” 15-16.

[14] Ibid, 480-486, 496-515.


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