The Real Nature of Police Brutality in America and the Big Problem on Urban Streets
By Robert Wenzel
The masses are confused once again.
As they march in various cities, following grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City that failed to indict police officers who killed citizens, a frequent sign that can be seen, carried by protesters, is: "Black lives matter."
But such a sign distorts the nature
of the problem on the public streets of urban America. It is very likely that, as often alleged, black youth in urban cities are stopped and harassed by police more often then whites. This, however, is not the full picture of the harassment and threats that occur on urban sidewalks.
There probably isn't a white person alive, living in a major city, who hasn't crossed the street after seeing unruly youth up ahead. The youth may not be a threat, but from half a block away, it is difficult to tell, and if the youth are a real threat, the harassment a white person will get from them will, in many cases, be of far greater intensity than what an innocent black person will generally receive from a harassing police officer.
There are certainly exceptions to this general rule but the fear that whites occasionally have on public sidewalks is real.
Susan Estrich, of Harvard Law School, gathered together a number of surveys on the sources of public fear. One survey, carried-out in Portland, Oregon, indicated that three quarters of the adults interviewed cross to the other side of a street when they see a gang of teenagers. Another survey, in Baltimore, discovered that nearly half would cross the street to avoid even a single strange youth.
It is interesting to note that these crossings occur on public sidewalks. I would venture to guess that, the same people who have crossed the street because of unruly youth, have probably never changed direction in a mall or hotel lobby because of unruly youth.
I would also guess that the majority of black men, who are harassed by police on the sidewalks, have never been stopped and frisked by a mall security guard or a member of a hotel security team.
Again, there may be individual exceptions to this observation, but we know that for blacks and whites, problems occur on the public sidewalks with significantly greater frequency than in malls or hotel lobbies.
Could it be that there is something different going on in hotels and lobbies from what occurs on public sidewalks?
To answer this question, it will prove fruitful to understand the history of the policing of sidewalks up until the present.
To take the present first, most city police forces now employ tactics based on the foundation of what is known as the broken window theory. The theory holds that if minor crimes go unpunished this will lead to greater crime. If you don't, for example, stop crime after one window is broken, many windows will be broken, by those who see the first window broken.
This theory was advanced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in a 1982 essay in The Atlantic. One of the first to grab hold of the theory and implement it was William J. Bratton.
Bratton described Kelling as his "intellectual mentor." He applied Kelling's theories first in Boston, while police commissioner there, and then as head of the New York City Transit Police.
When the iron-fisted, tough-guy, ruler, Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York City in 1993, it was no surprise when he brought in Bratton, with his zero-tolerance, broken window policy, to head the New York City police department.
With the seeming backing of the scholarly article, Giuliani and Bratton then introduced the zero-tolerance policy to the NYPD police force. It is still, in large measure, the policy of the NYPD today. A policy that has been copied by many police departments in cities through out the country.
But did Giuliani and Bratton really adopt the policies that one would have adopted from a thorough reading and understandin of the Kelling and Wilson paper? Or did they simply grab the most aggressive recommendations in the paper, stretch them as far as possible and ignore what else was written in the paper?
Any impartial reader of the paper would reach the conclusion that the paper is disjointed and appears to make contradictory suggestions in different parts of the paper. For example, Kelling and Wilson describe at one point, with seeming approval, a successful policy that is far from zero tolerance policy.They write:
[H]ow can a neighborhood be "safer" when the crime rate has not gone down--in fact, may have gone up? Finding the answer requires first that we understand what most often frightens people in public places. Many citizens, of course, are primarily frightened by crime, especially crime involving a sudden, violent attack by a stranger. This risk is very real, in Newark as in many large cities. But we tend to overlook another source of fear--the fear of being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.
What foot-patrol officers did was to elevate, to the extent they could, the level of public order in these neighborhoods. Though the neighborhoods were predominantly black and the foot patrolmen were mostly white, this "order-maintenance" function of the police was performed to the general satisfaction of both parties.
One of us (Kelling) spent many hours walking with Newark foot-patrol officers to see how they defined "order" and what they did to maintain it. One beat was typical: a busy but dilapidated area in the heart of Newark, with many abandoned buildings, marginal shops (several of which prominently displayed knives and straight-edged razors in their windows), one large department store, and, most important, a train station and several major bus stops. Though the area was run-down, its streets were filled with people, because it was a major transportation center. The good order of this area was important not only to those who lived and worked there but also to many others, who had to move through it on their way home, to supermarkets, or to factories.
The people on the street were primarily black; the officer who walked the street was white. The people were made up of "regulars" and "strangers." Regulars included both "decent folk" and some drunks and derelicts who were always there but who "knew their place." Strangers were, well, strangers, and viewed suspiciously, sometimes apprehensively. The officer--call him Kelly--knew who the regulars were, and they knew him. As he saw his job, he was to keep an eye on strangers, and make certain that the disreputable regulars observed some informal but widely understood rules. Drunks and addicts could sit on the stoops, but could not lie down. People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags. Talking to, bothering, or begging from people waiting at the bus stop was strictly forbidden. If a dispute erupted between a businessman and a customer, the businessman was assumed to be right, especially if the customer was a stranger. If a stranger loitered, Kelly would ask him if he had any means of support and what his business was; if he gave unsatisfactory answers, he was sent on his way. Persons who broke the informal rules, especially those who bothered people waiting at bus stops, were arrested for vagrancy. Noisy teenagers were told to keep quiet.
These rules were defined and enforced in collaboration with the "regulars" on the street. Another neighborhood might have different rules, but these, everybody understood, were the rules for this neighborhood. If someone violated them, the regulars not only turned to Kelly for help but also ridiculed the violator. Sometimes what Kelly did could be described as "enforcing the law," but just as often it involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order. Some of the things he did probably would not withstand a legal challenge.
People could drink on side streets, but not at the main intersection. Bottles had to be in paper bags.
That's not zero tolerance. It's what Kelling and Wilson correctly call "order-maintenance."
There is another element to this order-maintenance though. It has to come from foot cops, not cops in cars:
In response to fear people avoid one another, weakening controls. Sometimes they call the police. Patrol cars arrive, an occasional arrest occurs but crime continues and disorder is not abated. Citizens complain to the police chief, but he explains that his department is low on personnel and that the courts do not punish petty or first-time offenders. To the residents, the police who arrive in squad cars are either ineffective or uncaring: to the police, the residents are animals who deserve each other. The citizens may soon stop calling the police, because "they can't do anything."...
In theory, an officer in a squad car can observe as much as an officer on foot; in theory, the former can talk to as many people as the latter. But the reality of police-citizen encounters is powerfully altered by the automobile. An officer on foot cannot separate himself from the street people; if he is approached, only his uniform and his personality can help him manage whatever is about to happen. And he can never be certain what that will be--a request for directions, a plea for help, an angry denunciation, a teasing remark, a confused babble, a threatening gesture.
In a car, an officer is more likely to deal with street people by rolling down the window and looking at them. The door and the window exclude the approaching citizen; they are a barrier. Some officers take advantage of this barrier, perhaps unconsciously, by acting differently if in the car than they would on foot. We have seen this countless times. The police car pulls up to a corner where teenagers are gathered. The window is rolled down. The officer stares at the youths. They stare back. The officer says to one, "C'mere." He saunters over, conveying to his friends by his elaborately casual style the idea that he is not intimidated by authority. What's your name?" "Chuck." "Chuck who?" "Chuck Jones." "What'ya doing, Chuck?" "Nothin'." "Got a P.O. [parole officer]?" "Nah." "Sure?" "Yeah." "Stay out of trouble, Chuckie." Meanwhile, the other boys laugh and exchange comments among themselves, probably at the officer's expense. The officer stares harder. He cannot be certain what is being said, nor can he join in and, by displaying his own skill at street banter, prove that he cannot be "put down." In the process, the officer has learned almost nothing, and the boys have decided the officer is an alien force who can safely be disregarded, even mocked.
Doesn't this put the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings into a bit of perspective? In Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson was in a police cruiser and first rolled down his window to talk to Brown. . In NYC, the cops involved in the scuffle with Garner were not local sidewalk cops.
The cops in those confrontations did not know Brown and Garner and so they had no way to judge how much of a real threat they were. And there was the "us versus them" mentality on both sides, partly because of the zero-tolerance policy. Wilson ordering Brown to the sidewalk and NYPD cops attempting to arrest Garner for selling loosies.
It is important to understand how the police interaction was different from what a security mall interaction under these circumstances would have been like.. For certain, in the case of Garner, if he was selling loosies in a mall, security would have come up to him and told him that he couldn't sell loosies there and they would have watched until he left. There would have been no arrest attempt. And if Brown was acting up in the mall, they would have told him to cool it. But you say, police are different and couldn't act like private security. But in the old days, that is exactly how they acted.
Kelling and Wilson explained this in their paper:
From the earliest days of the nation, the police function was seen primarily as that of a night watchman: to maintain order against the chief threats to order--fire, wild animals, and disreputable behavior...Until well into the nineteenth century, volunteer watchmen, not policemen, patrolled their communities to keep order. They did so, by and large, without taking the law into their own hands--without, that is, punishing persons or using force.
It was very much different kind of police:
Solving crimes was viewed not as a police responsibility but as a private one... In the March, 1969, Atlantic, one of us (Wilson) wrote a brief account of how the police role had slowly changed from maintaining order to fighting crimes. The change began with the creation of private detectives...who worked on a contingency-fee basis for individuals who had suffered losses. In time, the detectives were absorbed in municipal agencies and paid a regular salary simultaneously, the responsibility for prosecuting thieves was shifted from the aggrieved private citizen to the professional prosecutor. This process was not complete in most places until the twentieth century.
And there you have it. From a paper that is extremely sympathetic to police of a bygone era that acted more like private security, Giuliani and Bratton ignored all that and focused on the advice in the paper that says it is important to maintain, intact, "communities without broken windows." They then stretched this concept to make it an overall zero tolerance policy which includes arrests of those selling loosies and stop and frisks. Is it any wonder then that the tension exists between the community and the police and police are trigger happy when coming up against those they want to grind to the ground, encouraged by the zero tolerance policy?
The policy is clearly a failure that leads to distrust and provocation and escalation on both sides.
The real solution may be to strip police of much of their duties and in urban areas takeaway their cars. They should not be "crime fighters" enforcing every new government law on drug sales, selling of untaxed cigarette sales etc. They should not be crime solvers. They should be limited to the order-maintenance" of the old days. Indeed, the ultimate solution should be for each neighborhood devising its own private protection program, just like the old days, with each neighborhood setting their own rules of order-maintenance.
The current protesters understand none of the history of how current confrontations between the police and citizens has grown as government involvement in policing has escalated. They are even in greater confusion if they think the problem on the sidewalks of urban America is simply a race problem.
Until the role of government police is shrunk dramatically, even eliminated, the problems over time will continue to escalate. Simply making police promise to be less brutal isn't going to change anything. They are far from the nightwatchmen of old. They are put on the streets to enforce government laws and they will escalate until their orders are complied with. That is simply the nature of modern day government police forces. Their real motto is, although they won't admit it, "Comply with ever expanding government rules or die."