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The Policeman’s Lot
Benevolent father figure? Bloody-handed Cossack? Slow-witted flatfoot? Irish grafter? Brave but underpaid public servant? Check your prejudice against this inquiry into police history
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
But such misjudgments, as well as the excessive use of force in arrest procedures, are yielding to the same steady attack that earlier generations made on police corruption. The Presidential Commission on Civil Rights appointed by Harry S. Truman decried police brutality in 1947. By 1967 the report of the task force on the police of President Johnson’s commission declared that “physical abuse is not as serious a problem as it was in the past.” Verbal abuse and harassment of citizens are far more serious sources of minority discontent, the task force found. The Kerner Commission’s recent report on violence in America drew a similar conclusion when it listed “police practices” among the twelve primary reasons that black ghetto residents were alienated from and hostile to white society. Verbal abuse—the use by policemen of epithets like “spic” and “nigger"—is now receiving the same kind of corrective attention that corruption and brutality got in the past. Harassment is a more difficult problem. It flows out of a fundamental change that took place in many police departments after the Wickersham Report was issued in 1931.
Spurred by the widespread lawlessness of Prohibition and the exploits of headline-making criminals such as Al Capone and “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the Wickersham Report castigated the police for their “general failure … to detect and arrest criminals guilty of the many murders, spectacular bank, payroll and other holdups and sensational robberies with guns.” Instead of looking to the sociological sources from which this upsurge of criminality came, the commission blamed the police for it. Essentially the Wickersham Report argued that the police can prevent crime, and that if the crime rate gets out of hand it means the police are incompetent.
“The consequences of assigning to the police a law enforcement, crime-prevention function to the exclusion of anything else were profound,” Harvard’s James Q. Wilson believes. “If the job of the police is to catch crooks, then the police have a technical ministerial responsibility in which discretion plays little part.” The result has been a new direction for many police forces in the United States. Although some have retained the old watchman tradition, many, particularly in the larger cities, have veered toward what Professor Wilson calls the legalistic tradition, in which the law is enforced with professional impartiality among all groups, even though such enforcement may cause intense resentment among some sectors of the population.
As an example, Wilson compares arrest statistics in two cities, Oakland, California, and Albany, New York. In Oakland, a city with a stringently legalistic police department, the police are four times as likely to arrest a citizen for larceny and driving while intoxicated and fifty times as likely to arrest one for gambling as they are in Albany, which has a watchman-style police department. Since one third of the population of Oakland is black, while the police department is predominantly white, the result is massive social alienation; it is no accident that the Black Panthers began in Oakland. But perhaps the most startling aspect of this picture is the conclusion Professor Wilson draws. “There is no real evidence,” he said in a recent interview, “to indicate that there is a relationship between local police style and the crime rate.”
For the grim truth is that the police cannot eliminate crime. Its sources are social, and ultimately perhaps metaphysical. More efficient policing can reduce the incidence of certain types of crime, but politicians who orate about making the streets safe for little old ladies at 3 A.M. are talking nonsense. Equally dangerous is a police department so imbued with the legalistic spirit that it threatens to “enforce the law 100 per cent” against student demonstrators and minority groups, contrary to the discretionary decisions of city officials concerned with maintaining public order. Warnings of this kind of enforcement have already been issued by spokesmen for the rank and file of the Boston and New York police departments. These policemen have lost touch with the still-vital, not-to-be-scoffed-at Irishwatchman tradition out of which American police emerged. In a free society total law enforcement is probably not desirable—and it is almost certainly riot possible: the Missouri Crime Commission has pointed out that there are approximately thirty thousand state, federal, and local statutes on the books that a policeman can and theoretically should enforce.
Ultimately, Americans must decide with far more clarity and coherence what they want their police to do. Along with giving the policeman higher pay and more training, we need to re-evaluate the multiple roles he is called upon to play and do a better job of sorting them out. Only a tiny percentage of police work—perhaps only one out of twenty emergencies to which the average patrolman responds—involves gunplay and violence. By far the largest part of the patrolman’s job is closer to social work. (And indeed, a study of the Chicago police published last year by the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago found that the ideal cop was an easygoing, welladjusted man of average intelligence, a “good neighbor” type who would, believe it or not, be equally effective as a clergyman.) This imbalance in the kinds of cases a policeman deals with has prompted the authors of the 1967 presidential commission’s police task force report to suggest that police receive prior training as “community service officers.” Crime solving and riot taming would be handled by “police agents,” men with special talent and training for these jobs.