April 20, 2021
From The Anarchist Library

Foreword: Police and Power in America

What are police for?

Everybody thinks they know. But to assume that the police exist to enforce the
law or fight crime is akin to beginning an analysis of military policy with the
premise that armies exist to repel invasions. The ends an institution pursues
are not always the same as those it claims to pursue.

I begin, then, with a call for skepticism, especially about official slogans
and publicly traded justifications. Let us focus less on what the police say
they are doing and instead assess the institution based on what it actually
does. We should ask, always, who benefits and who suffers? Whose interests are
advanced, and who pays the costs? Who is protected and served? Who is bullied
and brutalized? The answers will tell us something of the forces directing the
police, both in specific circumstances and in the larger historical sense. They
will also reveal the interests the institution serves and the ends it promotes.

This book discusses much of what is worst about the police. It describes their
actions largely in terms of intolerance, corruption, political repression, and
violence. The first chapter, “Police Brutality in Theory and Practice,” offers
an overview of police violence, its prevalence, causes, and consequences. It is
followed by a history of the modern police institution, beginning with “The
Origins of American Policing” in Chapter 2. That section traces the lineage of
our modern police back to the slave patrols and other earlier forms, while
Chapter 3, “The Genesis of a Policed Society,” weighs the significance of the
new institution and the changing role of the state. Chapters 4 and 5—“Cops and
Klan, Hand in Hand” and “The Natural Enemy of the Working Class”—continue this
examination with a look at the use of police to stifle the social ambitions of
racial minorities (especially African Americans) and workers. The sixth
chapter, “Police Autonomy and Blue Power,” discusses efforts to reform
policing, especially during the twentieth century, and analyzes the
relationship between reform movements and the emergence of the police as a
political force. Then, “Secret Police, Red Squads, and the Strategy of
Permanent Repression” and “Riot Police or Police Riots?” (Chapters 7 and 8)
detail intelligence operations and crowd control strategies. Chapter 9, “Your
Friendly Neighborhood Police State,” brings the discussion up to the present,
focusing on current trends such as militarization and community policing. And
the afterword, “Making Police Obsolete,” considers community-based alternatives
to policing, especially those connected to resistance movements here and

Throughout, the focus is on police in their modern form, particularly in urban
departments in the United States. Some discussion of earlier models will be
featured as background, and conditions in other countries are sometimes
described by way of comparison. Likewise, the mention of other law enforcement
authorities—federal agencies, county sheriffs, private guards, and the
like—will be unavoidable to the degree that they influence, resemble, or take
on the duties of the municipal police.

As the narrative progresses, several related trends become discernible. The
first is the expansion of police autonomy and the subsequent growth of their
political influence. The second is the continual effort to make policing more
proactive, with the aim of preventing offenses. Related to each of these is the
increased penetration of police authority into the community and into the lives
of individuals. These trends are related to larger social conditions—slavery
and segregation, the rise and fall of political machines, the creation of
municipal bureaucracies, the development of capitalism, and so on. It is
argued, in short, that the police exist to control troublesome populations,
especially those that are likely to rebel. This task has little to do with
crime, as most people think of it, and much to do with politics—especially the
preservation of existing inequalities. To the degree that a social order works
to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others, its preservation will
largely consist of protecting the interests of the first group from the demands
of the second. And that, as we shall see, is what the police do.

Robert Reiner claims that “[to] a large extent, a society gets the policemen it
deserves.” It is hard to know whether Mr. Reiner is extremely optimistic
about the police or extremely cynical about society. But undeniably, the
history of our society is reflected in the history of its police. Much of that
history clashes with our nation’s patriotic self-image. The history of
America’s police is not the story of democracy so much as it is the story of
the prevention of democracy. Yet there is another story, an ever-present
subtext—the story of resistance. It, too, drives this narrative, and if there
is a reason for hope anywhere in this book, we may find it here—amidst the
slave revolts, strikes, sit-ins, protest marches, and riots.

Preface, 2014

In the summer of 2014, as I was working on the revisions for this new edition,
rioting erupted in a Midwestern suburb. The incident that sparked the unrest
was, in most respects, sadly typical. A white cop confronted a black teenager
over a trivial violation of the law—literally, an everyday occurrence. And, as
has happened many times before, at the end of the encounter, the young man was

Michael Brown had been walking in the street with a friend when police
confronted them. Police say that Brown attacked Officer Darren Wilson and tried
to take his gun, but witnesses insist that he had his hands in the air when he
was fatally shot. Police also note that Brown had stolen some cigars from a
convenience store a few minutes earlier, though Officer Wilson did not know
that at the time. What is indisputable is that Wilson shot and killed Brown,
and that Brown was not armed.

This story was painful, and familiar. In fact the only reason we know these
details—the reason it is a story and not simply a statistic—is because of what
happened next: The people of Ferguson, Missouri fought back.

Suburban Warfare

Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. The
next night, August 10, marked the beginning of a cycle of antagonism and
escalation, with police in riot gear and crowds looting stores. By August 11,
cops were firing rubber bullets and tear gas. Soon the crowds were battling
them with rocks, bricks, bottles, firebombs, and occasional gunfire. “The
effect,” as USA Today described it, “was a city turned war zone.”

The police response surely helped to inflame the situation. One resident told a
reporter: “When I … see a cop in riot gear, first thing I think is, ‘Riot.’
When I see someone that looks like they’re ready to fight me, I’m going to put
up my fists.”

The cops wore camouflage fatigues and body armor; some carried assault rifles,
even aiming them at protestors. They blocked off streets with armored cars, set
up sniper’s nests, and filled middle-class neighborhoods with tear gas. In an
effort to de-escalate, the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over crowd
control. Captain Ron Johnson, a Black man from the area, expressed sympathy
with the demonstrators and promised not to use tear gas; but faced with ongoing
rioting, his officers did so regardless. Soon the governor imposed a curfew and
deployed the National Guard. Amnesty International sent observers and called
for an investigation into the police action. Navi Pillay, the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement “condemn[ing] the excessive
use of force by police,” “call[ing] for the right of protest to be respected,”
and accusing the United States of practicing “apartheid.”

Clearly worried, the White House began calling civil rights leaders around the
country—1,050 of them—“to enlist these participants to help keep the situation
calm and focused.” Mediators from the Justice Department’s Community
Relations Service facilitated town hall meetings, inviting in Ferguson
residents, police, and city officials—but excluding the media. Some members
of the clergy took to the streets to urge peace, a few even calling for an end
to protests altogether. Meanwhile, the right-leaning militia-style Oath
Keepers started sending armed volunteers to guard area businesses, and the
Traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan issued a warning to “the
terrorists masquerading as ‘peaceful protestors,’” threatening them with
“lethal force.” A separate Klan group, the New Empire Knights, claimed to
be “guarding homes and businesses of whites that feel threatened,” and held a
fundraiser for Officer Wilson: “All money will go to the cop who did his job
against the negro criminal.”

Rioting would continue, on and off, for months—igniting with renewed vigor in
late November, when a grand jury announced its decision not to indict Officer
Wilson. Louis Head, Michael Brown’s stepfather, screamed in rage outside a
Ferguson police station, “Burn this bitch down!” That evening, police reported
at least twenty-one buildings set on fire, 150 gunshots, damage to ten police
cars, and sixty arrests.

Twice in Two Weeks

On November 24, the Ferguson grand jury announced its decision: no indictment.
A few days later, on December 3, in New York City, another grand jury reached
the same unsatisfying conclusion in a separate case of police violence,
declining to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner.

Earlier in the year, on July 17, 2014, New York City police confronted Garner,
another unarmed Black man, allegedly for selling single untaxed cigarettes
called “loosies.” Video shows four officers pulling Garner to the ground, one
with an arm around his neck. Garner gasps repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” He
died on the way to the hospital.

“In the span of two weeks,” U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge, chair of the
Congressional Black Caucus, observed, “this nation seems to have heard one
message loud and clear: there will be no accountability for taking Black
lives.” Phrased this way, she invited a comparison, deliberately or not,
between the recent grand jury decisions and the nineteenth-century legal
principle, solidified in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling, that
African Americans represent a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the
dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their
authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power
and the Government might choose to grant them.

Or, more simply: “they had no rights which the white man was bound to

For Dred Scott, the issue was slavery; for Brown and Garner, it was murder.
Connecting the cases was the failure—or rather, the refusal—of the
judicial system to extend its protection to the African American population.
That sense of existing without rights, of living under threat, of being
discounted was sadly, insistently, conveyed in the slogan that arose in
connection to the protests: “Black Lives Matter.”

It is shameful, I feel, that we even have to make this point. That it is
necessary to say, even once, that Black lives matter is itself a
testimony to the racism of our society. It ought to be obvious that Black lives
matter, that Black people matter, and by implication, that their
murder, especially at the hands of the state, cannot go unanswered. And yet it
is not obvious. In the context of the legal system, the recent evidence
suggests that it is not even true. The slogan represents, then, not simply a
fact, but more importantly a challenge. If we believe it, we must make it real.

When the Ferguson grand jury announced its decision, protestors mobilized in
more than 170 cities across the country, blocking streets and even freeways,
enacting “die-ins” at police stations, briefly occupying the mayor’s office in
Chicago. Most were peaceful. Only Oakland matched Ferguson in terms of
intensity: breaking windows, looting businesses, blockading a police station,
building and burning barricades.

The protests grew when the New York grand jury likewise declined to indict
Officer Pantaleo. Approximately 10,000 people joined protests in New York City,
chanting “Shut the whole system down!” while blocking the Manhattan and
Brooklyn bridges and sometimes skirmishing with police. In the first two days,
302 people were arrested, three for felonies.

Displays of solidarity started appearing in some unexpected places. Across the
country, individual athletes and sometimes entire teams—professional and
college, men’s and women’s—began wearing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts during
their pre-game exercises. And, in the rush of one of the busiest weeks on
the Congressional calendar, dozens of Capital Hill staffers walked out of their
offices, gathered on the Capital steps, raised their hands in remembrance of
Michael Brown, and prayed for forgiveness.

Officers Down

In the midst of the turmoil, on December 20, a disturbed man named Ismaaiyl
Brinsley approached two New York City police officers as they sat in their
squad car. Brinsley shot both officers, Wenjan Liu and Rafael Ramos, firing at
point blank range and killing them instantly. He then killed himself. He had
posted messages on the Internet earlier that morning announcing a plan for
“putting wings on pigs” to avenge Eric Garner: “They take 1 of ours. Let’s take
2 of theirs.”

Naturally police and politicians, from New York Police Commissioner William
Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and
President Barack Obama, were quick to condemn the shooting and express sympathy
and support for the police—as did prominent civil rights leaders and Eric
Garner’s family. Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent
Association (PBA), however, put the blame on the cops’ political enemies:
“There is blood on many hands,” he said, “from those that incited violence
under the guise of protest … [to] the steps of city hall in the office of the
mayor.” He later repeated: “The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our
blood because of his words, actions and policies.” The PBA went on to declare
war, though with the perpetrator dead, it is unclear against whom: “we have,
for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department.
We will act accordingly.”

The PBA also offered its own instructions to patrol officers: “At least two
units are to respond to every call, no matter the condition or severity, no
matter what type of job is pending, or what the opinion of the patrol
supervisor happens to be.” Meanwhile, patrol officers began an unofficial, and
likely illegal, slowdown. In the days following the ambush of Liu and Ramos,
police made 66 percent fewer arrests and wrote 94 percent fewer tickets.

The rift between the cops and the mayor seems particularly deep: Lynch has
complained repeatedly of a lack of support after Garner’s death, in part
because Mayor de Blasio spoke publicly about a conversation in which he advised
his bi-racial son to “take special care” when interacting with police. In
retort, the PBA began offering a form for officers, instructing the mayor not
to attend their funerals if they die in the line of duty. Then, when de Blasio
spoke at Liu and Ramos’s funerals, hundreds of police turned their back to

“A Legitimacy Problem”

The death of Eric Garner, and that of Michael Brown, the grand jury decisions,
and even the riots—all fit an established pattern, one we’ve seen repeatedly in
just the past few years, beginning in Oakland in 2009, then Portland and Denver
in 2010, Seattle and San Francisco in 2011, Atlanta and Anaheim in 2012, Santa
Rosa, Flatbush, and Durham in 2013, and Salinas and Albuquerque earlier in
2014. But the scale of the crisis sparked by Brown’s shooting, and its
duration, make it truly exceptional, and both political and cultural elites
seem to have understood it as such. Police unions, and some commanders, as well
as the reliable right-wing pundits, have obstinately defended their positions
and cynically used the deaths of two hapless patrolmen to go back on the
offensive. Other authorities, however, have been more careful and conciliatory,
offering modest reforms and adjusting their rhetoric to match the nation’s
overall mood. As journalist Matt Taibbi so succinctly put it, “the police
suddenly have a legitimacy problem.”

President Barack Obama did his best to equivocate, while calling for “peace and
calm”: “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who
would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting…. There’s also no
excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw
protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Attorney General Eric Holder added, “At a time when we must seek to rebuild
trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned
that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting
message.” Soon thereafter, the president ordered a review of the police use
of military weaponry.

It’s too early to know whether any lasting structural changes will result from
the current unrest, but if nothing else it has certainly changed the terms of
the debate. Time magazine, for example, ran a surprising piece titled
“In Defense of Rioting.” It cogently argues:

Riots are a necessary part of the evolution of society.… [Until human rights
are respected] the legitimate frustration, sorrow and pain of the marginalized
voices will boil over, spilling out into our streets.… Blacks in this country are more apt to riot
because they are one of the populations here who still need to.

Rolling Stone, likewise, published a short piece looking at
historical—and, in retrospect, entirely justifiable—uses of property
destruction, pointing to precedents like the Boston Tea Party, slave
rebellions, the Suffragists, the anti-nuclear movement, and ongoing resistance
to fracking. The magazine then went a step further, arguing that “It’s time
to start imagining a society that isn’t dominated by police,” and offering
suggestions to help build a “Cop-Free World.”

Even some conservatives—among them Senator Rob Portman, Senator Ted Cruz,
Representative Paul Ryan, and the writer Erick Erickson—expressed concern about
the crackdown on protests. “There is a systemic problem with today’s law
enforcement,” Senator Rand Paul wrote in an op-ed, pointing to “militarization
. . . [paired] with an erosion of civil liberties and due process” represented
by “national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, [and]
pre-conviction forfeiture.” Then, unexpectedly, he departed from the Tea Party

Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible
for African-Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them.…
Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the
application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough

It may be that the video of police literally strangling an African American
man—is it too much to compare it to lynching?—disturbed the conscience of the
nation, even those on the political right. And it may be that the sight of
armored vehicles on suburban streets proved disconcerting to the “small
government” crowd. But the cops kill Black people with some regularity, and the
militarization of local police has been underway for decades, often with the
support of some of the same figures now expressing their somber concerns. The
simple fact is that the authorities are responding, not to the deaths or to the
military-grade weaponry as such, but to the riots.

Rioting made policing a problem for elites. On its own, the death of a Black
man is what economists call an “externality”—somebody else’s trouble. Racial
profiling and zero-tolerance policing—the treatment of whole communities as
suspicious in themselves, and the idea that the cops might stop, arrest, or
even kill you simply for jaywalking—are just business as usual until they
provoke a crisis. Neither President Obama nor Attorney General Eric Holder had
any qualms about giving the police military hardware; it was only when
the armored vehicles and assault rifles started showing up on the television
news that they started to worry. It was the riots that put these issues on
the national agenda. No number of petitions, lawsuits, op-ed columns, or books
on the subject could have had the same effect.

The riots of the previous few months pulled into focus some of the most
troubling aspects of policing, and with them, some of the deepest injustices in
our society. The unrest was not just about Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Officer
Wilson, Officer Pantaleo, gunshots, and chokeholds. It was also about racial
profiling and the standards of public order. But beyond that, too, it was
about race, class, and violence—ultimately, about questions of freedom and


Our Enemies in Blue first appeared in 2004, ten years before the
events described above. Yet so many of the themes central to the book have
suddenly found themselves in the headlines—race, class, violence, standards of
public order, rioting, crowd control, the militarization of local departments,
the power of police unions, collaboration with racist paramilitaries, the
co-optation of social movement leaders, the promise and perils of reform, and
alternatives to policing. History, suddenly, seems very present.

I have, in this preface, only begun the story of Ferguson and the nationwide
wave of resistance that followed Michael Brown’s murder. We do not yet know how
that story ends, but I hope that it comes to represent, not merely a new
chapter in the history of policing, but a decisive break from the past.

It is with the future, as well as the past, that this book is concerned. I
began my research on policing, nearly twenty years ago now, not as an academic
exercise, but because in my political organizing I was confronted with pressing
questions that I did not then know how to answer. I turned to the past to help
us understand the present, so that we might change the future.

Returning to the book, ten years later, my aims are largely the same. This new
edition brings the history up to date and revises some of the earlier material,
while keeping the same general structure, argument, and narrative as the
original. As one might expect, the bulk of the revisions come toward the end of
the volume. In addition to updating statistics, adding more recent examples,
and correcting some mistakes or oversights, I have also substantively adjusted
my analysis when new developments—or just new ideas—require it. For instance,
the implications of the USA Patriot Act, shifts in crowd control strategies,
and even the domestic effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all far
clearer now than they were ten years ago. Fortunately, the decade’s changes are
not all in the same direction. As policing intensifies, resistance also seems
to be growing—not only in the recent riots, but in the immigrants’ rights
movement, in the short-lived (but long-reverberating) Occupy encampments, and
in a marked increase in experiments with community alternatives to the criminal
legal system. I have tried to incorporate all of those developments into this
new edition.

There is much, still, that I could have added. Historical accounts are by their
very nature incomplete. There are other stories that could be told, other
histories still to be uncovered—and, with each new day, more that could be
said. So I begin, here, not at the end, but in the midst of a crisis. We can
see in these moments of rebellion—and this is true, however they turn out—not
only anger and grief, but also an almost instinctual feeling for the demands of
justice, an urgent recognition of the humanity of the oppressed, and a sense of
possibility, however vague or distant, for a different kind of life, a new

The fires of rebellion burn with rage, but they shine with the light of hope.

—Kristian Williams

Portland, Oregon

December 31, 2014

Introduction by Andrea J. Ritchie: Broken Windows, Broken System

As the original edition of Our Enemies in Blue would predict, not much
has changed in terms of how policing functions in the United States since it
was first published. This reality, in and of itself, underscores the unique
contribution and critical importance of this book, and of its timely update.

Our Enemies in Blue offers a systematic, well-researched, readable,
and engaging examination of the evolution of police forces as tools of
political control as well as political entities of their own. Tracing the roots
of policing from imposition of colonial order in England, Ireland, and the
Americas to slave patrols and urban watches allows us to see the skeleton
underlying the present shape of policing, illuminates the social forces that
drive policing paradigms, and charts the complicity of community members, from
the Klan through George Zimmerman, in the project of controlling Black,
immigrant, and working class people.

There are new names—Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, Mike Brown, Eric Garner,
Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley—and with each of them, new moments of resistance. Yet
the history of modern-day policing outlined in careful and compelling detail in
the first edition of Our Enemies in Blue, now updated and applied to
the events of the past ten years, continues to play out, not only in single
incidents of deadly force against Black and Brown bodies, but also in the
everyday violence of policing—be it racially discriminatory “stop and frisk”
practices in New York City, continuing racial disparities in traffic stops on
the nation’s streets and freeways, or through daily stops, searches, beatings,
sexual assaults, and police occupation of communities of people of color that
are not just reminiscent of slavery and the Jim Crow era, but its direct
descendants. Exposing the core of policing, as well as the social forces that
drive it, enables us to see that, even as its outward form shifts over time,
the underlying structure and purpose ultimately remains the same, decade after

This is not to say that resistance has had no impact: it has forced police
departments to shift strategies and has at times reduced some harms of
policing. It is simply to say that the history of policing, the underlying
forces of punishment, and responses to calls for reform laid out in the
following pages is essential to understanding how we arrived at the present
moment, and to envisioning what lies ahead. By placing the string of individual
cases of police violence that have captured headlines over the past two decades
into a larger context, we are pushed beyond an understanding of them as
individual acts of racist police officers to an examination of their root
causes and sinister systemic underpinnings. Our demands for change are thus
necessarily expanded beyond prosecutions in individual cases and advocacy for
policy reform, while simultaneously acknowledging the pain and outrage
generated by each individual act of police violence, and the limited respite
changes to policing policies can bring.

Particularly relevant to the present moment and the “broken windows” policing
practices that ultimately killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, Our Enemies in
chronicles the emergence of “order maintenance policing” as the
modern-day manifestation of Black Codes, vagrancy laws, and common nightwalker
ordinances. Pursuant to this theory, through what has become known as “quality
of life” policing, officers are given explicit permission and discretion to
target populations inextricably intertwined with notions of the “dangerous
classes” described in Our Enemies in Blue. Police extortion schemes of
old are replaced with a more elaborate shakedown of poor people through
assessment of exorbitant fees and fines for minor, vague, and discriminatorily
enforced “quality of life” offenses such as littering, sleeping, eating, or
appearing disorderly or lewd in public. Indeed, it is telling that the biggest
impact of the slowdown by NYPD officers in early 2015 was loss of revenue, not
increased crime, and that first olive branch offered by the Ferguson police
department in the wake of the uprising following Mike Brown’s murder by Darren
Wilson was a reduction in fees associated with failing to appear in court to
answer to minor charges which were the bread and butter of city coffers.

Perhaps the most critical intervention Our Enemies in Blue makes to
the current moment comes in the final chapter, which traces the roots of
militarization of police departments displayed in such stark and brutal relief
during the days and months following Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson to the
advent of SWAT teams and the declaration of a “war” on drugs. Here, Williams
reveals “community policing,” the kinder, friendlier face of law enforcement
being advanced as its alternative, to simply be another side of the same coin.
Like early police forces, “community policing” works to conscript civilians and
“helping” institutions into the project of social control, while serving as the
stick that continues to enforce the “order” that serves existing power

One thing that has changed since the first edition is the way we
understand how policing operates along the axes of gender and sexuality, within
and alongside those of race and class. Over the past decade a body of work has
emerged, which, like Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian
by Andrea Smith, traces its lineage back to Indigenous women’s
resistance to the sexualized violence by state actors that has been an
essential weapon of colonization, or, like “Law Enforcement Violence Against
Women of Color,” an article I authored for Color ofViolence: The INCITE!
(South End Press 2006), to Black women’s resistance to slave
patrols and lynching, and to the struggles of freedom fighters like Fannie Lou
Hamer, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur in response to police violence against
themselves and their communities.

Some of this work—like the book I co-authored with Joey Mogul and Kay Whitlock,
Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United
—draws directly on the history of morals enforcement through
vagrancy laws and on the critical analysis of “broken windows” policing offered
by Our Enemies in Blue to highlight how policing operates to enforce
racialized and classed norms of gender and sexuality in both public and private
spheres. This process is mediated, as we discuss in Queer
, through criminalizing narratives and archetypes that
literally shape how the same conduct by different people is perceived
differently within the context of maintaining “order” and ensuring community
“safety.” Others, like Dean Spade’s Normal Life: Administrative Violence,
Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law
and Captive Genders:
Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex
, edited by Nat Smith
and Eric Stanley, further elucidate the multiple ways in which law enforcement,
prisons, and other systems of control explicitly police the lines of the gender

This literature, along with research conducted by grassroots organizations,
policy advocacy groups, academics, and even law enforcement, as well as
powerful interventions made by Black feminists in the post-Ferguson public
discourse, has irrevocably expanded the frame of the conversation around
policing to incorporate the voices and experiences of women of color and LGBTQ
people of color targeted by gendered and sexuality-based forms of racial
profiling and police violence, painting a more complete picture of the
structures and dynamics of policing.

For instance, researchers have begun to dig deeper into the statistics
illuminating patterns of racialized policing detailed in Chapter 4 to unearth
the experiences of women of color. As noted in a submission endorsed by over
seventy-five organizations and individuals to the President’s Task Force on
21st Century Policing (which was convened as a result of sustained national
outcry in the wake of failure to hold officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric
Garner accountable):

Although racial profiling data reported by federal and state governments is
rarely, if ever, disaggregated by race and sex, racial profiling
studies which do analyze the experiences of women of color separately from
those of men of color conclude that “for both men and women there is an
identical pattern of stops by race/ethnicity.” For instance, in New York City,
one of the jurisdictions with the most extensive data collection on police
stops, rates of racial disparities in stops and arrests are identical among men
and women. Racial profiling of women of color has specifically been reported in
the context of law enforcement practices associated with the “war on drugs” and
the policing of prostitution-related offenses.

Black women and women of color, who have played a leadership role in struggles
against state-sponsored violence since colonial times and slavery, have
increasingly insisted on recognition that we too are direct, and not collateral
or occasional, targets of police shootings and violence. As pointed out to the
Task Force:

Black women and women of color also experience excessive force up to and
including police shootings, including most recently Jessie Hernandez, a 16 year
old queer Latina killed by Denver police as this submission was being prepared,
Aura Rosser, a forty-year-old Black woman killed by Ann Arbor police, and
Tanisha Anderson, a 37 year old Black woman killed by Cleveland police, all of
whom were killed in the short period of time since this Task Force was
established. In the weeks following Eric Garner’s killing in New York City, an
NYPD officer put Rosan Miller, a Black 27 year-old 5 month pregnant woman in a
chokehold as they attempted to arrest her for grilling on the sidewalk, Denise
Stewart, a Black grandmother who also had asthma was dragged naked into a
hallway by officers who falsely assumed she was abusing her children, a woman
perceived by NYPD officers to be queer was thrown to the ground and beaten
after being accused of jaywalking in the West Village, and another pregnant
mother was thrown to the ground in Sunset park by NYPD officers who then used a
TASER on her stomach. These are but a few examples of the excessive force to
which women of color are submitted on a routine basis, and which must also be
at the center of national debates surrounding police shootings and use of
excessive force against people of color.

As Our Enemies in Blue points out early on, what is defined as police
brutality is normatively constructed. The common construction excludes not only
women and LGBT people of color’s experiences of what is normatively defined as
police brutality—physical violence up to and including murder of Black and
Brown men—but also gender- and sexuality-specific forms of racialized and
poverty-based police violence. For instance, since the time of colonial armies
to the present day, sexual violence has been an unacknowledged but essential
weapon of institutionalized policing so clearly described in these pages. The
submission to the Task Force goes on to note:

In 2010 the CATO Institute’s National Police Misconduct Statistics and
Reporting Project … [found] Sexual assault and misconduct was the second most
frequently reported form of police misconduct after excessive force,
representing 9.3% of complaints analyzed. Over half of the officers involved in
reported misconduct were alleged to have engaged in forcible nonconsensual
sexual conduct while on-duty. Over half of incidents analyzed alleged police
sexual misconduct with minors. Rates of sexual assault rising to the level of
FBI index crimes were found to be significantly higher among law enforcement
officers than the general population.…

Other studies found that up to 2 in 5 young women reported sexual harassment by
law enforcement, and that young women of color, low income women, lesbian and
transgender women, and otherwise marginalized women—as well as men and
transgender people—are particularly vulnerable to sexual misconduct by law
enforcement. Sexual harassment and assault have been reported to be
particularly pervasive during traffic stops and in the context of police cadet
programs intended to engage youth from the community. It is also reported to
take place with alarming frequency in the context of responses to requests for
assistance or investigation of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Sexual harassment and assault by law enforcement officers may take many forms,
ranging from sexual comments, to unwarranted call backs to crime victims, to
extorting sexual favors in exchange for leniency, to unlawful strip searches,
including searches to assign gender, to forcible or coercive sexual conduct,
including rape. It is by no means an isolated phenomenon, and while not an
officially sanctioned law enforcement activity, is facilitated by the authority
vested in law enforcement officers.

Similarly, separate testimony submitted to the Task Force on behalf of over 45
LGBT organizations pointed out that,

As noted by the NAACP’s recently released report, Born Suspect, LGBTQ
people of color experience gender and sexuality-specific forms of racial
profiling and police brutality. Additionally, LGBTQ people, particularly LGBTQ
youth and people of color, also experience pervasive profiling and
discriminatory treatment by local, state and federal law enforcement agents
based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or
expression, or HIV status.

Over the past decade, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP)
has found that law enforcement agents have consistently been among the top
three categories of perpetrators of homophobic or transphobic violence against
LGBTQ people reported to anti-violence organizations. In a recent national
survey of LGBTQ people conducted by Lambda Legal, a quarter of respondents who
had in-person contact with police reported at least one type of misconduct or
harassment, including profiling, false arrests, verbal or physical assault, or
sexual harassment or assault. LGBTQ people of color, LGBTQ youth, low-income
LGBTQ people, and transgender people were much more likely to report an
experience of at least one type of police misconduct or harassment.… Across the
country, non-heterosexual youth are more likely to be stopped by the police and
experience greater criminal justice sanctions not explained by greater
involvement in violating the law.… Investigations of local police departments
in New Orleans and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Department of Justice have
documented patterns and practices of profiling and discriminatory policing of
LGBTQ people, and a number of local organizations have documented
department-specific patterns and practices.

These more recent studies echo the patterns and practices of police misconduct
identified by Amnesty International in its 2005 report Stonewalled: Police
Misconduct and Abuse Against LGBT People in the United States
homophobic, transphobic, and sexual harassment; name calling and verbal abuse
by law enforcement officers; profiling and discriminatory enforcement,
including citation of possession or presence of condoms as evidence of intent
to engage in prostitution-related or lewd conduct offenses; failure to respect
gender identity and expression when addressing members of the public, and
during arrest processing, searches, and placement in police custody;
unconstitutional and unlawful searches to assign gender; sexual assault and
rape by law enforcement officers; and dangerous placement and cruel, inhuman,
and degrading treatment in police custody.

By incorporating an analysis of the ways in which systemic police violence
affects all members of our communities in both similar and unique
ways, this literature has informed and driven the work described in the
afterword to this edition—envisioning, and more importantly, enacting, a world
without police—while offering the clearest of rationales for doing so.
Ultimately, police operate as a source of violence rather than safety—even for
those the law claims to protect—for reasons deeply rooted in the history of
policing that Our Enemies in Blue so clearly lays out for us.

Our Enemies in Blue critically informs and provides an essential basis
for analysis of present and future possibilities in the current moment, and
offers examples and criteria by which to evaluate our efforts. What does
prevention and response to violence look like? And given the history of police
and policing through the present day, can the police ever be the ones to
provide them?

—Andrea J. Ritchie

Brooklyn, NY

March 2015

Andrea Ritchie is a Blacklesbian police misconduct attorney and organizer who
has engaged in extensive research, writing, litigation, organizing, and
advocacy on profiling, policing, and physical and sexual violence by law
enforcement agents against women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and
transgender (LGBT) people of color over the past two decades. She was recently
awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship to engage in documentation and policy
advocacy around the experiences of women of color—trans and not trans, queer
and not queer—of profiling and policing. Ritchie helped found and coordinate
Streetwise & Safe (SAS), a leadership development initiative aimed at sharing
“know your rights” information, strategies for safety and visions for change
among LGBT youth of color who experience of gender, race, sexuality and
poverty-based policing and criminalization, and now serves as the
organization’s Senior Policy Counsel. Ritchie is co-author of Queer
(In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States

(Beacon Press, 2011) and serves on the steering committee of Communities United
for Police Reform (CPR).

1: Police Brutality in Theory and Practice

In the first hours of 2009, police boarded a Bay Area Rapid Transit train,
responding to a call about a fight. They detained several young men, most of
them Black, among them one named Oscar Grant. As Grant was lying face down on
the platform being handcuffed, one officer, Johannes Mehserle, drew his gun,
shot him in the back, and killed him.

The entire incident was recorded on video from multiple angles. Several
witnesses were filming with their cell phone cameras when Grant was shot;
afterward, they hid the cameras from police, and then posted the footage on the
Internet. Within days, demonstrations were organized in Oakland, and quickly
escalated into riots—beginning with an attack on a police car parked in front
of the BART headquarters. More than 300 businesses and hundreds of cars were
damaged in the unrest. Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, an
armored personnel carrier, and more than a hundred arrests, but demonstrations
continued for weeks. A year later, Mehserle was tried and convicted, but of
manslaughter rather than murder. Rioting resumed. Damages were estimated at

While clearly a limited victory, the Mehserle verdict remains remarkable.
Looking back over the fifteen previous years, the San Francisco
could find only six cases in which police were charged for
on-duty shootings, and none of the thirteen officers involved were
convicted. “If there’s one lesson to take from this,” a participant in the
unrest was later to conclude, “it’s that the only reason Mehserle was arrested
is because people tore up the city. It was the riot—and the threat of future

Grant’s killing marked the start of a cycle of unrest affecting west coast
cities for the better part of two years, manifesting not only in militant
protests and riots, but arson, sabotage, and ambush attacks. In October 2009,
several unoccupied police cars were firebombed in Seattle; a few days later, on
Halloween, two cops were shot in a drive-by attack, and one died. The following
month Maurice Clemmons ambushed four cops in a Lakewood, Washington coffee
shop, killing them all. On January 29, 2010, Portland police shot and killed an
unarmed Black man named Aaron Campbell as he was trying to surrender; his
family had called 911 because they feared he might be suicidal. In March, they
shot and killed a homeless man, Jack Collins, as he approached holding an
Exacto knife. Then in May, they shot and killed a young Black man named Keaton
Otis, whom they had pulled over because (as one officer explained) they thought
he “kind of look[ed] like he could be a gangster.” Each shooting was followed
by protests of increasing militancy, as well as after-hours attacks on the
offices of law enforcement agencies. In August 2010, Seattle police shot and
killed a Native American woodcarver named John T. Williams, seemingly without
provocation. Weeks of protests followed. Then, in September 2010, after police
killed Manuel Jamines, a Guatemalan day laborer, Los Angeles saw riots lasting
three nights.

It’s no surprise that the police come into conflict with members of the public.
The police are tasked with controlling a population that does not always
respect their authority and may resist their efforts to enforce the law. Hence,
police are armed, trained, and authorized to use force in the course of
executing their duty. At times, they use the ultimate in force, killing those
they are charged with controlling.

Under such an arrangement, it is only too predictable that officers sometimes
move beyond the bounds of their authority, and that the affected communities
respond with anger—sometimes rage. The battles that ensue do not only concern
particular injustices, but also represent deep disputes about the rights of the
public and the limits of state power. On the one side, the police and the
government try desperately to maintain control, to preserve their authority.
And on the other, oppressed people struggle to assert their humanity. Such
riots represent, among other things, the attempt of the community to define for
itself what will count as police brutality and where the limit of authority
falls. It is in these conflicts, not in the courts, that our rights are

The Rodney King Beating: “Basic Stuff Really”

On March 3, 1991, a Black motorist named Rodney King led the California Highway
Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department on a ten-minute chase. When he
stopped and exited the car, the police ordered him to lie down; he got on all
fours instead, and Sergeant Stacey Koon shot him twice with an electric taser.
The other passengers in King’s car were cuffed and laid prone on the street. An
officer kept his gun aimed at them, and when they heard screams he ordered them
not to look. One did try to look, and was clubbed on the head.

Others were watching, however, and a few days later the entire world saw what
had happened to Rodney King. A video recorded by a bystander shows three cops
taking turns beating King, with several other officers looking on, and Sergeant
Stacey Koon shouting orders. The video shows police clubbing King fifty-six
times, and kicking him in the body and head. When the video was played on
the local news, KCET enhanced the sound. Police can be heard ordering King to
put his hands behind his back and calling him “nigger.”

The chase began at 12:40 A.M. and ended at 12:50 A.M. At 12:56, Sgt. Koon
reported via his car’s computer, “You just had a big time use of force … tased
and beat the suspect of CHP pursuit, Big Time.” At 12:57, the station
responded, “Oh well … I’m sure the lizard didn’t deserve it … HAHA.” At 1:07,
the watch commander summarized the incident (again via Mobile Data Terminal):
“CHP chasing … failing to yield … passed [car] A 23 … they became primary …
then tased, then beat … basic stuff really.” Koon himself endorsed this
assessment of the incident. In his 1992 book on the subject, he described the
altercation: “Just another night on the LAPD. That’s what it had been.”

King was jailed for four days, but released without charges. He was treated at
County-USC Hospital, where he received twenty stitches and treatment for a
broken cheekbone and broken ankle. Nurses there reported hearing officers brag
and joke about the beating. King later listed additional injuries, including
broken bones and teeth, injured kidneys, multiple skull fractures, and
permanent brain damage.

Twenty-three officers had responded to the chase, including two in a
helicopter. Of these, ten Los Angeles Police Department officers were present
on the ground during the beating, including four field training officers, who
supervise rookies. Four cops—Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and
Theodore Briseno—were indicted for their role in the beating. Wind was a new
employee, still in his probationary period, and was fired. Two California
Highway Patrol officers were disciplined for not reporting the use of force,
and their supervisor was suspended for ten days. But none of the other officers
present were disciplined in any way, though they had done nothing to prevent
the beating or to report it afterward.

The four indicted cops were acquitted. Social scientists have argued that the
verdict was “predictable,” given the location of the trial:

Simi Valley, the site of the trial, and Ventura County more generally, is a
predominantly white community known for its strong stance on law and order, as
evidenced by the fact that a significant number of LAPD officers live there.
Thus, the four white police officers were truly judged by a jury of their
peers. Viewed in this context, the verdict should not have been

Koon, Powell, Wind, and Briseno were acquitted. They were then almost
immediately charged with federal civil rights violations, but that was clearly
too little, too late. L.A. was in flames.

A Social Conflagration

The people of Los Angeles offered a ready response to the acquittal. Between
April 30 and May 5, 1992, 600 fires were set. Four thousand businesses were
destroyed, and property damage neared $1 billion. Fifty-two people
died, and 2,383 people were injured seriously enough to seek medical
attention. Smaller disturbances also erupted around the country—in San
Francisco, Atlanta, Las Vegas, New York, Seattle, Tampa, and Washington,

Despite the media’s portrayal of the riot as an expression of Black rage,
arrest statistics show it to have been a multicultural affair: 3,492 Latinos,
2,832 Black people, and 640 White people were arrested, as were 2,492 other
people of unidentified races. Likewise, despite the media focus on violence
(especially attacks on White people and Korean merchants), the data tell a
different story. Only 10 percent of arrests were for violent crime. The most
common charge was curfew violation (42 percent), closely followed by property
crimes (35 percent). Likewise, the actual death toll
definitely attributable to the rioters was under twenty. The police killed at
least half that many, and probably many more.… Moreover, although some whites
and Korean Americans were killed, the vast majority of fatalities were African
Americans and Hispanic Americans who died as bystanders or as rioters opposing
civil authorities.

Depending on whom you ask, you will hear that the riots constituted “a Black
protest,” a “bread riot,” the “breakdown of civilized society,” or “interethnic
conflict.” None of these accounts is sufficient on its own, but one thing
is certain: the riots speak to conditions beyond any single incident.

In the five years preceding the Rodney King beating, 2,500 claims relating to
the use of force were filed against the LAPD. To describe just one: In April
1988, Luis Milton Murrales, a twenty-four-year-old Latino man, lost the vision
in one eye because of a police beating. That incident also began with a traffic
violation, followed by a brief chase. Murrales crashed his car into a police
cruiser and tried to flee on foot. The police caught him, clubbed him, and
kicked him when he fell. They resumed the beating at the Rampart station; the
attack involved a total of twenty-eight officers. One commander described his
subordinates as behaving like a “lynch mob.” Though the city paid $177,500 in a
settlement with Murrales, none of the officers were disciplined.

Such incidents, as well as the depressed economic conditions of the inner city,
supplied the fuel for a major conflagration. The King beating, the video, and
the verdict offered just the spark to set it off.

A Lesson To Learn and Learn Again

Rodney King’s beating was unusual only because it was videotaped. The community
that revolted following the acquittal seemed to grasp this fact, even if the
learned commentators and pious pundits condemning them did not. By the same
token, the revolt itself also fit an established pattern.

In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (commonly called
the Kerner Commission) examined twenty-four riots and reached some remarkable

Our examination of the background of the surveyed disorders revealed a typical
pattern of deeply-held grievances which were widely shared by many members of
the Negro community. The specific content of the expressed grievances varied
somewhat from city to city. But in general, grievances among Negroes in all
cities related to prejudice, discrimination, severely disadvantaged living
conditions and a general sense of frustration about their inability to change
those conditions.

Specific events or incidents exemplified and reinforced the shared sense of
grievance.… With each such incident, frustration and tension grew until at some
point a final incident, often similar to the incidents preceding it, occurred
and was followed almost immediately by violence.

As we see it, the prior incidents and the reservoir of underlying grievances
contributed to a cumulative process of mounting tension that spilled over into
violence when the final incident occurred. In this sense the entire chain—the
grievances, the series of prior tension-heightening incidents, and the final
incident—was the “precipitant” of disorder.

The Kerner report goes on to note, “Almost invariably the incident that ignites
disorder arises from police action. Harlem, Watts, Newark, and Detroit—all the
major outbursts of recent years—were precipitated by routine arrests of Negroes
for minor offenses by white officers.”

A few years earlier, in his essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,”
James Baldwin had offered a very similar analysis:

[T]he only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of the Police
Commissioner’s men, even with the best will in the world, have any way of
understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in twos and threes
controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they
spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force
of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that
world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in
his place.… One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the
powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood
congeals, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the
land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be
treated like men.

Baldwin wrote his essay in 1960. Between its publication and that of the Kerner
report, the U.S. witnessed civil disturbances of increasing frequency and
intensity. Notable among these was the Watts riot of 1965. The Watts rebellion
has been said to divide the sixties into its two parts—the classic period of
the civil rights movement before, and the more militant Black Power movement

Like the riots of 1992, the Watts disturbance began with a traffic stop.
Marquette Frye was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol near Watts, a
Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. A crowd gathered, and the police called for
backup. As the number of police and bystanders grew, the tension increased
accordingly. The police assaulted a couple of bystanders and arrested Frye’s
family. As the cops left, the crowd stoned their cars. They then began
attacking other vehicles in the area, turning them over, setting them on fire.
The next evening, the disorder arose anew, with looting and arson in the nearby
commercial areas. The riot lasted six days and caused an estimated $35 million
in damage. Almost 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. One thousand
people were treated for injuries, and thirty-four were killed.

Fourteen years after Watts, and thirteen years before the Rodney King verdict,
a similar drama played out on the other side of the country, in Miami. On
December 17, 1979, the police chased, caught, beat, and killed a Black
insurance salesman named Arthur McDuffie. McDuffie, who was riding his cousin’s
motorcycle, allegedly popped a wheelie and made an obscene gesture at Police
Sergeant Ira Diggs, before leading police on an eight-minute high-speed chase.
Twelve other cars joined in the pursuit, and when they caught McDuffie, between
six and eight officers beat him with heavy flashlights as he lay handcuffed,
face down on the pavement. Four days later, he died.

Three officers were charged with second-degree murder, and three others agreed
to testify in exchange for immunity. Judge Lenore Nesbitt called the case “a
time bomb” and moved it to Tampa, where an all-White jury had recently
acquitted another officer accused of beating a Black motorist. The defense then
used its peremptory challenges to remove all Black candidates from the jury.
The outcome was predictable: the cops were acquitted; crowds then looted
stores, burned buildings, and attacked White passers-by. Crowds also laid siege
to the police station, breaking its windows and setting fire to the lobby. When
calm returned, seventeen people were dead, 1,100 had been arrested, and $80
million in property had been damaged. Four hundred seventeen people were
treated in area hospitals, the majority of them White.

Here was a key difference: in Miami, the typical looting and burning of
White-owned property were matched with attacks against White people.
In the disorders of the 1960s, attacks against persons had been relatively
rare. In three of the sixties’ largest riots—those of Watts, Newark, and
Detroit—the crowd intentionally killed only two or three White people. Bruce
Porter and Marvin Dunn comment:

What was shocking about Miami was the intensity of the rage directed against
white people: men, women and children dragged from their cars and beaten to
death, stoned to death, stabbed with screwdrivers, run over with automobiles;
hundreds more attacked in the street and seriously injured.… In Miami,
attacking and killing white people was the main object of the riot.

Among those injured in the riots was an elderly White man named Martin
Weinstock. Weinstock was hit in the head with a piece of concrete and suffered
a fractured skull. He was hospitalized for six days. Still, he told an

They should only know that I agree with their anger.… If the people who threw
the concrete were brought before me in handcuffs, I would insist that the
handcuffs be removed, and I’d try to talk to them. I would say that I
understand and that I’m on their side. I have no anger at all. But they’ll
never solve their problems by sending people like me to the hospital.

Weinstock is right: violence directed against random representatives of some
dominant group is hardly strategic, much less morally justifiable. But if such
attacks are (as Porter and Dunn insist) “shocking,” it can only be because
Black anger has so rarely taken this form.

White violence against Black people has never been limited to the destruction
of their property. Even in Miami, Black people got the worst of the violence.
Of the seventeen dead, nine were Black people killed by the police, the
National Guard, or White vigilantes. Are these deaths somehow less shocking
than those of White people?

Yet—how loudly White people denounce prejudice when it is directed against
them, and how quietly they accept it as it continually bears down on people of
color. They indignantly point out the contradiction when those who object to
prejudice employ it, and all the while adroitly ignore their own complicity in
the institutions of White supremacy.

James Baldwin, again in his “Letter from Harlem,” imagines the predicament of a
White policeman patrolling the ghetto: “He too believes in good intentions and
is astounded and offended when they are not taken for the deed. He has never,
himself, done anything for which to be hated.… But,” Baldwin asks, “which of us

The Basics

We are encouraged to think of acts of police violence more or less in
isolation, to consider them as unique, unrelated occurrences. We ask ourselves
always, “What went wrong?” and for answers we look to the seconds, minutes, or
hours before the incident. Perhaps this leads us to fault the individual
officer, perhaps it leads us to excuse him. Such thinking, derived as it is
from legal reasoning, does not take us far beyond the case in question. And
thus, such inquiries are rarely very illuminating.

The shooting of Oscar Grant, the beating of Rodney King, the arrest of
Marquette Frye, the killing of Arthur McDuffie, and any of the less noted
atrocities I’ve mentioned here in passing—any of these may be explained in
terms of the actions and attitudes of the particular officers at the scene, the
events preceding the violence (including the actions of the victims), and the
circumstances in which the officers found themselves. Indeed, juries and police
administrators have frequently found it possible to excuse police violence with
such explanations.

The unrest that followed these incidents, however, cannot be explained in such
narrow terms. To understand the rioting, one must consider a whole range of
related issues, including the conditions of life in the Black community, the
role of the police in relation to that community, and the history and pattern
of similar abuses.

If we are to understand the phenomenon of police brutality, we must get beyond
particular cases. We can better understand the actions of individual police
officers if we understand the institution of which they are a part. That
institution, in turn, can best be examined if we have an understanding of its
origins, its social function, and its relation to larger systems like
capitalism and White supremacy.

Let’s begin with the basics: violence is an inherent part of policing. The
police represent the most direct means by which the state imposes its will on
the citizenry. When persuasion, indoctrination, moral pressure, and
incentive measures all fail—there are the police. In the field of social
control, police are specialists in violence. They are armed, trained, and
authorized to use force. With varying degrees of subtlety, this colors their
every action. Like the possibility of arrest, the threat of violence is
implicit in every police encounter. Violence, as well as the law, is what they

Defining Brutality

The study of police brutality faces any number of methodological barriers, not
the least of which is the problem of defining it. There is no standard
definition, nor is there one way of measuring force and excessive force. As a
consequence, different studies produce very different results, and these
results are difficult to compare. Kenneth Adams, writing for the National
Institute of Justice, notes:

Because there is no standard methodology for measuring use of force, estimates
can vary considerably on strictly computational grounds. Different definitions
of force and different definitions of police-public interactions will yield
different rates.… In particular, broad definitions of use of force, such as
those that include grabbing or handcuffing a suspect, will produce higher rates
than more conservative definitions.… Broad definitions of police-public
“interactions,” such as calls for assistance, which capture variegated requests
for assistance, lead to low rates of use of force. Conversely, narrow
definitions of police-public interactions, such as arrests, which concentrate
squarely on suspects, lead to higher rates of use of force.

Adams himself outlines multiple definitions for use-of-force violations,
focusing on different aspects of the misconduct.

For example, “deadly force” refers to situations in which force is likely to
have lethal consequences for the victim. [The victim need not necessarily die.]
… [T]he term “excessive force” is used to describe situations in which more
force is used than allowable when judged in terms of administrative or
professional guidelines or legal standards.… “Illegal” use of force refers to
situations in which use of force by police violated a law or statute.…
“Improper,” “abusive,” “illegitimate,” and “unnecessary” use of force are terms
that describe situations in which an officer’s authority to use force has been
mishandled in some general way, the suggestion being that administrative
procedure, societal expectations, ordinary concepts of lawfulness, and the
principle of last resort have been violated, respectively.

Adding to the difficulty of comparing one set of figures with another, each of
these concepts refers to standards that vary according to the agency,
jurisdiction, and community involved. Even within a single agency, agreement on
the interpretation of the relevant standards may not be perfect. Bobby Lee
Cheatham, a Black cop in Miami, noted the different standards among the police:
“To [White officers], police brutality is going up and just hitting on someone
with no reason.… To me, it’s when a policeman gets in a situation where he’s
too aggressive or uses force when it isn’t needed. Most of the time the
policeman creates the situation himself.”

Even where the facts of a case are agreed upon (which is rare enough), there
may yet be intense disagreement about the relevant standards of conduct and
their application to the particular circumstances. For example, in October
1997, sheriff’s deputies in Humboldt County, California, swabbed pepper-spray
fluid directly into the eyes of non-violent anti-logging demonstrators locked
together in an act of civil disobedience. Amnesty International called the
tactic “deliberately cruel and tantamount to torture.” A federal judge refused
to issue an injunction against the practice, however, claiming that it only
caused “transient pain.”

This case highlights the disparate judgments possible, even given the same
facts. A great many people feel about police brutality as Justice Potter
Stewart felt about pornography: they can’t define it, but they know it when
they see it. Unfortunately, they might not know it when they see it.
Many police tactics—the use of pressure points, the fastening of handcuffs too
tightly, and the direct application of pepper spray, for example—really don’t
look anything like they feel. More to the point, in most cases, nobody
sees the brutality at all, except for the cops and their victims. The
rest of us have to rely on secondary information, usually taking one side or
the other at their word.

Things get even stickier when general patterns of violence are scrutinized,
even where no particular encounter rises to the level of official misconduct.
As one Justice Department study explains: “Use of excessive force
means that police applied too much force in a given incident, while
excessive use of force means that police apply force legally in too
many incidents.” While the former is more likely to grab headlines, it is
the latter that makes the largest contribution to the community’s reservoir of
grievances against the police. But, since the force in question is within the
bounds of policy, the excessive use of force is more difficult to address from
the perspective of discipline and administration.

All of this controversy and confusion points to a very simple fact: police
brutality is a normative construction. It involves an evaluation, a judgment,
and not simply a collection of facts. David Bayley and Harold Mendelsohn

[P]olice brutality is not just a descriptive category. Rather it is a judgment
made about the propriety of police behavior.… Since the use of the phrase
implies a judgment, people may disagree profoundly about whether a particular
incident, even though it involves the obvious use of force, is a case of

Any discussion of police brutality is therefore encumbered by confusion about
whether it applies to more than physical assaults and also by disagreement over
what circumstances absolve the police from blame.

In short, the technical distinctions between, say, excessive force and illegal
force, while bringing some measure of precision to the discussion, lead us no
nearer to a resolution of these disputes. That’s because, at root, the
disagreement is not about whether a rule was broken, or a law violated. The
question—the real question—is one of legitimacy. The larger conflict is a
conflict of values.

Let’s consider this problem anew: the trouble, or part of it, comes in
discerning the legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence. Abuses of
authority may look very much like their less corrupt counterparts. Or, stated
from a different perspective, the application of legal force often
feels quite a lot like abuse. But there is no paradox here, not
really. The state, claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, needs to
distinguish its own violence from other, allegedly less legitimate, uses of
force. In non-totalitarian societies, authority exists within carefully
prescribed, if vague (one might suggest, intentionally vague), boundaries.
Action within these limits is “legitimate,” similar action outside of such
limits is “abuse.” But in the case of police violence, legitimate and excessive
force exist as part of the same continuum, rather than as distinct species of
action. (Even the term “excessive force” implies this.) Hence, where you or I
see brutality, the cop sees only a day’s work. The authorities—the other
authorities—more often than not side with the policeman, even where he has
violated some law or policy. That is, in a sense, only fair, since the police
officer—unless he engages in mutiny—nearly always sides with them. The main
difference, then, between policing and police abuse is a rule or law that
usually goes unenforced. The difference is the words.

Why We Know So Little about Police Brutality

The preceding observations provide a framework for understanding police
brutality, but tell us almost nothing about its prevalence, its forms, its
perpetrators, or its victims. Solid facts and hard numbers are very difficult
to come by.

This dearth of information may say something about how seriously the
authorities take the problem. Until very recently, nobody even bothered to keep
track of how often the police use force—at least not as part of any systematic,
national effort. In 1994, Congress decided to require the Justice Department to
collect and publish annual statistics on the police use of force. But this
effort has been fraught with difficulty. Unlike the Justice Department’s other
major data-collection projects—the Uniform Crime Reports provide a useful
contrast—the examination of police violence has never received adequate
funding, and the reports appear at irregular intervals. Furthermore, the data
on which the studies are based are surely incomplete. Many of the reports rely
on local police agencies to supply their numbers, and reporting is
voluntary. Worse, the information, once collected and analyzed, is often
put to propagandistic uses; its presentation is sometimes heavily skewed to
support a law enforcement perspective. But despite their many flaws, the
Justice Department reports remain one of the most comprehensive sources of
information about the police use of force.

These reports represent various approaches to the issue. They measure the use
of force as it occurs in different circumstances, such as arrests and traffic
stops. They examine both the level of force used and the frequency with which
it is employed. And some studies collect data from victims as well as police.

Unfortunately, under-reporting handicaps every means of compiling the data. One
report states frankly: “The incidence of wrongful use of force by police is
.… Current indicators of excessive force are all critically
flawed.” The most commonly cited indicators are civilian complaints and
lawsuits. But few victims of police abuse feel comfortable complaining to the
same department under which they suffered the abuse, and lawyers usually only
want cases that will win—in other words, cases where the evidence is clear and
the harm substantial. Many people fail to make a complaint of any kind,
either because they would like to put the unpleasant experience behind them,
because they fear retaliation, because they suspect that nothing can be done,
or because they feel they will not be believed. One survey from the Bureau
of Justice Statistics found that “less than 5% of persons who believed the
police had not behaved properly filed a complaint.” Hence, measures that
depend on victim reporting are likely to represent only a small fraction of the
overall incidence of brutality.

Naturally, the victim is not always the best judge as to whether force was
excessive, but in some cases, he or she may be the only source willing to admit
that force was used at all. This fact provides another reason to separate
questions concerning the legitimacy of violence from those concerning its
prevalence. One report notes:

The difficulties in measuring excessive and illegal force with complaint and
lawsuit records have led academics and practitioners to redirect their
attention to all use-of-force incidents. The focus then becomes one of
minimizing all instances of police use of force, without undue concern as to
whether force was excessive. From this perspective, other records, such as
use-of-force reports, arrest records, injury reports, and medical records,
become relevant to measuring the incidence of the problem.

Of course, these indicators also have their shortcomings. Arrest records,
medical records, and the like will surely reveal uses of violence that have not
resulted in lawsuits or formal complaints. But they will still underestimate
the overall incidence of force, since not every case will be accurately
recorded. For example, attempts to assess the prevalence of force based on
arrest reports leave out those cases where force was used but no arrest was
made. Like the victims (though for very different reasons), the
perpetrators of police violence are also likely to under-report its occurrence.
And they are likely to understate the level of force used and the seriousness
of resultant injuries when they do report it. Individual medical records,
meanwhile, are not generally available for examination, except when presented
as evidence in a complaint hearing or civil trial. And even if emergency rooms
were to maintain statistics on police-related injuries, many victims of
violence, especially the uninsured, do not seek treatment except for the most
serious of injuries.

Other indicators, such as media reports and direct observation, are similarly
flawed. The media, of course, can only report on events if they know about
them. Furthermore, they are unlikely to report on routine uses of force
because it is routine. Direct observation is limited by the
obvious fact that no one can observe everything, everywhere, all the time. And
observation can lead a subject (either the officer or the suspect) to change
his behavior while he is being observed. In humanitarian terms, such deterrence
is all for the good, but it doesn’t do much for the systematic study of police
activity or the measurement of police violence.

The sad fact is that nobody knows very much about the police use of force, much
less about the use of excessive force. Its prevalence, frequency, and
distribution remain, for the most part, unmeasured; and there is only limited
information available concerning its perpetrators, victims, forms, and causes.
Nevertheless, some information is available through the sources
mentioned above. And, imperfect though they are, the statistics they produce
may point to a reliable baseline, an estimated minimum to which we can refer
with a fair amount of certainty. With that aim in mind, and with more than a
little trepidation, we should turn our attention to the data that is available,
and consider what it indicates.

A Look at the Numbers

According to a Justice Department survey, 19 percent of American adults (43.5
million people) had direct face-to-face contact with the police in 2005. Of
those surveyed, 1.6 percent reported the use of force or its threat. In other
words, out of every hundred people the police come into contact with, they will
threaten or hurt one or two of them. The rate is much higher for Blacks (4.4
percent) and Hispanics (2.3 percent) than for Whites (1.2 percent). The vast
majority of the victims (83 percent) characterized the force as excessive.

“One and a half percent” is a polite way of saying “nearly a million.” An
estimated 991,930 people experienced some level of force (including threats);
more than half—55 percent, or 546,000 people—were subject to physical
force. That latter group, if we got them all together, would make for a
fair-sized city, larger than Portland, Oregon (population 537,081). And
when you orient yourself to the fact that this city could be reproduced
every year, you start to get some picture of how common police
violence really is.

Also in 2005, there were 57,546 officers assaulted in the course of their work,
the equivalent of 11.9 assaults per hundred officers. Most involved unarmed
assailants (80 percent) and resulted in no injuries (77 percent). Comparing
the numbers, we find that the police use violence (546,000 times in 2005)
nine times as often as they face it (57,546 times that year).

There is a similar imbalance when it comes to fatalities. A study covering the
years 2003–2005 found that 380 police died on duty during that time. Only 159
of these deaths were homicides, and 221 were the result of accidents. During
the same period, 1,095 people were killed by police and other officials in the
process of arrest. That averages 365 each year, or one a day. If we do the
math, we see that the police kill almost seven times as often as they
are killed. The fact is, the police produce far more casualties than they

The available studies tell us very little about the prevalence of excessive
force, but they do indicate that the police use violence more often, at higher
levels, and with deadlier effects, than they encounter it. This disparity
should not be surprising, considering the nature of policing—the imperative to
maintain control at all times, in every situation (hardly a realistic goal),
the training to use escalating levels of force to gain compliance, and
authority unhindered by genuine oversight. Policing, as I said earlier, is
inherently violent; this violence, generally speaking, seems to be of an
offensive—rather than defensive—character.

Explaining Away the Abuse

In Uprooting Racism, Paul Kivel makes a useful comparison between the
rhetoric abusive men employ to justify beating up their girlfriends, wives, or
children and the publicly traded justifications for widespread racism. He

During the first few years that I worked with men who are violent I was
continually perplexed by their inability to see the effects of their actions
and their ability to deny the violence they had done to their partners or
children. I only slowly became aware of the complex set of tactics that men use
to make violence against women invisible and to avoid taking responsibility for
their actions. These tactics are listed below in the rough order that men
employ them.…

(1) Denial: “I didn’t hit her.”

(2) Minimization: “It was only a slap.”

(3) Blame: “She asked for it.”

(4) Redefinition: “It was mutual combat.”

(5) Unintentionality: “Things got out of hand.”

(6) It’s over now: “I’ll never do it again.”

(7) It’s only a few men: “Most men wouldn’t hurt a woman.”

(8) Counterattack: “She controls everything.”

(9) Competing victimization: “Everybody is against men.”

Kivel goes on to detail the ways these nine tactics are used to excuse (or
deny) institutionalized racism. Each of these tactics also has its police
analogy, both as applied to individual cases and in regard to the general issue
of police brutality.

Here are a few examples:

(1) Denial.

“The professionalism and restraint … was nothing short of outstanding.”

“America does not have a human-rights problem.”

(2) Minimization.

Injuries were “of a minor nature.”

“Police use force infrequently.”

(3) Blame.

“This guy isn’t Mr. Innocent Citizen, either. Not by a long shot.”

“They died because they were criminals.”

(4) Redefinition.

It was “mutual combat.”

“Resisting arrest.”

“The use of force is necessary to protect yourself.”

(5) Unintentionality.

“[O]fficers have no choice but to use deadly force against an assailant who is
deliberately trying to kill them.…”

(6) It’s over now.

“We’re making changes.”

“We will change our training; we will do everything in our power to make sure
it never happens again.”

(7) It’s only a few men.

“A small proportion of officers are disproportionately involved in use-of-force

“Even if we determine that the officers were out of line … it is an

(8) Counterattack.

“The only thing they understand is physical force and pain.”

“People make complaints to get out of trouble.”

(9) Competing victimization.

The police are “in constant danger.”

“[L]iberals are prejudiced against police, much as many white police are biased
against Negroes.”

The police are “the most downtrodden, oppressed, dislocated minority in

Another commonly invoked rationale for justifying police violence is:

(10) The Hero Defense.

“These guys are heroes.”

“The police routinely do what the rest of us don’t: They risk their lives to
keep the peace. For that selfless bravery, they deserve glory, laud and

“[W]ithout the police … anarchy would be rife in this country, and the
civilization now existing on this hemisphere would perish.”

“[T]hey alone stand guard at the upstairs door of Hell.”

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should convey something of the tone
that these excuses can take. Many of these approaches overlap, and often
several are used in conjunction. For example, LAPD sergeant Stacey Koon offers
this explanation for the beating of Rodney King:

From our view, and based on what he had already done, Rodney King was trying to
assault an officer, maybe grab a gun. And when he was not moving, he seemed to
be looking for an opportunity to hurt somebody, his eyes darting this way and

So we’d had to use force to make him respond to our commands, to make him lie
still so we could neutralize this guy’s threat to other people and himself.

The force we used was well within the guidelines of the Los Angeles Police
Department; I’d made sure of that. And, I was proud of the professionalism [the
officers had] shown in subduing a really monster guy, a felony evader seen
committing numerous traffic violations.

In three paragraphs, Koon employs minimization, blame, redefinition,
unintentionality, counterattacks, competing victimization, and the Hero
Defense. As is usual, his little story stresses the possible danger of the
situation, and elsewhere Koon emphasizes the generalizable sense of danger that
officers experience: “[W]e’d all thought that maybe we were getting lured into
something. It’s happened before. How many times have you read about a cop
getting killed after stopping somebody for a speeding violation?”

The Dangers of the Job

The danger of the job is a constant theme in the defense of police violence. It
is implicit (or sometimes explicit) in about half of the excuses listed above.
By pointing to the dangers of the job, the excuse-makers don’t only defend
police actions in particular circumstances (which might actually have been
dangerous), but as often as not take the opportunity to mount a general defense
of the police. This is a clever bit of sophistry, as cynical as a Memorial Day
speech during wartime. It’s one thing to make a banner of the bloody uniform
when discussing a case where the cops actually were in danger, but
quite another to do so when they might have been in danger, or only
thought that they were.

The fact that policing is risky, by this view, seems to justify in advance
whatever measures the police feel necessary to employ. This point lies at the
center of the Hero Defense. Its genius is that it is so hard to answer. Few
people are indifferent to the death of a police officer, especially when they
feel (though only in some vague, patriotic kind of way) that it occurred
because the officer was selflessly working—as former Philadelphia city
solicitor Sheldon Albert put it—“so that you and I and our families and our
children can walk on the streets.” The flaw of the Hero Defense, however,
is both simple and (if you’ll pardon the term) fatal: policing is not so
dangerous as we are led to believe.

A total of 105 patrol officers died on the job in 2012. Less half of those (51)
died as the result of violence, and another 48 died in traffic accidents.
Between 1961 and 2012, 3,847 cops were murdered and 2,946 died in
accidents—averaging about 75 murders and 58 fatal accidents in a typical

Naturally it is not to be lost sight of that these numbers represent human
lives, not widgets or sacks of potatoes. But let’s also remember that there
were 4,383 fatal work injuries in 2012. As dangerous professions go, according
to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, policing is not even in the top ten. In
terms of total fatalities, more truck drivers are killed than any other kind of
worker (741 in 2012). A better measure of occupational risk, however, is the
rate of work-related deaths per 100,000 workers. In 2012, for example, it was
17.4 for truck drivers. At 15.0 deaths per 100,000, policing is slightly
less dangerous than being a maintenance worker (15.7) and slightly more
dangerous than supervising the gardener (14.7). The highest rate of
fatalities is among loggers at 127.8 per 100,000, just ahead of fishers at
117.0. The rate for all occupations, taken together, is 3.2 per 100,000

Where are the headlines, the memorials, the honor guards, and the sorrowful
renderings of Taps for these workers? Where are the mayoral speeches, the
newspaper editorials, the sober reflections that these brave men and women
died, and that others risk their lives daily, so that we might continue to
enjoy the benefits of modern society?

Policing, it seems, is the only profession that both exaggerates and advertises
its dangers. It has done so at a high cost, and to great advantage, though (as
is so often the case) the costs are not borne by the same people who reap the
benefits. The overblown image of police heroism, and the “obsession” with
officer safety (Rodney Stark’s term), do not only serve to justify police
violence after the fact; by providing such justification, they legitimize
violence, and thus make it more likely.

Institutionalized Brutality

Given the pervasive nature of police violence, it is astonishing that the
public discourse so frequently focuses on the behavior of individual officers.
Commonly called the “Rotten Apple” theory, the explanation of misconduct
favored by police commanders and their ideological allies holds that abuse is
exceptional, that the officers who misuse their power are a tiny minority, and
that it is unfair to judge other cops (or the department as a whole) by the
misbehavior of the few. This is a handy tool for diverting attention away
from the institution, its structure, practices, and social role, pushing the
blame, instead, onto some few of its agents. It is, in other words, a means
of protecting the organization from scrutiny and of avoiding change.

Despite the official insistence to the contrary, it is clear that police
organizations, as well as individual officers, hold a large share of the
responsibility for the prevalence of police brutality. Police agencies are
organizationally complex, and brutality may be promoted or accommodated within
any (or all) of its various dimensions. Both formal and informal aspects of an
organization can help create a climate in which unnecessary violence is
tolerated, or even encouraged. Among the formal aspects contributing to
violence are the organization’s official policies, its identified priorities,
the training it offers its personnel, its allocation of resources, and its
system of promotions, awards, and other incentives. When these aspects of
an organization encourage violence—whether or not they do so intentionally, or
even consciously—we can speak of brutality being promoted “from above.” This
understanding has been well applied to the regimes of certain openly thuggish
leaders—Bull Connor, Richard Daley, Frank Rizzo, Daryl Gates, Rudolph
Giuliani, Joe Arpaio (to name just a few)—but it needn’t be so overt to have
the same effect.

On the other hand, when police culture and occupational norms support the use
of unnecessary violence, we can describe brutality as being supported “from
below.” Such informal conditions are a bit harder to pin down, but they
certainly have their consequences. We may count among their elements
insularity, indifference to the problem of brutality, generalized
suspicion, and the intense demand for personal respect. One of the
first sociologists to study the problem of police violence, William Westley,
described these as “basic occupational values,” more important than any other
determinant of police behavior:

[The policeman] regards the public as his enemy, feels his occupation to be in
conflict with the community and regards himself as a pariah. The experience and
the feeling give rise to a collective emphasis on secrecy, an attempt to coerce
respect from the public, and a belief that almost any means are legitimate in
completing an important arrest. These are for the policeman basic occupational
values. They arise from his experience, take precedence over his legal
responsibilities, are central to an understanding of his conduct, and form the
occupational contexts with which violence gains its meaning.

Police violence is very frequently over-determined—promoted from above and
supported from below. But where it is not actually encouraged, sometimes even
where individuals (officers or administrators) disapprove of it, excessive and
illegal force are nevertheless nearly always condoned. Among police
administrators there is the persistent and well-documented refusal to
discipline violent officers; and among the cops themselves, there is the “code
of silence.”

In its 1998 report, Human Rights Watch noted the inaction of police commanders:

Most high-ranking police officials, whether at the level of commissioner,
chief, superintendent, or direct superiors, seem uninterested in vigorously
pursuing high standards for treatment of persons in custody. When reasonably
high standards are set, superior officers are often unwilling to require that
their subordinates consistently meet them.

Even where officers are found guilty of misconduct, discipline rarely follows.
For example, in 1998 New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board issued 300
findings against officers; fewer than half of these resulted in disciplinary

LAPD assistant chief Jesse Brewer told the Christopher Commission:

We know who the bad guys are. Reputations become well known, especially to the
sergeants and then of course to lieutenants and captains in the areas. But, I
don’t see anyone bringing these people up and saying, “Look, you are not
conforming, you are not measuring up. You need to take a look at yourself and
your conduct and the way you’re treating people” and so forth. I don’t see that
occurring.… The sergeants don’t, they’re not held accountable so why should
they be that much concerned[?] … I have a feeling that they don’t think that
much is going to happen to them anyway if they tried to take action and perhaps
not even be supported by the lieutenant or the captain all the way up the line
when they do take action against some individual.

Rank-and-file cops, likewise, are extremely reluctant to report the abuses they
witness. Some of this reluctance, surely, is a reflection of their superiors’
indifference. (After all, if nothing’s going to come of it, why report it?) But
their peers also enforce this silence. A National Institute of Justice study on
police integrity discovered:

a large gap between attitudes and behavior. That is, even though officers do
not believe in protecting wrongdoers, they often do not turn them in. More than
80 percent of police surveyed reported that they do not accept the “code of
silence” (i.e., keeping quiet in the face of misconduct by others) as an
essential part of the mutual trust necessary to good policing.… However, about
one-quarter (24.9 percent) of the sample agreed or strongly agreed that whistle
blowing is not worth it, more than two thirds (67.4 percent) reported that
police officers who report incidents of misconduct are likely to be given a
“cold shoulder” by fellow officers, and a majority (52.4 percent) agreed or
strongly agreed that it is not unusual for police officers to “turn a blind
eye” to other officers’ improper conduct.… A surprising 6 in 10 (61 percent)
indicated that police officers do not always report even serious criminal
violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.

We should remember that these numbers reflect the reluctance of police to
report misconduct when they recognize it as such. Given police
attitudes about the use of force (when nearly a quarter of officers—24.5
percent—think it acceptable to use illegal force against a suspect who assaults
an officer), we can reasonably conclude that the police report their
colleagues’ excessive force only in the rarest of circumstances.

I have, to this point, concentrated on the means by which violence (and
excessive force in particular) is institutionalized by police agencies. That
is, I have discussed the ways police organizations produce and sanction
violence, even outside the bounds of their own rules and the law. This
examination has provided a brief sketch of the way the institution shapes
violence, but has not thus far considered the implications of this violence for
the institution. It seems paradoxical that an organization responsible for
enforcing the law would frequently rely on illegal practices. The police
resolve this tension between nominally lawful ends and illegal means by
substituting their own occupational and organizational norms for the legal
duties assigned to them. Westley suggests:

This process then results in a transfer in property from the state to the
colleague group. The means of violence which were originally a property of the
state, in loan to its law-enforcement agent, the police, are in a psychological
sense confiscated by the police, to be conceived of as a personal property to
be used at their discretion.

From the officers’ perspective, the center of authority is shifted and the
relationship between the state and its agents is reversed. The police become a
law unto themselves.

This account reflects the attitudes of the officers, and explains many of the
institutional features already discussed. It also identifies an important
principle of police ideology, one that (as we shall see in later chapters) has
guided the development of the institution, especially in the last half-century.

But Westley’s theory also raises some important questions. Chief among these:
why would the state allow such a coup?

The Police, the State, and Social Conflict

We might also ask: To what degree is violence the “property” of the state to
begin with? At what point does the police co-optation of violence challenge the
state’s monopoly on it? When do the police, in themselves, become a genuine
rival of the state? Are they a rival to be used (as in a system of indirect
rule) or a rival to be suppressed? Is there a genuine danger of the police
becoming the dominant force in society, displacing the civilian authorities? Is
this a problem for the ruling class? Might such a development, under certain
conditions, be to their favor? These are important questions, and we will get
to them.

For now, let us concentrate on the question of why the state (meaning, here,
the civil authorities) would let the police claim the means of violence as
their own. Police brutality does not just happen; it is allowed to
happen. It is tolerated by the police themselves, those on the street and those
in command. It is tolerated by prosecutors, who seldom bring charges against
violent cops, and by juries, who rarely convict. It is tolerated by the civil
authorities, the mayors, and the city councils, who do not use their influence
to challenge police abuses. But why?

The answer is simple: police brutality is tolerated because it is what people
with power want.

This surely sounds conspiratorial, as though orders issued from a smoke-filled
room are circulated at roll call to the various patrol officers and result in a
certain number of arrests and a certain number of gratuitous beatings on a
given evening. But this isn’t what I mean. Rather than a conspiracy, it is
merely the normal functioning of the institution; it’s just that the apparent
conflict between the law and police practices may not be so important as we
tend to assume. The two may, at times, be at odds, but this is of little
concern so long as the interests they serve are essentially the same. The
police may violate the law, as long as they do so in the pursuit of ends that
people with power generally endorse, and from which such people profit.

When the police enforce the law, they do so unevenly, in ways that give
disproportionate attention to the activities of poor people, people of color,
and others near the bottom of the social pyramid. And when the police
violate the law, these same people are their most frequent victims.
This is a coincidence too large to overlook. If we put aside, for the moment,
all questions of legality, it must become quite clear that the object of police
attention, and the target of police violence, is overwhelmingly that portion of
the population that lacks real power. And this is precisely the point: police
activities, legal or illegal, violent or nonviolent, tend to keep the people
who currently stand at the bottom of the social hierarchy in their “place,”
where they “belong”—at the bottom. This is why James Baldwin said that policing
was “oppressive” and “an insult.”

Put differently, we might say that the police act to defend the interests and
standing of those with power—those at the top. So long as they serve in this
role, they are likely to be given a free hand in pursuing these ends and a
great deal of leeway in pursuing other ends that they identify for themselves.
The laws may say otherwise, but laws can be ignored.

In theory, police authority is restricted by state and federal law, as well as
by the policies of individual departments. In reality, the police often exceed
the bounds of their lawful authority and rarely pay any price for doing so. The
rules are only as good as their enforcement, and they are seldom enforced. The
real limits to police power are established not by statutes and
regulations—since no rule is self-enforcing—but by their leadership and,
indirectly, by the balance of power in society.

So long as the police defend the status quo, so long as their actions promote
the stability of the existing system, their misbehavior is likely to be
overlooked. It is when their excesses threaten this stability that they begin
to face meaningful restraints. Laws and policies can be ignored and still
provide a cover of plausible deniability for those in authority. But when
misconduct reaches such a level as to prove embarrassing, or so as to provoke
unrest, the authorities may have to tighten the reins—for a while. Token
prosecutions, minimal reforms, and other half-measures may give the appearance
of change, and may even serve as some check against the worst abuses of
authority, but they carefully fail to affect the underlying causes of
brutality. It would be wrong to conclude that the police never change. But it
is important to notice the limits of these changes, to understand the
influences that direct them, and to recognize the interests that they serve.

Police brutality is pervasive, systemic, and inherent to the institution. It is
also anything but new.

2: The Origins of American Policing

In February 1826, Aziel Conklin, the captain of the watch in New York’s third
district, was suspended—but later reinstated—after a conviction for assault and
battery. This incident was not especially unusual at the time. Even now, it
would only stand out because cops are so rarely convicted, regardless of the
evidence against them. Yet if the licensed use of violence is not new, the
system employing it today looks very different than that of the 1820s. And if
the abuse of authority is itself a constant feature of government, the nature
of that authority has undergone substantial changes.

Characteristics of Modern Police

Policing itself is not a distinctly modern activity. It has existed in some
form, under numerous political systems, in disparate locations, for centuries.
Yet most of the institutions historically responsible for law enforcement would
not be recognizable to us as police. Colonial America, for example,
had nothing like our modern police departments. David Bayley writes:

The earliest specialized police were watchmen.… However, although their
function was certainly specialized, it is not always clear that it was
policing. Very often they acted only as sentinels, responsible for summoning
others to apprehend criminals, repel attack, or put out fires.

It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that most American cities
had police organizations with roughly the same form and function as our
contemporary departments.

Though historians generally agree it was in the mid-1800s that police forces
throughout the United States converged into a single type, it has been
surprisingly difficult to enumerate the major features of a modern police
operation. Bayley defines the modern police in terms of their public auspices,
specialized function, and professionalism, though he does also mention their
non-military character and their authority to use force. Richard Lundman
offers four criteria: full-time service, continuity in office, continuity in
procedure, and control by a central governmental authority. Selden Bacon,
meanwhile, suggests six characteristics:

(1) citywide jurisdiction,

(2) twenty-four-hour responsibility,

(3) a single organization responsible for the greater part of formal

(4) paid personnel on a salary basis,

(5) a personnel occupied solely with police duties,

(6) general rather than specific functions.

Raymond Fosdick argues that the defining mark of modern police departments is
their organization under a single commander. And Eric Monkkonen takes as his
sole criterion the presence of uniforms.

Three of these criteria are easily done away with. The use of uniforms is
neither a necessary nor a unique feature of modern policing. Some police
officers, especially detectives, do not wear uniforms, and are no less modern
for that fact. Furthermore, even within the history of law enforcement,
uniforms predate the modern institution. The London Watch, for example, was
uniformed in 1791. Likewise, though most police agencies are headed by a
single police chief, that is not always the case, and has not always been the
case, even in departments that are distinctly modern. Police boards of various
kinds have moved in and out of fashion throughout the modern period, especially
at the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The civilian character of the police is more problematic, and, precisely
because it is problematic I will put it aside as a suggested criterion. The
relationship between policing and the military has always been complex and
controversial, and if current trends are any indication, it will remain so for
some time. Given the ambiguous and shifting character of the police, it seems
unwise to generalize about its essentially civilian (or military) nature, and I
do not wish to define away the problem at the expense of a more nuanced

Those characteristics remaining may be divided into two groups. The first are
the defining characteristics of police:

(1) the authority to use force,

(2) a public character and accountability (at least in principle) to some
central governmental authority, and

(3) general law enforcement duties (as opposed to limited, specified duties
such as parking enforcement or animal control).

These traits, I think, are essential to any organization that claims to be
engaged in policing. The second set comprises those criteria distinguishing
modern policing from earlier forms. These include:

(1) the investment of responsibility for law enforcement in a single

(2) citywide jurisdiction and centralization,

(3) an intended continuity in office and procedure,

(4) a specialized policing function (meaning that the organization is only or
mainly responsible for policing, not for keeping the streets clean, putting out
fires, etc.),

(5) twenty-four-hour service, and

(6) personnel paid on a salary basis rather than by fee.

There is one final characteristic that deserves consideration. The development
of policing has been guided in large part by an emerging orientation toward
preventive rather than responsive activity. Though this idea was firmly
established by the time modern departments took the stage, it was not until
quite some time later that specific techniques of prevention entered into use,
and the degree to which the police do, or can, or should, act to prevent crime
remains even now a matter of intense debate.


Figure A. Characteristics of Modern Police

Rather than use
these factors to draw a sharp line demarcating the clearly identifiable modern
police (a line most police departments will have crossed and re-crossed), I
propose we use these criteria to place various organizations on a continuum as
being more or less modern depending on the degree to which
they display these characteristics. (I have listed the traits here in order
of what I take to be their relative significance.) This approach may seem a bit
impressionistic, but I think the picture it offers is helpful in understanding
the evolution of police systems. For the most part, the creators of the new
police did not see themselves as marching inexorably toward an ideal of modern
policing. Instead, they adapted preexisting institutions to the demands of new
circumstances, evolving their systems slowly through a process of invention and
imitation, improvisation and experimentation, promise and compromise, trial and
error. The rate of progress was unsteady, its path wavering, its advances
frequently reversed, and its direction determined by a variety of factors
including political pressure, scandals, wars, riots, economics, immigration,
budget constraints, the law, and sometimes crime.

There is a further advantage to this approach: it acknowledges the fact of
continuing development and leaves open the possibility of further
modernization. Hence, rather than a revolution of modernity, occurring between
1829 and about 1860, we are faced with a much more protracted process. We find
police departments approaching their modern form quite a while earlier; and
yet, we can recognize that these same departments may not be fully modernized,
even now. In short, this view avoids the tendency to treat our contemporary
institution as the final product of earlier progress, as an end-point marking
completion, and instead situates it as one stage in an ongoing process.

English Predecessors

Many people find it astonishing that the police have predecessors. They seem to
imagine that the cop has always been there, in something like his present
capacity, subject only to the periodic change of uniform or the occasional
technological advance. Quite to the contrary, the police have a rich and
complex history, if an ugly one. Our contemporary institution owes much of its
character to those that came before it, including those offices imported or
imposed during the colonial period. These in turn have their own stories,
closely linked to the creation of modern states. It is worth considering this
lineage and the forces that propelled change, from one form of control to

During the time between the fall of Rome and the rise of modern states,
policing—like political authority—became quite decentralized. Policing
initially took an informal mode, such as that of the frankpledge system in
England. Under this system, families grouped themselves together in sets of
ten (called “tythings”) and collections of ten tythings (called “hundreds”).
The heads of these families pledged to one another to obey the law. Together
they were responsible for enforcing that pledge, apprehending any of their own
who violated it, and combining for mutual protection. If they failed in these
duties, they were fined by the sovereign.

Under the frankpledge system, the responsibility for enforcing the law and
maintaining order fell to everyone in the community. Bruce Smith writes:

Our extremely modern concept of a specialized police force did not then exist.
Neither was there any public means for repressing or preventing crime, as
distinguished from its detection and the apprehension of offenders. The members
of each tything were simply bound to a mutual undertaking to apprehend, and
present for trial, any of their number who might commit an offense.

This arrangement relied on the social conditions present in small communities,
especially the sense of interpersonal connection and interdependence. But we
should be careful of romanticizing this idyllic scenario. The frankpledge
system was imposed by the Norman conquerors as a means of maintaining colonial
rule. Essentially, they forced the conquered communities to enforce the Norman

Still, the system was rather limited in its authoritarian uses, as it depended
on a common acceptance of the law. Hence, English sovereigns later found it
necessary to supplement the frankpledge with the appointment of a shire reeve,
or sheriff, to act in local affairs as a general representative of the crown.
The sheriff was responsible for enforcing the monarch’s will in military,
fiscal, and judicial matters, and for maintaining the domestic peace. Sheriffs
were appointed by and directly accountable to the sovereign. They were
responsible for organizing the tythings and the hundreds, inspecting their
weapons, and, when necessary, calling together a group of men to serve as a
posse comitatus, pursuing and apprehending fugitives. The sheriffs
were paid a portion of the taxes they collected, which led to abuses and made
them rather unpopular figures. Eventually, following a series of scandals and
complaints, the sheriff’s powers were eroded and some of his responsibilities
were assigned to new offices, including the coroner, the justice of the peace,
and the constable.

According to the 1285 Statute of Winchester, the constable was responsible for
acting as the sheriff’s agent. Two constables were appointed for every hundred,
thus providing more immediate supervision of the tythings and hundreds. As
Smith describes:

[The constable’s] early history is closely intertwined with military affairs
and with martial law; for after the Conquest the Norman marshals, predecessors
of the modern constable, held positions of great dignity and were drawn for the
most part from the baronage. As leaders of the king’s army they seem to have
exercised a certain jurisdiction over military offenders, particularly when the
army was engaged on foreign soil, and therefore beyond the reach of the usual
institutions of justice. The disturbed conditions attending the Wars of the
Roses brought the constables further powers of summary justice, as in cases of
treason and similar state crimes. They therefore came to be a convenient means
by which the English kings from time to time overrode the ordinary safeguards
of English law. These special powers, originating in the “law marshal,” were
expanded until they came to represent what we know as “martial law.”

Beyond his original military function, and the additional job of serving the
sheriff, the constable was also responsible for a host of other duties,
including the collection of taxes, the inspection of highways, and serving as
the local magistrate. Ironically, as the posse comitatus came
increasingly to act as a militia, the constable was without assistance in
policing. By the end of the thirteenth century, the constable was no longer
connected to the tything; he acted instead as an agent of the manor and the
crown. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the constable’s function
was quite limited; constables only made arrests in cases where the justice of
the peace issued a warrant.

Around the middle of the thirteenth century, towns of notable size were
directed by royal edict to institute a night watch. This was usually an
unpaid, compulsory service borne by every adult male. Carrying only a staff
and lantern, the watch would walk the streets from late evening until dawn,
keeping an eye out for fire, crime, or other threats, sounding an alarm in the
event of emergency. “Charlies”—so called because they were created during the
reign of Charles II—were unarmed, untrained, under-supervised, often
unwilling, and frequently drunk.

In 1727, Joseph Cotton, the Deputy Steward of Westminster, visited St.
Margaret’s Watchhouse and complained that there was “neither Constable, Beadle,
Watchman, or other person (save one who was so Drunk that he was not capable of
giving any Answer) Present in, or near the said Watchhouse.” A few years later,
in 1735, John Goland of Bond Street complained to the Burgesses that he had
been robbed three times in five years, noting that he “generally finds the
Watchmen drunk, and wandering about with lewd Women.”

The watch thus represented neither a significant bulwark against crime nor a
major source of power for the state. Yet the watch continued in various forms
for 600 years.

During the eighteenth century, the London Watch underwent a long series of
reforms. While neglect of duty and drunkenness remained major complaints,
most of the characteristics of modern police were introduced to the watch in
this period, first in one locale and then in the others. “The goal,” as
historian Elaine Reynolds notes, “was a system of street policing that was
honest, accountable, and impartial in its administration and operation.”
Toward this end, several West End parishes began paying watchmen in 1735; most
other parishes adopted the practice within the next fifty years. During
this same time, more men were hired, hours of operation were expanded, command
hierarchies and plans of supervision were drafted, minimum qualifications
established, record-keeping introduced, and pensions offered. Reynolds

By 1775, Westminster and several neighboring parishes had a night watch system
that was both professional and hierarchical in structure, charged with
preventing crime and apprehending night walkers and vagabonds. While police
authority did remain divided between several local bodies and officials,
decentralization was not necessarily synonymous with defectiveness. These
parochial authorities put increasing numbers of constables, beadles [church
officials], watchmen, and [militia] patrols on the street, paid and equipped
them. They spent increased amounts of time disciplining them when they were
delinquent and increasing amounts of money on wages.

Thus, during the eighteenth century the London Watch came very nearly to
resemble the modern police department that replaced it.

The watch was also supplemented by various private efforts, including a “river
police” created by local merchants and taken over by the government in
1800. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, London was
what one historian describes as “a patchwork of public and private police
forces,” dependent for their authority on a wide array of institutions and
officials, including “vestries, church wardens, boards of trustees,
commissioners, parishes, magistrates, and courts-leet.” Among this mix, we
find one group worthy of special notice—the thieftakers, forerunners of the
modern detective. Despite their name, thieftakers were less interested in
catching thieves than in retrieving stolen property and collecting rewards. The
easiest way to do that was to act as a fence for the thieves, returning the
goods and splitting the fee. Until his execution in 1725, Jonathan Wild was
England’s most prominent thieftaker, controlling an international operation
that included warehouses in two countries and a ship for transport.

Such was the state of policing when Robert Peel, the home secretary, proposed a
plan for a citywide police force. This body, the Metropolitan Police
Department—now nicknamed “Bobbies” after their creator, but commonly called
“crushers” by the public of the time—adopted many of the innovations
previously introduced in the local watch, adding to these a new element of
centralization. It thus fulfilled most of the criteria defining modern

Peel based this effort on his experiences in Ireland, where he had introduced
the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1818. Hence both the traditional watch and
the police system that came to replace it were informed by the experience of
colonial rule. They were each created by foreign conquerors to control
rebellious populations. Peel had seen the difficulties of military occupation
and understood the need to establish some sort of legitimacy. He crafted his
police accordingly—first in Ireland, and then, with revisions, in England.
In London the police uniforms and equipment were selected with an eye toward
avoiding a military appearance, though critics of the police idea still drew
such comparisons.

In 1829, citing a rise in crime (especially property crime), Parliament
accepted Peel’s proposal with only a few adjustments. The most important of
these compromises excluded the old City of London from the jurisdiction of the
Metropolitan Police. The old City of London (about one square mile,
geographically) retained its own police force, which in 1839 was reorganized on
the Metropolitan model. Meanwhile, the watch and river police were
preserved and proved for some time more effective than the new
Metropolitans. Still, though they lacked citywide jurisdiction and sole
policing authority, the London Metropolitan Police are generally credited as
the first modern police department.

Some historians treat the modern American police as a straightforward
application of Peel’s model. As we shall see, however, policing in the United
States followed a separate course, motivated by different concerns and
producing unique institutional arrangements. In fact, I shall argue that
American policing systems, especially those designed for slave control, neared
the modern type well before Peel’s reforms.

Colonial Forerunners

The American colonies mostly imported the British system of sheriffs,
constables, and watches, though with some important differences.

Sheriffs at first were appointed by governors, and made responsible for
apprehending suspects, guarding prisoners, executing civil processes,
overseeing elections, collecting taxes, and performing various fiscal
functions. Corruption in all of these duties was quite common, with sheriffs
accepting bribes from suspects and prisoners, neglecting their civil duties,
tampering with elections, and embezzling public funds. The sheriff was
empowered to make arrests when issued a warrant, or without one in certain
circumstances, and was given additional duties during emergencies, but during
the colonial period the office was only tangentially concerned with criminal

The constable’s duties were similarly varied. He was charged with summoning
citizens to town meetings, collecting taxes, settling claims against the town,
preparing elections, impressing workers for road repair, serving warrants,
summoning juries, delivering fugitives to other jurisdictions, and overseeing
the night watch. In addition, he was, in theory, expected to enforce all laws
and maintain the Crown’s peace. In practice, however, constables were paid
by a system of fees, and tended to concentrate on the better-paying tasks.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both the sheriff and the constable
were elected positions. Still, they were not popular jobs; many people
refused to serve when elected, and the authority of each office was
commonly challenged, sometimes by violence. In 1756, for example, Sheriff John
Christie was killed when trying to make an arrest. James Wilkes was convicted,
but was soon pardoned by Governor Sir Charles Hardy, who reasoned that Wilkes had imbibed and strongly believed a common Error generally prevailing among the
Lower Class of Mankind in this part of the world that after warning the Officer
to desist and bidding him to stand off at his Peril, it was lawful to oppose
him by any means to prevent the arrest.

The fact that such a view would be respected, despite its legal inaccuracy,
says a great deal about the weakness of the sheriff’s position.

Neither of these offices was designed for what we now consider police work, and
neither ever fully adapted itself to that function. Constables survived
into the twentieth century, though only as a kind of rural relic. Sheriffs,
meanwhile, retained many of their original duties—especially those concerning
jails—and in some places still patrol the unincorporated areas of counties,
though even in this respect state police forces sometimes supersede them.

Rather than invest much authority in these offices, the colonial government
relied primarily on informal means of policing. As difficulties arose
concerning the behavior of slaves, the delivery of goods, sanitation, street
use, gambling, and the like, the local government responded by instituting
regulations, which were generally ignored. To remedy this deficiency, the civil
authorities called on the family and church to use their influence to bring
about compliance. Where that failed, they would institute a system of fines
(for violators) and rewards (for informers). They might then direct the
constable to enforce the laws, or else appoint special informers concerned only
with that particular law. Eventually towns began consolidating these positions
and appointing general officers called marshals.

Citizens were further expected to participate in law enforcement through the
night watch. As Douglas Greenberg explains:

The character of the nightwatch varied from time to time. Sometimes it was
composed entirely of civilians forced to take their regular turn as watchmen or
pay for a substitute to replace them. At other times, especially during the
intercolonial wars, the militia took over the watch. At still other times, a
paid constable’s watch was used, or citizens themselves were paid to guard the

As in England, the watch was charged with keeping order, reporting fires,
sounding an alarm when crimes were discovered, detaining suspicious persons,
and sometimes suppressing riots and lighting street lamps.

The Boston Watch was in many respects typical. All men over eighteen years old
were required to serve in person or provide a substitute (though clergy and
certain public officials were exempted from duty). The state legislature
ordered the watchmen to “see that all disturbances and disorders in the night
shall be prevented and suppressed” and gave them the authority to examine all persons, whom they have reason to suspect of any
unlawful design, and to demand of them their business abroad at such time, and
whither they are going; to enter any house of ill-fame for the purpose of
suppressing any riot or disturbance.

They were further instructed to walk in rounds in and about the streets, wharves, lanes, and principal
inhabited parts, within each town, to prevent any danger by fire, and to see
that good order is kept, taking particular observation and inspection of all
houses and families of evil fame.

New York City provided similar instruction in 1698. The watchmen were told to
go round the Citty Each Hour in the Night with a Bell and there to proclaime the
season of the weather and the Hour of the night and if they Meet in their
Rounds Any people disturbing the peace or lurking about Any persons house or
committing any theft they take the most prudent way they Can to Secure the said

Like police, the colonial watch was public in character and accountable to a
central authority, usually either a town council or state legislature. Unlike
the modern police, however, the watch had only limited authority to use force,
with no training and usually no equipment for doing so. As far as “modern”
characteristics go, the watch shared responsibility for enforcement with the
constables, sheriffs, and sometimes other inspectors. Thus it was not the major
body responsible for law enforcement. Its personnel rotated with deliberate
frequency, and many places it only patrolled part of the year. Hence, it lacked
continuity in office and procedure. While the watch was concerned with crime,
it was often more concerned with other dangers, especially fire and military
attack; thus it lacked the specialized policing function. Except in times of
emergency, the watch only patrolled at night. And for the most part, its
personnel were not paid. In sum, by our criteria, the colonial watch may be
counted as a policing effort, but in no way did it constitute a modern police

The standard story in the history of policing, if we may speak of such a thing,
presents the modern American police force as a direct adaptation of the night
watch, following the English pattern. But this story leaves out significant
stages in the development of American policing. Or, put differently, it omits
an entire branch of the American police family tree. As Dennis Rousey recounts:

[The] first major reform of the traditional system did not occur in any of the
big northwestern cities in the mid-1800s but in the cities of the Deep South in
a much earlier period. As early as the 1780s Charleston introduced a
paramilitary municipal police force primarily to control the city’s large
population of slaves. In later years, Savannah, New Orleans, and Mobile did the

These police forces, which I will refer to as City Guards, were distinct from
both the militia and the watch. They were armed, uniformed, and salaried; they
patrolled at night but kept a reserve force for daytime emergencies. In most
respects, they resembled modern American police departments to the same degree
as did the London Metropolitan Police of 1829—though much earlier.

Of course, these City Guards did not arise out of nothing. To understand their
origin, we should consider the peculiar institutions of Southern society, its
social and economic systems, and the police measures that arose to preserve

Slave Codes, Slave Patrols

Relying on a slave economy, the American South faced unique problems of social
control, especially in areas where White people were in the minority.
Regardless of their own economic class or ethnic background, White people were
haunted by the prospect of a slave revolt. They became utterly obsessed with
controlling the lives of Black people, free and slave, and developed a deep and
terrible fear of any unsupervised activity in which Black people might
engage. As a result, the South developed distinctive policing practices.
Called “slave patrols,” “alarm men,” or “searchers,” by the authorities who
appointed them, they were known as “paddyrollers,” “padaroles,” “padaroes,” and
“patterolers” by the populations they policed.

Michael Hindus cites three related reasons why the criminal legal system in the
South developed along different lines than it did in the North: 1) tradition,
2) social and economic development, and 3) slavery. Of these three, slavery
exerted the most powerful influence. It held a central place in Southern
society, in the social and political as well as the economic life of the
region. For many Southerners, a future without slavery was literally
inconceivable. Thus the whole of Southern society was, at times, directed
to the defense of the “peculiar institution.” Where the demands of slavery
conflicted with the region’s traditions and social development—and to a lesser
extent when it interfered with economic development—the maintenance of the
slave system was nearly always preferred.

Faced with the difficulties of keeping a major portion of the population
enslaved to a small elite, Southern society borrowed from the practices of the
Caribbean, especially Barbados. There, slave owners used professional slave
catchers and militias to capture runaways, while overseers were responsible for
maintaining order on the plantations. The weaknesses of this system led to the
creation of slave codes, laws directed specifically to the governing of slaves.
Beginning in 1661, the slave codes shifted the responsibilities of enforcement
from the overseers to the entire White population. Shortly thereafter, in the
1680s, the militia began making regular patrols to catch runaways, prevent
slave gatherings, search slave quarters, keep order at markets, funerals, and
festivals, and generally intimidate the Black population. As Sally Hadden
writes in her authoritative study, Slave Patrols:

The final move in policing Barbadian slaves in the seventeenth century came
with the importation of two thousand professional English soldiers, who were
installed on plantations as intimidating “militia tenants.” Arriving between
1696 and 1702, they did not perform manual labor but instead functioned
exclusively as slave control forces. Their presence served the White colonists’
purposes well: throughout the eighteenth century only one slave rebellion
attempt was reported in Barbados.

During the same period, South Carolina passed laws restricting the slaves’
ability to travel and trade, and created the Charleston Town Watch. Beginning
in 1671, this watch consisted of the regular constables and a rotation of six
citizens. It looked for any sign of trouble—fires, Indian attacks, or slave
gatherings. The laws also established a militia system, with every White man
between sixteen and sixty years old required to serve. In 1686, South
Carolina passed a law enabling any White person to apprehend and punish runaway
slaves. A few years later, the 1690 Act for the Better Ordering of Slaves
required “all persons under penalty of forty shillings to arrest and
chastise any slave out of his home plantation without a proper pass.” Those
who captured runaways would receive a reward. In 1704, fears of a Spanish
invasion, combined with the ever-present threat of a slave revolt, led South
Carolina to form its first official slave patrols. The colony faced two types
of danger and divided its military capacity accordingly. Henceforth, the
militia would guard against outside attack, and the patrol would be left behind
to protect against insurrection.

Patrollers would gather from time to time and, as instructed by the law,
ride from plantation to plantation, and into any plantation, within the limits
or precincts, as the General shall think fitt, and take up all slaves which
they shall meet without their master’s plantation which have not a permit or
ticket from their masters, and the same punish.

In 1721, the law was revised to shift its focus from runaways to revolts. The
new law ordered the patrols to “prevent all caballings amongst negros
[sic], by dispersing of them when drumming or playing, and to search
all negro houses for arms or other offensive weapons.” Books and paper were
often confiscated as well, education itself being deemed subversive. The
patrollers also seized other goods—especially linen, china, and horses—alleging
them to be stolen, and were permitted to keep for their own whatever they

Racist Contradictions

The patrol was essentially an institutionalized extension of the more informal
system described by the 1686 law. The law’s intention was, foremost, to divide
the means of protecting the city so that both internal and external threats
could be met simultaneously. It did not represent an effort to specialize slave
control, or to reduce the obligations of each White citizen, or to interfere
with the personal authority of the slave owner. But whatever the intention
behind it, the law did, or threatened to do, all three. Hadden explains:

Reform required increasing the amount of time each man devoted to protecting
the safety and property of others, which was repugnant to Southern White ideas
of individual freedom and, indirectly, their sense of personal honor. No White
man should have to cower before slaves, it was thought, and patrols were an
unequivocal manifestation of White fear. Southern honor required the individual
to protect his name and family without the assistance of courts or the
community; patrols, by their very nature, were communal, intrusive in the
master-slave relationship, and implied that the individual alone could not
adequately control his bondsmen.

The slave patrols represented a departure from the traditional values of
Southern culture, and though the patrols were created to defend slavery, their
efficacy was limited by the same ideology that justified the slave system.
Rather than develop more formal means of control, Southern ideology encouraged
a reliance on informal systems rooted in racism. While the rest of the
country developed systems of authority that were formal, legalistic, and
centered on the state, the South maintained a unique commitment to a system
that was informal, personalistic (characterized by deference and paternalism),
diffused, and in which the state was kept deliberately weak.

When compared to Northern cities of the nineteenth century, plantation life
seems positively feudal. As H.M. Henry described it, “the plantation was a sort
of governmental unit as to the police control of the slave, and to its head,
the slaveowner, was given in large measure the sovereign management of its
affairs under certain restrictions.” The arrangement was, in the fullest,
traditional sense of the word, patriarchal; not only slaves, but also White
women and children were subject to the personal authority of male heads of
households. Any intercession in these relationships was apt to be viewed
negatively. Slaveowners felt that any outside intervention—especially that of
the state—represented not only a usurpation of their authority but also a
personal slight, implying that the master was not up to the task of controlling
his slaves.

This sentiment, an important aspect of Southern “honor,” created a major
impediment to the effective control of the Black population. It discouraged
White elites from enhancing the means of social control. Hadden writes:

[O]nly the state (through the agency of the courts, councils, and militia)
could force whites to act in concerted fashion to protect their own
self-interest. And some state legislatures, like South Carolina’s, simply
refused to reform patrol practices in order to coerce more public service from
their constituents.

Slave patrols were both a product of White racism, vital to the survival of
slavery, and a manifest contradiction of the ideology and culture it was meant
to protect. As Hadden put it, “To admit that danger existed was to concede the
possibility of fear; to admit that slaves posed a threat could undermine
confidence in an entire way of life.” Of course, to ignore the threat of
insurrection could prove equally as dangerous.

Thus, progress (if that is the word) came not as the result of continual
efforts at critique and improvement, but in a rush during times of crisis,
typically following real or rumored revolts. Aside from minor alterations in
1737 and 1740, the patrol system established in 1704 survived in rural areas,
virtually unaltered, until 1819. The 1737 and 1740 acts limited the personnel
of the patrols, first to landowners of fifty acres or more, and then to
slaveowners and overseers. But in 1819, the South Carolina
legislature—spurred by two separate slave revolts shortly before—again made all
“free white males” aged eighteen to forty-five liable for patrol duty, without
compensation. Substitutes could be sent, for a fee, and discipline came in the
form of fines. After this revision, the structure and activities of the
patrols remained relatively unchanged until the Civil War.

Across the South

While the South Carolina patrols, in the estimation of Philip Reichel, were
“the oldest, most elaborate, and best documented,” other colonies followed
suit. Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi all had similar
arrangements, with variations. In Georgia, slave patrols were also responsible
for disciplining disorderly White people, especially vagrants. In
Tennessee, the law required slaveowners to provide patrols on the plantations
themselves, in addition to those that rode between plantations. In Kentucky,
after a series of revolts, some cities established round-the-clock patrols. And
in Mississippi, the first patrols were federal troops; these were gradually
replaced by the militia, and then by groups appointed by county boards.

Until 1660, Virginia relied more on indentured European servants than on
African slaves, though both groups sought to escape their bonds. Initially,
the colonists used the hue and cry to mobilize the community and recapture
runaways. In 1669, the colonial legislature began offering a reward (paid in
tobacco) to anyone who returned a runaway. And in 1680, as the slave population
grew, slaves were required to carry passes, as debtors and Native Americans
already had been. Slaves were singled out for special enforcement measures
beginning in 1691, when the legislature required sheriffs to raise posses for
their recapture. In 1727, this responsibility was transferred to the militia,
creating the colony’s first slave patrol. At first the militia only patrolled
as needed, but after a failed rebellion in 1730, it began regular patrols two
or three times each week. In 1754, county courts began paying patrollers and
requiring reports from their captains. After that point, Virginia’s patrols
remained essentially the same until the Civil War.

North Carolina’s system developed along similar lines, driven by the same
concerns. The colony required passes for slaves, debtors, and Native Americans
beginning in 1669. In 1753, patrols were instituted. Called “searchers,” the
patrols were initially responsible for searching the slaves’ homes, but
couldn’t stop them between plantations. This function reflected the motives
behind their creation: the lawmakers were more afraid of revolts than escapes.
In 1779, paid patrols were established, with expanded powers for searching the
homes of White people and stopping slaves whenever they were off the
plantation. With this they came to closely resemble the patrols already in
place elsewhere, and after 1802 they were placed under the auspices of the
county court, rather than the militia.

Whether supervised by the militia or the courts, whether chiefly concerned with
escapes or revolts, whether paid or conscripted, whether slave-owners or poor
White people, the rural patrols all engaged in roughly the same activities and
served the same function. “Throughout all of the [Southern] states during the
antebellum period,” Robert Wintersmith writes, “roving armed police patrols
scoured the countryside day and night, intimidating, terrorizing, and
brutalizing slaves into submission and meekness.” They patrolled together
in “beat companies,” on horseback and usually at night. Along the roads
they would stop any Black person they encountered, demand his pass, beat him if
he was without one, and return him to the plantation or hold him in the jail.
For this, they carried guns, whips, and binding ropes.

One patroller recalled that his company was instructed to “apprehend every
negro whom we found from his home; & if he made any resistance, or ran from us,
to fire on him immediately, unless he could be stopped by other means.” They
were also ordered to search “the negro cabins, & take every thing we found in
them, which bore a hostile aspect, such as powder, shot &c.”

The patrols would break up any unsupervised gathering of slaves, especially
meetings of religious groups the patrollers themselves disliked. Baptist and
Methodist services were specifically targeted. One former slave, Ida Henry,
recalled an assault against her mother:

De patrollers wouldn’t allow de slaves to hold night services, and one night
dey caught me mother out praying. Dey stripped her naked and tied her hands
together and wid a rope tied to de handcuffs and threw one end of de rope over
a limb and tied de other end to de pummel of a saddle on a horse. As me mother
weighed ’bout 200, dey pulled her up so dat her toes could barely touch de
ground and whipped her.

Patrollers couldn’t legally interfere with a slave carrying a pass, but they
would often harass Black people whom they felt to be traveling too far or too
often. Moses Grandy, a former slave, verified that the law did little to
restrain the patrollers:

If a negro has given offense to the patrol, even by so innocent a matter as
dressing tidily to go to a place of worship, he will be seized by one of them,
and another will tear up his pass; while one is flogging him, the others will
look another way; so when he or his master makes complaint of his having been
beaten without cause, and he points out the person who did it, the others will
swear they saw no one beat him.

Other abuses were also common. Black women faced sexual abuse at the hands of
patrollers, both when they were found on the road and during searches of their
homes. Patrollers sometimes kidnapped free Black people and sold them as
slaves. They also frequently threatened Black people with mutilation,
sometimes with a basis in law: between 1712 and 1740, South Carolina law
required escalating tortures for captured runaways, from slitting the nose to
severing one foot.

Masters sometimes complained about the abuses directed against the slaves, but
courts were generally reluctant to award damages or discipline the patrollers,
for fear of undermining the patrol system. The main restraint on the
actions of patrollers was the economic value of the slave’s life; slaves were
rarely killed, since the local government would then have to compensate the
owner. In general, however, the patrols were invested with vast authority
and wide discretion, as a North Carolina court explained in 1845:

[Patrols] partake of a judicial or quasi-judicial and executive character.
Judicial, so far as deciding upon each case of a slave taken up by them;
whether the law has been violated by him or not, and adjudging the punishment
to be inflicted. Is he off his master’s plantation without a proper permit or
pass? Of this the patrol must judge and decide. If punishment is to be
inflicted, they must adjudge, decide, as to the question: five stripes may in
some cases be sufficient, while others may demand the full penalty of the

To summarize, the state control of slave behavior advanced through three
stages. First, legislation was passed restricting the activities of slaves.
Second, this legislation was supplemented with requirements that every White
man enforce its demands. Third, over time this system of enforcement gradually
came to be regulated, either by the militia or by the courts. The transition
between these second and third steps was a slow one. Each colony tried to cope
with the unreliable nature of private enforcement, first by applying rewards
and penalties, and later by appointing particular individuals to take on the
duty. Volunteerism was eventually replaced with community-sanctioned authority
in the form of the slave patrols. Among the factors determining the rate of
this transition, and the eventual shape of the patrols, were the date of
settlement, the size of the slave population, the size of the White population,
threats of revolt, geography, and population density. As this fact
suggests, slave patrols developed differently in the cities than in the

City Guards

Slave control was no less a priority for White urbanites than for their country
kin. The growing numbers of Black people in cities were of obvious concern to
the White population, and their concentration in distinct neighborhoods
presented an unnerving reminder of the possibility of revolt.

In many respects, the cities followed the lead of the plantations. There, too,
Black people—slaves especially, but free Blacks as well—were singled out by the
law, and specialized enforcement mechanisms arose to ensure compliance.
According to Hadden, these agencies “went by a variety of names, including town
guard, city patrol, or night police, although their duties were the same: to
prevent slave gatherings and cut down on urban crime.” (For the sake of
simplicity, I refer to the general type as “City Guards.”)

In the initial stage, enforcement would be entrusted to private individuals and
the existing watch, but after some period the town might petition the
legislature for the funds to form a permanent patrol, with the same group on
duty each night. The urban patrols, then, did not evolve from the watch
system; rather, adapted from the rural slave patrols, they came to supplant the
watchmen. Charleston formed a City Guard in 1783. It wore uniforms, carried
muskets and swords, and maintained a substantial mounted division. Unlike the
watchmen, who walked their beats individually, the City Guard patrolled as a

Louis Tasistro, who traveled through Charleston in the 1840s, described the
patrol: “the city suddenly assumes the appearance of a great military garrison,
and all the principal streets become forthwith alive with patrolling parties of
twenties and thirties, headed by fife and drum, conveying the idea of a general
siege.” A few years later, in the early 1850s, J. Benwell, an English
visitor to Charleston, described the reaction of the Black population to the
mounting of the guard: “It was a stirring scene, when the drums beat at the
Guard house in the public square … to witness the negroes scouring the streets
in all directions, to get to their places of abode, many of them in great
trepidation, uttering ejaculations of terror as they ran.”

Throughout the first part of the nineteenth century, similar urban patrols were
created in Savannah, Mobile, and Richmond. The Savannah guard carried muskets
and wore uniforms as early as 1796. It was later equipped with horses and
pistols. Richmond’s Public Guard was formed in 1800, after the discovery
of a planned rebellion. It was assigned to protect public buildings from
insurrections, and was made responsible for punishing any slaves it found out
after curfew.

The urban patrols, and the laws they enforced, were modeled on the system
developed for the plantations. But cities with developing industries had
different needs than did the surrounding rural areas, with their plantation
economies. For one thing, the large numbers of Black people present in the city
often lived in one part of town, away from their masters, making it impossible
to maintain the sort of intimate knowledge of the slave’s comings and goings
essential to the plantation system. Furthermore, rigid restrictions on daily
travel were not even desirable, proving inconvenient for the budding
industries. As manufacturers sought cheap sources of labor, the practice of
“hiring out” slaves became increasingly common. Under this arrangement, slaves
paid the master a stipulated fee, and were then free to take other jobs at
wages. The regulations on travel, then, had to be more flexible for slaves to
do their work.

As the masters “capitalize[d] their slaves,” the bondsmen became,
literally, wage slaves. Given the White population’s preoccupation with
controlling Black people, the practice of hiring out slaves was quite
controversial. As late as 1858 it was denounced in a grand jury “Report of
Colored Population.” Spelling out the concerns of the White community, the
report states:

The evil lies in the breaking down of the relation between master and slave—the
removal of the slave from the master’s discipline and control and the
assumption of freedom and independence on the part of the slave, the idleness,
disorder and crime which are consequential, and the necessity thereby created
for additional police regulations to keep them in subjection and order, and the
trouble and expense they involve.

Industrialization in Southern cities thus not only created new demands for
social control, but threatened to alter the entire institution of slavery.

In short, economic changes related to industrialization and urban life relaxed
the master’s personal control over the slave but did not reduce the racist
obsession with slave control. Additional responsibilities thus fell to the

Between 1712 and 1822 South Carolina banned the practice of hiring out slaves,
but these laws went almost entirely unenforced, and other means of control
emerged. Beginning in 1804, Charleston established a nightly curfew for
the Black population—free and slave alike. A few years later a statewide
nine o’clock curfew was established. Free Black people were required to carry a
pass from their employers, and patrols beat those who didn’t have their “free
papers.” A stricter law was passed in Pendleton in 1835, instructing the
patrol to “apprehend and correct all slaves and free persons of color” on the
streets after nine at night, “whether such slave or free person of color have a
pass or not.”

In Charleston the law requiring passes gradually gave way to a system of badges
for slaves being hired out. This procedure allowed the state the opportunity to
regulate the practice, and entitled it to a share of the master’s fee (that is,
really, of the slave’s wages). Slowly, Charleston began to prefigure the
segregated South of the twentieth century: in 1848, the city limited the right
of Black people to use the public parks; in 1850, Black people were banned from

Meanwhile, throughout South Carolina, town after town asked the state
legislature to transfer control of the slave patrols from the county courts or
state militia to the local government. Camden won that power in 1818. Columbia
followed in 1823. Georgetown requested it in 1810, but was not allowed it
until 1829. Ten years later, the legislature granted all incorporated
South Carolina towns the power to regulate patrol duty.

Patrols in Perspective

The patrols’ work was not always popular. Soon after his appointment as the
head of the Georgetown Guards, Peter Cutting found his house burned to the
ground. Around the same time “A Citizen” wrote in to the Charleston paper:
“I think it is dangerous for a person to send out his slave even with a
.…” But the most common complaint was that the guards did not do
their jobs. Grand juries frequently cited them for “shameful neglect of patrol
duty,” a term covering absenteeism, drinking on the job, and patrolling in a
slipshod fashion.

Whatever the faults of these patrols, the White citizens of the American South
relied on them to alleviate their anxieties about slave rebellions. These
anxieties changed with the growth of the urban population, and the patrols
changed with them, eventually approaching the model of a modern police force.

Still, though they provided a transition between the militia and the police,
and despite their resemblance to other functionaries responsible for slave
control, the patrols represented a distinct mode of policing. While originally
bound up with the militia system, the patrols served in a specialized capacity
distinguishing them from the rest of the militia. Furthermore, the authority
over the patrols came more and more to shift from the militia to the courts,
and then to the city government, implying that patrolling was regarded as a
civil rather than military activity.

The patrols also, in certain respects, resembled the watch. The watch, even in
Northern cities, was issued specific instructions concerning the policing of
the Black population. Boston, for example, instituted a curfew for Black people
and Native Americans, beginning in 1703; in 1736 the watch was
specifically ordered to “take up all Negro and Molatto [sic] servants,
that shall be unseasonably Absent from their Masters [sic] Families,
without giving sufficient reason therefore.” But while the watch was told
to keep an eye on Black people along with numerous other potential sources for
trouble, the slave patrols (and later, the City Guards) were more specialized,
focusing almost exclusively on the Black population. In fact, it is this racist
specialization that—more than anything else—distinguished the slave patrols
from other police types and accelerated their rate of development. Hadden

The reliance upon race as a defining feature of this new colonial creation
reveals the singular difference that set slave patrols apart from their
European antecedents. Although slave patrols also supervised the activities of
free African Americans and suspicious whites who associated with slaves, the
main focus of their attention fell upon slaves. Bondsmen could easily be
distinguished by their race and thus became easy and immediate targets of
racial brutality. As a result, the new American innovation in law enforcement
during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the creation of
racially focused law enforcement groups in the American south.

With this specialization came expanded powers—to search the homes of Black
people, to mete out summary punishment, and to confiscate a broad range of
valuables without need to demonstrate further suspicion. Moreover, their
relationship to the militia meant that patrols generally carried firearms,
whereas the watch did not.

While the slave patrols did anticipate the creation of modern police, it must
still be remembered that they were not themselves modern police. Of the two
sets of criteria listed earlier, the slave patrols satisfy those of a police
endeavor: they were public, authorized (indeed, instructed) to use force, and
had general enforcement powers (if only over certain segments of the
population). They do not, however, seem very modern, by the second set of
criteria. They were certainly not the main law enforcement body, and they
usually only operated at night. Arrangements for pay and continuity of service
varied by location, but they were generally no more advanced than was typical
of the watch. The patrols did have citywide (and sometimes broader)
jurisdiction, and they were accountable to either the militias or the courts
(or later, to special committees). And perhaps more than any police force
before them, the patrols had a preventive orientation. Rather than respond to
slave revolts (as the militia had done), or take off after runaways (like the
professional slave catchers), the patrol aimed to prevent rebellions and
sometimes endeavored to keep the slaves from even leaving the plantation.

The slave patrol, which began as an offshoot of the militia, and came to
resemble modern police, thus provides a transitional model in the development
of policing. As the militia adapted to the needs of a rural, agrarian, slave
society, it evolved into a new form that surpassed the original. The slave
patrols, when confronted with the conditions of a proto-industrialized city
(where slavery itself was facing obsolescence) underwent a similar

Charleston: “Keeping Down the Niggers”

In 1671, South Carolina’s Grand Council created a watch for Charles Town,
consisting of the regular constables and a rotation of six citizens. They
guarded the city against fire, Indians, slave gatherings, and other signs of
trouble, and detained lawbreakers until the next day. The law creating the
watch was renewed in 1698, with an addendum citing the increase in the Black

And whereas, negroes frequently absent themselves from their masters or owners
[sic] houses, caballing, pilfering, stealing, and playing the rogue,
at unseasonable hours of the night Bee it therefore enacted, That any
Constable or his deputy, meeting with any negro or negros, belonging to Charles
Town, at such unseasonable times as aforesaid, and cannot give good and
satisfactory account of his business, the said constable or his deputy, is
required to keep the said negro or negros in safe custody till next

For this work, the constable was to receive a fee from the owner of the
detained slaves. In 1701, the exact language of this law was repeated, though
the fee was increased and the constable was further instructed to administer a
severe beating.

In 1703, as a wartime measure, the governor established a paid watch, and added
special duties related to sailors and bars. This experiment was short-lived,
however, and seventeen months after its creation it was replaced with a
volunteer patrol organized by the militia. This organization was
essentially the slave patrol. In 1721, it again merged with the militia. Its
function was broadened, giving patrollers authority over a large part of the
working class besides the slaves. The new law instructed patrollers to use their utmost endeavor to prevent all caballings amongst negroes, by
dispersing of them when drumming or playing, and to search all negro houses for
arms or other offensive weapons; and farther, are hereby empowered to examine
all White servants they shall meet with, out of their master’s business, and
the same (if they suspect to be runaway, or upon any ill design) to carry such
servant immediately to be whipped, or punished as he shall think fit, and then
send him home to his master; and also, if they meet with any idle, loose or
vagrant fellow that cannot give good account of his business, shall also be
hereby empowered to carry such vagrant fellow to a magistrate.

By 1734, this body was again removed from the militia, and was explicitly
referred to as a slave police. By this time the patrollers were all armed and
mounted, and were ordered to search the homes of all Black people, pursue and
capture escaped slaves, and kill any slave who used a weapon against them.
Until the end of the colonial period, the Parish of Saint Philip (which
includes Charleston) had two separate patrols—the two largest in the

By 1785, these patrols were incorporated into the Charleston Guard and Watch.
This body was responsible for arresting vagrants and other suspicious persons,
preventing felonies and disturbances, and warning of fires. But one guard
described his job succinctly as “keeping down the niggers.” Indeed, slave
control was the aspect of their work most emphasized by the public officials,
and given highest priority by the guard itself. As Selden Bacon put it: “With
very minor differences, their orders here were a summation of those given the
rural patrols in the preceding hundred years, with the major and natural
exception that they did not inspect plantations.”

The organization of the Charleston Guard and Watch represented a significant
advance in the development of policing. The force contained a developed
hierarchy and chain of command, consisting of a captain, a lieutenant, three
corporals, fifty-eight privates, and a drummer. Each was given a gun, bayonet,
rattle (for use as a signal), and uniform coat. Some acted as a standing guard;
the rest were divided into two patrols—one for St. Philip’s Parish, and the
other for St. Michael’s. The captain issued daily reports, and all the men
were paid. The same group patrolled every night, and discipline and morale
received a level of attention unique at the time.

By our earlier criteria, there can be no question that the Charleston Guard and
Watch were involved in policing. They were authorized to use force, had general
enforcement responsibilities, and were publicly controlled. They were also
exceptionally modern. The guard was the principal law enforcement agency in
Charleston, enjoyed a jurisdiction covering the entire city (and some of the
surrounding countryside), served a specialized police function, and had a
preventive orientation. It also established organizational continuity and paid
its personnel by salary. In fact, lacking only twenty-four-hour service, the
Charleston Guard and Watch may count as the first modern police department,
predating the London Metropolitan Police by more than thirty years.

Charleston, being subject to the pressures of maintaining a slave system in an
urban area with an industrializing economy, underwent an intense period of
innovation, just around the time of the American Revolution. Its efforts to
control the Black population put it in the lead in the development of modern
policing. But once policing mechanisms were in place, the authorities felt
little need to tamper with them. When change again appeared on the
agenda—following the discovery of a plan for insurrection in 1822—the
authorities instituted reforms that had been developed previously in other
cities. During the intervening years, Charleston’s advances were surpassed
by those of another Southern city, facing similar but distinct social

New Orleans: “Barbarism,” “Despotism,” and “A System of Violence”

Occupying a strategic position for both economic and military uses, the city of
New Orleans has changed hands numerous times. But, until the Civil War, each
subsequent regime agreed on one basic principle: the utter suppression of the
Black race. In succession, the French, Spanish, and American governments
enacted very nearly the same set of laws for this purpose, controlling the
social, economic, and political life of the Black community and regulating the
work, travel, education, and living arrangements of Black people in the city.
Louis XIV instituted a “Code Noir” in 1685, which Sieur de Bienville, the
founder of the French colony of Louisiana, copied; the Spanish retained it as
their own while they controlled the city; and the Americans re-enacted it as
the “Black Code.”

In 1804, as the Black population nearly equaled that of the White, New
Orleans sought out special mechanisms for enforcing these laws. At the time,
two separate night patrols were in effect—a militia guard to protect against
outside attack, and a watch, called the “seranos,” whose primary duty was
lighting the street lamps. But in 1804 the militia organized a mounted patrol
specifically to enforce the Black Codes. This unit only survived a few
months, however. After repeated conflicts between the English-speaking militia
guard and the French-speaking army, the patrol was disbanded in 1805, replaced
with the Gendarmerie.

The Gendarmerie, while nominally a military unit, functioned more as a slave
patrol than anything else. The law establishing it made this purpose clear:

They will make rounds in suspected places where slaves can congregate,
particularly on Sundays. They will break up these assemblies, foresee and
prevent uproars and gambling, and declare confiscated all moneys found for
their own profit.… The officers accompanied by all or part of their troop, and
equipped with orders from the mayor, shall search negro huts on plantations,
but only after looking for and then notifying the overseer or owner of their
actions, as well as inviting them to be present at the search. And all
fire-arms, lances, swords, etc. that shall be found in the said cabins will be
confiscated and deposited in the City arsenal.

The Gendarmerie also arrested slaves traveling without passes and maintained a
reserve of officers for daytime emergencies.

While drawn from the military, this group was directed by the mayor,
magistrates, and other civil officials, and was paid through a combination of
salaries, fees, and rewards. Half mounted, half on foot, and all wearing blue
uniforms, the same men patrolled every night. In many respects, then, the
New Orleans patrol closely resembled the Charleston Guard of the same period,
but it survived only briefly. In February 1806 the city council abolished the
Gendarmerie, citing the cost of horses and the poor quality of the men.
That same year, the council created a City Guard, modeled after and performing
the same functions as the Gendarmerie, though less militaristic in demeanor and
lacking the horses. Aside from two years when there was no patrol, this
body survived until 1836.

In the 1830s the City Guard came under attack in the newspapers, courtrooms,
and among politicians. In 1834, the Louisiana Advertiser accused them
of “barbarism” and “despotism.” It urged the city council to dispense with the sword and pistol, the musket and bayonet, in our civil
administration of republican laws, and adopt or create a system more
congenial to our feelings, to the opinions and interests of a free and
prosperous people, and more in accordance with the spirit of the age we live

That same year a committee of the city council decried the Guard’s violent
treatment of suspects, saying that “the moment they lay hands on a prisoner
they at once commence a system of violence towards him.” It was the
violence of the authorities, the committee argued, that caused the forceful
resistance of both prisoners and passers-by acting from “just

In 1830, the death of the first person killed by a New Orleans cop prompted
much of this criticism, but an underlying xenophobia was at work, and the
native-born population openly expressed distaste for the immigrant-dominated
Guard. Another important demographic shift may help explain this backlash:
during the 1830s and 1840s the White population increased by 180 percent, while
the Black population increased at a much slower rate (41 percent). Hence,
with White people in the overwhelming majority, fears of a slave revolt were
less present, while ethnic tensions among White groups were increasingly
pronounced. In short, both the initial militarization, and eventual
de-militarization of New Orleans’ police were the product of the ethnic fears
of the city’s ruling class.

In 1836, the city council did away with the military model of policing. In its
place they put a system of twenty-four-hour patrolling along distinct beats.
The blue uniforms were replaced with numbered leather caps like those worn by
watchmen in other cities. A Committee of Vigilance was elected to supervise
them. This revision brought New Orleans into line with the watch system as it
existed in Northern cities, and represented a substantial break from the
Charleston model. Still, the new organization retained the most modern
features of the City Guard, and added to them twenty-four-hour service. Hence,
in 1836, the New Orleans city government approved the adoption of a public
body, accountable to a central authority, authorized to use force, and assigned
general law enforcement duties. This body would be the main agency of law
enforcement, with citywide jurisdiction, organizational continuity, a
specialized policing function, and twenty-four-hour operations. And, as its
inheritance from the slave patrol, it would be oriented toward the prevention
of various disorders. In short, it would have all the major features of a
modern police department. As luck would have it, however, this
organization never materialized.

As the city government was busy redesigning the police services, the state
government was redesigning the entire municipal administration. In March 1836,
the Louisiana state legislature divided New Orleans along the borders of its
ethnic neighborhoods, creating three distinct municipalities and preventing the
just-settled police reforms from taking effect. Motivated by ethnic and
economic rivalries, the plan maintained a common mayor and Grand Council, but
divided the administration of services—including the police. The city stayed so
divided until 1852.

Each department adopted a new, non-military approach, and retained some
features of the old City Guard—namely, its public character, its authority to
use force, its general law-enforcement duties, twenty-four-hour patrols, the
goal of organizational continuity, its specialized police function, and its
preventive orientation. However, none of the three could be counted as the
chief law enforcement agency in the city because none had citywide
jurisdiction. Furthermore, while in theory each police force was accountable to
the General Council, in practice they were solely controlled by the district
government and little effort was made to coordinate among them.

The General Council met only once each year, leaving the practical management
of the city’s affairs to municipal councils. This arrangement actually
exacerbated the ethnic tensions that led to the city’s division in the first
place, and neighborhood rivalries now found official expression in the
structure of government. In effect, the two sets of changes—fragmentation
of the city government and re-structuring of the police—laid the groundwork for
the development of neighborhood-based and ethnocentric political machines, with
the police taking a central role. Even after formal consolidation in 1852,
the police functioned as separate, district-based organizations, controlled
more by local political bosses than the general city government.

The machines’ influence was palpable. For example, when the American Party (the
“Know-Nothings”) gained control of the city in March 1855, they immediately
removed all immigrants from the police force, reducing it from 450 to 265
members. After that, the police stood aside while Know-Nothings prevented
immigrants from voting, and sometimes aided in the effort. Opposition parties
likewise fought for control of the polls. In the election of June 1858, a
Vigilance Committee seized the state arsenal and police headquarters, with the
stated purpose of ensuring a fair election. Similar actions were taken in
1888 by the Young Men’s Democratic Club, who—armed with rifles—surrounded the
polls to prevent Know-Nothings and police from interfering with Democratic
party voters.

Corruption didn’t end at the polls. Less politically driven misconduct was also
common. Naturally, vice laws created opportunities for corruption at all
levels, and throughout the nineteenth century scandals were common. In 1854, a
new chief, William James, began a vigorous campaign to enforce the laws against
gambling, liquor, and other vice crimes. As his reward, the Board of Police
fired him and eliminated his office.

Meanwhile, though state law forbade carrying concealed weapons and made no
exception for police, many cops did begin carrying guns, especially revolvers,
illicitly. This practice was condoned and sometimes advocated by supervisors,
and eventually gained the mayor’s approval as well. Predictably, a lack of
training led to numerous accidents, often with police casualties.

Brutality and violence were also common, and during the 1850s several New
Orleans cops were tried for murder. Most of these cases involved personal
disputes, and the victims were frequently cops themselves. “Less severe
episodes of violence were legion,” Dennis Rousey notes:

In a sample of cases covering a twenty-one-month period during 1854–1856, the
Board of Police adjudicated forty-three cases of assault, assault and battery,
or brutality by policemen, dismissing thirteen of the accused from the force
and penalizing nine others with fines or loss of rank.

Of course it is still worth noting that, of the 672 cases adjudicated by the
Board of Police during this same period, the majority of them—59.2
percent—dealt with the dereliction of duty. Abuses of authority came at a
distant second, comprising 17.4 percent of the cases.

Ironically, both sorts of complaints may have resulted from the same features
of the job. Lack of discipline was certainly a factor of each. But the
complaints may also reflect public disagreement about what it was the police
were supposed to be doing. Respectable middle-class Protestants and temperance
crusaders were eager to have the cops enforce laws regulating gambling,
prostitution, drinking, and other vice and public order offenses. The
lower-class and immigrant communities were on the whole more tolerant of
disorder and thus apt to feel that the police were intruding where they weren’t
wanted or needed. The poor complained that they were treated unfairly or with
unnecessary force; the respectable classes felt that the police weren’t doing
their jobs so long as such vice persisted. This dispute directly reflects the
struggle for control over the municipal government, and in a different sense,
the debate about the nature of democracy—neither of which was resolved in the
nineteenth century.

New Orleans, in a sense, made the transition from Southern plantation politics
to Northern machine politics, with the police occupying a central role in the
process. Indeed, this transition was in many respects aided by the simultaneous
shift from a distinctly Southern model of policing (based on the slave patrol)
to a Northern style (resembling the watch). This shift was significant,
but not absolute; as a result, New Orleans foreshadowed many of the qualities
of the modern police—qualities that finally crystallized in New York.

New York: “Almost Every Conceivable Crime”

In New York, as in New Orleans, the move toward modern policing was closely
tied to the reconstitution of city government. In 1830 the state legislature
divided the city’s common council into a board of aldermen and a board of
assistant aldermen, each elected annually by ward. Distinct executive
departments were formed, and the mayor was assigned the responsibility to see
that the laws were enforced. A year later, the council gave him some of the
authority he needed to meet that demand, putting him at the head of the

In the spring of 1843, Mayor Richard H. Morris proposed another round of
reforms designed to reorganize the city government and consolidate the police.
The state legislature authorized the city to create and manage a single,
centralized police department—specifically a “Day and Night Police” consisting
of 800 officers. Under this plan, each ward would have its own patrol, and the
officers had to live in the wards where they worked. The councilors would
nominate officers from their ward, and the mayor would appoint them. This plan
was finally accepted in May 1845.

The new police ranked as extremely modern by the criteria listed earlier: a
single organization was entrusted with the exclusive responsibility for law
enforcement, served a specialized police function, patrolled twenty-four hours
a day, and employed salaried personnel. In fact, New York City is often
credited with having the first modern department in the United States. As we’ve
seen, its claim to this title is debatable. The Day and Night Police marked a
step forward in a nationwide progression, drawing from and solidifying ideas
already in circulation elsewhere. But if New York’s police did not invent the
model, they set the standard for the rest of the country. At the same time,
they also set a new standard for political interference.

The mayor’s power to appoint officers of all ranks made it clear that the new
police force would be politically driven. An officer’s job came as a reward for
his political loyalty, and to keep the job he needed to support the officials
who appointed him. Even if the politicians themselves did not demand such
support, it was nevertheless built into the system. Since any incoming
councilman would be likely to replace the present police with those of his own
choosing, the cops understood that to keep their jobs they had to keep their
patrons in power. Thus the police came to represent not only a means of
securing political support through patronage, but also of ensuring influence
through more direct means. In 1894, the Lexow Commission concluded that in a very large number of the election districts in the city of New York,
almost every conceivable crime against the elective franchise was either
committed or permitted by the police, invariably in the interest of the
dominant Democratic organization of the city of New York, commonly called
Tammany Hall.

The Committee’s report goes on to document police involvement in the Arrest and brutal treatment of Republican voters, watchers, and workers; open
violations of the election laws; canvassing for Tammany Hall candidates;
invasion of election booths; forcing of Tammany Hall pasters upon Republican
voters; general intimidation of the voters by the police directly and by
Tammany Hall election district captains in the presence and with the
concurrence of the police; colonization of voters; illegal registration and
repeating, aided and knowingly permitted by the police; denial of Republican
voters and election district officers of their legal rights and privileges …
and on and on.

Political corruption was not new to the city, and law enforcement had always
had a role in it. But the political use of the Day and Night Police extended
the established pattern and reached a new level of malfeasance. The watch had
previously been used as a source of patronage, as political parties filled its
ranks with their supporters. But the watch offered only a hint of the
political uses to which the police could be put; a more developed example was
provided by the marshals. Marshals, who operated more or less like constables,
were created in the early nineteenth century to enforce laws that had
previously been left to the attention of civilian informants. While the
watch was a resource for rewarding supporters with jobs, the marshals were
becoming an active force in local politics—a force that Tammany Hall would
harness and direct for its own ends. Placed under the mayor’s command, the
marshals provided one means of controlling the city council. As James
Richardson writes:

There were only one hundred marshals, but this force could exert great
influence upon the primary meetings at which candidates for the general
election were chosen. The marshals often had enough political influence in the
wards to block the nomination of a candidate for alderman or assistant
alderman, and sometimes they had sufficient power to ensure the nomination of
their favorites.

The new Day and Night Police replaced the watch and the marshals, concentrating
police power (and its political potential) in a single agency.
Predictably, the police expanded their political role in new directions,
becoming a tool for ambitious politicians to increase their influence. The
career of Fernando Wood gives some idea of the uses to which police could be

Wood, a Democrat, ran for mayor on a reform platform and was elected in 1854.
He began his term by launching an ambitious campaign against vice crimes, but
quickly turned the effort to his own advantage. Saloons, gambling houses, and
brothels were shut down—unless their owners supported the mayor’s political
machine. While declaring, “I know no party and recognize no political
obligation,” Wood disciplined police along strictly partisan lines and was
willing to impose all sorts of political obligations on the officers under his
command. Police were required to make financial contributions to the mayor’s
re-election campaign, and many were ordered to canvass for him as well.
Those on duty ignored irregularities in polling, and two officers—Petty and
Hanley—inspected all the ballots in the first ward, beating anyone who voted
against the mayor. When Wood was reelected, the Tribune estimated the
police had been worth 10,000 votes.

But while the Democrats retained the mayoralty and controlled both boards of
the council, the Republicans held the governor’s mansion and the state
assembly, sharing the senate with the Know-Nothings. In 1857 the state
legislature passed the Metropolitan Police Bill, creating a new police force
with jurisdiction over Kings, Westchester, Richmond, and New York counties, and
dissolving the existing municipal police. A five-member board was established
to oversee the new department, and no Democrats were appointed to it.
Harper’s Weekly noted: “Of this change the practical effect will be to
transfer the patronage of our city police to Albany.”

Wood refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Metropolitan Police Law and
ordered the police to obey only his authority. Eight hundred officers and
fifteen captains sided with Wood, and about half as many joined the
Metropolitans. For two months the city had two competing police forces,
resulting in occasional street fights and brawls in the station houses. The
conflict reached its peak when fifty Metropolitans tried to arrest Wood; 500
municipal police came to his defense, attacking the Metropolitans with their
clubs and forcing a retreat. Finally, in July, after an appeals court ruled in
favor of the Metropolitans, Wood dissolved the municipal police.

The Metropolitan Police Department lasted until 1870, when another series of
power struggles led to its reorganization. In the 1869 election the Democrats
won control of the mayor’s office, the governorship, and the majority of the
legislature. William M. Tweed proposed a new city charter and invested $600,000
in its passage. Under the new charter, the mayor appointed the police board,
and the police controlled the board of elections, they selected all inspectors
and clerks, guarded the polls, and supervised the counting of the ballots.

In this, too, New York set the standard for the rest of the country. Political
machines arose throughout the East, and in a more subdued fashion, in the West
as well. In every case, the police department served as the strong arm of the
machine—regardless of which party held power, or whether the department
answered to the city or state government.

The police, as we know them, came into maturity at about the same time as the
urban political machine. And while the machine’s growth depended crucially on
the police, their relationship was not that of equals. The cops were the tools
of the machine. As tools they were used, as tools they were refined, and as
very important tools they were fought over. Neither the political machines nor
any part of them invented the police for this purpose, but they were well
adapted to it, and—without submitting to teleological reasoning—we should
consider the implications of this fact for policing, and for political

3: The Genesis of a Policed Society

In the context of nineteenth-century municipal government, New York’s Tammany
Hall was exceptional only in the level of its success. Similar machines
emerged in nearly every American city. Powerful neighborhood bosses arose and
affiliated, gaining control through a system of patronage and protection,
keeping it through increased application of the same means, and administering
civil affairs along lines that were not merely partisan, but personalistic as
well. Favoritism became the central principle of local government.

Under the machines, the resources of the government were the spoils of victory,
belonging less to the public than to the reigning faction. Thus, quite removed
from the ideal of deliberative democracy, elections were neither contests of
principle nor gauges of the public will, but battles between rival
cliques—battles fought as often in the streets as at the polls. And these
battles determined the distribution of jobs, services, and graft. Elections
decided who made the law, who supplied public services, and who controlled the
city treasury. And more importantly, they decided whose friends would fill
public jobs, which neighborhoods would receive attention or suffer neglect,
which illicit businesses would continue operation, and whose palm would be
greased in the process.

Political Machines: The Gang and the Government

The gang and the government are no different.

—Jane’s Addiction

Corruption was the foundation and the defining characteristic of the political
machine. Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson offer a formal definition: “A
political ‘machine’ is a party organization that depends crucially upon
inducements that are both specific and material.” Put more simply, “Machine
government is, essentially, a system of organized bribery.” But perhaps even
that puts too pleasant a face on it, for machines did not use only bribery to
get what they wanted; they used whatever means were available to them,
including threats, fraud, blackmail, and actual violence. Machines were
concerned about power and resources, not principles—and certainly not
democracy. Principles were espoused, of course, as justification for their
actions, to differentiate one party from another, and to gain and maintain the
allegiance of a constituency committed to such values. But it was typical of
machine politics that principles were always secondary to the demands of power.

The privileging of power over principle meant that every aspect of the
government’s activity was directed toward maintaining the ruling clique’s
control. By the same token, every resource at the city’s disposal was available
as a reward for the machine’s supporters. The police served in both capacities.
Hiring, discipline, transfers, and promotions were all governed by the
convenience of the machine organization. Hence, whenever control of the city
government changed hands, turnover in the police department was sure to follow.
Without regard for the qualifications of the individual officer, each party
dispensed with the supporters of the other and replaced them with their own.
Very nearly full turnover of police personnel followed the Los Angeles election
of 1889, the Kansas City election of 1895, and the Chicago and Baltimore
elections of 1897.

In the 1907 Louisville election, when a Republican was unexpectedly elected
mayor, every captain was reduced to a patrolman, and Republicans (many lacking
in police experience) were appointed in their place. When the Democrats won in
the following election, the process was reversed. Again in 1917, the
Republicans gained control and fired 300 from a department of 429. Everyone
above the rank of sergeant was replaced.

In New York, positions were so sought after that appointments relied on
political sponsorship or outright bribery, or sometimes both. Hence, from the
first moment, the importance of political influence and bribes was made clear
to new recruits. A patrolman’s position typically sold for $300 and required
the approval of the district leader. Higher positions cost more. In 1893,
Timothy Creeden paid a commissioner $15,000 to be promoted from sergeant to
captain. As a captain’s salary was only $3,000 each year, it is obvious that he
would need to rely on graft just to pay for his job.

Even when civil service tests were instituted in the 1880s, conditions remained
largely the same. Politicians circumvented civil service requirements by
appointing partisan boards, administering the exams in essay style, or
requiring the civil service commission to provide three qualified candidates
for every open position and allowing police officials to choose among them.
Experiments with state-level police boards proved equally unhelpful. The
creation of state boards, a partisan maneuver by design, only transferred the
control of patronage from one group to another—as indeed it was intended to do.
Likewise, bipartisan boards, rather than eliminating political spoils, merely
divided them between the two strongest parties, to mutual advantage.

Nor did political interference end once an officer was hired. Police with
powerful friends proved nearly impossible to discipline, no matter how corrupt,
brutal, or negligent they might be. Even such routine matters as going on
patrol and wearing uniforms were difficult to enforce.

Since each officer’s career was politically controlled from beginning to end,
the police became ardent supporters of their patrons. Police support was
central to the survival of the machines: for much of the nineteenth century New
York’s Board of Elections was under the supervision of the police board. The
commissioners chose the polling places, drew up the voting districts, had the
ballots and voter registration lists printed, and appointed the polling
inspectors and clerks. The police department itself verified the registration
lists, guarded the polls, and counted the votes. Mayor William R. Grace
described this system as “a standing menace to the safety and purity of the
ballot box, and tend[ing] to render the police of the city its masters rather
than its servants.” Tammany police commissioner John Sheehan once bluntly
stated that control of the police was more important than how the votes were

This power tended to magnify the significance of the administrative branch, and
especially bolstered the influence of the mayor. The career of Boston’s
Josiah Quincy anticipated the trend. Beginning in 1823, Quincy was elected
mayor six times. In 1829, he was dubbed “The Great Mayor,” a title which
probably reflected the extent of his power more than the quality of his
performance. During his term, Quincy chaired every important committee,
allowing him to build an efficient administration and, as importantly,
consolidate power under his personal leadership. At the same time, Quincy
maintained his influence in the wards with the assistance of the nascent police
apparatus. Central to this effort was the creation of a new office—marshal of
the city—which, lacking precedent and statutory limits, could be made to fit
whatever demands the mayor placed on it. The marshal served as head constable,
commanded the night watch, acted as the city’s chief health officer, prosecuted
minor cases—and took on additional responsibilities after the creation of a day
police in 1838.

The marshal’s power reached its peak during the term of Francis Tukey, who took
office in 1846. Within the first year of Tukey’s command the number of officers
on the force was doubled, a detective division added, and a special night force
created. But there were limits to how far this power would be allowed to
develop. In 1851, the police voted as a bloc for Benjamin Seaver in the mayoral
election, acting under the assumption that he would bar Irish immigrants from
joining the force. Seaver won, but did not ban Irish police. Apparently the
night police had crossed a line when they marched to the polls en
. Seaver responded by firing all the night duty officers, dissolving
that branch of the force, and leaving its patrols entirely in the hands of the
barely existent night watch. Over the course of the next year, power was
systematically moved away from the marshal and toward the mayor and the
aldermen. In April 1852, the aldermen limited the marshal’s tenure to one year.
Two months later, they replaced the position with that of chief of police.
While Tukey was not fired outright, neither was he named the new chief. The
Boston Semi-Weekly Atlas drew a comparison: “The Great Caesar fell for
his ambition.” The lesson was clear: the police were a tool for the
political machine; they would not be allowed to develop as a political force in
their own right.

This balance could be difficult to maintain, though, since police were so
central to the functioning of the machines. The police served the interests of
political machines in three key ways: police jobs served as rewards for
supporters; police controlled the elections; and police regulated illicit
businesses, deciding which would be allowed to operate and under what
conditions. As historian Robert Fogelson tells it,

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the police did not suppress vice; they
licensed it. From New York’s Tenderloin to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and
from Chicago’s Levee to New Orleans’ French Quarter, they permitted gamblers,
prostitutes, and saloon keepers to do business under certain well-understood
conditions. These entrepreneurs were required to make regular payoffs, which
ranged, according to the enterprise and the community from a few dollars to a
few hundred dollars per month, and to stay inside the lower- and
lower-middle-class neighborhoods.…

In this way vice laws, and liquor laws especially, proved a useful tool for
political machines to enhance their power. Protection money provided a source
of funding, and selective enforcement allowed political bosses to discipline
their supporters and put their competitors out of business.

In New York, precinct captains used detectives to collect protection money.
In other places, the landlord would collect it as a part of the rent, then pass
it on to the police. He would say to the proprietor of the saloon or brothel:
“You can have this house for two hundred dollars, with police protection, or
one hundred dollars if you take care of yourself.”

Police detectives, like the thieftakers before them, were more interested in
retrieving stolen property and collecting rewards than in catching crooks. Of
course, the easiest way to get hold of stolen goods was to work with the
thieves. In exchange for immunity and a portion of the reward, thieves would
supply detectives with their loot. The detectives would return the stolen items
to the rightful owners—minus whatever sum they claimed as a reward. Many
professional criminals would not work outside of such a framework, and these
deals could be quite profitable for the cops. Between January 1, 1855, and
April 30, 1857, Robert Bowyer of the New York Police Department earned $4,700
in rewards—more than twice his salary for the same period.

Sometimes, no effort would be made to retrieve the stolen property, or to
return it to the victim. Pickpockets and con artists were generally allowed to
go about their business unmolested so long as they cut the cops in on the
action. The profits then worked their way up the political food chain. The
Patrolmen were required to give a portion of their take to their commanders,
the local politicians, and their affiliates, thus avoiding any punishment.

Shakedowns weren’t restricted to illicit enterprises, either. Legitimate
businesses could also be inconvenienced by strict enforcement of the law and
were vulnerable to the disruption caused by routine harassment. Builders,
bootblacks, produce merchants, and other peddlers had to pay off the beat cop,
or else they might be taken in for blocking the sidewalks.

The system of bribery and extortion that was nineteenth-century policing far
surpassed anything that could be termed individual misconduct, or even
organizational deviance; it resembled nothing so much as institutionalized
corruption, state-sponsored crime. Graft and the abuse of power were not merely
allowed, they were expected, required, and enforced—within the police
department and throughout the city administration. The political machine may
best be understood as an exercise in government of, by, and for corruption.

This fusion of government and criminality follows a certain kind of logic. In
“War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” Charles Tilly argues:

Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making all belong on the
same continuum.… [C]onsider the definition of a racketeer as someone who
creates a threat and then charges for its reduction. Governments’ provision of
protection, by this standard, often qualifies as racketeering. To the extent
that the threats against which a given government protects its citizens are
imaginary or are the consequences of its own activities, the government has
organized a protection racket.

The history of American cities gives concrete expression to Tilly’s theoretical
claim. In the classic political machines, government agencies and organized
criminal enterprises were not only moral equivalents, they often comprised
the same people. Nineteenth-century policing did not just resemble
racketeering, it was unmistakable gangsterism.

The police were a central component of this system. Both the protection schemes
that ensured the cooperation of the underworld and the brawling gangs that
controlled the polls on election day relied on—at the very least—the
acquiescence of the police. In many respects the development of the political
machines depended upon the simultaneous development of the modern police. At
the same time, the modernization of policing made possible important advances
in municipal government. In particular, the police provided the means by which
the power of local government could be consolidated into a single coherent
system. In this respect, the rise of political machines resembled the earlier
rise of the state itself. A brief comparison of these processes may tell us
something about the engineering of power and the uses of policing in
establishing its claims.

Machine Politics, State Power, and Monopolies of Violence

In general terms, we can discern a common principle underlying the creation of
local political machines and that of national states. As Tilly explains: “A
tendency to monopolize the means of violence makes a government’s claim to
provide protection, in either the comforting or ominous sense of the word, more
credible and more difficult to resist.” He identifies four activities
characteristic of states:

(1) making war (defeating external rivals);

(2) making states (destroying internal rivals);

(3) protection (defending clients from their enemies); and,

(4) extraction (acquiring the resources to do the other three).

Cities have not, since the colonial period, usually been forced to contend with
external rivals, and thus have not been concerned with making war. But the
other three tasks find clear analogies in the processes of municipal
government, especially during the machine period. And at both the national and
the municipal levels “all [these activities] depend on the state’s tendency to
monopolize the concentrated means of coercion.”

Philadelphia’s history illustrates some more specific parallels. In the first
half of the nineteenth century, urban growth had spread beyond the city’s
jurisdiction, practically uniting it with nearby townships over which it had no
authority. The urban area was divided between several municipalities, and these
were themselves divided geographically into neighborhoods, politically into
wards, and socially along religious and ethnic lines—with a strong correlation
between these sets of divisions. It was nearly impossible to keep order.
Catholics and Protestants fought in the streets, White mobs attacked Black
people and abolitionist speakers, and the city government could do practically
nothing, even within the limited area of its authority. The localized,
ward-based system of city politics inhibited the government’s ability to
enforce its will within the neighborhoods. Yet, in the course of a few years,
Philadelphia was transformed from a fragmented megalopolis with only a nominal
central authority to a modern city with a unified government, a citywide
political machine, and a police system to enforce the will of each.

Much of the disorder in nineteenth-century Philadelphia was perpetrated by the
city’s volunteer fire departments. Neighborhood-based fire companies adopted
the ethnic and religious identities of their members, and often saw themselves
as the champions of their neighborhood’s traditional culture and honor.
Firefighting became a source of neighborhood pride, and offered an opportunity
to settle scores against rival groups. Demographic shifts and overlapping
jurisdictions led to frequent turf wars; firemen would often fight one another
while a blaze continued unabated. When opportunities for battle did not present
themselves, they were sometimes created: fire companies would set fires in
other precincts and then ambush their rivals.

These brawls became neighborhood affairs, involving large sections of the
community. Many of the fire companies affiliated with youth gangs, some with
names like “Killers,” “Rats,” and “Bouncers.” As the police at the time
were also organized into separate ward organizations, they were ill-suited for
suppressing such riots. Not that they were eager to: the cops generally felt
little inclination to interfere with these battles, except in support of their
neighborhood company.

This situation put conflicting pressures on the political system. On the one
hand, it created demands for more centralization, such as government-run fire
departments and a single police force capable of suppressing disorder. On the
other hand, ward leaders saw the political potential of the fire companies and
were quick to avail themselves of this additional source of election-day
muscle. The balkanized state of the city therefore left local political
bosses in a bit of a bind. Their personal fiefdoms were inextricably tied to
the ward-based structure of government; it allowed them a distinct realm of
influence and a base of support for pursuing their agenda in the citywide
political arena. But the exercise of this authority relied on a certain minimum
degree of public order—which this same ward structure, with its rivalries and
fragmentation, constantly threatened.

The outcome of this dilemma is revealing. In 1850, a “marshal’s” police force
was created for the entire city of Philadelphia. Police in the suburbs and the
four city districts continued to act independently, but were also called on to
cooperate with the marshal’s force. The first marshal, John Keyser, recruited
the new police directly from the youth gangs associated with Nativist fire
departments, reasoning that he could form a “strong-armed force prepared to
slug it out with fire gangs.” By co-opting the most militant element of the
fire companies and consolidating them into a single, citywide force, the
marshal’s police organization afforded the new cops the opportunity to defeat
their traditional rivals and greatly enhanced the power of the city
government—as well as, for a time, that of the Nativist party machine.

Catholic gangs and fire companies, while overpowered, were not especially
impressed with their rivals’ new authority. One gang, the Bleeders, told in a
song of being attacked by “a band of ruffians … they called themselves Police.”
And when the Nativists lost control of the city government, Keyser’s
replacement—a Democrat—filled the force with Democrats, also recruited from
fire company gangs.

In 1854, the legislature revised the city’s charter to cover the entire
contiguous urban area, incorporating outlying districts into the city. The
new charter required a centralized police department and allowed for a
city-controlled fire department as well. The mayor was given the power to
appoint police officers and set the department’s rules, and the city council
was responsible for determining the size and organization of the force. The
council created an 820-man department, divided between fourteen precincts
corresponding to the ward districts. One alderman was elected to serve as
magistrate in each district, and a single marshal was appointed to oversee the
entire operation. In effect, this arrangement put the new police directly
in the service of the reigning political machine.

But the consolidation of power may not have been everything the ward leaders
had hoped for. In many respects, the beginnings of a central authority relied
on a corresponding decline in local power. The survival of the central power
structure demanded the eventual elimination of its potential rivals. So long as
local political bosses could command their own sources of power, the central
government as a whole was necessarily vulnerable. Again we find a parallel with
the creation of the nation-state:

In one way or another, [Tilly writes,] every European government before the
French Revolution relied on indirect rule via local magnates. The magnates
collaborated with the government without becoming officials in any strong sense
of the term, had some access to government-backed force, and exercised wide
discretion within their own territories.… Yet the same magnates were potential
rivals, possible allies of a rebellious people.

Eventually, European governments reduced their reliance on indirect rule by
means of two expensive but effective strategies: (a) extending their
officialdom to the local community and (b) encouraging the creation of police
forces that were subordinate to the government rather than to individual
patrons, distinct from war-making forces, and therefore less useful as the
tools of dissident magnates.

So, too, in Philadelphia: so long as the central government was dependent upon
the cooperation of the ward bosses, the government’s influence was quite
limited and no one faction could be assured of permanent dominance. Faced with
difficulties resembling those of the early European states, Philadelphia’s
local government followed a similar course.

[In England,] Tudor demilitarization of the great lords entailed four
complementary campaigns: eliminating their personal bands of armed retainers,
razing their fortresses, taming their habitual resort to violence for the
settlement of disputes, and discouraging the cooperation of their dependents
and tenants.

In Philadelphia, all four aims were accomplished with one masterstroke: the
creation of a citywide police force allowed the limited consolidation of the
city government. The ward-based militants were either co-opted into the police
or defeated by them. While no fortresses existed to be pulled down, the ward
leaders were made increasingly vulnerable politically; their position came to
depend as much on their status within the machine, citywide, as on their
influence in their own ward. Inter-ward battles were either avoided by the new
system or forcibly resolved by the new police. And the cooperation and loyalty
of ward residents, once owed to their local boss, became attached to the new
citywide machine.

Philadelphia did not become a nation-state, of course, or even a city-state.
But the authority of the city government was produced by very similar means,
and in this process the creation of modern policing played a central role. The
new police were not simply one aspect of a modernizing city government; they
also represented a means of consolidating power within the modernizing
government. But as the city consolidated power, it embarked on the first of a
series of adaptations that would strengthen the government itself at the
expense of the local leaders, eventually leading to the decline of the machine

Centralization, even in meager form, not only changed the distribution of
power, but also tended to transform the institutions that shared power. The
modernization of the police allowed for a major advance in the organization and
efficiency of the political machine, and with it the power of the municipal
government. With a single police force in place, power could be, if not quite
centralized, at least somewhat solidified. This step proved a major boon to the
reigning machine, and provided one means for the machine to exert influence in
wards where popular support was weak. As it did, however, it began the process
by which control was shifted both upward and toward the center.

Inadvertently, the creation of a citywide police force both drew up the
blueprint and laid the groundwork for the creation of other municipal
bureaucracies, and for the eventual destruction of the ward-based machine
system. While somewhat ironic, this turn of events represents a
continuation of the trends that had shaped the development of law enforcement
as it approached the modern period—specifically, the growing emphasis on
prevention, the tendency to expand police duties, and the move toward
specialized agencies. Each of these three factors contributed to the process of
modernization, but the ideal of prevention occupied a special place as a
guiding principle of police development.

The Preventive Ideal, Generalized Powers, and Specialization

The idea of preventing crime has long been the avowed aim of policing, but it
has undergone significant revision over time. In the London Night Watch Acts of
1737 and 1738, crime prevention was explicitly cited as the goal of the watch,
though it is unclear how the body was supposed to contribute to this aim.
The instructions offered the Philadelphia Watch in 1791 were only slightly more

[T]he said constable and watchmen, in their respective turns and courses of
watching, shall use their best endeavors to prevent murders, burglaries,
robberies and other outrages and disorders within the city, and to that end
shall, and they are hereby empowered and required to arrest and apprehend all
persons whom they shall find disturbing the peace, or shall have cause to
suspect of any unlawful and evil design.

By 1800, the preventive rationale had been refined. The watch’s role was to
ensure that criminals would be punished. To this end, in 1794, the St.
Marylebone Watch Committee resolved unanimously “that in case any Robbery be
committed within the Parish, the Watchmen in whose Walk the same shall happen
be absolutely discharged.” Several other London districts adopted a similar
standard, though eventually the limits of the system had to be admitted. A few
months later, St. Marylebone’s committee relented, acknowledging that “many
Robberies are committed within this Parish without the possible knowledge of
the Watchmen.”

Watchmen were thought to deter crime by their mere presence and they could
detain people they suspected of criminal acts, but the watch was not a
detective force and had no means for discovering the culprits after a crime was
committed. The odds, then, were against apprehension. While the idea behind
the watch was preventive, the watch’s methods were essentially reactive, and
even their reactive capabilities were quite limited.

When Robert Peel created the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, the prevention
of crime was singled out as the new body’s chief concern:

It should be understood, at the outset, that the principal object to be
attained is ‘the Prevention of Crime.’

To this great end every effort of the Police is to be directed. The security of
person and property, the preservation of the public tranquility, and all the
other objects of a Police Establishment, will thus be better effected than by
the detection and punishment of the offender, after he has succeeded in
committing the crime.

Nevertheless, the Metropolitans remained unsure of how to prevent
crime. In the decades that followed, they essentially replicated the patrols of
the watch, with even less success.

In the United States, historian James Richardson tells us, “the term
‘preventive police’ was used frequently and loosely. Preventive seemed to mean
that by their presence the police would inhibit the commission of crime and
that they would deal with potentially serious crimes before they reached the
crisis stage.” This crude notion of prevention developed into a more
serious and ambitious program as time passed, and came to inform the expansion
of police powers. In Boston, for example, in 1850 the police were authorized to
order any group of three or more people to “move on” or suffer arrest.

Of course, most of what the police did was still responsive, and most actual
crime-fighting still took place after the crimes had been committed. But the
preventive ideal was clearly gaining an articulation, and slowly techniques
were developed to bring the practice closer to the principle.

The preventive ideal both prompted the expansion of police power and helped
shape the specialized focus on crime. It is worth noting the tension between
these two trends: if police powers expand over too large a range of duties,
policing loses its character. The police come to resemble generalized
inspectors, and enforcement of the criminal law becomes a secondary matter.
But, if enforcement is overly specialized, the police are in effect replaced by
a series of guards, traffic wardens, thieftakers, bounty hunters, and whatnot.

Constables, sheriffs, and marshals, as servants of the court or sovereign, were
assigned general responsibilities. The slave patrols developed from the other
end of the spectrum, beginning with a few select duties and accumulating
responsibilities and power over time. This second path was the more
straightforward route toward modernization because, rather than serving
primarily as officers to the Crown or the court, the slave patrols existed
solely as a means of preserving the status quo through the enforcement of the
slave codes. As soon as they separated from the militia, they became law
enforcement bodies, and new duties were added accordingly.

The tension between specialization and generalization did not vanish with the
creation of the modern police. The police retained many duties that were quite
remote from their alleged purpose of preventing crime and enforcing the
criminal law. Robert Fogelson explains:

In the absence of other specialized public bureaucracies, the authorities found
the temptation almost irresistible to transform the police departments into
catchall health, welfare, and law enforcement agencies. Hence the police
cleaned streets and inspected boilers in New York, distributed supplies to the
poor in Baltimore, accommodated the homeless in Philadelphia, investigated
vegetable markets in St. Louis, operated emergency ambulances in Boston, and
attempted to curb crime in all these cities.

In fact, even today, the police continue to hold duties quite removed from the
enforcement of the law and the prevention of crime. In many cities cops still
direct traffic, license parades, escort funerals, remove panhandlers, quiet
loud parties, find lost children, advise urban planners, make presentations to
civic groups and school children, sponsor youth sports leagues, respond to
mental health crises, and perform other tasks quite apart from any concern
about crime.

As Fogelson implies, this tendency developed in part because the police offered
a means for the local government to impose its will, regulate the behavior of
the citizens, and generally keep an eye on things with unprecedented efficiency
and regularity. It thus became a constant temptation to use this power in new
and expanding ways, often to the detriment of the specialized law enforcement

Further specialization then relied on the development of additional
bureaucracies to take on these extraneous duties. As historian Roger Lane

The police were valued especially for the flexibility which made them adaptable
to new demands. But when better machinery was developed the government did not
hesitate to transfer their responsibilities. The creation of the sewer, health,
street, and building departments all diminished the role of the police in local

Policing is thus tied to a more general trend in government
administration—namely, the rise of bureaucracies. The development of modern
police both depended on and promoted the creation of other municipal
bureaucracies. In the first place, the creation of other bureaucracies allowed
the police to specialize. Second, the consolidation of police forces
facilitated a more general move toward bureaucratization by providing a model
for these same bureaucracies to adopt. For both of these reasons, the
modernization of the police was a key component in the modernization of city
government. But the impact of the new police was not restricted to its
effect on municipal administration. Policing was also closely connected to the
economic conditions attending widespread industrialization, and the consequent
expansion of the cities themselves.

Urbanization and Industrialization

When the modern police first appeared, East Coast cities were experiencing a
wave of expansion, fueled by industrialization. It is no accident that
industrial society produced new means of social control, since it also created
new risks for disorder. Put simply, in an increasingly complex society, there
was more that could go wrong. While the sheer numbers and diversity of the
population contributed to this complexity, specialization (especially in the
production and distribution of goods) and increased social stratification were
probably more important. These factors acted together to depress or reduce the
standard of living for the greatest portion of the cities’ residents, creating
conflict between economic classes and increasing friction between ethnic and
religious groups. Seldon Bacon suggests:

These three factors of social change, the rise in specialization, the
stratification of classes, and the lowering of standards and consequent
limitation of activities brought about by increasing numbers, all created
problems in the maintenance of a harmonious and secure society; the techniques
of enforcement present in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were unable to
meet these problems. The family, the local church, the neighborhood, and the
existing governmental agencies could not cope with the situation. In fact,
there is a good deal of evidence to show that the changes were weakening all
these institutions, especially as they helped bring about the mobility and
individualism so characteristic of American society.

Cyril D. Robinson and Richard Scaglion argue along similar lines, placing the
advent of modern policing in the context of the emerging capitalist system.
They present four interdependent propositions:

(1) the origin of a specialized police function depends upon the division of
society into dominant and subordinate classes with antagonistic interests;

(2) specialized police agencies are generally characteristic only of societies
politically organized as states;

(3) in a period of transition, the crucial factor in delineating the modern
specialized police function is an ongoing attempt at conversion of the social
control (policing) mechanism from an integral part of the community structure
to an agent of an emerging dominant class; and

(4) the police institution is created by the emerging dominant class as an
instrument for the preservation of its control over restricted access to basic
resources, over the political apparatus governing this access, and over the
labor force necessary to provide the surplus upon which the dominant class

There is much to recommend this as a general scheme, though it seems to
exaggerate the role of elite foresight and planning at the expense of
after-the-fact opportunism. It does more to characterize the result than the
process, assuming that the outcome corresponds with some original intention.
Robinson and Scaglion’s account offers a useful outline of the preconditions
necessary for the creation of the modern police, but the long and complex
process of transition from pre-modern to modern policing suggests a more
complicated picture than their theory would indicate, especially in regard to
the relationship between economic elites and the state. While it is certainly
true that the ruling class came to use the police as an instrument for the
expansion and preservation of their power, it seems like a stretch to say that
they created the institution for that end.

As we have seen, the first significant advances toward modern police appeared
in the South, where elite attitudes about the state were characteristically
ambivalent. The maintenance of slave laws originally relied upon informal,
universal enforcement requirements reminiscent of the frankpledge: every White
member of the community had the responsibility to uphold the law. The Southern
system of slave control underwent a full transition from this informal policing
system, through various stages of specialization, to its apex in the creation
of the quite modern Charleston police force. Clearly this transformation
relied on social stratification, the existence of a political state, and the
use of the policing function to maintain the racial and economic status quo
(that is, to protect the interests of the slave-owners). However, while police
powers were intentionally divorced from the community and invested in a
specialized group, this change was not—as Robinson and Scaglion’s model might
imply—instigated at the behest of the slave-owners, but to some degree
accomplished over their objections and despite their resistance. It was instead
political elites who created slave patrols as a guard against the
(political) threat of revolt more than against the (economic) dangers of
escape. While the state functioned in the interests of the ruling
class, it was not yet an agent of the ruling class—but a competing
nexus of power, and a challenge to the aristocratic pretensions of the slave

In cities, industrialization and its accompanying entourage of social changes
led to the breakdown of the informal means of social control that had proved
(mostly) sufficient to that point. Cities thus produced advances in social
control that the plantation system hadn’t needed and likely would have
eschewed. In Southern cities like Charleston, the City Guards picked up where
the patrols had fallen short, in the control of slaves (and free Black people)
on hire. In Northern cities, industrialization produced similar needs to
control the workforce. Rather than rely on personal authority and social
deference (as on the plantation), or on the influence of the family and church
(as in smaller New England towns), industrial cities of the North created
governmental systems that were universalistic and routinized.

Faced with similar challenges relating to urbanization, industrialization, and
the rise of capitalism, elites in different cities responded in markedly
similar ways—sometimes consciously borrowing from each other and sometimes
unwittingly reproducing models and techniques that were in use elsewhere,
keeping what succeeded and discarding that which failed to suit their purposes.
And as this process advanced, they transformed the mechanisms of law
enforcement and created a new, distinctive institution.

The New York Municipal Police came to define the type. But it would be wrong to
think of the New York police as simply a modern watch, or as a Northern slave
patrol, or as a set of American Bobbies—though it was somewhat analogous to
all three. In New York, as elsewhere, the police appeared when broad social
trends intersected with local crises and the particular needs of the city. Of
course, the authorities only responded to the crises on a rather shallow level,
never acknowledging the underlying causes that produced them. Instead, local
elites preferred to blame the problems of urbanization on the moral
shortcomings of the poor, and the idea of the “dangerous classes” was born.

In the years preceding the rise of police departments in London and in the
United States, [Richard Lundman notes,] middle-class and elite members of
society attributed crime, riot, and public drunkenness to the members of the
“dangerous classes.” The image was that of a convulsively and possibly
biologically criminal, riotous, and intemperate group of persons located at the
base of society. Their actions were seen as destroying the very fabric of

The particular population identified with the dangerous classes varied by
locale. In England, the dangerous classes consisted of the urban poor,
vagrants, and prostitutes in particular. In the northern United States, it was
the immigrant lower class; in Boston, the term was especially applied to Irish
Catholics. The term was not used much in the South, but the dangerous
classes found an analogy in the Black population, and especially the slaves. In
addition to their association with crime and disorder, the dangerous classes
also represented an alien presence, a group with different values whose
behavior was therefore suspicious as if by definition. The Boston Council

In former times the Night Watch with a small constabulary force, were quite
sufficient to keep the peace in a city proverbial for its love of order and
attachment to the laws and remarkable for the homogenous character of its
population. But the rapid development of the system of railroads and of the
means of communication, with all parts of Europe, together with other causes
have brought among us great numbers who have not had the benefit of a New
England training and who have heretofore been held in restraint rather by fear
of the lawgiver than respect for the law.

Moreover, criminal behavior was understood as a threat to the social order, not
merely to its real or potential victims. Theft obviously challenged the
sanctity of private property, but more to the point, drunkenness and vagrancy
seemed to threaten the standards of diligence and self-control central to
Protestant morality and crucial to an economic system dependent on regularity,
predictability, and a disciplined workforce.

Crime and criminality were thus constructed to reflect the ideological needs of
elites. Criminality was less a matter of what people did than of what
they represented. The idea of the dangerous classes was intimately
tied to the prevailing economic order in each place, and had profound
implications for the systems of social control they adopted. As Michael Hindus

Slavery was not primarily a penal institution, though that was one of its
results. In addition to its role in the southern labor and social system, the
plantation kept under confinement and control the one class that was most
threatening to the social order. Similarly, the prison was not primarily a
labor system, but it mandated labor for rehabilitation, profit, and internal
order. The prison adopted many features of the factory system and justified
forced labor of convicts because of the moral uplift it provided.

Both systems supplied large-scale, unpaid labor for the propertied classes,
deprived the workers of their most basic civil liberties and political rights,
and relied on corporal punishment and shaming for discipline. Furthermore,
in both cases the economic systems created the class of people they
were then at such pains to control—the slaves in the plantation system, and the
immigrant working class in industrialized cities.

While elite anxieties about the dangerous classes supplied the impetus for new
forms of social control, other concerns also helped to shape the emerging
institutions. The modern police system, unlike less formal means of control,
actually required very little of ordinary citizens in the way of enforcement,
and exposed the respectable classes to almost no personal danger. And, though
supplying an organized force under control of the government, it avoided the
unseemly image of a military occupation, since police (in the North, at least)
patrolled alone or in pairs, and were sparingly armed. Furthermore, an
impersonal system was to be preferred over either a military model or a more
informal arrangement because—ironically—it was less obviously a tool of the
ruling classes.

To the degree that industrialization and urbanization created changes related
to the diversity of the urban population, economic specialization, and social
stratification, they certainly produced new challenges of social control. But
the question remains, what did those difficulties have to do with
crime? Put differently, it might be asked: Were the dangerous classes
criminal? Or were they criminalized?

The Demand for Order

It is generally assumed that the police were created to deal with rising levels
of crime caused by urbanization and the increasing numbers of immigrants. John
Schneider describes the typical accounts:

The first studies were legal and administrative in their focus, confined mostly
to narrative descriptions of the step-by-step demise of the old constabulary
and the steady, but often controversial evolution of the professionals.
Scholars seemed preoccupied with the politics of police reform. Its causes, on
the other hand, were considered only in cursory fashion, more often assumed
than proved. Cities, it would seem, moved inevitably toward modern policing as
a consequence of soaring levels of crime and disorder in an era of phenomenal
growth and profound social change.

I will refer to this as the “crime and disorder” theory.

Despite its initial plausibility, the idea that the police were invented in
response to an epidemic of crime is, to be blunt, exactly wrong. Furthermore,
it is not much of an explanation. It assumes that “when crime reaches a certain
level, the ‘natural’ social response is to create a uniformed police force.”
But, as Eric Monkkonen notes, that “is not an explanation but an assertion of a
natural law for which there is little evidence.”

It may be that slave revolts, riots, and other instances of collective violence
precipitated the creation of modern police, but we should remember that neither
crime nor disorder were unique to nineteenth-century cities, and therefore
cannot on their own account for a change such as the rise of a new institution.
Riotous mobs controlled much of London during the summer of 1780, but the
Metropolitan Police did not appear until 1829. Public drunkenness was a serious
problem in Boston as early as 1775, but a modern police force was not created
there until 1838. So the crime-and-disorder theory fails to explain why
earlier crime waves didn’t produce modern police. It also fails to explain why
crime in the nineteenth century led to policing, and not to some other

Furthermore, it is not at all clear that crime was on the rise. In Boston, for
example, crime went down between 1820 and 1830, and continued to
drop for the rest of the nineteenth century. In fact, crime was such a
minor concern that it was not even mentioned in the marshal’s report of
1824. The city suffered only a single murder between 1822 and 1834.

Whatever the real crime rate, after the introduction of modern policing the
number of arrests increased. The majority of these arrests were
for misdemeanors, and most were related to victimless crimes or crimes against
the public order. They did not generally involve violence or the loss of
property, but instead concerned public drunkenness, vagrancy, loitering,
disorderly conduct, or being a “suspicious person.” In other words, the
greatest portion of the actual business of law enforcement did not concern the
protection of life and property, but the controlling of poor people, their
habits, and their manners. The suppression of such disorderly conduct was
only made possible by the introduction of the modern police. For the first
time, more arrests were made on the initiative of the officer than in response
to specific complaints. Though the charges were generally minor, the
implications were not: the change from privately initiated to police-initiated
prosecutions greatly shifted the balance of power between the citizenry and the

A critic of this view might suggest that the rise in public order arrests
reflected an increase in public order offenses, rather than a shift in official
priorities. Unfortunately, there is no way to verify this claim. (The increase
in arrests does not provide very good evidence, since it is precisely this
increase the hypothesis seeks to explain.) However, if the tolerance for
disorder was in decline, this fact, coupled with the existence of the new
police, would be sufficient to explain the increase in arrests of this

The Cleveland police offered a limited test of this hypothesis. In December
1907, they adopted a “Golden Rule” policy. Rather than arrest drunks and other
public order offenders, the police walked them home or issued a warning. In the
year before the policy was established, Cleveland police made 30,418 arrests,
only 938 of which were for felonies. In the year after the Golden Rule was
instituted, the police made 10,095 arrests, 1,000 of which were for
felonies. Other cities implemented similar policies—in some cases, reducing
the number of arrests by 75 percent.

Cleveland’s example demonstrates that official tolerance can reduce arrest
rates. This fact suggests an explanation for the sudden rise in misdemeanor
arrests during the previous century: if official tolerance can reduce arrest
rates, it makes sense that official intolerance could increase the number of
arrests. In other words, during the nineteenth century crime was down, but the
demand for order was up—at least among those people who could influence the
administration of the law.

New York City’s campaign against prostitution certainly followed this pattern.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the official view on
prostitution transformed from one of complacency to one of moral panic.
Beginning in the 1830s, when reform societies took an interest in the issue, it
was widely claimed that prostitution was approaching epidemic proportions.
Probably the number of prostitutes did increase: the watch estimated that there
were 600 prostitutes working in 1806, and 1,200 in 1818. In 1856, Police Chief
George Matsell set the figure at 5,000. But given that the population of the
city increased by more than six times between 1820 and 1860, the official
estimates actually showed a decrease in the number of prostitutes relative to
the population.

Enforcement activities, however, increased markedly during the same period. In
1860, ninety people were committed to the First District Prison for keeping a
“disorderly house.” This figure was five times that of 1849, when seventeen
people were imprisoned for the offense. Likewise, prison sentences for
vagrancy rose from 3,173 for the entire period covering 1820–1830, to 3,552 in
1850 and 6,552 in 1860. As prostitutes were generally cited for vagrancy (since
prostitution itself was not a statutory offense), the proportion of female
“vagrants” steadily rose: women comprised 62 percent of those imprisoned for
vagrancy in 1850 and 72 percent in 1860.

This analysis does not solve the problem, but merely relocates it. If it was
not crime but the standards of order that were rising, what caused the higher
standards of public order? For one thing, the relative absence of serious crime
may have facilitated the rise in social standards and the demand for order.
Lane observes:

A fall in the real crime rate allows officially accepted standards of conduct
to rise; as standards rise, the penal machinery is extended and refined; the
result is that an increase in the total number of cases brought in accompanies
a decrease in their relative severity.

Once established, the police themselves may have helped to raise expectations.
In New York, Chief Matsell actively promoted the panic over public disorder, in
part to quiet criticism of the new police. More subtly, the very existence
of the police may have suggested the possibility of urban peace and made it
seem feasible that most laws would be enforced—not indirectly by the citizenry,
but directly by the state. And the new emphasis on public order
corresponded with the morality of the dominant Protestant class and the demands
of the new industrialized economy, ensuring elite support for policing.

This intersection of class bias and rigid moralism was particularly clear
concerning, and had special implications for, the status of women. In many
ways, the sudden furor over prostitution was typical. As the social mores of
the Protestant ruling class came to define legal notions of “public order” and
“vice,” the role of women was re-defined and increasingly restricted. As
Stephanie Coontz remarks, “Fond paternalistic indulgence of women who conformed
to domestic ideals was intimately connected with extreme condemnation of those
who were outside the bonds of patronage and dependence on which the relations
of men and women were based.” As a result, women were held to higher standards
and subject to harsher treatment when they stepped outside the bounds of their
role. Women were arrested less frequently than men, but were more likely to be
jailed and served longer sentences than men convicted of the same crimes.
Enforcement practices surrounding the demand for order thus weighed doubly on
working-class women, who faced gender-based as well as class-based restrictions
on their public behavior.

At the same time, the increased demand for order came to shape not only the
enforcement of the law, but the law itself. In the early nineteenth century,
Boston’s laws only prohibited habitual drunkenness, but in 1835 public
drunkenness was also banned. Alcohol-related arrests increased from a few
hundred each year to several thousand. In 1878, police powers were extended
even further, as they were authorized to arrest people for loitering or using
profanity. In Philadelphia, “after the new police law took effect,” as
historian Allen Steinberg has documented, “the doctrine of arrest on suspicion
was tacitly extended to the arrest and surveillance of people in advance of a

Police scrutiny of the dangerous classes was at least partly an outgrowth of
the preventive orientation of the new police. Built into the idea that the cops
could prevent crime is the notion that they can predict criminal behavior. This
preventive focus shifted their attention from actual to potential crimes, and
then from the crime to the criminal, and finally to the potential criminal.
Profiling became an inherent element of modern policing.

So, contrary to the crime-and-disorder explanation, the new police system was
not created in response to escalating crime rates, but developed as a means of
social control by which an emerging dominant class could impose their values on
the larger population.

This shift can only be understood against a backdrop of much broader social
changes. Industrialization and urbanization produced a new class of workers
and, with it, new challenges for social control; they also produced
opportunities for social control at a level previously unknown. The police
represented one aspect of this growing apparatus, as did the prison, and
sometime later, the public school. Furthermore, the police, by forming a major
source of power for emerging city governments (and for those who would control
them), also contributed to the development of other bureaucracies and increased
the possibilities for rational administration. The reasons for these
developments have been made fairly clear, but the means by which the police
idea evolved and spread deserves further explication.

Imitation, Experimentation, Evolution

Studies of police history that focus on the experience of a particular city
often inadvertently imply that the police in New York, for example, (or
Philadelphia, or Boston) developed independently based on the unique needs and
specific circumstances of that city. This perspective obscures a very
important aspect of police development, namely the degree to which city
administrators consciously watched the innovations of other cities, drawing
from them as suited their needs. This system of communication and imitation
explains the sudden appearance of very similar police organizations in cities
all across the country, in a relatively short period of time. For though it
took a very long time for the characteristics of modern policing to develop,
once they crystallized into a coherent form, the idea spread very quickly.

Of course, the practice of borrowing police models from elsewhere was not
itself new. American cities borrowed their earliest law enforcement mechanisms
from European cities, especially London and Paris. Georgia modeled its
slave patrols on those already established in South Carolina, which were
themselves copied from similar systems in Barbados; later it became common for
towns to copy the patrolling techniques of others nearby. Thus it is not
especially surprising that New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and
Washington, D.C., all took inspiration from the Metropolitan Police of

But, the English influence on American policing should not be overstated.
Imitation occurred, but it was not total. Instead, Richardson argues,
“America’s borrowing from England was selective. The general form of innovation
came from England, although Americans modified and transformed English patterns
to fit their particular culture.” Hence, the two countries prescribed very
different relationships between the officers and the communities they
patrolled. In England, the Bobbies were recruited from the countryside and from
the lower ranks of the army. They were housed in barracks, denied the vote,
and made accountable to Parliament rather than to the local authorities. In the
United States, the police were expected to be a part of the communities they
served. They were to act not only as police, but as citizens and neighbors as
well. A more telling difference lay in the extent—and nature—of local
political influence in policing. In America, Richardson writes, “Political
parties contested vigorously to control police patronage and power, which …
precluded American departments from following exactly their supposed model, the
London Metropolitan Police.”

American cities also looked to each other for ideas. When Boston resolved “to
imitate, as far as may be, the system of London,” it also mentioned the reforms
of New York and Philadelphia, and noted that Baltimore, Brooklyn, and other
cities were moving in the same direction. And in 1843, the legislative
committee investigating better means of policing riots in Philadelphia spent
two months collecting ideas from other cities.

While less well documented, innovations originating in particular districts, or
in the countryside, came to be incorporated into the practices of city police.
This certainly occurred in Charleston, where the police had a direct lineage
from the rural slave patrols. A similar process took place in London, where the
use of full-time officers, the system of beat patrols, the focus on crime
prevention, and even a bureaucratic structure were all developed in the
parishes under the watch system, and then consolidated in 1829.

If the practice of imitation shows how cities came to create police departments
that closely resembled one another’s, the process of experimentation helps to
explain why they settled on the particular model they did. Because each city
adjusted its organization in a number of ways, either in response to local
pressures or based on innovations of its own, variations emerged that could
then be tested by experience. Those judged to be successful were retained, and
those that failed were abandoned. A kind of natural selection took place. Only
the ideas deemed successful in one city survived to be reproduced elsewhere. In
principle, this process could result in a diversity of policing mechanisms, and
at times has done so (witness the contrast between the seventeenth-century
plantation system and that of New York during the same period). But as cities
faced similar pressures related to population growth, industrialization,
increased stratification, and the like, they came to adopt shared measures of
success. As a result, older models, which had survived in some places for a
very long time, were suddenly outmoded and replaced.

When social changes caused the traditional means of control to fail, variations
of enforcement were adopted. Generally these were aimed at particular
populations (slaves, the poor, immigrants) or trouble spots (ghettos,
plantations, saloons, etc.). Specialists in enforcement arose, and then unified
into general enforcement bodies. The move from informal systems of racial
dominance to slave patrol, to police, may be understood as following this
pattern. In New York, policing developed along similar lines: the watch was
expanded, the constable’s duties extended, the marshal’s office created, and
eventually a modern police force replaced them all.

The new agencies drew heavily from their predecessors in matters related to
organizational structure, methods, and purpose. By incorporating the best of
the recent innovations, the new types out-competed the disparate organizations
they first imitated and then replaced. But it would be wrong to think of such
changes as only ever representing real progress. In fact the nature of
experimentation practically guaranteed otherwise. Innumerable innovations were
introduced, only to be abandoned a short time later. Reforms were implemented,
and quickly reversed.

It would be tedious to trace out every dead branch on this family tree, but to
only consider the successes would run the risk of distorting the picture of
development, presenting a circuitous route as a straight-away for the sake of
preserving the neatness of our map. To make the point briefly, I will borrow
Bacon’s taxonomy of the abandoned types:

Some of the variations in enforcement brought about by the failure of the
primary groups, particularly the failure of the family, to maintain order and
security may be noted: the use of religious officers, such as the tythingman
and warden; the use of the military; the attempt to secure order by having
legislators and justices act as police; the trial of policing by posse, by
citizen watch, by citizen informer; the practice of employing special men paid
by fee; the experiments with private police and substitutes … for the most
part, these all failed.

Experimentation moved cities from one type of law enforcement to the next, but
we should not exaggerate the empiricist nature of the process. Far from
following a carefully controlled program and employing the scientific method,
progress occurred on an improvisational basis in response to short-term
political considerations. Many adaptations were accepted, or abandoned, not on
their practical merits but for strictly partisan reasons.

Americans have rarely if ever agreed on the proper scope and function of the
police and … [Richardson notes] such conflicts have molded police performance
in a variety of ways. Most police administrators have responded to whichever
group was making the most noise at the moment rather than following a
consistent and thought-out line of policy.

These political conflicts helped to shape the institution, just as the practice
of imitation and the process of constant revision did. But behind it all is the
simple fact that institutions, like organism species, must adapt to their
environment or die. Policing, as an institution, did a great deal better than
just survive. As it adapted to the social conditions of the early- and
mid-nineteenth century, it became not only the product, but also the producer
of social change.

The Policed Society

As policing changed, it grew in importance, and in turn changed the society
that had created it. The development of modern police facilitated further
industrialization, it consolidated the influence of political machines, it led
to the creation of new bureaucracies and advances in municipal government, and
it made possible the imposition of Protestant moral values on the urban
population. Also, and more basically, it allowed the state to impose on the
lives of individuals in an unprecedented manner.

Sovereignty—and even states—are older than the police. “European kingdoms in
the Middle Ages became ‘law states’ before they became ‘police states,’” David
Bayley writes, meaning that they made laws and adjudicated claims before they
established an independent mechanism for enforcing them. Organized police
forces only emerged when traditional, informal, or community-maintained means
of social control broke down. This breakdown was in each case prompted by a
larger social change, often a change that some part of the community resisted
with violence, such as the creation of a national state, colonization, or the
enslavement of a subject people. It is at the point where authority is met
with resistance that the organized application of force becomes necessary.
Each development detailed here has conformed to this general pattern—the
creation of the offices of the sheriff and the constable, the establishment of
the watch, the deployment of slave patrols, the transition to City Guards, and
finally the rise of the modern police.

The aims and means of social control always approximately reflect the anxieties
of elites. In times of crisis or pronounced social change, as the concerns of
elites shift, the mechanisms of social control are adapted accordingly. In the
South, the institution of the slave patrol developed in stages following real
or rumored insurrections. Later, complex factors conspired to produce the
modern police force. Industrialization changed the system of social
stratification and added a new threat, or set of threats, subsumed under the
title of the “dangerous classes.” Moreover, while serious crime was on the
decline, the demand for order was on the rise owing to the needs of the new
economic regime and the Protestant morality that supported it. In response to
these conditions, American cities created a distinctive brand of police. They
borrowed heavily from the English model already in place, but also took ideas
from the existing night watch, the office of the constable, the militia, and
the slave patrols.

At the same time, the drift toward modern policing fit nicely with the larger
movement toward modern municipal government—best understood in terms of the
emerging political machines, and later tied to the rise of bureaucracies. The
extensive interrelation between these various factors—industrialization,
increasing demands for order, fear of the dangerous classes, pre-existing
models of policing, and the development of citywide political machines—makes it
obvious that no single item can be identified as the sole cause for the move
toward policing. History is not propelled by a single engine, though historical
accounts often are. Scholars have generally relied on one or one set of these
factors in crafting their explanations, with most emphasizing those surrounding
the sudden and rapid expansion of the urban population, especially immigrant

Urbanization certainly had a role, but not the role it is usually assumed to
have had. Rather than producing widespread criminality, cities actually
produced civility; as the population rose, the rate of serious crimes
dropped. The crisis of the time was not one of law, but of
order—specifically the order required by the new industrial economy and the
Protestant moralism that supplied, in large part, its ideological expression.

The police provided a mechanism by which the power of the state, and eventually
that of the emerging ruling class, could be brought to bear on the lives and
habits of individual members of society. Lane reflects:

The new organization of police made it possible for the first time in
generations to attempt a wide enforcement of the criminal code, especially the
vice laws. But while the earlier lack of execution was largely the result of
weakness, it had served a useful function also, as part of the system of
compromise which made the law tolerable.

In other words, the much-decried inefficiency and inadequacy of the night watch
in fact corresponded with the practical limitations on the power of the
state. With these limits removed or overcome, the state at once cast
itself in a more active role. Public safety was no longer in the hands of
amateur watchmen, but had been transferred to a full-time professional body,
directed by and accountable to the city authorities. The enforcement of the law
no longer relied on the complaints of aggrieved citizens, but on the initiative
of officers whose mission was to prevent offenses. Hence, crimes
without victims need not be ignored, and potential offenders needn’t be given
the opportunity to act. In both instances the new police were doing what would
have been nearly inconceivable just a few years before.

It was in this way that the United States became what Allan Silver calls “a
policed society.”

A policed society is unique in that central power exercises potentially violent
supervision over the population by bureaucratic means widely diffused
throughout civil society in small and discretionary operations that are capable
of rapid concentration.

The police organization allowed the state to establish a constant presence in a
wide geographic area and exercise routinized control by the use of patrols and
other surveillance. Through the same organization, the state retained the
ability to concentrate its power in the event of a riot or other emergency,
without having to resort to the use of troops or the maintenance of a military
presence. Silver argues that the significance of this advance “lay not only in
its narrow application to crime and violence. In a broader sense, it
represented the penetration and continual presence of central political
authority throughout daily life.” The populace as a whole, even if not
every individual person, was to be put under constant surveillance.

The police represent the point of contact between the coercive apparatus of the
state and the lives of its citizens. Put this way, the characteristics of
modern policing may come to sound more ominous—the specialized function, the
concentration of power in a centralized organization, the constant application
of that power over the entire city, the separation of the police from the
community, and a preventive aim. While in some ways a more rational application
of traditional means, the organizations that developed in this direction were
fundamentally different from the ones they replaced. With the birth of modern
policing, the state acquired a new means of controlling the citizenry—one based
on its experiences, not only with crime and domestic disorder, but with
colonialism and slavery as well. If policing was not in its inception a
totalitarian enterprise, the modern development of the institution has at least
been a major step in that direction.

4: Cops and Klan, Hand in Hand

And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are
present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests,
and they have no other function.

—James Baldwin

In the later nineteenth century, as political machines, industrialization, and
the modern police reshaped urban society, politics in the South faced
additional complexities in the aftermath of the Civil War. There, many of the
trappings of machine politics were present—corruption, abuses of power,
favoritism, and street brawls—but with a difference. The status of the newly
freed Black population became the political question. The Republican
Party, dominant following the war, developed a constituency among Black voters
eager to assert themselves, and relied on the occupying Union army to suppress
opposition. The Democratic Party aligned itself with disenfranchised
Confederate veterans, deposed planters, former slave-owners, and the other
reactionary remnants of the status quo ante, including many poor White
people ideologically attached to the old order. The coercive force of the
Democratic Party was embodied in secret terrorist societies and vigilante
groups including the Black Cavalry, the Men of Justice, the Young Mens’
Democratic Clubs, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the Ku Klux Klan.
As the Klan gained a prominence in 1868, it concentrated on discouraging Black
voters, intimidating Republican candidates, and defeating proposed radical
constitutions. But the Klan’s defense of White supremacy quickly expanded
beyond such narrow political goals.

Reconstruction and Redemption: Who Won the War?

During Reconstruction, vigilante actions and policing were often
indistinguishable. The Klan—which saw itself as a force for order, especially
against Black criminality—took up night-riding, at times in regular patrols.
Its members stopped Black people on the roads, searched their homes, seized
weapons and valuables, interrogated them about their voting plans, and often
brutalized them. In many places, the Klan totally regulated the social lives
of the Black population, breaking up worship services, opposing the creation of
Black schools (often with success), and establishing and enforcing a system of
passes for Black workers.

In less routine actions, White mobs sometimes attacked individual Black people,
Black political assemblies, and White Republicans. These attacks often involved
the police as participants, or even leaders. For example, in April 1866, after
a crowd of African American Union Army veterans prevented the Memphis police
from arresting two of their comrades, the cops led White mobs through the
streets attacking Black people at random. Mounted squads headed by police rode
through Black neighborhoods, beating anyone they found on the streets and
setting fire to schools, churches, and homes. The attack lasted four days,
until martial law was declared. Forty-six Black and two White people died;
ninety-one houses, twelve schools, and four churches were burned.

That July in New Orleans, the police led a military-style attack against a
majority-Black convention of Union loyalists. On July 30, as the delegates
gathered at the Mechanics Institute, crowds of White men collected on the
streets, many cops and firefighters among them. As a procession of a hundred or
so Black delegates approached the Mechanics Institute, a fight broke out. It is
disputed what, precisely, led to the fight, but it is generally agreed that a
White policeman fired the first shot. The delegates returned fire and hurried
into the building. The mob, more than a thousand White people, surged in after
them, breaking down doors, firing into the assembly hall, and clubbing those

A New Orleans Times reporter described the scene following the

Out of the Senate Chamber, once more in the cross passage, pass through the
hall, here is the last step of the main stairway. Blood is on it. The white
wall is smeared with blood in the track of what had been a live man’s shoulder
leaning up against it. Blood on the next step. Blood marks higher up on the
walls, blood and marks of sanguinary struggle from the top to the bottom.… A
door opens outward on the stairway leading down into the vaults. The first
thing noticed is a bloody handmark, blood-spots line the white walls on the
side, and blood spots the steps.… It is with a sensation of sickening horror
that you leave all the scenes and respectfully picking your way through cast
off hats and shoes that are all over every floor of the building, find yourself
in the open street, the sidewalk of which ran with blood.

With the convention in ruins, the police led bands of White vigilantes around
the city, beating any Black people they encountered and shooting at those who
fled. The majority of the victims had no connection to the convention. At least
thirty-eight people were killed, and many times that number wounded.
Overwhelmingly, the victims were Black.

That afternoon, bodies were piled into baggage cars. Many of the wounded were
loaded in with the dead, and witnesses later swore to seeing police
systematically shooting those who stirred. No one was prosecuted for the
massacre, though a Congressional committee concluded that it had been planned
by a group of police—mostly Confederate veterans. They were assisted by a
Know-Nothing group called (appropriately) “the Thugs” and a vigilante regiment
named “Hays’ Brigade,” acting under the leadership of police Sergeant Lucien
Adams and Sheriff Harry T. Hays, respectively.

These two examples, especially the Mechanics Institute massacre, illustrate the
character of such attacks. As historian Melinda Hennessey explains,

The actions of whites in many of the Reconstruction riots … had less in common
with mob rule than with the organized character of paramilitary units.…
Antebellum militias and slave patrols gave southern whites experience in local
military organization, and this trend continued in the locally based
Confederate military units.

White people adhered not only to the values of the slave system, but to its
methods as well.

The central role of the police in these two disturbances was unfortunately
typical of the period. In her comprehensive study of Reconstruction-era unrest,
Hennessey finds, “In only three riots, including Mobile in 1867, Vicksburg in
1875, and Charleston in 1867, did the police or sheriff try to quell the
disturbance, and in a third of the riots, the police or sheriff’s posse led the
violence.” Examples of police-led violence include the election riots in
Savannah in 1868, Baton Rouge in 1870, and Barbour County, Alabama, in
1874. Perhaps the starkest case occurred in Camilla, Georgia, where in 1868
Sheriff Munford J. Poore deputized the town’s entire adult White male
population to prevent a Black political procession; a military
investigation found that the sheriff made no effort to control the posse and
“was a party to the wanton and unnecessary destruction of life which
subsequently ensued.”

Where legal authorities were not themselves complicit with the terrorists, they
found themselves among the terrorized; they were powerless to stop Klan
activity, prosecute offenders, protect their own constituents, or, in some
cases, defend themselves. For officers sincere in their duties, the situation
was desperate. In Warren County, Georgia, Sheriff John C. Norris faced constant
harassment for his efforts to enforce the law; eventually he was crippled in a
Klan ambush. The weakness of his position might be indicated by the fact that,
though he could identify his attackers, he did not press charges. The
impotence of local authorities was particularly felt in areas where they were
dependent on the national government for their power. As the federal
authorities became increasingly reluctant to insert themselves—especially
militarily—into local affairs, city and county officials were left vulnerable.
Sheriff Joseph P. Doyle of Madison County, Alabama, worried, “I have nobody to
protect me.”

When Klan-type violence occurred, arrests were unusual, prosecutions rare, and
convictions almost unknown. The attitudes (and sometimes, involvement) of
police officers and sheriffs certainly impeded the enforcement of the law, but
this was only one of many obstacles standing in the way of convictions.
Prosecutors were unwilling to press such cases, and magistrates were often glad
to dismiss them. Klansmen frequently dominated juries—including grand juries
and coroners’ juries. Witnesses and victims, like Sheriff Norris, were
intimidated and refused to testify, while Klan members were eager to swear
false alibis on one another’s behalf.

The law, when it did oppose Klan activity, did so in times and places where the
Klan was politically weak. As Allen Trelease notes:

Wherever Union men were numerous and sufficiently well organized to sustain the
local authorities … [Arkansas Governor Powell] Clayton encouraged sheriffs to
mobilize them as posses, and they were used to good effect. Thus the sheriff of
Carroll County managed to quell the small-scale terror there, even if he failed
to catch the criminals. In Fulton County, where the governor had to send in
reinforcements from other counties and make use of Monk’s Missouri volunteers,
the policy contributed to a mutual escalation but was ultimately

Even then, the usual form of conflict was not open warfare or even vigorous
enforcement of the law, but a kind of rivalry or dual power. The police and
the Klan became counterbalancing forces rather than outright antagonists. Under
such conditions, police may have limited the Klan’s worst atrocities, but they
did little to protect Black people from routine abuse and intimidation.
Likewise, the Klan, while not usually driving the sheriff out of town or making
good on their threats against him, limited the scope of his authority and
greatly restricted his agenda (especially where the sheriff was a Republican).
In Homer, Louisiana, the sheriff gave up policing whole areas of the parish
where the Klan was strongest. One Texas sheriff found it impossible to
raise a posse against Klan activity; White citizens told him derisively to
“Call on your nigger friends.”

But usually, law enforcement agents were unwilling to move against the Klan,
even when they were backed by federal military force. And they were almost
never willing to avail themselves of the one source of power that may have been
most readily mobilized against Klan activity—the Black population. Even when
faced with widespread lawlessness, White officials proved unwilling to arm and
rally their Black constituency. It may be that they worried such a move
would create a panic among Whites and provoke further violence, or it may be
that they feared creating a Black resistance that they could not then
control. Whatever the reasons, the result was disastrous for African

As renegade states were reincorporated into the Union and the federal
commitment to Reconstruction waned, Black people were returned to something
very much like their previous status. When Democrats attained control of state
legislatures and local governments, they passed a series of “Black Codes”
designed to regulate the former slaves and reconstitute the system of White
supremacy—based not on the private institution of slavery, but on publicly
established segregation. Black people were, whether by law, custom, or Klan
intimidation, commonly forbidden to own land, run businesses, work on
railroads, change employers, travel, or vote. Those convicted of crimes,
even nominal offenses such as “vagrancy,” could be imprisoned and returned
to involuntary servitude, leased to wealthy Whites to work in their fields,
factories, or mines. This was termed, in the parlance of Southern Whites,
“Redemption.” For Black people, it was more like damnation.

Slave Patrols Revisited

During the Reconstruction period, the line between legal and extra-legal
authority became extremely hazy. The Klan took on criminal violence in the
defense of an archaic view of law and order, and the local authorities were
either incapable or unwilling to challenge them. In many cases, the police were
actually complicit with Klan violence, and it seemed that the two organizations
pursued the same ends, sometimes using the same means. These common features
were not arrived at by chance. Both the police and the Klan were adaptations of
an earlier and deeply entrenched Southern institution—the slave patrols. As
Sally Hadden recounts:

In the new regime of Reconstruction, Southern whites were forced to adopt laws
and policing methods that appeared racially unbiased, but they relied upon
practices derived from slave patrols and their old laws that had traditionally
targeted blacks for violence. To resolve this apparent contradiction, the more
random and ruthless aspects of slave patrolling passed into the hands of
vigilante groups like the Klan.… Meanwhile, policemen in Southern towns
continued to carry out those aspects of urban slave patrolling that seemed
race-neutral but that in reality were applied selectively. Police saw that
nightly curfews and vagrancy laws kept blacks off city streets, just as
patrollers had done in the colonial and antebellum eras.

The slave patrols helped form the character of both the police and the Klan.
Like the slave patrols, the Klan was organized locally, operated mostly at
night, drew its members from every class of White society, enforced a pass
system and curfew, broke up Black social gatherings and meetings, searched
homes, seized weapons, and enforced its demands through violence and
intimidation. A former slave, J.T. Tims, remarked, “There wasn’t no
difference between the patrols and the Ku Klux that I know of. If th’d ketch
you, they all would whip you.”

As a part of this same tradition, racial minorities (especially Black people)
became the objects of police control, the targets of brutality, and the
victims of neglect. Perhaps the clearest inheritance from this tradition is
the racial characterization of criminality—the criminalizing of people of
color, and Black people especially. Presently understood in terms of
“profiling,” the practice is much older than the current controversy. Under
slavery, “Bondsmen could easily be distinguished by their race and thus became
easy and immediate targets of racial brutality.” The only thing new about
racial profiling is the term, which makes prejudicial harassment seem
procedural, technical, even scientific.

Profiles and Prejudice

One critic of racial profiling, David Harris, defines the concept in terms of
more general police techniques. He writes:

Racial profiling grew out of a law enforcement tactic called
criminal profiling.

Criminal profiling has come into increasing use over the last twenty
years, not just as a way to solve particular crimes police know about but also
as a way to predict who may be involved in as-yet-undiscovered crimes,
especially drug offenses. Criminal profiling is designed to help
police spot criminals by developing sets of personal and behavioral
characteristics associated with particular offenses. By comparing individuals
they observe with profiles, officers should have a better basis for deciding
which people to treat as suspects. Officers may see no direct evidence of
crime, but they can rely on noncriminal but observable characteristics
associated with crime to decide whether someone seems suspicious and therefore
deserving of greater police scrutiny.

When these characteristics include race or ethnicity as a factor in predicting
crimes, criminal profiling can become racial profiling.
Racial profiling is a crime-fighting strategy—a government policy that
treats African Americans, Latinos, and members of other minority groups as
criminal suspects on the assumption that doing so will increase the odds of
catching criminals.

Harris is right that racial profiling is a subset of criminal profiling, but he
has the genealogy reversed. As we saw in previous chapters, long before the
police used high-discretion tactics and vice laws to regulate the lives of the
immigrant working class, their predecessors in law enforcement were using race
as the sole factor directing their activities. Harris overlooks a crucial
feature of this history: both the slave patrols and the laws they enforced
existed for the express purpose of controlling the Black population. There was
no pretense of racial neutrality, and so there was less concern with the
abstract aim of controlling “crime” than with the very concrete task of
controlling Black people. Black people were, in a sense, criminalized—but more
importantly, they were permanently deemed objects for control.

As cities industrialized, White workers formed another troublesome group.
Efforts to control these new “dangerous classes” were more legalistic and
impartial (in form, if not in application) than those directed against the
slaves. Laws against vagrancy, gambling, prostitution, loitering, cursing, and
drinking (the nineteenth-century equivalent of our current war on drugs)
brought the habits of the poor into the jurisdiction of the police, and the
police directed their suspicions accordingly. Thus, contrary to Harris’s
account, racial profiling gave birth to the broader category of “criminal
profiling”—not the other way around.

What may distinguish our contemporary notion of “profiling” from simple
prejudice is the idea that suspicious characteristics can somehow be
scientifically identified and formulated into a general type in order to
rationally direct police suspicions. It is the war on drugs that has most
recently popularized profiling, initially because of the work of Florida
Highway Patrol officer, and later Volusia County sheriff, Bob Vogel. Vogel
formulated a list of “cumulative similarities” that he used in deciding whether
to search a vehicle. These included factors like demeanor, discrepancies in the
vehicle’s paperwork, over-cautious driving, the model of the car, and the time
of the trip. In the mid-1980s, after Vogel made several particularly impressive
arrests, the DEA adopted similar techniques in its training of local law

The scientific basis of Vogel’s system is questionable—his “cumulative
similarities” were based on a sample of thirty cases—and its application even
more worrisome. While Vogel claims that race was never a factor in his
approach, his deputies’ behavior tells a different story. Black people and
Latinos represented 5 percent of the drivers on the roads his department
patrolled. But according to a review of 148 hours of videotape from cameras
mounted in squad cars, minorities made up 70 percent of the people stopped and
80 percent of those searched. Of the 1,100 drivers appearing on the tapes, only
nine were issued tickets.

Likewise, under “Operation Pipeline” the DEA told the police not to
consider race as a factor, while continuously referencing the race of suspected
drug dealers. Pipeline emphasized the use of pretext stops and “consent”
searches (that is, searches lacking probable cause). The results were
predictable. According to a 1999 report by the California legislature’s Task
Force on Government Oversight, two-thirds of those stopped as part of Operation
Pipeline were Latinos. The report noted the systematic nature of this bias:

It should be emphasized that this program has been conducted with the support
of CHP [California Highway Patrol] management. Individual officers involved in
these operations and training programs have been carrying out what they
perceived to be the policy of the CHP, the Department of Justice, and the
Deukmejian and Wilson Administrations. Thus we are not faced with “rogue”
officers or individual, isolated instances of wrongdoing. The officers involved
in these operations have been told repeatedly by their supervisors that they
were doing their jobs exactly right.

By 2000, the DEA had trained over 25,000 cops working for more than 300
agencies in forty-eight states.

The Flawed Logic of Racial Profiling

The theoretical groundwork for racial profiling was in place long before the
DEA popularized its current form. Writing in the middle of the twentieth
century, LAPD Chief of Police William H. Parker defended the police saturation
of minority neighborhoods. His views anticipate those supporting the use of
other race-based police tactics. They are worth quoting at length:

Deployment is often heaviest in so-called minority sections of the city. The
reason is statistical—it is a fact that certain racial groups, at the present
time, commit a disproportionate share of the total crime. Let me make one
point clear in that regard—a competent police administrator is fully aware of
the multiple conditions which create this problem. There is no inherent
physical or mental weakness in any racial stock which tends its [sic]
toward crime. But—and this is a “but” which must be borne constantly in
mind—police field deployment is not social agency activity. In
deploying to suppress crime, we are not interested in why a certain group tends
toward crime, we are interested in maintaining order. The fact that the group
would not be a crime problem under different socio-economic conditions and
might not be a crime problem tomorrow, does not alter today’s tactical
necessities. Police deployment is concerned with effect, not cause.…

At the present time, race, color, and creed are useful statistical and tactical
devices. So are age groupings, sex, and employment. If persons of one
occupation, for some reason, commit more theft than average, then increased
police attention is given to persons of that occupation. Discrimination is not
a factor there. If persons of Mexican, Negro, or Anglo-Saxon ancestry, for some
reason, contribute heavily to other forms of crime, police deployment must take
that into account. From an ethnological point of view, Negro, Mexican, and
Anglo-Saxon are unscientific breakdowns; they are a fiction. From a police
point of view, they are a useful fiction and should be used as long as they
remain useful.

The demand that the police cease to consider race, color, and creed is an
unrealistic demand. Identification is a police tool, not a police
. If traffic violations run heavily in favor of lavender colored
automobiles, you may be certain, whatever the sociological reasons for that
condition, we would give lavender automobiles more than average attention. And
if these vehicles were predominantly found in one area of the city, we would
give that area more than average attention.

These remarks clearly outline the logic of racial profiling, and reflect the
flaws of such logic. Parker tries to deny police bias by relocating it from the
individual to the institutional level; he then defends institutional bias by
denying individual prejudice. He also attempts to justify institutionalized
racism by casting it in “statistical” terms. Hence, we’re reassured that
race-based police tactics are not based on “a police attitude” or on a belief
in the inherent criminality of people of color, while at the same time we are
urged to accept practices designed to target specific populations.

Parker explains unequal police attention with reference to variations in crime
rates among different groups. No evidence is offered concerning these
variations, but they are said to be the product of unidentified “multiple
conditions,” which we are informed are not the business of the police. The
possibility that policing may preserve or contribute to these “socio-economic
conditions” is not discussed, though the function of policing is identified as
“maintaining order.”

Put differently, Parker tries to justify the police department’s discrimination
with reference to other discrimination. If this line of reasoning is
accepted, then so long as an overall system of White supremacy exists, no
particular aspect of it can be faulted. Landlords could justify discrimination
in housing, or bankers in lending, just by noting that “the reason is
statistical,” that “for some reason” unemployment is higher among “certain
racial groups.” Employers could justify discrimination in hiring by explaining
that, statistically speaking, certain groups tend to be less qualified. And so
on. The moral and political faults of such reasoning are obvious, but there is
a logical fallacy as well. An individual’s ability to pay the rent, to perform
a job, or to obey the law, cannot be judged on the basis of the statistical
performance of a group to which she belongs.

In the end, Parker’s argument is circular; the premises assume the conclusion.
It calls for intensive scrutiny of people of color based on a “disproportionate
share of the total crime” committed by them. And how do we know they commit
more crimes? Because of their contact with the criminal justice system,
obviously! David Harris explains the problem simply:

In the case of consensual crimes such as drug activity and weapons offenses,
arrest and incarceration rates are particularly poor measures of criminal
activity. They are much better measures of law enforcement activity.…
Arrest statistics tell us that police arrest disproportionate numbers of
African American males for drug crimes. This reflects decisions made by someone
in the police department—the chief, lieutenants, street-level supervisors, or
even individual officers themselves—to concentrate enforcement activity on
these individuals.

While admitting that the very categories of race are “unscientific” and “a
fiction,” Parker argues that race is a “useful fiction” and so should be
maintained. But we should ask, useful for what? Presumably for identifying
criminals, or rather—for identifying suspects. That is, race is a
“useful fiction” for delineating groups of people to be treated as
by the police.

The analogy to the color of the car implies that the use of race as an
indicator is something of an accident. Of course, it is nothing of the
sort. It is more paradigmatic than fortuitous, a matter of design rather
than happenstance. Race—unlike car color—is used as a profiling tool because
society as a whole uses race as a marker of privilege or privation. And
according to Parker’s theory, race-based tactics are useful in crime control
for just that reason.

Color by Numbers

Today’s law enforcement administrators still seek to justify police practices
by appealing to racist conceptions of crime and criminality. In 1999, the New
Jersey Attorney General’s office issued a report showing that during the two
previous years (1997 and 1998), 40 percent of motorists stopped on the New
Jersey Turnpike and 80 percent of those searched were minorities. According to
Carl Williams, the superintendent of the New Jersey state police, that’s
because “The drug problem is mostly cocaine and marijuana. It is most likely a
minority group that’s involved with that.”

Studies in other states reveal a common pattern. Following a 1995 lawsuit, the
Maryland State Police were required to keep data on every traffic stop that led
to a search. Temple University’s John Lamberth analyzed the data from 1995 and
1996. He found that while Black people represent 17 percent of Maryland’s
driving population and can be observed to drive no differently than White
people, 72 percent of those stopped and searched were Black. Fully one-half of
the Maryland State Police traffic officers stopped Black people in at least 80
percent of their stops. One officer stopped Blacks in 95 percent of his stops,
and two only stopped Black people.

Likewise, a 1999 Ohio state legislator’s review of 1996 and 1997 court records
revealed that Black drivers in Akron were 2.04 times as likely as all other
drivers to receive tickets. In Toledo, they were 2.02 times as likely; and in
Columbus and Dayton, 1.8 times. Researchers with North Carolina State
University found that in 1998, Black people were 68 percent more likely than
White people to be searched by the North Carolina Highway Patrol. The
Boston Globe analyzed 764,065 traffic tickets from the period April
2001 to November 2002 and found that Black people and Latinos were ticketed at
a rate twice that of their portion of the Massachusetts population. And once
ticketed, Blacks were 50 percent more likely than Whites to have their cars
searched. The LAPD’s statistics from July to November 2002 show that Black
motorists were stopped at rates far outstripping their portion of the local
population: 18 percent of the drivers pulled over were Black, while Black
people make up only 10.9 percent of the city’s populace. Of those pulled over,
Black people and Latinos were significantly more likely to be removed from the
car than were White drivers: 22 percent of Black people and 22 percent of
Latinos were removed from the vehicle, as opposed to 7 percent of White people.
And once out of their cars, Blacks and Latinos were more likely to be searched:
85 percent of Black people and 84 percent of Latinos were searched, as compared
to 71 percent of White people.

In Omaha, Nebraska, during the year 2011, Blacks represented 21.6 percent of
traffic stops, but only 12.2 percent of the local population. They were almost
three times as likely to be searched as Whites (2 percent of Black stops, as
opposed to 0.7 percent of White). In Lincoln, Blacks were 3.3 percent of the
population, but 7.7 percent of the drivers stopped by police; and they were
searched more than twice as often as Whites (3.5 and 1.7 percent,
respectively). Hispanics in Lincoln were not particularly likely to be pulled
over (5 percent of population, 4.6 percent of traffic stops), but they were
searched with disproportionate frequency (2.7 percent, Hispanic drivers; 1.7
percent, White drivers). The Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) pulled over Blacks and
Hispanics at rates below their share of the population, but searched
both groups more frequently than Whites (1.4 percent for Black and Hispanic
drivers; 0.8 percent for White drivers).

Interestingly, Native Americans were stopped below their population level in
Omaha and Lincoln, and above it in State Patrol stops (1.1 percent of stops;
0.8 percent of state population), but all three agencies searched them at much
higher rates than any other group. Native Americans were searched by the NSP
2.9 percent of the time (almost twice the rate of Blacks and Hispanics, and
more than three times the rate of Whites). They were searched by police in
Omaha in 4.2 percent of traffic stops (more than twice the rate of Blacks, and
six times the rate of Whites). And they were searched by the Lincoln police in
an astonishing 7.1 percent of stops (twice as often as Blacks, more than
two-and-a-half times as often as Hispanics, and more than four times as often
was Whites). Similar disparities were apparent in the arrests that sometimes
follow from traffic stops. The State Patrol arrested 1.8 percent of the White
drivers they stopped, 3.7 percent of Hispanics, 4 percent of African Americans,
and 5.7 percent of Native Americans. The Lincoln police arrested 0.8 percent of
Whites, 2.1 percent of Hispanics, 4.1 percent of Blacks, and 9.7 percent of
Native Americans. The handcuff-happy Omaha police, meanwhile, arrested 11.9
percent of Whites, 23.9 percent of Hispanics, 29.8 percent of Blacks, and 31.4
percent of the Native American drivers they stopped.

Nationally, the most recent Justice Department study found that in 2011,
“Relatively more black drivers (13%) than white (10%) and Hispanic (10%)
drivers were pulled over,” and Blacks (7 percent) and Hispanics (6 percent)
were ticketed at a higher rate than whites (5 percent). More telling, cops were
also twice as likely to end the stop without taking further action—writing a
ticket, or even issuing a warning—if the driver was Black (2 percent) than if
he or she was White or Hispanic (1 percent each), suggesting that Blacks are
more subject to arbitrary pretext stops. Likewise, while police only searched 2
percent of White drivers, they searched 6 percent of Blacks and 7 percent of

The studies show that people of color are more likely than White people to be
pulled over, removed from the car, and searched. But they reveal something else
as well: Race is useless as an indicator of criminality. While Blacks and
Latinos accounted for 78 percent of those searched at the south end of the New
Jersey Turnpike during the year 2000, evidence was more reliably found by
searching White people: 25 percent of White people searched had contraband, as
compared to 13 percent of Black people and 5 percent of Latinos. According to
the North Carolina study, 26 percent of those Black people searched and 33
percent of the White people searched were found to possess contraband. In
Massachusetts, 16 percent of White people searched were found to possess drugs,
as compared to 12 percent of Black people and 10 percent of Latinos.

In Portland, in 2011, African Americans were the subject of 11.8 percent of all
traffic stops and 19.5 percent of all pedestrian stops, though they are only
6.3 percent of the local population. They were searched in 12.6 percent of
these stops, which is 3.7 times the rate at which White people were searched.
Latinos were stopped at a rate below their portion of the population (6.2
percent of traffic and 6 percent of pedestrian stops, as opposed to 9.2 percent
of the census total), but they were searched 8 percent of the time (2.7 times
the White rate). Again, police were more likely to find contraband on Whites
(42.7 percent of searches) than Blacks (30.5 percent) or Latinos (29.8

Crackdown in Seattle

Of course, these biases aren’t limited to traffic and pedestrian stops. In her
study of drug arrests in Seattle over a four-month period in 2005 and 2006,
University of Washington sociologist Katherine Beckett found that, though
Blacks represent only 8 percent of the city’s population, they make up 67
percent of drug arrests. This placed the arrest rate (per 100,000 population)
for Blacks at 13.6 times that of Whites, and the arrest rate for
selling drugs at 21 times that for whites. Even adjusting for
different patterns of consuming and distributing narcotics, the disparity
remains: Depending on the source, empirical studies suggest that Blacks
represent between 11 and 28 percent of Seattle’s drug consumers and between 14
and 28 percent of the city’s drug dealers. Direct observation of outdoor
drug markets in the Downtown and Capital Hill areas support these estimates:
African Americans were 33.3 percent of sellers observed Downtown and 9.1
percent in Capitol Hill, but represented 85.3 and 27.2 percent of arrests in
these areas, respectively. In other words, Blacks delivering drugs in Capital
Hill were 3.9 times more likely to be arrested, and those Downtown were 13.6
times more likely than “whites engaged in the same behavior in the same
geographic area
” during the same period of time.

Beckett’s study considers, tests, and eliminates a variety of possible
explanations for the disparity, including different rates of drug use and
participation in the drug economy, higher arrest rates for outdoor sales, the
geographic concentration of enforcement activity in the Downtown area, and the
police focus on crack cocaine. Of these, only crack was a statistically
significant factor. Of all the city’s drug arrests, 72.9 percent were for
crack, and 73.4 percent of those arrested for crack were African American.
Thus, if one recalculates leaving out crack-related arrests, the Black rate
drops from 21 times the White rate to a more modest 2.8. This correlation
offers some support to the idea that the excessive focus on crack is driving
the disproportionate arrest rate.

But then the question arises, why the focus on crack? Looking at data
concerning the frequency of crack sales, calls to police reporting drug
dealers, public health considerations, and gun violence, Beckett could find
no rational reason for the crack obsession. She concludes:
“Although colorblind on its face, the focus on crack cocaine does not appear to
be a function of race-neutral considerations, and continues to produce an
extraordinarily high degree of racial disparity in Seattle drug arrests.” She
also notes that “it is not possible” to rule out the theory that “the SPD’s
focus on black suspects explains the preponderance of crack cocaine arrests,”
rather than the other way around. In fact, even just looking at crack
cases, Blacks are still over-represented, making up 72.9 percent of arrests but
(according to drug user surveys) 49.4 percent of dealers.

Whichever comes first—the focus on Blacks or the focus on crack—it amounts to
much the same thing. The result is a disproportionate number of African
Americans in police custody. And the impulse behind each approach turns out to
be a racist one. In an earlier study, looking at arrests from 1999 to 2001,
Beckett drew a sharp conclusion: “the focus on crack,” like the
overrepresentation of people of color among those arrested, “reflect[s] a
racialized conception of ‘the drug problem.’” The obsession with “the drug most
strongly associated with ‘blackness’ suggests that law enforcement policies and
practices are predicated on the assumption that the drug problem is, in fact, a
black and Latino one, and that crack, the drug most strongly associated with
urban blacks, is ‘the worst.’” A kind of double profiling takes place. By
virtue of their association, the drug is racialized and Blacks are

Stop and Frisk: Racial Profiling on Trial

On April 20, 2007, as David Floyd was walking home, three New York police
officers approached and asked, “Excuse me, may I speak with you?” Floyd
stopped, and the officers demanded to see his ID. He gave it to them, and then,
though he explicitly told them he did not consent to a search, they patted him
down and looked in his pockets. Finding nothing of interest, they gave him back
his driver’s license, warned him to get it updated, and left. On the
spectrum of police encounters, this incident hardly registers. It was
completely banal, entirely routine, the sort of thing that happens all of the
time—which is precisely the point.

Between January 2004 and July 2012, the New York City police made 4.4 million
stops just like David Floyd’s. In 52 percent of those stops, they frisked the
subject; 8 percent of those 2.3 million searches were more extensive—opening
jackets, looking in pockets. Eighty-six percent of searches, like Floyd’s,
produced no contraband. Also like David Floyd, 52 percent of the people stopped
were Black.

That’s more than twice the African American portion of the local population (23
percent). Altogether, 90 percent of those stopped were people of color.
(Hispanics, at 31 percent, were the second-largest group; New York City’s
population is 29 percent Hispanic.) Weapons—which are nominally the point of
this exercise—were discovered in just 1.5 percent of searches. And as we’ve
seen elsewhere, they were more often found on Whites: 1.4 percent of Whites had
weapons, while 1.1 percent of Hispanics and 1 percent of Blacks did. Whites
were more likely to be carrying drugs or other contraband as well: 2.3 percent,
compared to 1.8 percent of Blacks and 1.7 percent of Hispanics. On the other
hand, police report using force more often against people of color: in 24
percent of Hispanic stops, 23 percent of Black stops, and 17 percent of White
stops. Put differently, Blacks were 30 percent more likely than Whites to have
force used against them, and Hispanics were 9 percent more likely.

Six percent of these stops led to arrest, and another 6 percent led to
citations. The arrest and citation rates were actually 8 percent
lower for Blacks than for Whites (and lower still in majority-Black
neighborhoods), suggesting (as a court later found) “that blacks are likely
targeted for stops based on a lesser degree of objectively founded suspicion
than whites.” However, when accused of the same offenses, Blacks were 30
percent more likely than Whites to be arrested rather than cited. The most
common charges were public consumption of alcohol and disorderly conduct (both
violations, the legal equivalent of a parking ticket), and 42 percent of the
citations were later dismissed.

The most common cause for arrest was possession of marijuana, which is
troubling for separate reasons: Marijuana has been decriminalized in New York;
simple possession is treated as a violation unless it is in public view. In
many of these cases, the “public view” only occurred because of the search.
Police order a suspect to empty his pockets, the joint that was in his jacket
is now in his hand, and a violation-level charge becomes a misdemeanor. The
search, in other words, literally produces the crime.

David Floyd, along with eleven other people—all Blacks and Hispanics—sued. They
argued that in nineteen separate incidents they had been unfairly targeted
because of their race and searched without any legal justification, thus
violating their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S.

In the spring of 2013, over the course of a nine-week trial, the City of New
York and the New York Police Department tried to defend their “stop and frisk”
policy. They argued that the focus on Blacks and Hispanics was justified
because “blacks and Hispanics account for a disproportionate share of … crime
perpetrators.” One of the City’s expert witnesses testified:

Obviously, if particular racial or ethnic groups in New York participate in
crime at a rate disproportionate to their share of the population, we would
expect officers to conduct … stops for such groups at rates higher than each
group’s respective share of the City’s population.

The judge, Shira Scheindlin, was unsparing in her assessment of the City’s

The City and its highest officials believe that blacks and Hispanics should be
stopped at the same rate as their proportion of the local criminal suspect
population. But this reasoning is flawed because the stopped population is
overwhelmingly innocent—not criminal.… [T]here is no basis for assuming that
the racial distribution of stopped pedestrians will resemble the racial
distribution of the local criminal population if the people stopped are not

If the police are stopping people in a race-neutral way, the racial composition
of the innocent people stopped should more or less mirror the racial
composition of the areas where they are stopped, all things being equal.

She goes on to argue that even if one demographic group or another is more
involved with criminal activity, it in no way follows that innocent
people from the same group are more likely to behave suspiciously, giving
police grounds to stop them. The use of race as a proxy, it seems, has been
substituted for the legal standard of reasonable suspicion and led the police
to search for suspects “from the pool of non-criminals not
exhibiting suspicious behavior”—which is, very nearly, the definition of
racial profiling. As Judge Scheindlin explains, “To say that black people in
general are somehow more suspicious-looking, or criminal in appearance, than
white people is not a race-neutral explanation for racial disparities in NYPD
stops: it is itself a racially biased explanation.” In other words,
“Rather than a defense against the charge of racial profiling, … this
reasoning is a defense of racial profiling.”

Judge Scheindlin ruled that nine of the nineteen stops discussed in court were
unconstitutional and, of the remaining ten, five involved unconstitutional
searches. Moreover, she found that, at an absolute minimum, the police had
engaged in 200,000 stops that fail the test of constitutionality. She
blamed police leaders for their “deliberate indifference” to the rights of
minorities, noted the pressure they put on their subordinates to aggressively
stop and search people of color, and pointed to shortcomings in record-keeping,
supervision, training, and discipline. She did not, however, order an end
to the stop-and-frisk per se, but only prescribed policy reforms and
increased monitoring to change how it is done. Such half-measures may
reduce the scale of the practice, but they will not stop the police from
viewing people of color with suspicion, arbitrarily stopping them, rifling
through their pockets, arresting them—and worse.

Consequences of Profiling

On February 4, 1999, a twenty-two-year-old West African immigrant named Amadou
Diallo was killed by New York City police officers while standing in front of
his own home. Four cops—Sean Carrol, Edward McMellon, Kenneth Boss, and Richard
Murphy—fired a total of forty-one shots. Nineteen hit him. Diallo was unarmed,
and had committed no crime. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong
time, and Black.

Stephen Worth, a lawyer for the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, explained
the shooting: “He is acting strange, he fits the rapist’s description in a
generic way.… The reason they are shooting him is they think he has a gun.”
Worth refused to elaborate on Diallo’s “strange” behavior, the “description” he
matched, or why the police would think he was armed. But witnesses later helped
to fit the shooting into a broader pattern; they told the Village
that earlier in the evening the same officers—members of the elite
Street Crimes Unit—were stopping and searching numerous Black men, seemingly at
random. Such behavior fit the unit’s established modus operandi. In
1997 and 1998 the Street Crimes Unit stopped and searched 45,000 men, mostly
Blacks and Latinos; it made 9,000 arrests.

Amadou Diallo was not a criminal. He was not, in any real sense, a suspect. He
matched a “generic” description. He fit the profile. He was a young Black man,
and that was enough. He became, quite literally, a target. The police gunned
him down as he stood in his doorway. They fired forty-one shots.

Diallo’s shooting represents only one cost of racial profiling—the losses
calculated in terms of bodies, bullet holes, scars, and stitches. But there
are other victims, other costs, counted in years, marked off in cell blocks,
ringed with razor wire. Race-based policing contributes to the
overrepresentation of minorities (especially Black people) at every stage of
the criminal legal process. Statistics from mid-sized cities across the country
show startling disparities in the drug arrest rates for Whites and Blacks.


Figure B. Drug Arrests, 2006 (per 100,000 population)

If we look specifically at the rates for drug sales (excluding marijuana), the
gap is even more striking:


Figure C. Arrests for Drug Sales, 2006 (per 100,000 population)

Arrest leads to court, and court leads to prison, and the disparities continue at each
step. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2010
there were 2,226,832 people in jail or prison in the United States, another
4,887,900 on probation or parole—for a total of 7.1 million in some way under
the supervision of the correctional authorities. That means that 3 percent of
adults were under correctional supervision, including 1 in 48 on probation or
parole and 1 in 104 in jail or prison. Put differently: almost 1 percent of the
adult population is behind bars (962 per 100,000). Of those, in 2010,
Blacks were 13 percent of the national population but 40 percent of the prison
population; Hispanics were 16 percent of the U.S. population and 19 percent in
prison; and Whites were 64 percent nationally, but only 39 percent
carcerally. For every 100,000 Black women in the U.S., 260 were in prison;
for every 100,000 Latina women, 133; for White women, 91. More startling still,
for every 100,000 Black men, 4,347 were in prison; for Latino men, 1,775; for
White men, 678. Doing the math, we see that Black women are almost three
times as likely to go to prison as White women (2.8): Latina women are almost
half again as likely (1.45). Black men are 6.4 times as likely to be imprisoned
as White men, and Hispanic men nearly three times as likely (2.6). By some
estimates, one in every three Black men will go to jail at some point in his

Taken together, the numbers on police stops, searches, arrests, and
incarceration, show a persistent bias in the criminal legal system, one neither
explained nor justified by any considerations related to crime. The evidence
absolutely contradicts the idea that racial profiling is useful in getting
drugs, or guns, or criminals, off the streets. If we insist on viewing the
police as crime-fighters, profiling can only be seen as a mistake, a persistent
disaster. But if we suspend or surrender this noble view of police work, and
look instead at the actual consequences of what the cops do, profiling does
make a certain kind of sense; it follows a sinister logic. Racial profiling is
not about crime at all; it’s about controlling people of color.

Racial profiling doesn’t only label certain groups as the objects of official
control, it also limits the mobility of people of color, and thus restricts
their access to resources and opportunities. Harris notes:

It may cause many people of color to plan their driving and travel routes in
certain ways, to take (or not take) particular jobs.… They may simply stay out
of places and neighborhoods where they will “stand out”—where police may feel
they don’t “belong”.… [And thus,] these tactics help to reinforce existing
segregation in housing and employment.

Race-based policing, and especially the fear of Black criminality, has a more
subtle function as well—maintaining the ideological basis of White unity and
indirectly controlling the political allegiances of White people. While people
of color are the targets of racial profiling, there are actually two audiences.
Profiling serves to humiliate and threaten those who are targeted; even when it
does not lead to criminal sanctioning, it serves as a not-very-subtle reminder
of their “place.” And it helps to align White people with the power structure
by convincing them that the state protects them from purportedly criminal
people of color.

In all these respects, police and prisons have replaced patrols and plantations
as the means by which White society maintains its dominance over Black

Racial Lines, National Borders

Of course the racial politics of policing are not simply Black and White. Over
the last two decades immigration, like crime, has increasingly served as a
coded proxy for race, a way of talking about it without saying it. Immigration
enforcement, then, has operated as an ostensibly color-blind means of
maintaining White supremacy, which has directed police attention toward those
groups with a sizeable proportion of immigrants—the Latino community most of

Until the mid-1990s immigration was treated as a strictly federal matter. Aside
from notifying the Immigration and Naturalization Service when taking foreign
nationals into custody, local and state police had little role to play in
enforcement. In the last two decades, and especially since the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, local cops have increasingly been
enlisted—sometimes eagerly, sometimes over their objections—to enforce
immigration law. The new police duties came as a result of several major
shifts occurring simultaneously, or in quick succession. Border enforcement has
been increasingly militarized, incorporating the use of helicopters and drones,
and sometimes involving marines and Army Special Forces. At the same time
many immigration violations, which had previously been treated as
administrative or civil matters, have now been criminalized; and the remaining
administrative elements have become increasingly punitive. Enforcement has
also come to focus more and more on the interior of the country, in cities and
farm towns far from the border.

The implications for civil liberties have been serious, and bad: Because
immigration has historically been an administrative and civil (rather than
criminal) matter, it has weaker safeguards and suspects enjoy fewer rights. For
example, the courts have been more flexible in search and seizure requirements
and often allow illegally obtained evidence to be presented in deportation
hearings; Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has
thus been aggressive in testing the limits of the Fourth Amendment, a habit
that police will likely carry with them into criminal investigations as well.
Police may also take advantage of the lower standards and decide to treat
immigration enforcement as a cover for criminal investigations, using ICE
databases, civil warrants, and immigration holds for other purposes.

Police involvement began in earnest in 2002, when Florida entered into an
agreement with the federal authorities under which local cops would be trained
and deputized as immigration officers. Such arrangements had been authorized by
the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, but
the provision, section 287(g), had never been used before. Soon others followed
suit—Alabama in 2003, six more jurisdictions over the next three years; by
2013, thirty-five agencies in eighteen states had some 287(g) agreement.
At the same time, other federally-driven programs, such as the Criminal Alien
Program and Secure Communities, have greatly increased the flow of information
between agencies. When local police make an arrest, they now run the suspect’s
fingerprints, not only through federal criminal databases, but immigration
databases as well. In the first year of the Secure Communities program’s
implementation in California, it resulted in 19,109 deportations, 25 percent of
which occurred without a conviction.

All of that has meant a great deal more scrutiny on the Latino community,
including checkpoints, neighborhood sweeps, and workplace raids—as well as
armed vigilante patrols along the U.S./Mexico border. Undoubtedly the man
who has personified the worst of these practices—or, as he would have it, the
“toughest”—is Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. Arpaio, who has
served as sheriff since 1993, has always courted controversy and regularly
shrugged off concerns about constitutionality. He first came to national
notice when he erected an outdoor tent city to hold the county’s prisoners and
subjected them to a host of petty deprivations—no cigarettes, no coffee, no
movies, no pornography, no hot lunches, no salt. He instituted chain gangs
(even for juvenile offenders), dressed inmates in cartoonish black-and-white
striped uniforms, and outfitted everything in the men’s prisons—towels, sheets,
underwear, handcuffs—in Pepto-Bismol pink. (Ostensibly the pink was to
deter theft, but Arpaio admits “there was the matter of embarrassing the
prisoners.”) His jail guards, meanwhile, gained a reputation for strapping
inmates into restraint chairs and torturing them with tasers.

Beginning in 2006, Sheriff Joe (as he likes to be called) turned his attention
to immigration. He started arresting immigrants as co-conspirators in human
trafficking. He led deputies, as well as his 3,000-strong volunteer posse, on
raids of workplaces looking for undocumented immigrants—including an
after-hours raid to arrest the cleaning staff at the Mesa City Hall. It’s
always the staff, too; in only three cases has he arrested their White
employers. And in the City Hall case, the workers turned out to be legal
residents. Sometimes his raids target entire towns, as when deputies besieged
the hamlet of Guadalupe with mounted patrols, a mobile command center, and
helicopter coverage for two days in 2008.

A 2012 Justice Department investigation found that in Maricopa County “Latino
drivers were between four to nine times more likely to be stopped than
similarly situated non-Latino drivers,” with 20 percent of traffic stops
failing to meet the legal standard of reasonable suspicion. It represented, in
the estimation of one consultant, “the most egregious racial profiling in the
United States.” The Justice Department also expressed concern about the
“pervasive culture of discriminatory bias” in the sheriff’s office, including
not just racial profiling, but racial slurs and racist jokes.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon was blunt in expressing his views on Arpaio:

The sheriff’s method is to profile people with brown skin and to ignore the
civil rights we should all be enjoying. It is unconstitutional and wrong.…
Citizens are being stopped because they are brown. Immigrants here
quite legally, carrying their paperwork, are detained.… These stories have
nothing to do with green cards. They have everything to do with brown skin.
They were about racism and nothing else.

Of course, it’s not just Arpaio. Police across Arizona search Blacks and
Latinos more than twice as often as Whites, and search Native Americans three
times as often. Likewise, in 2006, two thirds of the law enforcement agencies
in Texas reported searching the vehicles of Latino drivers at a higher rate
than those of Whites; more than a quarter searched Latinos at twice the rate of
Whites. Racial profiling—blessed by the Supreme Court—is an
inevitable result of proactive immigrant-hunting. As Nancy Morawetz and Alina
Das observed, writing for the Police Foundation:

Local officers will not be able to “observe” an immigration violation the way
they might observe a violation of criminal law. Under such circumstances, there
is a serious risk that the grounds for suspicion will in fact be nothing more
than a series of assumptions that begin with a profile about people who speak
another language or have a particular racial or ethnic profile.… Such tactics
may well be ingrained in certain federal immigration enforcement efforts.

Raymond Dolourtch, a St. Louis attorney, describes a pattern he has seen in
recent cases: Police pull over Latino drivers, usually on some pretext. Since
undocumented immigrants cannot apply for a driver’s license, they will be
arrested for operating a vehicle without one. In jail, then, police will run
their prints and check their status—leading to criminal charges or
deportation. In towns like Waukegan, Illinois and Rogers, Arkansas, police
set up checkpoints for the same purpose. Obviously traffic safety is just
a pretext in these operations, a seemingly race-neutral rationale for rounding
up members of a target population. But then, some Rogers cops have dispensed
with the pretext altogether, asking people directly about their status without
making an arrest. Likewise, in Irving, Texas, once the jail started
reporting to ICE, the police began arresting greater numbers of Hispanics for
low-level public order offenses.

The Department of Homeland Security (which manages both Immigration and Customs
Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection) captured 517,000 foreign
nationals in 2010, 83 percent from Mexico. Of those half-million visitors,
363,000 were held in jail while waiting for a hearing. That same year,
29,016 were charged with immigration violations in federal court (twelve times
the 1994 level, 2,453); and immigration violations accounted for 12
percent of the federal prison population—approximately 260,000 people.
Additionally, 387,000 immigrants were deported under a judicial order, and
another 476,000 were “returned” without a hearing.

The result is that immigrants are increasingly isolated, fearful, and
powerless. That is likely part of the point. As Christian Parenti argues,
American capitalism needs a steady supply of immigrant labor, but it needs it
cheap. By criminalizing the workers, the state helps to keep them
uncertain, uneasy, disorganized, and docile. The attack on immigrants,
therefore, is both “[p]olitically…an organic expression of nativist hostility
and a very useful, rational system of elite-inspired class control”—“the
primary product” of which “is … fear.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that when immigrants amass to demand respect,
they are met with police violence. On May 1, 2006—International Workers
Day—tens of thousands of workers, mostly Latino, marched in cities across the
country, opposing a bill that would make it a felony to be in the country
without official authorization. In the process demonstrators also, not
incidentally, collectively withdrew their labor from the economy for the day.
Among other things, the protest was the most widespread agricultural strike in
California history. And it worked: the criminalization bill was withdrawn.
When the demonstrations were over, though, repression began anew. Raids and
roundups followed, led by ICE but often supported by local police. Sometimes
they targeted factories, restaurants, or other workplaces, sometimes individual
homes, and sometimes entire neighborhoods. Over the next couple years,
approximately 900,000 people were deported, three times the previous

The following May, Los Angeles police, allegedly responding to rock-throwing
youths, attacked an immigrants rights demonstration. Helmeted cops pushed
through the crowd at MacArthur Park, firing 146 rubber bullets and beating
journalists and protestors alike. More than 250 people were injured, including
eighteen officers. The police chief later apologized, and the city paid
out $13 million to settle lawsuits. But it is hard not to feel that the
cops were offering a lesson in real-world civics, reminding the activists of
the limits to their rights and the risks of resistance.

White and Wealthy Criminals (an Aside)

Black people have been stereotyped as criminals, Latinos as “illegals.” And
activities associated with these groups have been increasingly criminalized as
a result—hyper-criminalized, in the case of crack cocaine.

What about the crimes of rich white people? Rather than producing profiles and
leading to concentrated enforcement, these offenses are downplayed,
legitimized, treated leniently, or even decriminalized. Thus, the
possession of powder cocaine elicits a fraction of the penalty for possessing
crack—literally: mandatory sentences for yuppie-style coke are 1/18 those for
the ghetto brand.

Or consider drunk driving: In the mid-80s, at about the same time legislators
were establishing draconian sentences for small amounts of crack cocaine, they
were also setting minimum sentences for driving under the influence. The
juxtaposition is revealing. At the time, drunk driving killed about 22,000
people each year, which was more than all other drug-related deaths
combined. But while crack was tagged with a five year minimum
sentence, the penalty for drunk driving was typically two days for a first
offense, up to ten days for a second. The difference is that, while 93 percent
of those convicted of possessing crack are Black, 78 percent of those arrested
for drunk driving were White men.

And let’s not forget the enormous range of corporate crimes that are
essentially handled as violations of administrative rules or as civil matters
rather than as criminal conspiracies. As journalist Matt Taibbi recalls in
his book The Divide:

It’s become cliché by now, but since 2008, no high-ranking executive from any
financial institution has gone to jail, not one, for any of the systemic crimes
that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth. Even now, after JP Morgan
Chase agreed to a settlement north of $13 billion for a variety of offenses.…
the basic principle held true: nobody went to jail. Not one person.

Taibbi helpfully contrasts white-collar corporate fraud—the kind that produced
a global financial crisis—with a paradigmatic poverty crime, welfare fraud. On
the one hand, he finds, “Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no charges”; on
the other, the San Diego County District Attorney’s office conducts 26,000
warrantless, preemptive searches every year to make sure that welfare
recipients really are exactly as poor as the poverty bureaucracy demands that
they be. The operative principle of American justice, he concludes, is
that “rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.”
At the bottom of that scale, “it is literally a crime to be poor,” while at the
top, rich people “literally cannot be prosecuted.”

This double-standard follows the same pattern as nineteenth-century public
order arrests, and may be presumed to fulfill a similar function. It’s not
about justice. It isn’t even really about money. What it’s about, as Taibbi
puts it, is this: “It’s about fucking with people.” Specifically, it’s
about which kinds of people get fucked with.

Secret Societies, Public Terror

Laws have been passed, and interpreted, and enforced in ways designed to
maximize the control White people exercise over people of color. But they have
also been broken, and ignored, and under-enforced with the same aim in mind.
When the demands of White supremacy and the requirements of the law have
conflicted, the maintenance of White supremacy has almost always appeared
higher on the police agenda. Police illegality and complicity in White terror
continue in an unbroken sequence from Reconstruction to today.

In the early twentieth century, police re-established their ties to the newly
revived Klan. During the 1920s, Klansmen were enlisted to aid the authorities
in their fight against the evils of alcohol and Communism. In 1930, John G.
Murphy, a member of the Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, testified before
the House Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities (also called
the Fish Committee) that the Klan helped the Birmingham police and the FBI keep
track of Communists by following Communist Party organizers, identifying people
at their meetings, and so on. In other places, whole Klaverns were
deputized for Prohibition raids, and many cops signed up in the “Invisible

The extent of joint membership was often startling. In 1922, when Los Angeles
District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine raided the area Klan headquarters and
seized their records, he discovered that Los Angeles Chief of Police Louis D.
Oaks, Sheriff William I. Trager, and U.S. Attorney Joseph Burke were all
connected to the Klan. The police chief and police judge in nearby Bakersfield
were both members, as were seven Fresno officers, twenty-five cops in San
Francisco, and about a tenth of the public officials and police in the rest of
California’s cities.

Further north, in Portland, Oregon, the connection between the police and the
Klan was public knowledge. In 1923, the Portland Telegram reported
that the police bureau was “full to the brink with Klansmen.” At times, this
relationship was officially sanctioned, as when the police bureau deputized one
hundred Klansmen specially selected by Grand Dragon Fred Gifford, designating
them “Portland Police Vigilantes.” Of course, Klan membership was not limited
to policemen. The Portland-based Klan No. 1 boasted 15,000 members, and on
March 3, 1923, it hosted a banquet featuring Governor Walter Pierce and Mayor
George L. Baker.

When the Klan was at the peak of its power in Colorado, it counted among its
members many prominent businessmen, state representatives and senators, the
Colorado secretary of state, four judges, two federal narcotics agents, and
scores of police. In Denver, the mayor, city attorney, manager of public
safety, two deputy sheriffs, the chief of police, and a police inspector were
all Klan members. Former mayor George D. Begole claimed that the Klan
controlled the civil service commission, fire department, and police.

During the 1930s, about 100 Michigan cops—including the chief of police in
Pontiac—joined either the Klan or its successor organization, the Black Legion.
The Black Legion, in addition to attacking racial minorities, embarked on a
deliberate campaign targeting the left; they beat and sometimes murdered
suspected radicals, bombed their offices, and burned their homes.

In his memoirs, Atlanta Police Chief Herbert Jenkins described the Klan’s
influence in Southern police departments:

In the thirties in Atlanta and throughout the South it was helpful to join the
Ku Klux Klan to be an accepted member of the force. This was your ID card, the
badge of honor with the in group, and it was unfortunately often an allegiance
stronger than the policeman’s oath to society.

Not every member of the Atlanta force belonged to the Klan but those who did
not had very little authority or influence. The Klan was powerful in that it
worked behind the scenes with certain members of the Police Committee and the
City Council. A well-liked and respected member of the department who was not a
Klan member could still get promoted through the ranks if supported by the
Klan. But as he owed his rank to the Klan he could never defy them for fear of
his job—and his life. The Klan was like a kind of Mafia in dirty sheets.

Also during the early part of the twentieth century, the police again played a
significant role in the nation’s numerous race riots. Starting the century out
badly, on August 15, 1900, a fight between Black residents and New York City
police escalated into a riot, with Irish mobs in the streets attacking Black
passers-by. Police refused to protect Black citizens, and in many cases joined
in on the attacks. Despite considerable evidence, the police commissioners
refused to discipline their officers, noting that Black witnesses “displayed a
strong and bitter feeling while under examination.”

The police took a more active role in the Detroit riot of 1943. The disorder
began on June 20, with a short-lived skirmish between Black and White patrons
at the Belle Isle amusement park. More of a brawl than a riot (really, more of
a fight than a brawl), the initial conflict was over nearly as soon as it
began. The police interposed, arresting several Black people and sending the
rest away. But a rumor spread that a Black man had raped a White woman during
the encounter, and soon White mobs were attacking Black patrons at the Roxy
Theater. The disorder spread throughout the (White) Woodward neighborhood, and
crowds beat, stabbed, and shot Black people, and stoned their cars. Around the
same time, a rumor spread through the Black neighborhoods of Hastings and Adams
that White sailors had thrown a Black woman and her baby into a lake. Black
people began attacking Whites in the area and breaking the windows in
White-owned businesses.

The police attacked Black crowds with clubs and, where looting was most
prevalent, shot at anyone inside the stores. Black bystanders were ordered to
“run and not look back;” many were shot as they did. Police also used
hit-and-run tactics against small groups of Black people quite removed from the
riot area: they would pull up in a squad car near a group of Black people;
several officers would then jump out, beat them, get back in the car, and drive
away. That night, a cop was shot in a vacant lot near Vernor Highway; he
returned fire and the assailant was killed. Nevertheless, the police retaliated
against the entire neighborhood. They laid siege to an apartment building at
290 East Vernor, shining searchlights on the building and firing into it with
revolvers, rifles, and machine guns. They eventually forced the residents out
with tear gas and beat them as they fled. Then the apartments were ransacked,
doors kicked in, locks broken, furniture overturned. Money, jewelry, and liquor
were stolen.

In an article titled “The Gestapo in Detroit,” NAACP attorney and later Supreme
Court Justice Thurgood Marshall reported, “They used ‘persuasion’ rather than
firm action with white rioters, while against Negroes they used the ultimate in
force: night sticks, revolvers, riot guns, sub-machine guns, and deer
guns.” He concluded:

This record of the Detroit police demonstrates once more what all Negroes know
only too well: that nearly all police departments limit their conception of
checking racial disorders to surrounding, arresting, maltreating, and shooting
Negroes. Little attempt is made to check the activities of whites.

Of the thirty-four people killed, twenty-five were Black and nine were White;
the police killed seventeen Black people and none who were White. Judge
George Edwards of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit,
described the riot as “open warfare between the Detroit Negroes and the Detroit
Police Department.”

Birmingham: Bull Connor and the Law

Shortly after World War II, resistance to White supremacy began to accumulate a
critical mass. Nearly a century after the Civil War, Black people had had
enough—more than enough—of empty promises and the thin simulacrum of freedom
that had been their lot since the end of slavery. Tired of being excluded and
exploited, sick of segregation and second-class citizenship, they determined
to—as James Forman put it—either “sit at the table,” or “knock the fuckin’ legs
off” of it. First in the South, but soon throughout the country, Black
people were demanding their due of White society. And White people, as usual,
were serious about not giving it to them.

The police occupied their traditional place, standing firmly in the way of
African Americans’ efforts to win their rights. The situation demanded nothing
new of the police, though in times of crisis their function may have been a bit
clearer than usual, as the rhetoric of legal impartiality slipped further and
further away from them. Birmingham’s police chief, Bull Connor, put it
plainly: “We don’t give a damn about the law. Down here we make our own
law.” It was a startling admission, but undoubtedly true.

In 1963, Birmingham became the shame of the nation when television footage
showed demonstrators with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference being
beaten by Connor’s officers, attacked with police dogs, and sprayed with fire
hoses. Reverend Fred Shuttleworth had to be taken away in an ambulance. Connor
expressed his disappointment: “It should have been a hearse.” Connor’s
disdain for Shuttleworth had a long history. In 1958, when the reverend’s home
had been bombed, Connor publicly accused Shuttleworth of doing it himself. The
accusation, made without evidence, came in the midst of a bombing campaign
commonly known to be the work of the Klan. Black homes and Jewish synagogues
were attacked so often that one part of the city was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill.”
The fire department (which was also under Connor’s control) generally let the
buildings burn down entirely, and the police made no serious efforts to
investigate the attacks. Connor preferred to blame civil rights workers
for stirring up trouble.

Connor expressed special animosity for “out-of-town meddlers” like the Freedom
Riders—Black and White people traveling together to desegregate interstate bus
lines. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Rides came
through Birmingham. Connor had the Riders arrested, drove them to the Tennessee
line, and left them stranded on the highway. When they returned, on
Mother’s Day 1961, they were beaten by a group of Klansmen while Connor watched
from a nearby office building.

As we shall see, the Mother’s Day incident illustrates not only the extent to
which the police shared the aims of organized racist groups (perhaps I should
say, other organized racist groups), but also actively cooperated with
them. This connection was not incidental. Nor was it an isolated occurrence. To
understand something of its depth, we should turn briefly to examine the career
of Gary Rowe.

The Strange Career of Gary Rowe

Gary Rowe was an FBI infiltrator in the Ku Klux Klan, working in that capacity
from 1959 to 1965. Though not personally sympathetic to the Klan, he had,
by his own admission, “beaten people severely, had boarded buses and kicked
people, had [gone] into restaurants and beaten them with blackjacks, chains,
pistols.” All this he did while on the FBI payroll. Rowe reported,
sometimes in advance, about attacks on Black people at a county fair, at
sit-ins, and on Freedom Rides—including advanced warning about the Mother’s Day
attack of 1961. When he asked why nothing was done to stop the assault, his FBI
handler told him, “Who the hell are we going to report to?… The police
department helped set [it] up.”

And indeed they had. In April 1961, Detective Sergeant Tom Cook, the commander
of the Birmingham Police Department red squad, provided the Klan with a list of
civil rights groups, the locations of their meetings, and the names of their
members; he went on to offer them full access to the red squad’s files. As it
happened, the man Cook passed the information to was Gary Rowe. Ironically,
Cook told Rowe that the Eastview Klavern had been infiltrated by the feds, and
promised to help them learn the identity of the snitch. (Further irony:
Rowe was actually a triple agent, assigned by the Klan to attend civil rights
meetings and report back. He also gave these reports to the FBI.)

Together, Cook and Rowe organized a series of meetings between Birmingham Klan
leader Hubert Pape, Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton, Bull Connor, and
themselves. At these meetings, they planned a response to the Freedom Rides.
The Klan would meet the bus at the terminal, and the police would wait at least
fifteen minutes before arriving. Connor recommended beating and stripping any
Black people who entered the restroom. “[Make] them look like a bulldog got
hold of them,” he said. Cook added: “I don’t give a damn if you beat them,
bomb them, murder or kill them. I don’t give a shit. I don’t want them in
Alabama when you’re through with them.”

The plan was executed as agreed. By the time the police showed up, the Freedom
Riders had been beaten with iron bars, and most of the Klansmen had gone. Those
remaining were sent away rather than arrested.

Rowe had informed the FBI of the plan, and the FBI dutifully put it in their
files while allowing the Klan to move ahead. Rowe’s handler claimed that there
was nothing they could do, because of the involvement of the local police. But
the FBI had played a further role in the Mother’s Day attack: government
documents released during a 1978 lawsuit revealed that the FBI had provided the
Birmingham police with the details of the Freedom Riders’ plan, knowing that
the information would reach the Ku Klux Klan. Thus the Birmingham police
provided a conduit for information to pass between the FBI and the KKK, while
maintaining the federal government’s shield of plausible deniability. And Rowe,
by monitoring Klan activity and reporting to the feds, served to confirm that
the information they provided reached its intended audience.

The FBI finally used Rowe against the Klan in 1965, after the murder of Viola
Liuzzo. Rowe and three others shot Liuzzo as she drove demonstrators back to
Selma after a march to Montgomery. Leroy Moton, who was traveling with
Liuzzo, described the shooting:

I looked at my watch. It was like eight o’clock, and I reached over for the
radio and that’s when I felt this glass and everything hit me in the face, and
the car goin’ off the road. Mrs. Liuzzo, last thing she said was, “I was just
thinkin’ of this song, ‘Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.’”
By the time she got “grave” out, that’s when she was shot. That’s when the
glass started hittin’ me in the face. We ran into an embankment, a ditch, came
out of it, and ran into a fence. And I reached over and called her, shook her.
She didn’t say anything. That’s when I turned the motor off and the lights.
This other car came back, stopped, and I looked over my left shoulder and I
seen it, and I saw the door open and I passed out for about a half hour. I
understand they thought I was dead, too. Because the blood was on my face from
the glass hittin’ me. They figured I was dead. Only the good Lord saved

The FBI had seventy agents in the area at the time of the attack, but made no
move to prevent the violence. Worse, the police may have had a role in
marking Liuzzo as a target: at a press conference after the murder, a Klan
spokesman cited details of her life drawn from the files of the Detroit Police
Department’s Special Investigations Bureau.

The Klansmen were eventually arrested for murder, and acquitted. The Justice
Department then prosecuted them for civil rights violations. Based on Rowe’s
testimony, they were convicted and sentenced to the maximum of ten years.

A Senate Committee later summed up his career:

Rowe provided the FBI with a great deal of information on planned and actual
violence by the Klan throughout his years as an informant.… Only rarely,
however, did Rowe’s information lead to the prevention of violence or arrests
of Klan members. There were several reasons for this, including the difficulty
of relying on local police to enforce the law against the Klan in the early
1960s, the failure of the Federal Government to initially mobilize its own
resources, and the role of the FBI as an investigative rather than police

The “investigative” rather than “police” mission of the FBI was a political
fiction popular at the time, providing a technical excuse for federal inaction.
Actually, Section 3052, Title 18 of the U.S. Administrative Code empowered the
FBI to make arrests without warrants “for any offense against the United States
committed in their presence.” The availability of federal marshals for law
enforcement purposes also remained conveniently forgotten. Whatever Rowe’s
own intentions, the inaction of his superiors was certainly culpable, and their
explanations disingenuous.

Mississippi: “Underneath Her Borders the Devil Draws No Line”

Even where White violence was at its most extreme, even where Black people were
most oppressed, the federal government was loath to act. Its position, for most
of a century, had been that Black people were on their own; or, put
differently, that local officials were free to treat them in whatever way they
saw fit. When the federal government was moved to act, it was usually
because some particular atrocity created a national uproar. One such event was
the 1964 disappearance of three civil rights workers in the Mississippi back

On June 21, 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman traveled
to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to investigate a fire at a Black church. They
never returned. That was just one of many instances of violence and
intimidation visited upon the participants of the Mississippi Summer Project
organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition
including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), CORE, the
National Council of Churches, and the NAACP.

The violence used against civil rights workers was audacious and severe. But
more staggering was the violence against the Black community at large. Chaney,
Goodman, and Schwerner weren’t the only three men to disappear in Mississippi
that summer. They’re just the three who made headlines; they’re just the three
we remember. When White people disappeared, people noticed. And Schwerner and
Goodman were White. When Black people disappeared, who cared? Who took notice?
Black folks could vanish—Black folks could hang—without stirring even
a mutter from the nation’s newspapers, without so much as a report from the

Dave Dennis, a field secretary for CORE, draws out the point:

During the time they were looking for the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and
Goodman, they found other bodies throughout the state. They found torsos in
the Mississippi River, they found people who were burned, they even found a few
bodies of people on the side of the roads. As soon as it was determined that
these bodies were not the three missing workers, or one of the three, these
deaths were forgotten. That’s what we were talking about in terms of what the
Freedom Summer was all about, in terms of why it was necessary to bring that
attention there. Because people forget, and if it had just been blacks there,
they would have forgotten again. It would just have been three black people

Following the disappearances, COFO collected 257 affidavits for use in a
lawsuit against Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, among others.
Fifty-seven of these were selected as typical and printed as the
Mississippi Black Paper. The lawsuit, Council of Federated
Organizations et al. v. L.A. Rainey et al.
, was filed on July 19, 1964. It

Murders, bombings, burnings, beatings, terrorization and intimidation continue
throughout the state at a steadily increasing tempo without any attempts by
state or local authorities to prevent them. In many instances, the police
themselves were—and are—directly involved or [have] tacitly or openly
encouraged—and encourage—the form of brutalization being employed.

As documentation, COFO provided:

Approximately 90 affidavits as to illegal acts of Mississippi law enforcement
officers against civil rights workers and the Negro citizens of Mississippi,
including physical violence, intimidation, harassments, unprovoked arrests, and
prolonged unjustified incarceration which are daily continuing.…

Approximately 35 affidavits as to the failure of Mississippi law enforcement
officers to take any or adequate steps to safeguard civil rights workers and
Negro citizens against physical violence and property destruction although
fully warned in advance of the possibility of their occurrence, all of which is
daily continuing.…

Approximately 35 affidavits as to the failure of the law enforcement officers
of Mississippi to prosecute known perpetrators of violence, destruction and
terrorism against the persons and property of civil rights workers and Negro
citizens, all of which is daily continuing.

The Black Paper makes for disturbing reading. At times, it is
distinctly reminiscent of the statements former slaves made about the patrols.
One young woman testifies:

On February 6, 1962, when I was 19, I was walking with a young man down a
Clarksdale street when Clarksdale police officers _________ and _________
stopped us and accused me of having been involved in a theft. I was taken to
jail by the officers and they forced me to unclothe and lie on my back. One of
the officers beat me between my legs with a belt. A few minutes later, the
other officer began to beat me across my naked breasts.

The range of abuses described is astonishing, sometimes within even a single
deposition. Douglas MacArthur Cotton, for example, tells of being followed by
the McComb police as he canvassed for a mock election: “Police followed me
wherever I went, stood beside me on the front porch of people, photographing
them and taking their names while I was talking to them.” More terrifying, he
also attests to the abuse of prisoners: “On approximately July 20, Willie
Carnell was hung by his hands to the cell bars for 30 hours. Guards accused him
of ‘singing.’” These documents help to situate Goodman, Schwerner, and
Chaney’s disappearance—their murder—within a broader pattern of ongoing

In her deposition Rita Schwerner, the wife of one of the missing men, tells of
the numerous threats they received, and the constant harassment by police
officers. She remembers one occasion, when her husband went to bail out
picketers who had been arrested. The desk sergeant told him: “If you get any
more of these damn kids arrested, Schwerner, I’m going to get you, and that’s a
promise.” Such threats were not made, or taken, lightly. Someone did “get”
Michael Schwerner. And Andrew Goodman. And James Chaney.

After a long investigation, the FBI found an informant who was willing to talk.
He led them to an earthen dam where the three men were buried and told
investigators what happened on the night they disappeared: Deputy Cecil Price
arrested Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. He released them in the middle of the
night, and then pulled them over again. This time, Price put them in his car
and drove them to a deserted area, where Klansmen shot and killed them.

Nineteen men were charged with conspiracy to deprive the activists of their
civil rights. Among them were Sheriff Rainey, Deputy Price, and a Philadelphia,
Mississippi, police officer. As Seth Cagin and Philip Dray observe in
We Are Not Afraid, their history of the case:

The participation of a law officer was evidently considered vital to the
conspiracy. Not only would the civil rights workers be more likely to stop for
a marked police car, southern lynch mobs had traditionally had their victims
handed over to them by the police, a convenience that lent the proceeding a
shade of social legitimacy.

In October 1967, a jury of White Mississippians convicted Price and six
Klansmen. Price was sentenced to six years, and served four.

Rainey, who was not part of the original conspiracy but aided in the cover-up,
was acquitted. However, he was removed from his position as sheriff, and never
regained the office. Though Rainey remained free and racist violence
continued, the trial ended a terrible reign in Neshoba County. During his time
in law enforcement, Rainey—who voiced open support for the Klan—had been
involved in a great many beatings, arbitrary arrests, and incidents of
harassment directed against Black people and civil rights workers. He had also
been a party to at least two suspicious shootings, in addition to those of
Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman. In one case, he had—gun drawn—approached a
Black couple sitting in a parked car, and ordered them out. When the man
complied, Rainey shot and killed him. That was in October, 1959; Rainey had
been a Philadelphia, Mississippi, police officer. Shortly thereafter he became
a Neshoba County sheriff’s deputy, and was party to a second shooting. He and
Sheriff Hop Barnett were transporting a handcuffed Black man to the state
mental hospital when, they say, he reached for one of their guns. Barnett shot
him, fatally.

In 2014, fifty years after their murders, President Barack Obama posthumously
awarded James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner the presidential
Medal of Freedom, the highest non-military honor presented by our government.
“[W]hile they are often remembered for how they died,” the President intoned,
“we honor them today for how they lived—with the idealism and the courage of
youth.” It is true that their sacrifice cannot be understood apart from
their idealism and their courage; yet it also cannot be separated from the
injustice they were fighting, a system of oppression animated by personal
hatred and enforced with violence. The fact remains that three good men lay in
their graves, needlessly, and others—unnamed, uncounted—were left to rot in
riverbeds, ditches, and swamps. There would be more after them. A torch had
been passed, Barnett to Rainey, Rainey to Price—just as, a century before,
other torches were passed, from slave patrol to police, from slave patrol to

Selma, Alabama: Bloody Sunday

As the civil rights movement advanced, violence continued—with police in the
vanguard and the Klan in the wings. Birmingham was, unfortunately, only the
most notorious example. Throughout the South, cops followed Bull Connor’s

Albert Turner described a march in Marion, Alabama, near Selma:

As we went out of the church to begin the actual march—we got about half a
block from the door—the sheriff and several troopers halted us. We were told
that we was an unlawful assembly and that we had to disband the demonstration
and go back to the church. We had planned already to have a prayer at that
point. We had Reverend [James] Dobynes who got down to pray. And they took
Reverend Dobynes, who was on his knees immediately behind me, and they just
started beating him right there on the ground. That was probably the viciousest
thing I have ever seen. They beat him, and they took him by his heels and drug
him to jail. At that point, they had state troopers all over the city, and
plainclothes people, a lot of citizens really was involved. They beat black
people wherever they found them.

One man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, was severely beaten by state troopers and then shot
at close range. He died as a result on February 26, 1965.

Jackson’s death served to mobilize increasing numbers of people and inspired
civil rights groups to escalate their actions. A march was planned in response
to Jackson’s murder—from Selma to Montgomery, on Sunday, March 7. Governor
George Wallace prohibited the march, saying that it would be impossible to
protect the demonstrators. Ignoring or defying him, 600 people gathered in
Brown’s Chapel in Selma. As the crowd moved out of the church building and
through the town, they were attacked by state police under the command of John
Cloud, and by the deputies of Sheriff Jim Clark. The police used clubs, tear
gas, cattle prods, horses, and dogs. Seventeen people were hospitalized as a
result, including an eight-year-old child. Forty others were treated at Good
Samaritan Hospital and released. March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody

The violence in Selma forced President Johnson’s hand on the civil rights
issue. On March 15, in a televised address to Congress, he announced that he
would introduce voter registration legislation, underscoring his intentions
with the movement’s slogan, “We shall overcome.” Historian Howard Zinn
explains the change in policy: “Selma became a national scandal, and an
international embarrassment for the Johnson administration.” But the
nation’s sheriffs were not embarrassed by the violence; even less were they
moved by Johnson’s speech. Barely a year after he led the attack at Selma, they
elected Sheriff Jim Clark to head their national association.

Panthers and Police

The country’s sheriffs weren’t the only ones unimpressed by LBJ’s gesture.
While the White establishment was wringing its hands over integration, voter
registration, and the free speech rights of Black people, the civil rights
movement was transforming itself, redefining its goals to keep pace with its
successes, rethinking its tactics in light of its defeats. A new militancy
emerged. The sweet tune of “We shall overcome” gradually faded into the
background, replaced by the more forceful cries of “Black Power!”

Emblematic of the new militancy, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense
appeared in Oakland in 1966. Formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the
Panthers offered a comprehensive ten-point program for addressing the
injustices facing the Black community. In keeping with the principles of
their program, the Panthers provided free breakfasts for school children, ran
free medical clinics, gave away shoes and clothing, and, most famously,
organized armed patrols against police brutality.

The Panthers’ politics were surely enough to raise the ire of White elites, and
the sight of Black people with guns created something of a panic among
government officials. The Panthers posed a challenge to White society and, in
the form of the patrols, to the police in particular. Of course some response
was expected, but the viciousness of the government attack was remarkable, even
by the standards of the time. Harassment, arrests, and violence were constant

In 1969 alone, police raided Panther offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles
(twice), Chicago (three times), Denver, Sacramento, and San Diego. In nearly
every case, several Panthers were arrested. In at least two of the raids,
office equipment and food (for distribution in the community) were destroyed.
One Panther was killed in L.A., two in Chicago. By the end of the year, thirty
Panthers were charged with capital offenses, forty faced life imprisonment,
fifty-five faced sentences of up to thirty years, and another 155 were either
in jail or in hiding.

Not all the attacks on Panthers involved raids, arrests, or gun battles. In
Los Angeles, cops pulled Panthers over on sight and often tore out their dash
boards, door panels, and upholstery when conducting searches. Many Party
members simply stopped driving as a result. Furthermore, supporters with
Black Panther bumper stickers complained of routine police harassment. In 1969,
a professor at California State College decided to test their claims. He
assembled a group of fifteen student volunteers—five Black, five White, five
Mexican; three men and two women in each group—all with perfect driving
records. They affixed to their vehicles orange and black bumper stickers
featuring a picture of a panther and the words “Black Panthers.” Within two
hours one of the students had received a ticket for an “incorrect lane change.”
On the fourth day of the experiment, one student was forced to quit because he
had received three tickets and was in danger of losing his license. Three
others reached the three-ticket limit within a week. After seventeen days, the
$500 fund to pay for tickets hit zero, and the experiment officially ended. All
the participants removed the stickers from their cars. A total of thirty-three
citations had been issued, with no variation according to race, sex, style of
dress, or type of vehicle. Some of the cars were searched, and a White woman
was questioned at length about her reasons for supporting “criminal

Police tactics were not always so overt. Disinformation, the use of informants
to create rifts within the Party, and the promotion of violent rivalries
between the Black Panthers and similar organizations also hampered the
Panthers’ efforts. That was, of course, precisely the point. The Panthers
personified everything that White society most feared—Black people, armed and
smart, militant, radical, and organized. In attacks on the Panthers, the
racist undertones of police actions often came to the surface. In 1968, members
of a New York police organization, the Law Enforcement Group, packed a
courtroom where Panthers were being tried and beat Panther supporters with
blackjacks in the hallway outside. They shouted slogans such as “Win with
Wallace!” and “White Power!”

Greensboro: Death and the Klan

A decade later, on November 3, 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Klansmen
and members of the American Nazi Party (acting together as the United Racist
Front) gunned down demonstrators assembled for a “Death to the Klan” rally
organized by the Communist Workers Party. Five labor leaders and community
organizers—Jim Waller, Sandi Smith, Bill Sampson, Cesar Cauce, and Mike
Nathan—were killed, and ten other people were wounded. At the time of the
attack, the Greensboro Police Department tactical squad was, literally, out to
lunch, and routine patrols were mysteriously absent. Afterward, while slow
to move against the Nazis, the police were quick to arrest eight anti-Klan
demonstrators, charging them with planning a riot.

One of the Klansmen, Eddie Dawson, was a paid informant for the Greensboro
Police Department (and, previously, for the FBI). Dawson later stated that he
was “in charge” of the attack. He recruited the Klansmen and arranged the
meeting with the Nazis. But he had a great deal of assistance in planning the
massacre. The police supplied him with a copy of the parade permit, which noted
the starting place and route of the march. And an ATF agent, Bernard Butkovich,
had infiltrated the Nazi Party, urging them to join the Klan’s attack and
providing them with guns.

Let me say that again clearly: an agent of the Greensboro Police Department
assembled this band of assassins, drew up the plan, and saw the mission through
to completion. Meanwhile, an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms brought reinforcements and provided them weapons. And both agencies
stood aside while a bloodbath ensued.

The killers were tried twice—first for murder, then for civil rights
violations. Both times they were acquitted by all-White juries, despite video
evidence provided by local television stations. The district attorney
blithely suggested that most Greensboro residents “felt the communists got …
‘about what they deserved.’” Finally, in 1985, a lawsuit awarded three
plaintiffs $390,000. The jury found three Nazis, two Klansmen, a police
informant, and two cops liable for the wrongful death of Michael Nathan,
but—strangely—insisted that there had been no conspiracy.

Since the Seventies

While it’s uncommon these days to hear police chiefs publicly ranting like Bull
Connor (Joe Arpaio being the exception), and while police departments have
added increasing numbers of minorities to their ranks, the use of the police to
control people of color and guard White supremacy continues in a refined form.
Race-based tactics remain in prominent use, racist ideology still exercises a
strong pull on individual officers, and racist organizing within law
enforcement has entered a new phase.

Michael Novick of People Against Racist Terror documented more than fifty
incidents of police involvement in racist organizing between 1976 and 1994. His
chronology listed occurrences across the country and described the involvement
of police, prison guards, and federal agents in building racist organizations,
attacking minorities, and ignoring (or engaging in) Klan-style terrorism.

To give just a brief sample, from Novick’s list and elsewhere: In 1978, the
Klan publicly revealed its penetration of police agencies in northern
Mississippi. In 1980, the San Diego Police Department assigned a reserve
officer to infiltrate the Klan. Through him, the department provided funding,
equipment, and other assistance to a petition drive to place noted White
supremacist Tom Metzger on the ballot for Congress. In Chicago’s 1983 mayoral
race, members of “Police for Epton” sided with a White Republican against Black
candidate Harold Washington. Police decorated their uniforms with plain white
buttons, or buttons with a circle and slash around a picture of a watermelon.
The media also uncovered a plot to target Black neighborhoods for mass arrests
on the eve of the election; the idea was subsequently abandoned.

A few years later, in 1987, Alex Young was fired from the Jefferson County,
Kentucky, police force after passing data from police files to the KKK. Young
had earlier founded the department’s chapter of Confederate Officers Patriot
Squad (COPS). He claimed to know at least twenty other Klansmen working as
police. In 1988, former Youngstown, Pennsylvania, police chief David
Gardner was indicted for providing armed guards to protect a counterfeiting
operation run by the White supremacist group Posse Comitatus. Two White
LAPD homicide detectives were reprimanded in 1989 for displaying the flag of
apartheid South Africa on their squad car. Around the same time, two Black
cops complained that Nazi and Klan literature was being circulated in the
stationhouses. Soon thereafter, one of the whistle-blowers, Donald Jackson, was
attacked by Long Beach officers. They threw him through a plate-glass

In June 1991, Indianapolis police officer Wayne Sharpe shot and killed Edmund
Powell, a Black man suspected of shoplifting. Sharpe claimed Powell attacked
him with a nail-studded board, but witnesses said that Powell was lying on the
ground when Sharpe shot him. It was soon learned that Sharpe had killed a Black
burglary suspect ten years before and had briefly been involved with the
National Socialist White People’s Party. A jury awarded Powell’s family
$456,000, but Sharpe was never disciplined.

That same year, a Klan group was found to be operating in the LAPD’s Foothill
Division—home of the officers who beat Rodney King. A few months later, as the
King case went to trial, the Klan organized rallies in Simi Valley with the
slogan “Support the Police.” Neither the Simi Valley police chief nor the
Ventura County sheriff ever repudiated this support, though they were called on
to do so by members of the local community. Also in the wake of the Rodney King
beating, police officers—especially Black officers—who agreed to testify before
the Christopher Commission found themselves ostracized and sometimes threatened
by their colleagues. One Black cop, Garland Hardeman, discovered a chalk
outline in front of his locker, marked to indicate two bullet wounds in the
head. After testifying before the Commission, another officer found a
hangman’s noose tied to his telephone.

More recently, in March 2003, FBI Special Agent Joseph Thompson acknowledged
ties between police, the Klan, and—probably the largest Nazi organization in
the country at the time—the National Alliance. When Chester James Doles, the
Georgia organizer for the National Alliance and a longtime Klan member, was
arrested on gun charges, Agent Thompson testified at his bail hearing: “Mr.
Doles has a support network including law enforcement.” Thompson explained that
the involvement of police “vastly increase[s] the capacity of the network”
because cops “can look the other way.”

During the course of a 2003 lawsuit addressing police violence against anti-war
protestors, it came to light that one of the accused Portland police officers,
Mark Kruger, had been photographed (off-duty) dressed in an historical Nazi
uniform, complete with swastika. Further, he had built a shrine to five Nazi
soldiers, including a Waffen SS Obersturmfuhrer and the commander of a regiment
that massacred thousands of POWs. Two of Kruger’s high school friends
later told the press that as teenagers the three of them liked to drive around
town listening to recordings of Hitler’s speeches, tagging buildings with Nazi
graffiti, and harassing people of color on the street. Kruger is now a
captain in the Portland Police Bureau.

In Florida, James Elkins was forced to resign from the Fruitland Park police in
2009, after the publication of photos showing him wearing a Klan robe over his
police uniform. Elkins, who describes himself as “very much a National
Socialist” says that “My quote-unquote politically incorrect beliefs were no
secret,” and estimates that at least ten of the town’s dozen full-time officers
were sympathetic. Indeed, two years later, the new chief, Terry Isaacs, said
that he was “shocked” by the racist remarks he heard from his staff; he fired
nine of the town’s thirteen cops and the department secretary. And again, in
July 2014, a deputy chief and a police corporal were likewise fired for their
involvement in the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux

Perhaps most notably, in 2013, two L.A. County deputies filed suit alleging an
“inappropriate relationship” between jail guards and “various inmate gangs,
especially white supremacists.” The suit accuses Sheriff’s Department officials
of violating the constitutional rights of both prisoners and guards by (among
other things) using select inmates as “proxies” to enact violence, obstructing
a federal investigation into corruption and brutality, and retaliating against
whistleblowers. The plaintiffs complain of death threats, vandalism, and White
Power fliers being left at their homes. They put part of the blame on the
Vikings, a group of deputies once characterized by a federal judge as a
“neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang.” The Vikings had been the subject of a
1991 class action lawsuit, which listed 130 abuses, mostly against Black or
Latino victims—among them: sixty-nine warrantless searches, thirty-one uses of
excessive force, and sixteen incidents described by attorney James Foster as
“outright torture, meaning interrogations with stun guns, beating victims into
unconsciousness, holding a gun in a victim’s mouth and pulling the trigger on
an empty chamber.” The more recent suit names Lt. Greg Thompson and
Undersheriff Paul Tanaka as defendants. Both men were Vikings in the late
eighties and have the tattoos to prove it; Tanaka went on to become the second
most powerful officer in the department, overseeing the jails and answerable
only to the sheriff himself.

A Storm in New Orleans

No single episode from the opening years of the twenty-first century has
symbolized the continued legacy of racism in American society, and the role of
the police within it, so well—or so terribly—as the events surrounding the
devastation of New Orleans, physical and then social, in the late summer of

On August 29, Hurricane Katrina, a storm of incredible force and apocalyptic
effect, reached the Louisiana coast. Soon thereafter, the levees protecting New
Orleans failed—the result of years of infrastructure neglect in the name of
fiscal conservatism—and the city flooded. Eighty percent of New Orleans
was underwater. The wind and the rain were only part of the disaster.
Indifference, incompetence, and racial hostility also had a role to play.

As the storm approached, the city was placed under a mandatory evacuation
order, but an order was all there was: no organized transport or other
meaningful assistance was forthcoming. Those who were too poor, too old, too
sick, or too disorganized to arrange their own exit were abandoned in a city
that essentially shut itself down, lacking commerce and basic government
services, and then, too, lacking clean water and electricity. Similarly
stranded were those people who felt themselves responsible for the care of
elders, invalids, or neighbors, and were unwilling to leave them to face the
storm alone. At least 1,580 people died as a result of Katrina, 70 percent of
them senior citizens.

The truth of this situation was bad enough—people trapped in attics, homes
destroyed, bodies floating in the street—but the fearful imaginings of a racist
culture were far worse. Rumors spread, echoed and amplified by an over-eager
media, describing violence on a massive scale—senseless, vicious, and random.
Tales circulated about piles of corpses at the Superdome (where 20,000 people
sought shelter), widespread sexual assault, children with their throats slit,
snipers firing at rescue workers, hospitals being looted, gangs running amok.
Many of these stories were little more than grotesque stereotypes of Black
criminality—rapists, looters, and gangsters—dropped into a terrifying new
setting, a ruin of a city, a swamp overtaking civilization. Police and
other officials both heard and propagated these stories. Mayor Ray Nagin
appeared on Oprah, speaking in ominous tones about “hundreds of gang
members” in the Superdome, “hooligans killing people, raping people,” while
Police Chief Eddie Compass broke down in tears, describing “little babies
getting raped.”

In the end, nearly all the horror stories were shown to be, at the very least,
perverse exaggerations. Most were simply false. Between the Air Force, Coast
Guard, and Homeland Security, no one could authenticate reports of helicopters
taking sniper fire. And the death toll at the Superdome was
six—one drug overdose, one suicide, and four from natural causes. No
children had their throats cut.

Racist fables of Black savagery in an ungoverned city had direct and deadly
consequences. Two days into the disaster, on August 31, Mayor Nagin ordered
police to cease rescue operations and concentrate on ending looting—in effect,
announcing that private property was a higher priority than human life.
Presumably he was unaware that some officers had been conscientiously
facilitating the looting of survival goods like food, water, and clothing, or
that others had opportunistically stolen jewelry and electronics, as well as
the entire inventory of a local Cadillac dealership (almost 200 cars). Some of
the vehicles were used to flee the city—by precisely the people under orders
not to evacuate. Following Katrina, 228 officers were investigated for
deserting during the emergency and ninety-one others resigned. One cop, Officer
Lawrence Celestine, told his commander that the behavior of his peers pushed
him past the point of despair; he killed himself moments later. The NOPD public
information officer, Paul Accardo, committed suicide as well.

The sheriff’s department performed no better. As the city jail, the Orleans
Parish Prison (OPP), began to flood, guards simply fled and left their 8,500
charges locked in their cells, with water quickly rising. “They left us to die
there,” one prisoner recalled. Those inmates who got out—as most, by working
together, did—were met at the gate by guards who beat and maced them, then held
them on a highway overpass without food, water, or shelter for days. In the
end, prisoners were scattered to other jails around the state, usually without
the paperwork identifying their charges. People arrested for very minor
offenses—the cops had orders to “clear the streets” before the storm—spent
months in jail, far from home, sometimes literally lost in the system. Most of
the prisoners at OPP were not even convicts, but were being held for trial;
they were, therefore, “presumed innocent” by law. Nevertheless, under the
declaration of emergency, Governor Kathleen Blanco suspended the right to a
speedy trial. The average stay for an inmate arrested during the Katrina
period, before trial, was more than a year (385 days); one man was held 1,289

Those outside the jail’s walls were hardly more free. At an evacuation camp on
Interstate 10, thousands of people, 95 percent of them Black, were held for
days behind metal barricades, surrounded by the National Guard, with no shelter
from the sun. Outside the camps, people were similarly trapped. Those who
tried walking across the bridge to the suburb of Gretna, which was not flooded,
found their way barred by a Sheriff’s posse, firing guns over their heads.
Larry Bradshaw, a White paramedic who attempted to negotiate one group’s
passage, reported that the cops told him, “This is not New Orleans.… We’re not
going to have any Superdomes here.” Bradshaw comments, “To me, that was code …
for ‘We’re not having black people coming into our neighborhood.’”

Worse, investigative journalist A.C. Thompson has documented ten police
shootings in the days after the storm. The most notorious was the incident
on the Danziger Bridge, when plainclothes cops attacked a crowd without
warning, killing two and wounding four. The barrage of gunfire blew one woman’s
arm off, killed a teenage boy, and struck a developmentally disabled man in the
back. Police then proceeded to kick him to death.

The cops weren’t the only trigger-happy yahoos patrolling the disaster area.
Governor Blanco mobilized 40,000 National Guard troops, and announced: “They
have M16s, and they’re locked and loaded.… These troops know how to shoot and
kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they
will.” At the same time, mercenaries from a dozen companies—including
DynCorp, Intercon, American Security Group, Blackhawk, Wackenhut, Instinctive
Shooting International, and Blackwater—were busy “securing neighborhoods” and
“confronting criminals.” As a couple of the hired guns told Jeremy
Scahill, “We’re on contract with the Department of Homeland Security.… We can
make arrests and use lethal force if we deem it necessary.” Indeed, Bodyguard
and Tactical Security’s Michael Montgomery recounted a gunfight with some
“black gangbangers,” who were injured in the exchange: “[A]ll I heard was
moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped.” A moment later the army
arrived. “I told them what happened,” Montgomery recalls, “and they didn’t even
care. They just left.”

More troubling still was the sudden reemergence of organized vigilantism,
harkening back to the Klan days, or even those of the slave patrols. scott
crow, an anarchist organizer and a founder of one of the most successful
grassroots relief efforts, Common Ground, described the “white militias” as
“barely more than an organized lynch mob.” Most of the vigilantes were
middle-class, middle-aged, White men, and their activity took an expressly
racist form. Patrolling in pick-up trucks and staffing roadblocks, they stopped
and turned back Black people trying to cross through the Algiers Point
neighborhood, harassed and intimidated Blacks who lived nearby, and sometimes,
it seems, just shot people without warning. One patroller confessed to a
journalist that his group had shot three Black men in one day, tagging them as
looters because they were carrying tote bags. “People think it’s a myth,” he
said. “But we killed people.” Another told a neighbor they shot anyone
“darker than a brown paper bag.” A third boasted to a documentary
filmmaker, “I’d be walking down the streets of New Orleans with two .38s and a
shotgun over my shoulder. It was great. It was like pheasant season in South
Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.”

Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther and another founder of Common Ground,
estimates that eighteen young black men were murdered in the Algiers
neighborhood in the days following the storm. “It was either the police or by
vigilantes that was allowed to run amok,” he says. It was sometimes hard
to tell them apart. One of the militia’s victims, a Black man named Henry
Glover, went to the police station seeking help after being shot. Witnesses
saw a cop drive away with him. Days later, his car was found, torched and
abandoned with Glover’s burned corpse inside.

Rahim recalls another incident: He was confronting a group of the patrollers
when a New Orleans police officer pulled up. “These guys are acting like
vigilantes,” Rahim told him, but the cop only said that they had the right to
defend their neighborhood. “We all have a right?” Rahim asked. “They have a
right,” the cop said, pointedly.

White Sheets, Blue Uniforms

The police did not create the racism in American society. If anything, it’s the
other way around. But the police have, since their inception, enforced and
defended the racist status quo—by controlling slaves, maintaining segregation,
resisting civil rights efforts, and generally terrorizing the Black community
and other people of color.

This function has remained constant even when the laws have changed. That is,
even when it has conflicted with their official duties, the police have acted
as a repressive force against the interests of people of color.

It will surely be objected that I have singled out the police unfairly. It
will be pointed out—by critics at both ends of the political spectrum—that all
of Southern society (perhaps, all of American society) has been implicated in
racist violence. It is hardly surprising that policemen were also involved.

Were my point simply that individual police officers were complicit, this
complaint would be well grounded. But it overlooks two major features of my
argument: first, that the involvement of the police is different than the
involvement of, say, dentists or auto mechanics; second, and more importantly,
the cop-Klan connection is institutional, not merely individual.

The participation of police officers in White supremacist organizations and
racist violence is different than the involvement of other people because the
police are often professionally as well as personally involved. They use their
professional position to advance the aims of the group, they use their standing
in the community to legitimize vigilante violence, and they are often
considered attractive recruits for just these reasons. The same may be true of
certain other occupational groups as well—journalists, clergy, politicians—but
cops engage in these crimes when they have sworn to stop them. To understand
this contradiction we must view it, not only in terms of personal prejudice and
individual action, but as a sustained institutional relationship.

Historically, the police and the Klan have operated as parallel and, in
general, mutually reinforcing types of organizations. Cops (like other
officials) have sometimes drawn on the political support of the Klan to
buttress their own authority. Conversely, the police can offer some degree of
validation to Klan activity by lending it their support, or less directly, by
refusing to treat racist violence as crime. At times the police have supplied
the institutional nucleus around which vigilante activity could orbit.

The police, as an institution, have shared many of the aims, methods, and
values of Klan-type groups. During the Reconstruction period, for example,
police authority and vigilante activity neatly paralleled one another. In part,
the similarities may be understood in terms of a family resemblance: both the
police and their young cousins, the night-riders, were still chronologically
very near to their common ancestor, the slave patrols. But more importantly, in
the South during this period, the very basis and constitution of authority, and
the nature of legality itself (as well as the particular laws), were hotly
contested. Local elites remained loyal to the vanquished Confederacy, mourned
their lost cause, and held dear the values that had so long supported the
racial and economic system of slavery, while the new status quo, amorphous and
exhilarating, often relied for its preservation on the presence of federal
troops. Under such conditions, it could be expected that the categories of
legality and illegality, legitimate authority and illegitimate force, and order
and disorder, would become confused.

What is remarkable is the degree to which the resemblance between the police
and the Klan has persisted. It may tell us a great deal about the real function
and fundamental character of the police that, after more than a century of
institutional development, legalism, bureaucratization, professionalization—and
more than one hundred years since the death of the Confederacy—they would
continue to behave like racist terrorists. The police have persisted in denying
people of color the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution, have
actively sought to frustrate their efforts to exercise such rights or become in
a real sense full citizens, and have resorted to the most vicious, brutal, and
often patently unlawful means to do so. These facts can leave no doubt as to
the institution’s priorities when the demands of White supremacy clash with
those of the law. The police cannot be considered simply the custodians of the
legal order, but must be seen as the guardians of the social order as well.
That they defend it wearing blue uniforms rather than white sheets is a matter
of only minor importance.

5: The Natural Enemy of the Working Class

I have no particular love for the idealized “worker” as he appears in the
bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in
conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself
which side I am on.

—George Orwell

The Greensboro massacre of 1979 represented a racist assault against people of
color, but it also marked an attack on the rights of working people. The “Death
to the Klan” rally was organized as part of an effort to end the harassment of
poultry workers as they fought to form a union, and most of those killed were
union organizers. Such pairings of racist oppression and class exploitation
have been the historical norm; slavery, for example, was a system of production
as well as a system of race control.

Though there are divergences between race and class, the means for control in
each area have always been very closely linked. This connection is perhaps
never clearer than when racist means are used to suppress the resistance
workers mount against capitalism—as in Greensboro, or, to take an earlier
example, as in 1885, when Mayor Joseph Guillote of New Orleans responded to a
levee workers’ strike by ordering the police to arrest any Black man who “did
not want to work.”

Control of the lower classes has been a function of policing at every point
since the institution’s birth, and has served as one of the major determinants
of its development. In the South, the police first approached their modern form
after a long process of adaptation and experimentation in the official means of
controlling the slave population. This mandate was over-determined, required
both by the demands of White supremacy and by the economic needs of the
plantation system. The mechanisms developed to control slaves eventually
expanded in each direction, as slave patrols were charged additionally with
regulating the behavior of free Black people and that of poor White people,
especially indentured servants. As modern capitalism took shape, the new
industrial working class posed new challenges to the social order, and the
police institution evolved to meet them. Like the slaves, these “dangerous
classes” were marked as permanent objects for police control, and their lives
became increasingly regulated by specially designed laws, selective
enforcement, and heightened scrutiny.

The Majestic Equality of the Law

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under
bridges, beg in the streets, or steal bread.

—Anatole France

In 1876, the Report of the General Superintendent of Police in Chicago warned:
“There is in every large city, a dangerous class of idle, vicious persons,
eager to band themselves together, for purposes subversive to the public peace
and good government.” The police, in Chicago and elsewhere, took as their
main task the control of this dangerous class, especially when the poor “banded
themselves together,” but also in the course of daily life. The police
concentrated their enforcement activities in poor neighborhoods, armed with the
tools of physical violence and a variety of laws prohibiting public order
offenses, vice crimes, and a great deal of other activities associated with the
working class.

It was a short step from selective enforcement to the criminalization of
poverty itself and of poor people as a group. While the wealthy were treated
leniently by the courts, the poor were sometimes convicted where no crime was
even alleged. (In Philadelphia, 1839, Sarah Hays and Thomas Firth were jailed
for the non-offense of kissing in public. The mayor admitted that there was no
law prohibiting such behavior, but based on the reputation of the neighborhood
where they were arrested, he ordered them jailed just the same.) In short,
the laws themselves targeted the poor, the courts issued harsher judgments
against poor defendants, and the police treated poor people with intense
suspicion. The instructions to the Philadelphia police explained: “As a general
thing, any idle, able-bodied poor man has no right to complain if the eye of
the police follows him wherever he roams or rests. His very idleness is an
offense against all social laws.”

This tradition of class control continues today, in many forms, including urban
“quality-of-life” and “zero-tolerance” policies, the war on drugs, and “gang
suppression” efforts that seem aimed at disrupting the normal course of
neighborhood life. One of the clearest examples of class bias in law
enforcement, in the nineteenth century and today, is the persecution of the
homeless. Beginning in the 1870s, cities around the country began vigorously
enforcing laws against “vagrancy,” and mounted special efforts to limit the
mobility of migrant workers (in the parlance of the day, “tramps”). For nothing
other than the crime of being poor, vagrants and tramps were forced out of
town, subjected to violence, and oftentimes imprisoned for as long as six
months. While contemporary laws are careful to proscribe certain
behavior (rather than poverty per se), statutes prohibiting
trespassing under bridges, sleeping on sidewalks, and panhandling clearly have
the same effect as the vagrancy laws of the earlier period.

The practices surrounding the enforcement of these laws are often simply cruel,
involving intimidation, violence, seizing (and never returning) identification,
and the destruction of personal possessions. In the fall of 1993, I was witness
to an incident in which numerous police officers, all wearing latex gloves,
moved methodically through Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., seizing the
belongings of the people who lived in the park—sleeping bags, backpacks, pieces
of tarpaulin. With the White House in the background, the police carried the
items to a nearby garbage truck, where they were unceremoniously crushed.
Similar incidents have been reported in Miami, where a court ruled the practice
illegal, and in Detroit, where social service providers blamed the
crackdown on pressure from area businesses.

In these cases the police put their energies toward attacking, rather than
protecting, some of society’s most vulnerable members. This use of resources
only makes sense when viewed in the context of vast disparities in wealth. The
continual harassment of the destitute reinforces their low social standing,
stigmatizes poverty, keeps the poor under the supervision and control of the
criminal justice system, and—in all these ways—serves to preserve existing
inequalities. Given this perspective, routine attacks against the poor seem
ruthlessly rational, and the suppression of organized labor becomes altogether
too predictable.

Strikebreakers, Pinkertons, and Police

The role of the police as union-busters and strikebreakers was an outgrowth of
their position in the class structure and their function regulating the
behavior of workers for the convenience of the new capitalist economy. After
about 1880, whenever strikes were anticipated, the police made special
preparations to control, and thereby defeat, the workers’ efforts. Police were
sometimes housed on company property for the duration of the conflict. In
addition to attacking picket lines and rallies, they increased patrols in
working-class neighborhoods, stepped up enforcement of public order laws, and
took pains to close the meeting halls and bars where strikers gathered.
Arbitrary arrests were common, and strikers were sometimes held on minor
charges (or without charges) until the strike was over. The police also
intercepted union organizers and radicals traveling to areas affected by
strikes; the unionists and “reds” were usually interrogated, sometimes under
torture, and released at the town line with a stern warning to stay away.

Writing in 1920, Raymond Fosdick described something of the range of police
tactics, and the uses to which they were put:

The police are often used on behalf of employers as against employees in
circumstances which do not justify their interference at all. This has been
especially true in the handling of strikes. Lawful picketing has been broken
up, the peaceful meetings of strikers have been brutally dispersed, their
publicity has been suppressed, and infractions of ordinances which would have
gone unnoticed had the violators been engaged in another cause, have been
ruthlessly punished. Sometimes, too, arrests have been made on charges whose
baselessness the police confidentially admit. “We lock them up for disorderly
conduct,” a chief of police told me when I asked him about his policy in regard
to strikes and strikers. “Obstructing the streets” is another elastic charge
often used on such occasions. Sometimes the arbitrary conduct of the police
passes belief.

Newspapers favoring the strikers’ cause have been confiscated and printing
establishments closed on the supposition that they would “incite to riot.”
Meetings of workingmen have been prohibited or broken up on the theory that the
men were planning a strike, and specific individuals have been denied
the right to speak for the reason that they were “labor organizers.”

“I have this strike broken and I mean to keep it broken,” a director of public
safety told me, as if breaking strikes were one of the regular functions of the

Such coercive activity is now generally considered the exclusive domain of
governments, but the use of violence to break strikes was at first the right
and responsibility of private employers. In the period immediately following
the Civil War, company guards were sometimes relied on to perform this
function, while in other cases the company reimbursed the city government for
expenses incurred during strikes. Either way, capitalists facing unruly
workers were caught between the desire to directly control strikebreaking
activity, and the expense and difficulty of maintaining security forces at the
necessary level. It was under these conditions that the Pinkerton Detective
Agency grew to national prominence, achieving special notoriety for its use of
an agent provocateur against the radical miner’s organization, the
Molly Maguires. By the mid-1880s, the Pinkertons had become part of the
standard response to labor trouble, and their dual roles as spies and
leg-breakers were often sanctified by deputization into local police

In the coal fields of Pennsylvania, recurring unrest led the coal companies to
dispense with the Pinkerton middle-men and maintain an industry police of their
own, the “Coal and Iron Police.” For a fee of $1 per officer, the state
conferred police powers upon these company-controlled guards. In 1915, the
Commission on Industrial Relations noted with disapproval that one of the greatest functions of the State, that of policing, [was] virtually
turned over to the employers or arrogantly assumed by them … [and by] criminals
employed by detective agencies clothed, by the process of deputization, with
arbitrary power and relieved of criminal liability for their acts.

During the early-twentieth-century Progressive Era, such civic-minded concerns,
matched with the employers’ unwillingness to bear the full cost of
strikebreaking, shifted responsibility for these duties to the public police.

The creation of the state police illustrates this process clearly. After the
1902 Great Anthracite Strike, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a body to
investigate the conflict and make recommendations concerning the unresolved
disputes. The Anthracite Coal Strike Commission, as it was called, took this
task a step further, recommending thoroughgoing changes in the policing of
strikes. After quite a few damning words about the strikers, the commission
concluded: “Peace and order … should be maintained at any cost, but should be
maintained by regularly appointed and responsible officers … at the expense of
the public.” In May 1905, Pennsylvania Governor Samuel Pennypacker signed
into law an act creating a state police force.

The Pennsylvania State Constabulary proved an effective force against strikes,
since it recruited from across the state, thus minimizing the influence of any
particular officer’s ties to the local community. The Pennsylvania State
Federation of Labor called for the organization’s elimination and published a
volume of evidence against the state police. Titled The American
, the book collects witness statements, newspaper accounts,
legislative debate, and other material. A typical story comes from S. P. Bridge
of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania, dated February 21, 1911:


State Police came to New Alexandria July 31, 1910, Sunday. The State
Constabulary are of no use in this country to farmers or workingmen. They make
all efforts to oppress labor.

Six of them were stationed at this town for a period of two months for the
benefit of the coal company. Their duty was in and around the works.

At the time they were here there was trouble between them and the miners. There
was a camp located within two hundred feet of my house. There were three State
Constabulary and two deputy sheriffs went into camp. They rode their horses
over men, women, and children. They used their riot clubs freely on the miners
without cause or provocation.

One of the men had to be sent to the hospital, one received a broken arm, one
woman was clubbed until she was laid up for two weeks.… They used their clubs
on everyone that protested against their conduct and I was an eye-witness to
the affair.

There were no lives lost and no one hurt before their arrival.

The majority of citizens are not in favor of the Constabulary.

I cannot see that anyone but the coal company is benefited by the Constabulary.

Yours truly,

S. P. Bridge.

Another statement is unusual only for its source. Hugh Kelley, the chief of
police in South Bethlehem, wrote:

When the constabulary arrived here, February 26, 1910, neither the burgess nor
myself, as chief of police, were informed of their arrival. They were in
charge of the sheriff.… They beat people standing peaceably on the street; men
were arrested and taken to the plant of the Steel Company and there confined.

They started out on our streets, beat down our people without any reason,
whatever, and they shot down an innocent man, Joseph Zambo, who was not on the
street, but was in the Majestic Hotel. One of the troopers rode up on the
pavement at the hotel door and fired two shots into the room, shooting one man
in the mouth and another (Zambo) through the head.… There was no disturbance of
any kind at this hotel, the Majestic was the headquarters of the leaders who
were conducting the strike.… Troopers went into the houses of people without
warrant and searched the inmates, drove people from their own doorsteps. They
beat an old man, at least, sixty years of age. Struck him with a riot stick and
left him in a very bad condition.

This is only one of a dozen similar cases.

The law creating the Pennsylvania State Constabulary intended the new body “as
far as possible, to take the place of the police now appointed at the request
of various companies.” It is hard to think of a more literal description of
their role. Whereas strikers had previously had their heads cracked by guards
in private employ (or police leased to the company, which comes to much the
same thing), they increasingly had the honor of having their heads cracked by
impartial public servants, authorized by the government and funded by the tax.
By investing this responsibility in the state itself, the ruling class made
provision for the more regular and predictable service of its needs, with the
costs shared—in a sense, socialized—and, for that matter, at least some portion
of the costs borne by the workers themselves.

Though Pennsylvania did not boast the first state police force, it did pioneer
the current type. Earlier state forces were either military organizations, vice
squads, or short-lived civil rights agencies. But following the success of
the Pennsylvania State Constabulary, the idea of a state police force took hold
across the country. By 1919, of the six existing state police departments, all
but one were modeled after Pennsylvania’s. Ten years later, there were
twenty-five such departments. And by 1940, every state had one.

However, with or without a state police force, the independence of the police
in relation to the larger companies was somewhat illusory. And in the 1920s,
following the federally directed Red Scare, distinctions between union-busting
and law enforcement practically dissolved. In Philadelphia, the police issued a
proclamation on March 21, 1921, that they would not interfere with union
meetings “so long as the meeting is orderly and not of radical character, but
all meetings of radical character will be prohibited or broken up.” The
policy offered the police license to attack any union meeting, since it was
assumed all labor organizing was Communist in nature.

At times, anti-union campaigns drew on a practice familiar from the efforts to
control African Americans; police formed alliances with, actively cooperated
with, and provided official cover for right-wing vigilante groups. In Los
Angeles, for example, the police joined in a partnership with the American
Legion, deputizing members of its “law and order committee.” The American
Legion then commenced a series of raids against meetings of the Industrial
Workers of the World (the IWW, or the “Wobblies”). In the first such raid, four
Wobblies were hospitalized and five were arrested for “inciting a riot.” A few
months later, in April 1921, the IWW’s offices and meeting halls were again
raided, its supporters arrested, and men, women, and children beaten with ax
handles. Those identified as leaders were driven to the desert, beaten
unconscious, and abandoned. Though many of the victims could identify their
attackers, no charges were ever filed. The pattern continued for years. In June
1924, a vigilante mob, organized in part by the police, attacked the IWW hall
with clubs and guns. They destroyed the furniture in the building, beat many of
the men and women present, tarred and feathered the leaders, and deliberately
scalded several children with hot coffee. While the police ignored these
offenses, and sometimes actively protected the perpetrators, they
simultaneously engaged in aggressive enforcement practices against the
unionists. Between 1919 and 1925 the LAPD arrested 504 union organizers; 124
were convicted of “criminal syndicalism,” a charge designed to stifle union
activity and specifically targeting the IWW.

While union-busting remained a joint venture between public and private forces,
during the Progressive Era the authority to use or license violence slowly
moved out of private hands, solidifying the state’s theoretical monopoly on it.
Over the coming decades, as we’ll see, the balance between private security and
public police, between corporate funding and government authority, would shift
back and forth repeatedly according to the demands of the moment and
ideological trends. Despite this continual re-configuration, the police mission
during strikes remained fairly stable: to defend the company’s interests, to
preserve the status quo.

Where conflicts arise between workers and bosses, between the rights of one
class and the interests of the other, the machinery of the law is typically
used as a weapon against the workers. Even where the law is contrary to the
demands of powerful corporations, the police often act not from principle or
legal obligation, but according to the needs of the ruling class. This tendency
shouldn’t surprise us, if we remember the lengths to which the cops have gone
in the defense of White supremacy, even as laws and policies have changed.
With class, as with race, it is the status quo that the police act to preserve
and the interests of the powerful that they seek to defend, not the rule of law
or public safety. The law, in fact, has been a rather weak guide for those who
are meant to enforce it.

To take just one of many examples, the Interchurch World Movement’s Commission
of Inquiry reported that:

During the [1919 Steel Strike] violations of personal rights and personal
liberty were wholesale; men were arrested without warrants, imprisoned without
charges, their homes invaded without legal process, magistrates’ verdicts were
rendered frankly on the basis of whether the striker would go back to work or

Thus, in a time of crisis, the pretense of law enforcement was given up in
favor of naked repression and class warfare. The police, the jails, and the
courts acted to serve, not the law, but the interests of business.

Moments of Ambivalence

There have been exceptions, times when the police briefly departed from their
usual role, typically because the local government’s agenda conflicted with the
immediate interests of the company.

During a 1902 streetcar strike, the mayor of the Providence suburb Pawtucket
openly sided with the striking workers, and the police did almost nothing to
impede their activities. During the 1919 Steel Strike, Cleveland Mayor
Harry Davis ordered police to treat scabs as suspicious persons and run them
out of town. Likewise, during the 1934 Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light
Company strike, Mayor Daniel Hoan ordered the arrest of 150 strikebreakers.
“In grappling with the dilemmas posed by community polarization,” historian
James Richardson explains,

the police tended to follow the lines of power and influence.… If the
authorities favored the workers or were at least neutral, the police remained
neutral. If on the other hand, political leaders and newspapers viewed the
strikers as un-American radicals or a threat to the town’s prosperity by making
industry reluctant to locate there, then the police acted as agents of
employers in their strikebreaking activities.

In general, then, such instances should be understood not as the cops siding
with labor in the context of class struggle, but following the direction of
their superiors in a dispute between elites.

However, there were also occasions when the police supported strikers despite
their orders, sometimes facing discipline as a result. Cops refused to break
strikes in Paterson (1877), Chicago (1894), and Cleveland (1896). About a
quarter of the force in Columbus was suspended when they refused strike duty in
1910. In 1916, five New York cops were fired when they refused to guard trains
during a transit strike. And in 1929, several New Orleans officers resigned
rather than work as strikebreakers.

Most recently, in February 2011, when unionists occupied the Wisconsin capitol
building and tens of thousands more filled the streets surrounding it in
opposition to a bill that would strip public employees of most of their
collective bargaining rights, they were joined by a small contingent of
off-duty police, wearing shirts reading “Cops for Labor” and “Deputies for
Democracy.” When the governor threatened to end the sit-in by force, cops
showed up with sleeping bags and stayed the night, engaging in an act of civil
disobedience precisely when confrontation seemed most likely. Solidarity did
not extend to their working hours, however. Within a few days, police cleared
out the protestors and removed the barricades around the capital, arresting 59
people in the process. Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association executive board
president Tracy Fuller confessed that the notion of resisting orders “hasn’t
even come up.” He said: “I’m not able to even fathom that any of those police
officers would not carry out whatever orders were given.” Fuller went on: “I
guess that’s the one ironic thing about this.… I could be down there
confronting my wife with the protest sign that I made.… That’s my job.”

Wherever the sympathies of individual officers may lie, the institution’s
imperatives are always in the service of power. Even where police do not
deliberately side with the employers—even, and maybe especially, when they
present themselves as neutral—class bias is nevertheless built into their
position. Bruce Smith, an early scholar of policing, makes the point clearly:

The substitution of non-union labor for union labor is perfectly legal, and the
police are bound to give protection against any and all interference with the
right to work. The effective performance of this duty … frequently “breaks the
strike,” and the police, whether local or state, are charged with conducting a
strike-breaking operation. At such times, evenhanded justice almost necessarily
operates to the ultimate advantage of vested property rights.

Those occasions when police side with strikers are notable precisely because
they are so rare—increasingly so over time. The authorities noticed when
police disobeyed, and took steps to prevent future mutinies. Sometimes they
shifted strikebreaking responsibility away from local cops (who may have
divided loyalties) and relied instead on State Police or Pinkertons. Commanders
also instituted changes designed to improve discipline in the ranks and reduce
the cops’ concern for the workers’ cause. In his book Policing a Class
, Sidney Harring lists several mechanisms that serve to maintain
officer discipline during strikes. These include racism and ethnic divisions,
disdain for unskilled or low-wage workers, organizational norms and penalties,
the law-and-order ideology, the criminalization of strike activity, and
financial and professional incentives. Most work by using the personal biases
and institutional culture of the police to undercut any sympathy for
disobedient workers—especially when those workers are immigrants or people of
color. Furthermore, those officers who participate in strike duty may earn
overtime pay or bonuses, while those who avoid strike duty may lose the respect
of their peers or face punishment. This combination of coercion,
compensation, and ideological justification has mostly worked to keep the cops
following orders, controlling workers, and breaking strikes. As Tracy Fuller
put it so succinctly: “That’s [the] job.”

An exhaustive recounting of labor battles, police attacks on picket lines, and
unlawful arrests cannot be supplied here, but a few case studies may offer some
sense of the usual police role.

Bread and Roses, Bayonets and Cloth

In 1912, Massachusetts law reduced the workweek for women and children, from
fifty-six hours to fifty-four. The American Woolen Company complied with the
letter of the law, if not the spirit; it reduced the workweek, but made
corresponding cuts in pay. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, where 60,000 people
depended on the earnings of the 25,000 textile workers, and where the average
wage was $8.76 per week, 25 cents more or less made an enormous difference in
the workers’ ability to feed their families. Thus, on January 11, when the
workers received their paychecks and discovered the reduction, they walked
out—first at the Everett cotton mill, and the following day at the Washington
mill. The Washington workers marched to the Wood mill, shut off the power, and
called out the workers there. By that evening, 10,000 were on strike. By the
end of the month, the strike had spread to other industries, and 50,000 people
(in a town of 86,000) were striking. One picket sign expressed the workers’
position clearly, capturing both the desperation of the moment and the hope for
a better future: “We want bread and roses too.”

The repression of the strike was immediate and intense. Arbitrary arrests and
summary judgments became the order of the day, and many strikers were sentenced
to one-year prison terms without ever having the opportunity to put forth a
defense. Leaders were marked for more serious charges, and extreme measures
were taken to discredit the union. When dynamite was discovered in a cobbler’s
shop, police and press alike were quick to blame the strikers, though there was
no evidence to support such a conclusion. The tactic backfired. First, a school
board member, John C. Breen, was arrested, tried, convicted, and fined $500 for
planting the dynamite. Then, Ernest W. Pitman, president of Pitman Construction
Company, implicated himself and several other business leaders in a confession
to the district attorney. Pitman revealed that the incident had been planned by
one of the textile companies, leading to conspiracy charges against Fred E.
Atteaux, the president of the Atteaux Supply Company, and William M. Wood, the
president of the American Woolen Company.

Regardless of the scandal, union leaders were generally blamed for any
violence—not only the violence of the strikers, but that used against them as
well. On January 29, when striking workers attempted to block the mill gates,
the police and the militia attacked, and a riot ensued. An Italian striker,
Anna Lo Pizzo, was shot and killed. Witnesses identified the culprit as officer
Oscar Bemoit, but two IWW leaders were arrested instead. Neither Joseph Ettor
nor Arturo Giovannitti had been present when the shooting occurred, but the
complaint alleged that “before said murder was committed, as aforesaid, Joseph
J. Ettor and Antonio [sic] Giovannitti did incite, procure, and
counsel or command the said person whose name is not known, as aforesaid, to
commit the said murder.…” The police later named Joseph Caruso as an
accomplice and “Salvatore Scuito” as the gunman, though no one of that name was
ever located.

Martial law was declared on January 30, the day after the shooting. Colonel E.
LeRoy Sweetser was given charge of twelve companies of infantry, two cavalry
troops, fifty cops from the Metropolitan Park Force, and twenty-two companies
of militia. Citizens were forbidden to meet or talk in the streets, and Lo
Pizzo’s funeral was broken up by a cavalry charge. Mass arrests became common,
and strikers were rousted from their homes and taken to jail. A Syrian striker,
John Ramy, was stabbed with a bayonet and subsequently died. But the strike
grew. The textile companies kept the looms running, but only as a kind of
propaganda; they had no workers to operate them, and thus no product.
Joseph Ettor commented from jail: “Bayonets cannot weave cloth.”

On February 5, the Italian Socialist Federation proposed evacuating the
strikers’ children. Supplies could thus be saved and the children decently
cared for by sympathetic families. In the three days following, the union
received 400 offers to take in the children. The Socialist Women’s Committee
and a committee of the IWW took applications and inspected the homes. On
February 10, 119 children were sent to New York under the supervision of four
women, two of them nurses. A week later, 103 more were sent to New York, and
thirty-five others to Barre, Vermont. This exodus was embarrassing for both the
government and the mill owners, and on February 17, Colonel Sweetser announced
that no more children would be allowed to leave. But if the socialist
foster-care system was embarrassing, the attempt to disrupt it was absolutely
scandalous. On February 24, when forty children tried to leave for
Philadelphia, they found the train station full of police. A member of the
Women’s Committee of Philadelphia later testified about what happened next:

When the time approached to depart, the children arranged in a long line, two
by two, in orderly procession, with their parents near to hand, were about to
make their way to the train when the police closed in on us with their clubs,
beating right and left, with no thought of children, who were in the most
desperate danger of being trampled to death. The mothers and children were thus
hurled in a mass and bodily dragged to a military truck, and even then clubbed,
irrespective of the cries of the panic stricken women and children.

No further effort was made to interfere with the children, and on March 12, the
American Woolen Company agreed to a new pay rate.

The workers voted to end the strike, but the struggle was not over. New slogans
appeared: “Open the jail doors or we will close the mill gates.” As the
September 30 trial date for Ettor, Giovannitti, and Caruso approached, textile
workers in Lawrence, Haverhill, Lowell, Lynn, and elsewhere threatened to
strike if they were convicted. As a demonstration of their seriousness, 15,000
staged a one-day strike a few days before the trial was set to start. The
police attacked the strikers, arresting fourteen, and almost 2,000 were fired
and blacklisted. But the strikers had already seen worse, and knew something of
their own strength. Amid threats of further strikes, the mill owners were
forced to back down, and after a fifty-eight-day trial, all three defendants
were acquitted.

General Strike and Reign of Terror

In 1934, the West Coast witnessed an extended, and at times bloody, conflict
between dockworkers represented by the International Longshore Association
(ILA) and the business interests represented by the Waterfront Employers Union
and the Industrial Association. Principally, the conflict concerned the control
of the longshore hiring hall and related issues of scheduling, seniority, and,
of course, wages. The bosses preferred to arbitrate the dispute, and the union
leadership was willing to compromise, but the workers had other ideas. A strike
began on May 9 among longshore workers in San Francisco, and quickly spread to
maritime and related industries, reaching up and down the coast. It stalled
the economy of the entire country, but the center of conflict remained in San
Francisco, where it escalated through a series of bloody battles to become a
general strike.

Violence was a major feature of the San Francisco strike, a tool used by both
sides. Strikers commonly beat up scabs, and sent “sanitary” or “clean-up” crews
to patrol the waterfront with bats. The bosses, however, mostly relied on
the violence of the state, especially the police. This was a convenient
relationship, as it legitimized anti-strike violence and shifted the target of
public outrage away from the employers and onto the police. Historian David
Selvin emphasizes the point:

[T]he police even more than the strikebreakers became the strikers’ chief
antagonist. The role of the strikebreaker was soon stabilized and contained,
while police came to serve, day by day, as the employers’ virtual private
assault force. When the clashes came, as they did, the police—not the
strikebreakers—were pitted against the strikers.

The violence started early, and escalated throughout the strike. On the first
day, the police dispersed 500 picketers with relative ease. By the end of the
month, however, the pickets were fighting back, hurling bricks at the cops. The
police then used clubs, gas, and eventually shotguns to break up groups of

The most serious violence accompanied efforts to operate the docks, especially
attempts to move goods to or from the ports. On July 3, 1934, the police
created a corridor down King Street to Pier 38, guarded by a police line on one
side and a row of box cars on the other. As trucks approached, the cops sought
to break up the crowd of strike supporters. They attacked with clubs, tear gas,
and gunfire, injuring many in the crowd as well as numerous bystanders. (A
stray bullet wounded a teller in the nearby American Trust Company.) Strikers
retaliated by throwing rocks, bricks, and tear gas containers back at the
police. At least two strikers were shot, one killed, and eleven hospitalized;
nine cops were injured. The ILA issued a statement on the encounter:
“Striking pickets were clubbed down and rode over by the police who a short
time ago were supposed to be the friends of these same workers. The strike
cannot and will not be settled by force.”

But force seemed to be the authorities’ preferred means of convincing the
workers to return to their jobs. On July 5, the entire San Francisco Police
Department was put on strike duty. The fighting was concentrated in the
area surrounding Pier 38 and Rincon Hill. But the police also moved in on a
crowd at Steuart and Mission, near the ILA hall. Suddenly a car carrying two
police inspectors appeared in the intersection. The inspectors stepped out of
the car, fired their pistols into the crowd, and then fled as the crowd hurled
rocks and bricks at them. Two men died in the attack—Howard S. Sperry, a
longshoreman, and Nick Counderakis (a.k.a. Nick Bordoise), a Communist. A third
man, Charles Olsen, was also shot, but survived. When the injured were
taken to the ILA’s clinic, the police fired into the building and filled it
with tear gas. As the unionists barricaded themselves in the hall, the
telephone rang: “Are you willing to arbitrate now?”

That evening 1,700 National Guard troops were deployed and armored cars
patrolled the streets. The Embarcadero, the street nearest the waterfront, was
enclosed in barbed wire and guarded with machine guns. But the military
fortifications fell short of their objective: the work remained undone. Two
hundred fifty ships sat idle along the coast. Even when a military guard made
it possible for scabs to unload and move cargo, it just sat in the warehouses,
where Teamster truckers refused to touch it. As in Lawrence, the state was
reminded of the practical limits of its reliance on force.

By the end of the day, in addition to Sperry and Bordoise, one other worker had
been killed, and at least 115 hospitalized. Thus July 5 came to be known as
“Bloody Thursday.” Strike leader Harry Bridges called it a “reign of terror.”
He said: “It was an attack by armed men against unarmed peaceful pickets. It
was a massacre of workers by the shipowners through the police.” The next
day, the corner of Steuart and Mission was covered with flowers. Chalked on
the street were the words: “Two men killed here, murdered by police.”

One week later, 4,000 truck drivers walked out, marking the move toward a
general strike. They were quickly joined by butchers, machinists, welders,
laundry workers, culinary workers, cleaners and dyers, and boilermakers:
thirteen unions, representing 32,000 workers, joined the strike. The Teamsters
picketed the city’s southern limits, guarding the only vehicular route to the
city. There they turned back—and sometimes turned over—non-union
trucks. A strike committee issued permits for hospital supplies, food, and
other necessary services, but the city could not function as usual. Signs
began appearing in shop windows: “Closed, Out of Supplies,” “No Gas, Due to the
Strike,” “Closed for the duration,” and “Closed till the boys win.”

The next day the authorities declared an emergency. The police began
stockpiling weapons, swore in 500 special officers, and created an
“anti-radical and crime prevention bureau.” Eighteen hundred cops and 4,500
National Guard troops were now on strike duty, reinforced with machine guns,
tanks, and artillery. Meanwhile, across the bay in Oakland, 15,000
building-trades workers laid down their tools and walked off their jobs. They
were joined by 27,000 workers affiliated with the Central Labor Council.

On July 17, the second day of the general strike, the police launched a
coordinated attack. That morning a group of uniformed officers and plainclothes
detectives raided the Maritime Workers Industrial Union office, breaking down
the door, destroying office equipment and furniture, smashing windows, seizing
records, and arresting everyone present, often delivering a beating in the
process. This was the first of a daylong series of similar raids, not only in
San Francisco, but throughout the state. Police, National Guard troops, and
vigilantes attacked radical hangouts, strike kitchens, newspapers offices, and
even a school. About 300 people were arrested.

Shortly thereafter, on July 20, the strike committee voted to end the general
strike, though the longshore and maritime workers continued striking on their
own. The announcement was met with another wave of police raids and
vigilante attacks. Eleven days later, the last strikers returned to work.
The strike had lasted eighty-two days and involved 30,000 dock workers. Seven
were killed, hundreds were hospitalized, and thousands were treated at the ILA
clinic. There were 938 arrests in San Francisco alone.

In arbitration, the workers won a raise and a thirty-hour week, but were only
granted partial control of the hiring hall—falling short of their most
important demand. The strike delivered real gains, but not the decisive
victory the workers wanted. In this case, they proved unwilling to accept even
a partial defeat, and the class war shifted from a campaign of massive, often
deadly, battles to one of quick, bloodless, guerrilla attacks. Both the
longshore and the ship workers immediately instigated a series of on-the-job
actions against unfair and dangerous conditions. The small-scale strike
quickly became the workers’ most powerful weapon. Between January 1, 1937, and
August 1, 1938, the West Coast docks were the site of 350 strikes, mostly brief
and localized “quickies.”

“Bought and Paid For”

From the past two decades, the most famous example of police-managed
union-busting is probably that of the Detroit Newspaper Strike (and later,
lockout). In July 1995, when 2,600 employees of the Detroit News and
the Detroit Free Press went on strike, the newspapers (together, the
Detroit News Agency) responded by hiring 2,000 private security guards supplied
by Vance International, and by giving money to police in the suburb of Sterling
Heights, where the papers’ production plants are located. Police initially
confiscated clubs and other weapons from Vance guards, but after the Detroit
News Agency’s first donation—a sum of $115,921—the cops’ attitudes changed.
Police ignored harassment and violence on the part of the guards—even when
several Vance agents beat a striker so severely they split his skull.
Meanwhile, union sympathizers were arrested for even minor infractions, such as
blowing the horns of their cars to show support for the strike.

The cops also perpetrated their own violence against the workers. Most
notoriously, on August 19, 1995, a picketer named Frank Brabenec was beaten by
the Sterling Heights police. A widely published photograph showed a uniformed
officer dragging Brabenec along the ground while a plainclothes cop—later
identified as Lieutenant Jack Severance—kicked him. A couple weeks later,
on Saturday, September 2, the police attacked picket lines with pepper spray.
The unions happened to be holding a rally nearby, and 4,000 supporters rushed
to the site of the conflict. The cops called for reinforcements from twenty-two
police agencies, and a sixteen-hour stand-off ensued, during which time trucks
could not enter or leave the plant. Two days later, on Labor Day, a smaller
crowd fought with the security guards. Those first few weeks set the tone
for the next five-and-a-half years, until December 2001, when the unions
finally gave in. Only a third of the striking workers were rehired—at lower
wages, of course.

It is hard to know how much of the blame for this defeat really falls to the
police, especially given the poor planning of the unions, media hostility, and
court orders limiting the number of strikers on picket lines. But it is easy to
see what the cooperation of the police was worth to the Detroit News Agency.
During the course of the strike, the company donated nearly a million dollars
to the Sterling Heights police. Police violence escalated accordingly, and
crowds took to chanting “Bought and paid for!” when the cops arrived. Mayor
Dennis Archer explained that riot police helped to preserve “a good business

Policing the Abattoir

Where the Detroit News Agency hired private guards and more or less rented the
local police department, Smithfield Foods has gone further and formed its own
private state-certified police agency, “Smithfield Foods Special Police.”
Smithfield, the largest pork processor in the country, runs the largest hog
slaughterhouse in the world, which employs more than 5,000 workers and kills
30,000 pigs a day. It was at that plant, located in Tar Heel, North Carolina,
that the company was embroiled in a fifteen-year fight with the United Food and
Commercial Workers union, and where it created its private police force.

The Tar Heel plant opened in 1992, and UFCW began organizing there in 1993. By
2008 the plant had seen three separate union votes. The first two were
defeated, largely owing to what a federal court later called “intense and
widespread coercion.” In addition to the normal sort of anti-union
abuses—spying on workers, confiscating union literature, and threats of firing
employees or shutting down the plant—the company also used law enforcement
to intimidate workers and interfere with their organizing.

Acting under the leadership of Daniel Priest—a former police officer and then,
simultaneously, a sheriff’s deputy and director of plant security—teams of cops
prevented union organizers from flyering workers; uniformed officers later
lingered menacingly in the company parking lot the week before the 1997
vote. During the election itself, the polling station was packed with cops
and security guards, as well as dozens of managers. As the ballots were
collected, Smithfield managers taunted union organizers, sometimes using racial
slurs. (The organizers were Black.) Then, when it was clear the union had lost,
the cops pushed UFCW supporters through the exits, gratuitously beating several
and arresting one.

Since 2000, Priest’s goon squad has been designated a “special police agency”
under the state’s Company Police Act of 1991, thus empowering them to carry
firearms and make arrests. By 2003 the Smithfield Specials were stationing
armed guards throughout the plant, and placing plainclothes agents on the shop
floor, among the workers. “It’s all part of the anti-union campaign,” one UFCW
supporter said, “to intimidate us and turn the plant into an armed camp. For
those of us from Central America it is especially frightening because where we
come from the police shoot trade unionists.”

In 2006, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement also got involved. In the fall
of that year, Smithfield sent letters to 640 workers threatening to fire them
if their papers did not match government records. Some of the letters went to
U.S. citizens; but in November, Smithfield started to make good on its threats,
firing fifty workers. In response, on November 16, at least 500
employees—mostly Latinos and Latinas—walked off the job. But the pressure only
continued to build. After a call from Smithfield managers, ICE started making
arrests in January, often at workers’ homes in the middle of the night.
Approximately 1,500 workers fled rather than risk arrest. The union accused
Smithfield of using ICE to undermine their organizing. The company said that
they were merely following the law and the union campaign was not a factor—a
claim that might be more credible if supervisors hadn’t been threatening to use
ICE against union supporters for more than a decade.

In any case, the immigration ploy backfired. The vacancies left by the raids
were mostly filled with African Americans, who on the whole strongly supported
the union drive. And the November walk-out showed that the Latina and Latino
workers who remained were willing to fight. In December 2008, after fifteen
years of organizing, two failed votes, and lawsuits from each side, Tar Heel
workers voted 2,041 to 1,879 in a court-supervised election to affiliate with
the UFCW. “It was close,” said Smithfield Foods media representative Dennis
Pittman, but: “As we said all along, we will respect their decision.”

Class Conflict, Continuity, and Change: The Long View

Smithfield and Sterling Heights show how little has changed over the course of
a century. Naturally, strikes and other labor actions still focus on many of
the same issues, since there is a permanent conflict of interest between
workers and their employers when it comes to matters of pay, hours, and
control. And in the clashes between workers and capital, the police continue to
line up on the side of capital. But the differences between these later
disputes and those of the early twentieth century are also clear enough.
Violence persists, but at lower levels. Battles between police and workers are
sometimes bloody, but rarely deadly.

These reduced levels of violence are the result of a shift in the form of class
conflict: unionization, collective bargaining, and even strikes have been
formalized, institutionalized, and subject to legal regulation. Increasingly,
this development has taken the struggles of workers out of the factories and
the streets and placed them instead in courthouses and government offices.
Companies, then, have come to rely less on police or Pinkerton thuggery to keep
the workers in line. At the same time, the militancy of the labor movement
overall has suffered a sustained decline, and the power within unions has
shifted away from the rank and file and toward the official leadership, the
paid staff, and their legal advisors.

This process was already taking hold at the time of the San Francisco General
Strike of 1934. In fact, the strike may be seen as the workers’ direct
resistance to the institutionalization of class conflict on two fronts: first,
in their refusal to submit substantive issues to arbitration; and second, in
following the leadership of rank-and-file members like Harry Bridges, rather
than obeying the orders of union officials. The depth of this
resistance—the degree to which workers refused to play by the prescribed rules,
and rejected the given definitions of victory and defeat—is evident in the
continuation of the struggle even after they had returned to work. The strike
ended, but the workers did not surrender. They, in effect, moved the conflict
to an arena where the influence of the union officials, the courts, and the
police could be minimized, and where the strength of the workers was
greatest—on the shop floor.

More than seventy years later, these tensions were still present in the
longshore unions. Beginning in the summer of 2011, dockworkers in Longview,
Washington engaged in a series of increasingly militant actions in an effort to
force Export Grain Terminal (EGT) to bargain with their union, the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). On July 11, more than 100
workers were arrested when they tore down a fence, briefly occupied EGT’s yard,
and sabotaged machinery. A few days later, 600 people, including members of
other unions, blocked rail lines leading to EGT’s terminal, forcing trains to
return to their point of departure without unloading their cargo. That
September, a judge issued an injunction against blocking trains and limited
picket lines to eight people at each gate. But the actions continued. Four
hundred blocked the train tracks for four hours on September 7, until police
with shotguns cleared them away. The next day, 500 union supporters returned
and stormed the property, breaking windows in the guardhouse, sabotaging
equipment, and dumping approximately 10,000 tons of grain. In the weeks that
followed, police started arresting longshore workers, often roughly, at their
homes, in their cars, and at church. In response to the arrests—and other
harassment, such as police shining spotlights into homes in the middle of the
night—the union organized a silent march from their meeting hall to the
courthouse, where all 200 members offered to turn themselves in. The sheriff
refused, saying he wasn’t prepared to take so many people into custody, but
piecemeal arrests continued.

On September 21, as eighty cops escorted a train into the EGT yard, nine
members of ILWU Women’s Auxiliary #14 peacefully sat on
the tracks in an act of civil disobedience. The police response was not as
peaceful. Arresting the women, they broke the arm of fifty-seven-year-old
grandmother Phoebe West, wrenching it far behind her back. ILWU Executive Board
member Kelly Muller and some other longshore workers ran over to help the
women, and were immediately attacked themselves. “They hit us,” Muller said.
“They didn’t even give us a warning. Here comes four or five cops. They take us
to the ground and are on my back. I hit my head on the railroad track.” Other
witnesses confirm that, while Muller was on the ground, the cops kicked him,
cuffed him, and then got out their pepper spray. “The cops pried both my eyes
open,” he recalls. “They spray into my face and into my mouth while I’m

“We have a city government here,” Local 21 president Dan Coffman observed,
“that’s basically EGT’s security force.”

In the end, however, the workers were not defeated by the police, but by their
own union leaders. Fearing a confrontation they could not control, the ILWU’s
international officers cut off support for the strike, interposed politically
and sometimes violently to disrupt solidarity actions, took direct control of
negotiations, and ultimately imposed a contract without a vote of the
membership. It was a bad bargain: the union lost control of the hiring process,
the company gained the right to use scabs, and workers were assigned
twelve-hour shifts without overtime pay. The defeat was widely viewed as a
precedent—less democracy in the union, fewer demands on the boss, worse
conditions on the docks.

The institutionalization of class conflict has changed unions and strikes,
certainly; it has also changed the means of controlling the working class, and
the role of the police in particular. Police tactics, strategies, and
organization have all shifted and developed as the forms of conflict have. All
the while, the basic aims of policing—control of the powerless, defense of the
powerful—have remained essentially the same. The relationship between these
changes and continuities will be examined in the chapters that follow.

6: Police Autonomy and Blue Power

The ongoing history of police anti-labor action seems at odds with the growth
of militant police unions in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Nevertheless, the police have organized unions, and in many cases their unions
occupy a central place in the constellations of local political power. In
addition to advocating improved wages and working conditions, prosecuting
grievances, and obstructing (or sometimes preventing) discipline against
individual officers, the unions also have a strong hand in setting public
policy, inside and outside their respective departments. Few changes in public
safety or security policies can be made without the tacit approval of the
police unions, and the officers’ associations are routinely consulted on
changes in the criminal code, or in city policies that might indirectly affect
police work. When controversies arise concerning the police, their actions, or
their role in society, it often falls to the unions to detail the “law and
order” perspective. The organization’s agenda may then dominate the debate, or
even define its terms.

This influence has been hard-won and always controversial. The police union’s
development, between the end of the nineteenth century and today, has been
tightly braided with changes concerning standards of public morality, the shape
of municipal government, race relations, and, of course, class conflict.
Embedded within every strand of this cord, exposed with every tangle and snare,
lies a question about the nature of democracy, and about the role of police
power in a democratic society.

From Strikebreakers to Strikers (and Back Again)

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, police in many cities belonged to
social organizations, called either “Patrolmen’s Benevolent Associations”
(PBAs) or “Fraternal Orders of Police” (FOPs). The two types of organizations
functioned along similar lines, providing their members insurance and promoting
their overall health and well-being. The main differences were that, whereas
the PBAs were only open to patrolmen and were strictly independent, the FOPs
were open to any officer and were affiliated nationally. Both groups
petitioned for better working conditions, efforts that the authorities
tolerated so long as there was no move toward unionization. The rank and
file crossed that line during World War I, when a steep rise in the cost of
living pushed several organizations to apply for charters from the American
Federation of Labor. In a break with its previous position, the AFL granted the
charters, and the police unionized in numerous cities, including Cincinnati,
Washington, Los Angeles, St. Paul, Fort Worth, and, most famously, Boston.

Unhappy with long hours, low pay, favoritism, and the sorry condition of their
stationhouses, on August 15, 1919, members of the existing police association,
the Boston Social Club, voted to affiliate with the AFL. They thus created
the Boston Police Union Number 16 of the American Federation of Labor. Less
than a month later, on September 8, Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis
responded by suspending nineteen union supporters. A strike began the next

Approximately three-quarters of the Boston Police Department joined the strike,
creating a politically uncomfortable situation made worse by rampant crime and
widespread disorder. Almost immediately, small crowds gathered around craps
games on the Boston Common. By the evening of September 9, the disorder had
escalated to the point of looting. Rioters overturned parked cars, and numerous
gang rapes were reported. Some rowdies took the opportunity to settle scores
with striking police. Crowds gathered at stationhouses and pelted the strikers
with mud, rocks, bottles, and rotten fruit as they left the building. A South
Boston Vigilance Committee was formed and tried to keep order, but its
volunteers were savagely beaten.

The rioting ended when 3,000 State Guard troops, scab police, and a provost
navy guard unit broke up the crowds. The State Guard killed three people in the
process—including one bystander and one person who was fleeing. A fourth was
killed as the soldiers broke up the craps games on the Common, and two more
died when the militia attacked a group of boys trying to steal a manhole cover.
By September 11, eight were dead and more than seventy injured—twenty-one
seriously, several of them children. More than $300,000 in property had been
damaged or stolen. On September 12, the striking patrolmen voted unanimously to
end the strike if only their suspended colleagues would be reinstated. Instead,
Curtis fired all the striking police. The State Guard patrolled until
December 12.

Following the strike’s defeat, many states passed laws forbidding police
unions, and the AFL revoked the charters of all its police locals. Isolated
from the rest of the labor movement and lacking political support, the new
unions were crushed in city after city. Local governments then raised wages so
as to remove any incentive for re-forming the unions. Immediately after the
strike, the starting salary for Boston police was increased to $1,400 per year.
(Only a few months before it had been as low as $730). Between 1919 and
1929, police wages increased by 30 percent in Detroit, 50 percent in Chicago,
70 percent in Los Angeles, and 100 percent in Oakland. By 1929, patrolmen
earned between $1,500 (in Cincinnati) and $2,500 (in New York), which put them
on par with most skilled laborers.

This strategy worked to neutralize rank-and-file organizing throughout the
1930s, restricting their activity to the lobbying tactics of the early
PBAs. But in the 1940s, unionization was again on the agenda, and by 1944
the AFL had police unions in 168 cities. In the name of preserving their
neutrality, police departments generally responded to this new wave of
organizing in the same way they had before—barring the organizations and firing
union supporters.

In the 1950s, after the NYPD defeated a Transport Worker’s Union drive by
offering the officers concessions, Commissioner George Monaghan established
Rule 225: “No member of the police force of the city of New York shall become a
member of any labor union.” He reasoned that the rule was necessary to protect the policemen from influences or commitments which might impair
their ability to perform their duties impartially and without fear or favor, or
might tend to weaken or undermine the discipline and authority to which they
must necessarily be subjected.

Appeals to the “neutrality” of the police are questionable, given their
historical use against strikes and unions. Monaghan’s second reason probably
comes closer to the truth: unionization was seen as a threat to the authority
of police commanders.

Whatever the justification, restrictions against unionization proved
ineffectual, and some commanders were forced to try other approaches in order
to preserve their control. In 1941, the AFL supported an FOP organizing drive
in the Detroit Police Department. The department harassed officers who
supported the drive, fired its leaders, and procured court orders barring
unionization, but half of the patrolmen joined the organization anyway. The
next year, however, the FOP lost ground when the Detroit Police Officers
Association (DPOA) was formed with the backing of police commanders. Carl
Parsell, who served as the DPOA president in the late sixties, explained: “It
started out basically a company union under their guidance, under their
control. They gave you the rights at their pleasure.”

Things took a different turn in New York, though a similar strategy was in
evidence. The PBA sued to protect itself from Rule 225, and won. The court
found that the department could bar “organizations of policemen affiliated with
non-police labor associations or officered by non-policemen,” but could not
interfere with the PBA’s activities.

The distinction became relevant in June 1958, when the Teamsters publicly
announced an effort to unionize the police. The announcement put pressure on
the PBA leadership to produce results, and it also gave police managers an
incentive to cooperate with the PBA rather than face the stronger muscle of the
Teamsters. A Journal-American editorial suggested:

The surest way of slapping down Hoffa would be for Mayor Wagner, Commissioner
Kennedy, and the representatives of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association to
begin exploring methods by which such grievance machinery would be set up with
proper safeguards all around.

That is, more or less, what occurred. After the Teamsters’ drive was defeated,
PBA president John Cassese set about winning gains for his organization’s
members. By 1961, lobbying, lawsuits, and job actions (including ticket
speed-ups and slowdowns) had won the PBA a dues check-off, protections against
management retaliation, and a formal grievance system. Two years later, Mayor
Robert Wagner (whose father had authored the National Labor Relations Act)
extended collective bargaining rights to police officers, and the PBA won
better wages and retirement benefits as a result. In exchange, the PBA agreed
to a no-strike clause and a bar from affiliating with other unions.

The leaders of the police associations (PBA and FOP alike) were only too glad
to protect their positions from the competition of the Teamsters or American
Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), but no-strike
provisions proved more difficult to enforce. The authorities learned this the
hard way in 1967 when the Detroit police staged a sick-out (nicknamed the “Blue
Flu”). A year later, the Newark police did the same, and the Chicago cops
threatened their own Blue Flu epidemic. In 1969, the Atlanta FOP organized
“Operation No Case,” in which the police issued fewer tickets and overlooked
minor offenses. The next year, Atlanta officers repeated the tactic without
union approval, initiating a ten-week slowdown. The trend continued
throughout the seventies, with strikes in Baltimore, Cleveland, Memphis, and
New Orleans. When faced with a walkout or slowdown, the authorities usually
decided that the pragmatic need to get the cops back to work trumped the city
government’s long-term interest in diminishing the rank and file’s power.

The Detroit sick-out provides an interesting illustration of the forces at work
in these conflicts. The action began on May 16, 1967, with a ticket slowdown.
The police continued to pull over speeding motorists, thus technically
enforcing the law, but they issued warnings rather than citations.
Overnight the number of traffic tickets dropped to one-half its previous level.
Between May 16 and June 14, the number of tickets was down 66.9 percent
compared to the previous thirty days, and 71.5 percent relative to the same
period a year before. It’s estimated that the effort cost the city about
$15,000 each day. On June 6, the DPOA escalated the conflict when its members
voted to stop volunteering for overtime. The following week, police commanders
responded to the disruption by suspending sixty-one officers. Then, on June 15,
323 cops called in sick.

DPOA president Carl Parsell denied that the action constituted a strike, but
said: “Policemen for the first time are joining the labor movement. They are
beginning to think and act like a trade union.” The city filed a lawsuit
against the DPOA, instituted emergency twelve-hour shifts, and alerted the
National Guard. The strike not only continued, but grew. On June 17, 800 of the
city’s 2,700 officers were absent. Of these, 170 had been suspended, 459 were
“sick,” and fifteen cited family emergencies. As the conflict escalated, each
side grew increasingly eager to find a resolution, and on June 20, a tentative
agreement was reached. The next day, the police returned to work.

The proposed agreement granted the DPOA changes in policy and discipline, and established a grievance procedure, but it
was not at all clear that the fight was over, or which side would prevail. All
“non-economic” issues were settled, but there was still the matter of wages,
and the deal had to be approved by the city council. The tension persisted.
Commanders had only a tenuous grasp on the loyalties of their subordinates. But
then a funny thing happened—the Detroit riot of 1967. With the Black community
in open revolt, the cops, the city government, and local elites very quickly
rediscovered their previous affinity. In bringing the labor dispute to a close,
the specially appointed Detroit Police Dispute Panel noted: “Far more than the
interests of the police officers themselves is involved. As has become obvious
in recent months … the police force is the first line of defense against civil
disorder.” The cops got their raises.

In contrast to the defeated strike of 1919, the labor skirmishes of the 1960s
and 1970s solidified the positions of the police associations and had the
somewhat paradoxical effect of buttressing the top-to-bottom unity of the
departments. The unions asserted increasing levels of influence over
departmental policy, and the police management used the unions to win
rank-and-file cooperation. Such management-union partnerships reinforced
the institution’s cohesion, allowed disparate parts of the organization to
develop a community of interests, and provided a means for settling disputes
and resolving grievances. But they retained traditional taboos against
autonomous rank-and-file action and meaningful expressions of solidarity with
other labor organizations.

Whereas the Boston strike had been ignominiously defeated, the Detroit strike
was resolved in a way that strengthened both the department and the union.
Clearly, a lot had changed during the intervening half-century. The relevant
differences were not limited to shifts in policing and labor organizing, but
also concerned the overall character and function of municipal government.

The Death of the Machines

During the early twentieth century, police departments were subject to a
battery of reforms, changing the institution’s structure, aims, and personnel.
These changes were not motivated by concerns about racism or brutality so much
as they constituted one part of the Progressive movement’s general effort to
re-invent urban government.

It is not hard to see why reform was needed. Under political machines, there
was little to distinguish an official’s personal attachments, interests,
loyalties, and obligations from the duties, responsibilities, powers, and
benefits of his office. Authority rested as much in the informal and
decentralized ward networks as in the government itself or the offices of the
various municipal departments. Positions were filled strictly along partisan
lines or as personal favors; there was no pretense of professionalism or
impartiality. Discipline was lax, corruption was sanctified, and bribery was a
major source of income at every level of the hierarchy. In this context, it was
the job of the police to protect illicit businesses, extort money from honest
citizens, rig elections, and otherwise enforce the will of neighborhood bosses.
So long as they were successful in these central tasks, it made little
difference to the machine bosses whether the cops engaged in petty crime,
neglected their legal duties, were rude in their encounters with the public, or
used violence unnecessarily.

As a result, police legitimacy was sorely
lacking. This problem was aggravated by a long series of scandals implicating
departments around the country in organized crime and other types of
corruption. For example, at the turn of the century, Los Angeles mayor Arthur
Harper, police chief Charles Sebastian, and a local pimp formed a syndicate in
order to monopolize prostitution in the city; the police were used to suppress
competition and protect the syndicate’s operations. In 1912, Herman Rosenthal,
a professional gambler, accused the New York City Police of protecting gambling houses; he was
murdered on his way to meet with the district attorney. The next year, San
Francisco papers revealed that a group of detectives had recruited a gang of
con men, offering protection in return for 15 percent of the total take (an
estimated gross of $300,000 annually). And during Prohibition, dozens of
Cincinnati cops sold confiscated liquor and offered protection to bootleggers
in return for a share of the profits. Such scandals largely discredited the
police departments and the machines to which they were attached. The
Progressive agenda offered a map toward legitimacy.

Seeking to replace the machine system, Progressive reformers looked to business
and the military for organizational models. Schools, for instance, were
reorganized on a corporate model, whereas the police were structured along
military lines. This military analogy provided a positive ideal of what the
police could be—a disciplined, hierarchically organized force, with the chief
holding nearly absolute power. More specifically, the reformers offered three
recommendations for change: departments should be centralized; the quality of
personnel should be improved; and police operations should be narrowly focused
on crime control, with an emphasis on prevention.

Toward these ends, police departments were divided, as far as possible, into
specialized units with a streamlined chain of command and an articulated
hierarchy. Chiefs were given more control and discipline was moved from
external boards, which were deemed “political,” to internal “professional”
mechanisms. Civil service procedures were instituted, age and education
requirements were established, and character checks and psychological exams
were introduced.

But the success of the Progressive movement was uneven overall. Despite the
trend toward centralization and rationalized management, little changed in the
areas of policy or procedure, and neighborhood precinct stations retained much
of their autonomy. Police chiefs did not, on the whole, receive the
lifetime tenure Progressives proposed. And the police still had a broad
range of duties, even after specialization. In fact, contrary to the rhetoric
of the time, the police function did not so much narrow, as it shifted to meet
new demands for social order.

Yet modest successes had a profound effect on the character of government.
Around the country, political machines were beginning to decay. The localized,
personalistic, and unabashedly corrupt machine system was giving way to a new
kind of public administration. In theory, the new system was very nearly the
opposite of the old—it operated legalistically, acting according to general
principles and enforcing rules impersonally. City government was becoming

Bureaucratization and Bourgeois Control

Police reforms contributed in several ways to the rise of bureaucracy. The
narrowing of the police function promoted bureaucratic development, not only
within police departments, but throughout the city government. As elections,
health regulations, licensing, and welfare duties were removed from the list of
police responsibilities, other municipal departments—other bureaucracies—were
created to take over these tasks. A similar process occurred within
departments, as civilians began performing clerical, technical, and
administrative work.

The efforts to improve personnel also resulted in increased bureaucratization.
Cops were assigned civil service status or military rank, barred from accepting
rewards, paid higher salaries, provided better training, and hired and promoted
on the basis of exams. By rationalizing the selection of personnel and the
delivery of services, the new procedures reduced the opportunities for personal
favors and patronage, thus cutting machine bosses off from their means of
securing support.

Centralization, likewise, reduced the importance of the local precincts and
undercut a strategic base of the ward organizations. It also made it
possible for such specialized functions as vice control, record-keeping,
internal investigations, and detective work to be removed from the precincts
and assigned to squads controlled by headquarters. This reorganization
limited the opportunities for corruption and, again, put power in the hands of
the police chief rather than ward bosses or precinct commanders.

But despite the specialization, civil service procedures, and administrative
centralization, the ideal of bureaucratic control proved incompatible with the
dispersed and highly discretionary activities that characterized police work
and made policing a source of power for the state. Rules were crafted,
records kept, promotions and assignments somewhat rationalized—but the cop on
the beat was expected and required to exercise just the sort of individual
discretion and situational judgment denied to his counterpart on the lower
rungs of proper bureaucracies. This situation allowed corruption, prejudice,
favoritism, and political influences some amount of latitude on the
street—where the police did their work—while limiting these factors in the
offices of management, where policy was set. The military aspects of reform
were just as limited. Some departments adopted military ranks, instituted
drilling, and began requiring target practice, but discipline was not
established along military lines (in part because of the resistance of
patrolmen’s associations). In short, cops became neither soldiers nor
bureaucrats; they did, however, cease acting as the pawns of the political

Reformers quickly learned that this administrative independence cut both ways.
Historian James Richardson writes:

While civil service procedures reduced some of the politician’s power over the
policemen’s working life, they also reduced policemen’s receptivity to reform
leadership. Increasingly, the police could follow their own lead, independent
both of the party organizations and the innovative administrations.

Hence, while the new system of administration diminished the influence of
machine bosses, it did so by bolstering the position of municipal bureaucracies
as independent seats of power. While sometimes frustrating reformers, this
arrangement was not wholly disadvantageous for the city administrators, mayors,
and politicians, as it let them disavow the police department’s excesses
without needing to do anything to stop them. If authority was invested
exclusively in the police chiefs, then the chiefs would also incur whatever
blame was directed at the department, though they faced few consequences of
public disfavor. But even the position of the chief of police was not
necessarily as strong as it appeared, and discipline was generally limited by
the need to maintain the loyalty of those in his command. Egon Bittner

It is exceedingly rare that a ranking police officer can take positive charge
of police action, and even in the cases where this is possible, his power to
determine the course of action is limited to giving the most general kinds of
directions. But like all superiors, police superiors do depend on the good will
of the subordinates.… Thus, they are forced to resort to the only means
available to insure a modicum of loyalty, namely, covering mistakes. The more
blatantly an officer’s transgression violates an explicit departmental
regulation the less likely it is that his superior will be able to conceal it.
Therefore, to be helpful, as they must try to be, superiors must confine
themselves to white-washing bad practices involving relatively unregulated
conduct, that is, those dealings with citizens that lead up to arrests.

The protection that the individual policeman once received from his political
patron now came from his superior officers. In a formal sense, the police faced
more discipline, while in practice they continued to engage the public—or
certain parts of it—according to their own judgment. Hence, bureaucratization
increased the autonomy of the department as a whole and, ironically, preserved
the discretion enjoyed by officers at the lowest ranks.

Yet this gap in accountability was not particularly worrisome to reformers of
the time. The Progressive movement, while often credited with improving the
quality of public services and reducing corruption, was not especially
concerned with protecting the rights of the poor. Reform efforts were not led
by Black and immigrant workers, who constituted the usual victims of the police
abuse, but by businessmen and professionals. The Progressive agenda
reflected the ideology and interests of this constituency. By promoting
bureaucratic reform, these “respectable” classes sought to ensure their own
control over the workings of the local governments. J.W. Hill, an influential
reformer in Des Moines, wrote: “The professional politician must be ousted and
in his place capable business men chosen to conduct the affairs of the city.”
Likewise, I.M. Earle, the general counsel of the Bankers Life Association and a
reform advocate, explained, “When the plan [for a commission government] was
adopted, it was the intention to get businessmen to run it.”

Put simply, the reformers hoped to break the machines and, at the same time,
push working-class immigrants out of politics. Because immigrants generally
lived together in distinct neighborhoods, they had been well placed to
influence the ward-based machines. So Progressive reforms replaced districted
elections with city-wide contests and strengthened the mayor’s office to the
detriment of the ward councilors. The reforms thus practically limited
popular access to government. Meanwhile, other efforts were underway to
restrict suffrage, assimilate immigrant children, and regulate the numbers of
new immigrants.

Progressive efforts encouraged legalistic administration and promoted
transparency, but these gains were only really extended to the White,
Protestant, native-born, English-speaking middle and upper classes. The
transition, then, was from a populist gangsterism to an elitist republicanism.
The Progressive movement replaced machine politics with class rule.

Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson explain this transformation:

The machine provided the politician with a base of influence deriving from its
control of lower-income voters. As this base shrinks, he becomes more dependent
on other sources of influence—especially newspapers, civic associates, labor
unions, business groups, and churches. “Nonpolitical” (read nonparty) lines of
access to the city administration are substituted for “political” ones.
Campaign funds come not from salary kickbacks and the sale of favors, but from
rich men and from companies doing business with the city. Department heads and
other administrators who are able to command the support of professional
associations and civic groups become indispensable to the mayor and are
therefore harder for him to control. Whereas the spoils of office formerly went
to “the boys” in the [vote-]delivery wards in the form of jobs and favors, they
now go in the form of urban renewal projects, street cleaning, and better
police protection to [public opinion-producing] newspaper wards.

The poor did not control, or especially benefit from, the political machines.
But the machines required their participation and offered them something in
return. The emerging bureaucracies of the Progressive Era, in contrast, were
designed to limit their participation. The poor did not control these either,
and the new system offered them terribly little.

Machine rule was replaced with the more subtle power of the capitalist class.
Where local government had been administered according to strictly material
incentives, it was now guided by administrative norms and the formal rules of
bureaucracy, backed with the moral standards and political ideology of the
Protestant bourgeoisie. This victory was ironic, in a sense, because
Progressive rhetoric centered on “taking the police out of politics,” and
conversely, “taking the politics out of policing.” Though the reforms
did grant police commanders a fresh independence from the demands of
politicians, the idea of taking the politics out of policing was doomed at the
outset—as ridiculous a notion as taking the politics out of government. As
Robert Fogelson argues:

Far from being mere administrative bodies
that enforced the law, kept the peace, and served the public, the police
departments were policy-making agencies that helped to decide which laws were
enforced, whose peace was kept, and which public was served.… [The] police
thereby exercised a great deal of influence over the process of mobility, the
distribution of power, and the struggle for status in urban America. To put it
bluntly, no institution which had so great an impact on the lives and livelihoods of so many citizens could have been
separated from the political process. Nor, so long as the nation was committed
to democracy and pluralism, should it have been. None of the reform
proposals—neither the schemes to centralize the police forces, upgrade their
personnel, and narrow their function nor the appeals to transform them along
the lines of a military organization—could have changed this situation.

In effect, the city government was wrested from the grip of the political
machines, and the police were removed from the control of the city government,
but the business and professional classes exercised a high level of influence
over both the city government and the police. The Progressive Era saw
simultaneously an increase in state autonomy and the full rise of capitalist
class hegemony.

To understand this concurrence, we must recognize that “hegemony” is not
synonymous with dictatorial rule. It is more subtle, more flexible, and
therefore also more insidious and more resilient. It is characterized less by
the direct issuing of orders than by the setting of agendas, the framing of
debate, the articulation of standards, the valuation of alternatives, and the
delineation of available options. It is through hegemony that the ruling
class creates a bounded sphere of institutional autonomy. Without need of
conspiracies or actual censorship, its ideological ascendancy determines in
advance which issues will be raised, which debates will be aired, and
ultimately, whose interests will be considered and whose rights respected.

Professionalization: A Conspiracy Against the Laity

Despite the limitations of their actual reforms, the Progressives’ ideology
prevailed, and a perspective that was both Nativist and bureaucratic became the
accepted view of newspapers, churches, commercial organizations, civic
associations, universities, and other opinion-makers. It also, predictably,
found an audience among police administrators.

A second wave of police reform originated from within law enforcement. More
specifically, it was brought to policing by newcomers to the field. During the
1930s, depressed economic conditions made police work attractive to the large
numbers of men seeking steady employment. Police departments became more
selective, and the sudden influx of middle-class officers—many of whom
shared the values of the Progressive reformers—changed the character of the
institution. This “new breed” of officer found their backgrounds and ideals in
conflict with the lowly status of their jobs and the ideology of the
departments, but thanks to the civil service procedures, they soon moved
through the ranks and into command positions.

The new police reformers retained Progressive assumptions about the purpose of the police, the need for its
leaders to be autonomous, and the nature of political legitimacy, but were
motivated by their own immediate frustration with the low level of respect
accorded the occupation. Despite the previous wave of reforms, the police had
remained ineffective and often corrupt. Departments were badly managed, with
little forward planning, poor supervision, and no rational division of labor.
Though formal standards and bureaucratic civil service procedures did exist,
the personnel were poorly trained and generally undisciplined.

Faced with these conditions, the “new breed” sought to professionalize
policing, and thereby raise their social standing. Beginning in the late 1920s
and early 1930s, they developed a model of professionalism that achieved
prominence in police circles by mid-century. This model emphasized strict
admission standards, extensive training, a high level of technical knowledge,
and a devotion to service and a commitment to the public interest. By
becoming a profession, the reasoning went, police could improve the quality of
their work, raise their own status, and further insulate themselves from
outside interference.

The professional movement overlapped chronologically with the latter part of
the Progressive Era, and the new reforms continued some of the efforts begun by
the Progressives. For example, they continued the project of reorganizing
departments along functional lines and managed to close more precincts,
extending the reliance on special squads and streamlining the hierarchy. While
these changes did further diminish the influence of neighborhood bosses (whose
power was already in decline), they often just shifted corruption from the
wards to the squads. In a textbook case of failed reform, Chicago mayor Richard
Daley responded to a 1960 burglary-ring scandal by replacing Police
Commissioner Timothy J. O’Connor with reform luminary O.W. Wilson. Wilson set
about professionalizing the department, removing corrupt or incompetent
commanders, instituting a system of promotions based on seniority and
competitive exams, and closing seventeen of the thirty-eight district
stations—but corruption continued unabated. A 1964 Justice Department report
revealed that a score of Chicago cops, including an internal affairs
investigator, were running a protection racket.

Reformers took steps to regulate the quality of the personnel, using physical
examinations, education requirements, character checks, and the civil service
process to weed out undesirable applicants. Whether these measures
succeeded in “improving” the quality of recruits is another matter. Critics at
the time denounced the professional ideology as elitist, and in many
cities, the new requirements were used to prevent racial minorities from
joining the force.

The reform commanders seemed to want to fill departments with recruits whose
backgrounds and values resembled their own, but the practical consequences of
these changes were not what their advocates had intended. When the economy
recovered from the Depression, the “professionalized” departments had trouble
attracting and keeping recruits. The pay had not kept pace with that of other
occupations, prestige was still lacking, and new officers could only enter the
department at the lowest level. Since the best cops did not always advance
through the ranks, and the worst were seldom removed, stagnation set in. The
quality of leadership suffered, and the police became increasingly

Compared to the Progressives, the
advocates of professionalization had more success in instituting their
prescribed reforms, but they did no better in achieving their ultimate aims.
The status of the police did not come to equal that of doctors and lawyers, and
the departments were only mildly cleaner than before. The main effect of
professionalization was to increase police autonomy. And professionalization,
like bureaucratization, not only institutionalized that autonomy, but helped to
legitimize it. The discourse
surrounding professionalization encouraged institutional problems to be thought
of in technical terms, and thus referred to the “experts”—the police. Issues
of accountability and oversight were thus framed as professional matters with
which the uninitiated should not be trusted to interfere.

The move toward professionalization embodied both a continuation of and a
reaction against the bureaucratization of policing. The advocates of
professionalization, usually police administrators, envisioned their project as
an extension of the bureaucratic reforms, with an increased emphasis on the
quality of recruits and higher public esteem for the occupation. The
rank-and-file officer, on the other hand, had a very different notion of what
professionalization implied: “The professionally-minded patrolman,” James
Richardson explains, “wants to act according to his evaluation of the situation
and not according to some bureaucratic directive.” Professionalization very
clearly promoted police autonomy, but it was deeply ambivalent about what this
meant for the management of departments. Did professionalization only require
the autonomy of the institution relative to the civilian authorities, or did it
also demand the autonomy of the patrolman relative to departmental control? In
practice the second followed from the first, as commanders sought to protect
themselves from criticism. Rather than exposing abuses and disciplining the
officers, internal affairs investigators and unit commanders took their task as
the defense of the department as a whole, and especially of the officers under
their command. Professionalization, again like the earlier reform effort,
continued to put supervisors in the position of covering for their

At the same time as the “professional” police were asserting a new
independence, they also adopted strategies that increased their presence in the
lives of the urban poor and people of color. The professional model encouraged
police leaders to take seriously the elusive goal of preventing crime. Making the most of the new squad structure,
the police sought to reduce the opportunity for crime, experimenting with
vehicular patrols, saturation tactics, and high-discretion techniques like
“stop-and-search” or “field interrogation.” For example, in the late 1950s, the
San Francisco police used each of these approaches in tandem. Chief Thomas
Cahill created an “S Squad” (“S” standing for “saturation”) to be deployed in
high-crime areas, with instructions to stop, question, and search suspicious
characters. During its first year, the S Squad stopped 20,000 people, filed
11,000 reports, and made 1,000 arrests. Most of those they stopped were Black
and/or young people. The preventive aims of the professionals led the police to intervene in situations that they
would have previously ignored, or which were not even (legally speaking)
criminal matters. This new, more intensive scrutiny promoted a generalized
distrust on both sides, as police grew ever more suspicious of the public and
the public (especially the Black community) grew increasingly resentful of the
police. As we have seen, this antipathy bore bitter fruit in the years that

Unionization and Blue Power

Today’s police unions are the bastard children of the mid-century
professionals. Though earlier union efforts had met with little success, the
fissures and contradictions of the professional agenda helped create conditions
that made unionization possible. While the rhetoric of professionalization lent
legitimacy to demands for higher pay and greater autonomy, the prescriptions of
the reformers alienated the regular officers and produced additional strife
with the public. This situation created new tensions within police departments
and brought the idea of unionization back to the fore.

Though coming as a direct result of the attempts to professionalize policing,
union organizing efforts were of a quite different character. The movement for
police unions reflected a working-class labor perspective rather than a
middle-class professional agenda, and found its support with the mass of patrol
officers rather than with commanders. The International Association of Chiefs
of Police recognized this difference as crucial, and described unionization as
sounding “the death knell of professionalization.”

The influence of unionization has extended far beyond such basic matters as
wages, working conditions, and grievances. Unionization, like the previous two
waves of reform, had the general effect of increasing the institutional
autonomy of the department and the autonomy of individual officers. But
unionization took the latter as one of its principle aims, and for that matter,
sought to provide the lowest-level officers collective power over the
institution as a whole.

As the police unions grew, they set about negotiating policy matters, including
those governing patrols, deployment, and discipline. As Jerome Skolnick
noted, the agenda quickly broadened to include “questions of social policy,
including which type of conduct should be criminal, societal attitudes toward
protest, the procedural rights of defendants, and the sufficiency of resources
allocated to the enforcement of the criminal law.” These efforts
represented what sociologist Rodney Stark recognized as “a phenomenon new to
American society: the emergence of the police as a self-conscious, organized,
and militant political constituency, bidding for far-reaching political power
in their own right.”

The police also returned to open electioneering—like in the machine days, but
with a difference. Rather than owing allegiance to their patrons and taking
orders from the ward bosses, the police had developed into a constituency for
the politicians to wow and woo. Police support could make or break a candidate,
and once in office the politician owed his allegiance to the cops, rather than
the other way around.

Some politicians made the most of the new balance of power. Philadelphia police
commissioner, and later mayor, Frank Rizzo deftly exploited the political
potential of the department, building himself a career while at the same time
amplifying the power of the police and increasing their independence. Under
Rizzo’s guidance, the police department became the unrivaled foundation of his

It wasn’t long before police unions started producing their own candidates, and
served in some places as a ladder into office. In 1969, Wayne Larking, who had
served as head of the Police Officer’s Guild, was elected to the Seattle City
Council. That same year, Charles Stenvig, a former police detective and the
business manager of the Minneapolis Police Officer’s Federation, was elected
mayor, having run solely on a law-and-order platform. Stenvig convinced
patrolmen to campaign for him. When an interviewer asked one officer, “Did you
introduce yourself as a patrolman?” the officer responded: “Sure. That was the
whole point. The idea was to convince people that a cop would know how to bring
peace back to the community.”

At times, such political efforts—especially electioneering—crossed lines of
decorum. In 1964, many departments had to issue special orders to prevent
officers from wearing Goldwater or Wallace buttons on their uniforms, or from
putting campaign stickers on squad cars. Some cops even handed out campaign
literature while on duty.

In each arena, whether their efforts involved electioneering, lobbying, or
strikes, the police pursued a conservative agenda—specifically one that
increased the power, autonomy, and central role of law enforcement. L.A.’s
Firemen’s and Policemen’s Protective League (“Fi-Po”) represented the direction
of the new activism; it lobbied for counter-subversive laws, promoted
right-wing rallies, sponsored conservative speakers, and sold businesses a
blacklist naming union organizers and radicals.

“No justice! No police!”

In July 1966, New York supplied the first real test of this newfound power.
Mayor John Lindsay made good on one of his campaign promises, restructuring the
city’s police complaint board to include a civilian majority. The Police
Benevolent Association immediately and vigorously attacked the plan, eventually
forcing the issue to the ballot. The PBA then sponsored an extensive ad
campaign and individual officers put anti–review board signs on their cars,
distributed literature, and harassed those who campaigned in favor of the
board—often while on duty.

The anti-review board propaganda openly appealed to public anxieties about
civil unrest and crime—two issues, in the context of the time, with obvious
racial overtones. One poster showed a young girl at the entrance to a subway;
its text read: “The Civilian Review Board must be stopped. Her life, your life,
may depend on it.” Another poster showed a riot-torn street, cluttered
with rubble and lined with damaged storefronts. The caption stated: “This is
the aftermath of a riot in a city that had a civilian review
board.” An August 18, 1966, Reporter editorial titled “License to
Riot” worked from the same theme:

Did you see the pictures of those Cleveland riots, of Negro thieves running
wild, in and out of wrecked establishments, arms loaded? And did you see the
cops standing by, idly watching the debauchery? That was the result of a Police
Review Board.

As the November election approached, police tactics became more brazen. The
PBA and their supporters packed a meeting about the review board, chaired by
Councilman Theodore S. Weiss. Former FBI agent William Turner described the

Thousands of off-duty policemen in uniform, with service revolvers strapped on
and wearing PBA buttons (the buttons were later removed at the request of the
police commissioner) tightly ringed City Hall and packed its corridors. Many
carried signs with such slogans as “What About Civil Rights For Cops,” [and]
“Don’t Let The Reds Frame The Police.” Adding to the spectacle were dozens of
American Nazis and John Birch Society members toting American flags and
shouting encouragement to the police.

The New York review board was defeated by a two-to-one margin—1,313,161 to
765,468. Elsewhere during the same period, similar battles were fought
more quietly, with police associations convincing city councils or mayors to
refuse proposals for review boards—sometimes even dismantling existing boards.
Such was the story in Los Angeles, Denver, Cincinnati, Seattle, Detroit,
Newark, San Diego, Hartford, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

But it is worth noting that the police were not univocal in their opposition to
civilian review. In many cases, associations of Black officers openly favored
the review proposals. In New York, when one such group, the Guardians,
released a statement expressing their support of the mayor’s proposal, a PBA
spokesman protested, “they put their color before their duties and their oath
as policemen.” It seems that the PBA saw its own political agenda as
defining the scope and content of police duty.

This view was given a fuller expression in August 1968, when PBA president John
Cassese issued his own orders concerning police behavior during demonstrations.
Cassese instructed PBA members, “If a superior tells a man to ignore a
violation of the law, the policeman will take action notwithstanding that
order.” When the PBA finally published its full guidelines they turned out
to be more bark than bite, as they mostly just paraphrased existing laws and
policies, but the episode demonstrated something of the PBA’s aims. In
particular, it suggested an emerging system of dual power within police
agencies, with commanders and union-leaders sometimes sharing and sometimes
competing for control. This situation was a natural outgrowth of earlier
struggles for departmental autonomy, like that against the Civilian Review

In the course of these conflicts, the
political ambitions of police became more aggressive: they not only sought to
insulate themselves from all outside control, but also wanted to exercise
control over other areas of the government and public policy. Henry Wise, the
lawyer for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, was very optimistic about the organization’s
potential: “We could elect governors, or at least knock ’em off. I’ve told them
[the police] if you get out and organize, you could become one [of] the
strongest political units in the commonwealth.”

By the end of the 1960s, the trajectory of these developments was clear, and
elites started to worry. The New York Times opined, “[A] city cannot
be ruled by its police force, any more than a free nation can be ruled by its
military establishment.” The police, both in their departments and in
their unions, were coming to represent a force that could rival the civil
authorities. In 1968, Boston mayor Kevin White confessed, “Are the police
governable? Yes. Do I control the police, right now? No.” In 1972 L.A.
city administrative officer C. Erwin Piper said Fi-Po had “more political clout
than any other group in city government.”

Unfortunately, the period of police militancy has outlasted many of the social
conditions that produced its rise, and police activism continues to have major
political consequences. In 1992, when New York mayor David Dinkins proposed a
civilian review committee, the PBA mounted a protest-cum-riot, which Acting
Commissioner Raymond Kelly described as “unruly, mean-spirited and perhaps
criminal.” According to Kelly’s report, 10,000 off-duty cops took over the
steps of City Hall, blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, damaged property,
and assaulted passersby. The response of the on-duty officers was “lethargic at
best.” Several officers, including one captain and two sergeants, failed
to hold police lines, and a uniformed officer—Michael P. Abitabile—waved
protestors through the police barricades while shouting racial slurs.
Police Chief David W. Scott later said, “I’m disappointed in the fact that
police officers would violate the law.”

The demonstration carried obvious racial overtones. Signs read, “Dinkins, we
know your true color—yellow bellied,” and “Dear Mayor, have you hugged a drug
dealer today?” T-shirts urged, “Dinkins must go!” Demonstrators chanted, “The
mayor’s on crack” and “No justice! No police!” Kelly’s report suggests
that the demonstration was self-defeating, as “the inability of the on-duty
personnel assigned to police the demonstration has raised serious questions
about the department’s willingness and ability to police itself.” I would
actually say that it answered those questions, but the demonstration
had greater practical consequences, helping to launch the candidacy of Rudolph
Giuliani. Giuliani, who spoke at the rally, was elected mayor following Dinkins
and immediately set about expanding police power. In retrospect, the
September 16 rally has all the flavor of a municipal-level coup.

Police activism, especially in the guise of union activity, remains somewhat
perplexing. The historical development is clear enough, but politically it is
troublesome—especially for the left. The whole issue presents a nest of
paradoxes: the police have unionized and gone on strike—but continue in their
role as strikebreakers. They have pitted themselves against their bosses
and the government, but represent a threat to democracy rather than an
expression of it. They have resisted authority for the sake of authoritarian
aims, have broken laws in the name of law and order, and have demanded rights
that they consistently deny to others.

This situation is sometimes thought to create a bind for those who both support
the rights of workers and demand that police be accountable to the
community. But the dilemma here is illusory. The ethical demands of solidarity
are with the oppressed, and against the police. Working people cannot afford to
extend solidarity to the police, and we cannot let the reactionary goals of
police unions restrain us in our attacks on injustice. Confusion in this matter
represents a set of related misconceptions; these can be resolved by clearly
examining the class status of the police and the nature of their organizations.

Wage Slaves and Overseers

The class position of the police is complex, and even contradictory.

Individual officers may consider themselves “working class” for any of a
variety of reasons. First, there is the fact that, even after the period of
professionalization, most officers are still drawn from working-class
backgrounds. There is also the persistent sense that, regardless of income, the
job has little social status attached to it. And finally, there is the nature
of the work itself. “After all,” as David Bayley and Harold Mendelsohn remind
us, “police work is often physical, sometimes dirty, involves shift-work, and
brings officers into contact with undesirable elements of society.”

The police have certainly faced their share of uncomfortable and unfair working
conditions. In the nineteenth century, police received low pay (unless one
counts graft), worked long shifts, were given no vacations, enjoyed little job
security, and had no guarantee of income if they were injured (or of support
for their families if they were killed). Such standards are appalling, for
certain, but most workers were no better off. In the twentieth century,
the pressures of bureaucratization and professionalization were often resented
by the officers at the lowest levels. Bureaucratization increased discipline,
eliminated political patronage and protection, and supplied rule-bound
prescriptions for police action. Professionalization represented, from the
perspective of the old-school cops, an unnecessary intrusion of elitist
organizational goals at the expense of a traditional hard-nosed approach. Both
reform movements created structural tensions within the police departments that
later motivated the drive toward unionization.

But the proletarian aspects of policing are only half the equation. Though
individually they receive just a meager portion of capitalism’s benefits, the
police represent both the interests and the power of the ruling class. Like
managers, police control those who do the work, and they actively maintain the
conditions that allow for profitable exploitation.

The police thus occupy a dual position as workers and overseers, but this is
not a fatal contradiction: a worker can be made to discern “his own” interests,
apart from the interests of the working class as a whole. Such is the nature of
the so-called “middle class,” which is really a section of the working class
bought off by the capitalists to act on their behalf and manage their
affairs. Class status, as economist Harry Braverman argues, is determined
neither by income nor by ownership, but by power relations:

Since the authority and expertise of the middle ranks in the capitalist
corporation represent an unavoidable delegation of responsibility, the position
of such functionaries may best be judged by their relation to the power and
wealth that commands them from above, and to the mass of labor beneath them
which they in turn help to control, command, and organize.

The peculiar distinction of this middle stratum is that its members share in
both the power and rewards of the upper classes and in the alienation of the
workers they control. This basic fact requires elites to treat police differently than other workers, seeking through
ideology and material incentives to separate them from the mass of workers (and
the labor movement especially), tying the interests of the police to those of
capitalism and the state. This trick is accomplished through peculiar means,
using what is ostensibly a labor organization—the police union.

Police Unions Aren’t Unions

The status of police unions, and their relationship to the labor movement as a
whole, has always been troublesome. When the NYPD challenged the legality of
the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association in 1951, the court ruled that the PBA
could organize police and could negotiate contracts precisely because it was
not a union. According to the court, the police could join
“associations” like the PBA and FOP, but not any organization that had either
non-police leadership or affiliation with non-police unions. This ruling
represented something of a compromise position, seeking both to preserve the
“neutrality” of police action against strikes and to respect the officers’
right to free association.

As legal reasoning goes, that’s not very impressive. New York City Police
Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy, who strongly resisted the PBA’s demands for
recognition in the late 1950s, argued that the distinction between an
independent association and a union was meaningless: “When an organization acts
like a union, talks like a union, makes demands like a union and conducts
itself like a union, it cannot be heard to say that it is not a union.”
But the legal status of police associations is at most a secondary matter. The
practical effect of the ruling was to privilege the PBAs and FOPs over the
Teamsters and AFSCME. Police managers were then quick to recognize (in some
cases, to create) associations—especially when facing a Teamsters organizing
drive. The associations gave police management a means of establishing
agreed-upon conditions while still discouraging autonomous rank-and-file action
and solidarity with other workers.

Police associations thus developed in relative isolation from the rest of the
labor movement, while building close ties with the command hierarchy within the
departments. This fact points to two related reasons why police unions are not
legitimate labor unions. First, as is discussed above, the police are clearly
part of the managerial machinery of capitalism. Their status as “workers” is
therefore problematic. Second, the agendas of police unions mostly reflect
the interests of the institution (the police department) rather than those of
the working class.

When the PBA organized in New York, collective bargaining rights were traded
for no-strike agreements and a bar from affiliating with other unions. During
the same period, police unions around the country were defecting from AFSCME to
form police-only locals. Almost twenty years later, in 1970, the NY PBA
took this dissociation further than the law required, moving to break parity
with other city employees, including firefighters, corrections deputies, and
sanitation workers. That move is telling, and not just because it shows
the lack of solidarity between police associations and the rest of the working
class. It indicates that police associations organize more along institutional
rather than class lines—that is, they organize police as police, not
as workers.

The police exhibit an institutional unity that is fundamentally different than
the class consciousness underlying union activity. The chief difference is
that—despite fissures along race lines, disputes between superiors and
subordinates, and intra-departmental rivalries—a sense of shared identity
extends to every branch of police organizations and is felt at every level,
from the highest commander to the rookie on the beat. This solidarity helps the
commanders maintain the loyalty of their troops and, as mentioned before, it
also leads cops of all ranks to cover up for each other. Not only do street
cops hide one another’s mistakes from those above them, but superiors shield
subordinates from outside scrutiny.

Such managerial complicity reinforces the sense of identity and group cohesion,
thus reducing the possibilities for conflict within the department. And as the
rank and file have become a more vocal, and more powerful, political
constituency, some commanders have extended this strategy in order to share in
the benefits of militancy. A savvy commander can secure the loyalty of his
troops by participating in their revolt, providing himself with the platform
for leadership and at the same time retaining a militant force prepared to back
him up in clashes with civil authorities.

Police unions exercise influence over departments in ways other unions can only
envy. However, apart from localized (usually individual) grievances, the
officers and their managers share interests, perspectives, and a sense of
identity. In the end, their institutional identification is superior to their
class consciousness. To a very large extent, police departments achieve
internal peace by subsuming the interests of both workers and managers to those
of the institution. Even economic issues, like wages and hours, become common
ground for cops and their bosses: both want increases in department budgets.
The officers, of course, enjoy a higher standard of living as a result, and
police administrators can look forward to more funding, larger departments,
better morale, and an easier time attracting recruits. For this reason some
scholars describe police contract negotiations as exercises in “collusive

Margaret Levi explains:

As the literature on private labor unions so often illustrates, collective
bargaining often serves as a device of social control. It channels conflict and
sets its terms. But collusive bargaining goes one step further: it enables
management and labor negotiators to cooperate actively with each other. (In
order to convince their constituencies of their motives the bargaining teams
fight publicly, but privately they compromise.) By engaging in collusive
bargaining, city leaders gain credibility with the public for being tough, gain
some assurance of relatively uninterrupted service delivery, and regain some
power to make programmatic innovations. Of course, in return, they must grant
some of the union’s demands.

Union leaders, meanwhile, put on a similar act for the benefit of their
constituency. As a result, they are able to deliver gains to the union members
and retain their positions of influence—all without the risks of genuine

As an example of this collusive approach, Levi cites the relationship between
the Fraternal Order of Police and Atlanta Police Chief John Inman: “The chief
found the FOP was sympathetic enough to his policies to become a much-needed
ally, and the FOP discovered it could gain promotions and respect.… However,
this alliance also contributed to the racism of the police labor
organization.” In this way, antagonisms between labor and management become secondary to their common,
institutional aims. As both press to increase the power, resources, and
autonomy of the institution, they form a community of interests, an alliance
against the meddling of city officials or the competing demands of other
government agencies.

Such an alliance bears the markings of “a corporatist arrangement,” defined by
Colin Crouch and Ronald Dore as:

An institutional pattern which involves an explicit or implicit bargain (or
recurring bargaining) between some organ of government and private interest
groups (including those promoting “ideal interests”—“causes”), one element in
the bargain being that the groups receive certain institutionalized or ad
benefits in return for guarantees by the groups’ representatives that
their members will behave in certain ways considered to be in the public

They go on to cite both historical and recent examples:

The doctors and lawyers of medieval England—as well as the civil engineers and
all the other professional groups which got their charters in the nineteenth
century—were granted monopoly privileges (the right to decide who should and
who should not be allowed to sell certain kinds of services) in exchange for
promises to make sure that the professional standards of those who did sell
those services—their skills and their morals—were what the public had a right
to expect.

More modern forms—this time the granting by the state of an ad hoc
concession rather than an institutionalized privilege—include, for instance,
the bargains sometimes struck in the 1960s and 1970s in Britain between the
British Rail management, the railway unions, and the government: more state
funds for railway modernization provided that the unions would agree to get
their members to accept productivity improvements and changes in the work

Corporatist arrangements in policing have taken both the “medieval” and the
“modern” forms that Crouch and Dore describe. As the historical comparisons
indicate, each phase of police reform has tended toward corporatist
arrangements—bureaucratization and professionalization under the “medieval”
model, and unionization in a more “modern” guise. Currently, the “medieval”
aspects find an analogy in the relations between police departments and
governments (wherein bargaining is implicit), and the “modern” are in evidence
with the three-party relations between the unions, the departments, and the
government. However, with the police, the corporatist deal is not between the
state and some outside group, but between various sections of the state.
Specifically, it is an agreement between the elected civil authorities (the
government), the police commanders (the department), and the representatives of
the rank-and-file officers (the union).

This alignment between workers and management is not unique to police labor
relations, but a common feature of many public or semi-public institutions.
In the wave of public employee
unionization of the 1960s, many public service workers—not just cops—began to
demand changes in the way their work was organized, and sometimes sought to
influence the social conditions that affected their work. But whereas teachers
and social workers rallied against discrimination, inequality, and the meager
remedies of the Great Society, the police turned sharply to the right. For
example, a major demand of the 1967 Chicago social workers’ strike was the
provision of additional services for clients. Teachers’ unions frequently
demand smaller classes and better material. The police, in contrast, advocate
longer prison sentences, fewer safeguards against brutality, and new

In each case, the workers seek to make common cause with their clients—but the
clientele of the various agencies are quite different. Smaller classes benefit
both teachers and students; additional social services are good for the people
who receive them and for those who provide them. However, such provisions
likely inconvenience taxpayers, other portions of the government (who compete
for the funds), and the business and government elites who feel they can surely
find “better” uses for the money and have little sympathy for the plight of
public school students and the poor. In the case of the police, these
relationships are exactly reversed: the police defend the interests of elites,
and it is the poor who are burdened. Thus, the social function of policing
provides a permanent basis for the conservative orientation of police unions.

In turn, police associations provide a stronghold for the most reactionary
aspects of the profession—elements that the command hierarchy is often at pains
to disavow. When the police command cannot, for legal or political
reasons, resist demands for civilian oversight, for more diversity in the
department, or for redress in particular cases, the union can defend the
departmental status quo. Historically, most police associations barred Black
members, and police in Detroit and St. Louis threatened strikes to keep
African Americans off the force. Police departments accommodated the racist
officers in various ways, sometimes by refusing to hire Black people, in other
cases by keeping Black officers out of uniform, restricting them to Black
neighborhoods, or barring them from arresting White people. As recently as
1995, a group of Black LAPD officers sued the Police Protective League for its
role in preserving discrimination on the force, describing the union as a
“bastion of white supremacy.”

Police unions are also on hand to defend individual officers whose misbehavior
becomes embarrassing to the department and who therefore cannot be protected by
their supervisors. For instance, in 1981, when two Portland officers were fired
for leaving dead possums on the doorsteps of Black-owned businesses, the
Portland Police Association organized a march of 850 supporters, demanding they
be reinstated. The case went to arbitration, and the officers returned to work.
Almost thirty years later, in 2009, officer Chris Humphreys was suspended after
firing a less-lethal shotgun at close range and hitting a twelve-year-old Black
girl. The PPA again mobilized their supporters to demand he be reinstated. Six
hundred people, mostly off-duty cops, marched on City Hall carrying signs
reading “I am Chris Humphreys.” He was returned to desk duty, and later
exonerated by the Chief of Police.

The police union represents an extreme of autonomy, protecting officers of the
lowest rank from authority both inside and outside the department. This has the
effect of distributing some kinds of power toward the bottom of the formal
hierarchy. The careful tension between departmental policy and officer
autonomy has its benefits for both the commanders and the line officers. Though
police regulations do notoriously little to actually control officer conduct,
they do provide a layer of plausible deniability between commanders and the
routine activities of their troops. That is, the rules help to insulate
commanders from responsibility for misconduct while at the same time police
unions defend the rank and file from meaningful discipline. This arrangement
allows for the formal appearance of a rigorous command and control while
maintaining maximum discretion at the lowest levels of the organization. The
command staff can minimize the criticism it faces through the manipulation of
formal policies and bureaucratic shuffling, but concessions granted at that
level need not affect much of what happens on the street.

Of course, discipline does exist and can be quite stringent when it comes to
certain procedural or organizational matters—scheduling, the chain of command,
uniforms, budgets, and so on. But both discipline and discretion exist within
carefully proscribed bounds according to the needs and aims of the institution.
Discipline fails and discretion is preserved in those areas where it is most
convenient for the department that it be so—that is, when the police come into
contact with the public. The public cares very little about whether cops are
issued light blue or dark blue shirts, whether they stand at attention during
roll call, whether they work eight- or ten-hour shifts, are dispatched in pairs
or alone, etc.—but these are just the sort of matters over which management
exercises the most control. Those elements with which the public is especially
concerned—when and how force is used, how the police deal with a noisy but
peaceful drunk, the basis on which people are treated with suspicion—these are
left to the individual officer’s discretion.

Here is a convenient rule of thumb: police will be disciplined when their
behavior threatens the smooth operation of the institution. But there is a
corollary to this: to the degree that officers collectively control the
department, discipline will be weaker, as elites will have to bargain for
access to the institution’s power. That is one effect of police unionization.

Police labor action reminds local governments that they have created for themselves a rival to their own power.
Unlike private-sector strikes, which threaten the bosses’ ability to make a
profit, public worker strikes threaten the local government’s ability to
provide services or, in the case of the police, to rule. They work by
disrupting the city government’s access to the institutions by which it
achieves its ends. While a sit-down strike may raise the specter of workers
controlling industry—since there is a natural continuum between workers
shutting down a plant, occupying it, and running it themselves—analogous
actions by the police would fall on a different continuum and foreshadow less
utopian futures: if the police continued to patrol, make arrests, and otherwise
conduct surveillance and enact violence but do so without direction from the
local government, that would amount to a transfer of power from the one
institution to the other. It would portend the possibility of direct rule by
the police.

In 1919 it was thought, clumsily, that this was a threat to be repressed. And
such repression has occurred since then, when police excesses create the
conditions for unrest or otherwise threaten the status quo. But police
ambitions cannot be permanently repressed if the cops are to continue in their
capacity, reliably suppressing the unruly portions of the population. And so,
through a long series of reforms and negotiations, a strategy of co-optation
developed, and with it emerged the instrument for balancing police loyalty with
the demands of a semi-autonomous organization.

These instruments are generally called unions, though that misnomer (like so
many others in “police science”) relies on a false analogy to other, dissimilar
organizations. Police unions provide the means by which the officers can
collectively negotiate with the civil authorities, determine together the
conditions under which loyalty may be ensured—loyalty to the police commanders,
civil authorities, and the ruling class, respectively. It is not the loyalty of
the individual officers that is at stake: they are not freelancers or
mercenaries negotiating a fee for service. Rather, it is the loyalty of the
institution that the officers collectively, through their union, may not
control but can disable. Interestingly, this leverage does not only
increase the power and autonomy of the union, but of the entire department
relative to the rest of the city government. The officers may, under rare
conditions, even use their associations to compete with the civil authorities
for control. Such power struggles are generally of short duration, but their
effects can be long-lasting. They demonstrate the limit of police loyalty and
the threat of mutiny—really, the usurpation of the institution—and in so doing
they help to set the price for that loyalty. When that price is agreed on, the
police again become fully available for the uses to which the ruling class, the
state authorities, and their own commanders would put them.

As police organize, lobby, and strike, it seems that their negotiations have as
much to do with the elites’ access to, and the smooth functioning of, the
police institution itself as with wages and working conditions. In this, police
bargaining resembles less the struggles of exploited workers than the
agreements formed between sovereigns and their intermediaries in the creation
or expansion of states. In fact, in at least one sense, police
associations are best conceived of as semi-autonomous, but constitutive, parts
of the state.

The Police Union as a Semi-Autonomous Component of the State

The independent organization of police officers has done a great deal to
protect both individual cops and whole departments from meaningful oversight.
Unionization has thus served to preserve patterns of abuse and discrimination,
while at the same time advancing the agenda of law enforcement on the social
and political fronts. This development represents, as per William Westley’s
analysis of police brutality, the collective usurpation of governmental
authority and the means of violence:

This process then results in a transfer in property from the state to the
colleague group. The means of violence which were originally a property of the
state, in loan to its law-enforcement agent, the police, are in a psychological
sense confiscated by the police, to be conceived of as a personal property to
be used at their discretion.

But whereas Westley analyzed police brutality in terms of the informal,
“psychological” confiscation of authority, union negotiations formalize the
officers’ claim to partial control of the institution and, by implication, its
capacity for violence.

Our earlier discussion of police brutality led us to pose a series of questions
we are now primed to address. These were: To what degree is violence the
“property” of the state? At what point does the police co-optation of violence
challenge the state’s monopoly on it? When do the police, in themselves, become
a genuine rival of the state? Are they a rival to be used (as in a system of
indirect rule) or a rival to be suppressed? Is there a genuine danger of the
police becoming the dominant force in society, displacing the civilian
authorities? Is this a problem for the ruling class? Might such a development,
under certain conditions, be to their favor?

These questions suggest another, prior, question: What is the state?
Let us begin with that.

It may seem odd to talk about an independent private organization, such as a
police association, as a constitutive part of the state. The tendency is to
think of the state as a monolithic institution claiming an exclusive right to
the use of force. But this conception of state power is overly simple, both in
terms of the state’s actual operation and in terms of its historical

Martin J. Smith defines the state as “a set of institutions which provide the
parameters for political conflict between various interests over the use of
resources and the direction of public policy.” The state is not a unitary
organization, but rather a complex network, with components termed “the welfare
state,” “the police state,” etc., and with extensions identified as “the
military-industrial complex,” “the prison-industrial complex,” and so on. As
the state becomes increasingly differentiated and its power ever more diffuse,
its precise edges become difficult to define and the public/private distinction
grows hazy. What has sometimes been hailed as a post-modern end to state
sovereignty is in reality the modern state reaching maturity, drawing in
additional elements, incorporating new sources of influence and legitimacy, and
adjusting the balance of power accordingly.

Organizations and power networks win influence over the state according to
their ability to aid or impede its operation (or to contribute to the aims of
other institutional actors). Sometimes this influence will be established
through sharp conflict and the decisive victory of one faction over another.
More usually, however, it will be settled through a process of negotiation and
bargaining. The latter is generally preferable, not only because it carries
fewer costs than all-out battle, but also because by sharing power the various
interests can oftentimes increase the power that is there to be shared.

Within these networks, [Clayton Szczech writes,] power is not simply wielded
instrumentally by the autonomous state over social actors, or conversely by
dominant social groups over a neutral or powerless state. Rather, power is to
some extent created within these networks.… [I]t arises out of a
relationship of dependence between state and social actors. Each actor provides
something that the other cannot obtain on its own, and the power (or autonomy)
of each is hence increased by the relationship.

In the case of police officers, police administrators, police departments, and
police unions, this dynamic is at work simultaneously on several levels.
Individual officers share in the authority of the department, while the
department maintains its power through the concerted efforts of its individual
members. By joining together in independent associations, the member officers
can effectively shape the policies and operations of the department, and can
sometimes influence the policies and priorities of the government more broadly.
When police unions and administrators make common cause, they can pressure the
civil authorities to increase the power, resources, and independence of the
department—because, to a certain extent, the civil authorities are always
dependent on the cooperation of the police to defend their power and enforce
their will. Meanwhile, as the departments become more prominent as
institutions, the share of power controlled by administrators and the unions
increases proportionately—and the department finds itself well placed to form
alliances with other government agencies (and sometimes private enterprises),
enhancing the bargaining power of each. And, in the process, departmental
administrators and union leaders alike can increase their personal

This analysis is in keeping with the historical development of the state.
Charles Tilly explains:

Because no ruler or ruling coalition had absolute power and because classes
outside the ruling coalition always held day-to-day control over a significant
share of the resources rulers drew on for war, no state escaped the creation of
some organizational burdens rulers would have preferred to avoid. A second,
parallel process also generated unintended burdens for the state: as rulers
created organizations either to make war or to draw the requisites of war from
the subject population—not only armies and navies but also tax offices, customs
services, treasuries, regional administrations, and armed forces to forward
their work among the civilian population—they discovered that the organizations
themselves developed interests, rights, perquisites, needs, and demands
requiring attention on their own.

Within this theoretical framework, it is possible to briefly re-interpret the history of policing. The use of legitimate
violence, which was originally the “property” of individual slaveholders, heads
of households, and various secular and ecclesiastic authorities, was slowly
formalized and consolidated. On the local level, this process produced slave
patrols and then police. Initially, the police were highly dependent on local
patrons and served as the instruments of political machines. As the capitalist
class and its middle-class supporters took control of the government, the
police were transformed to a tool of class rule. The destruction of the
machines, however, required the creation of formal bureaucracies, which quickly
came to develop interests of their own and started to formulate their own
demands. The police were the prototypical bureaucracy, and the following wave
of professionalization only further decreased their dependence on the municipal
administration while reinforcing the organization’s loyalty to the ruling
class. The police rebellion came when the lowest ranking officers reacted
against the demands of professionalization while taking advantage of the autonomy it granted. They organized independently
and began presenting demands at every level—of administrators, of city and
state officials, of legislatures, and of society. Because a strike would
disrupt the city government’s power and therefore also weaken the state’s
protection of the ruling class’s interests, the rank and file held enough
control over the state’s coercive apparatus to credibly threaten its access to
force, even if they could not fully mobilize it for their own purposes. By
this telling, the coup of police unionization did not represent a sharp break
from the institution’s previous development, but instead signaled a new step in
the pre-existing pattern. The emergence of the police as social and political
actors marked the maturity of the institution.

The police have always been thugs, but they have traditionally been thugs in
the service of elites. The crises of the 1960s produced an outbreak of police
hooliganism directed against the citizenry (especially Black people, students,
and radicals) and a revolt against their own commanders and the civil
authorities. The police, in short, became self-conscious political actors
seeking to defend their own interests, advance their own agenda, act under
their own authority, and increase their already substantial power. Such a
development is very dangerous for a wavering democracy like that of the United

An uneasy truce has developed between the cops and the civil authorities.
Police departments have been granted a great deal of autonomy concerning their
policies, procedures, and discipline. This arrangement allows for peace between
the civil authorities and the police while maintaining a degree of plausible
deniability concerning misconduct, as long as abuse is directed against
suitable targets—racial minorities and the poor.

So, to answer our earlier questions: To what degree is violence the
“property” of the state?
In the United States, the state has increasingly
exercised monopolistic control over legitimate violence, especially since the
early nineteenth century. However, given the networked nature of power
relations constituting the state, the means of violence have always been
invested in some particular institution or set of institutions that carried—to
a greater or lesser degree—the potential for independent action.

At what point does the police co-optation of violence challenge the state’s
When do the police, in themselves, become a genuine rival of
the state? Are they a rival to be used (as in a system of indirect rule) or a
rival to be suppressed?
Given their unique bargaining position, the
possibility of police dominance of the government cannot be discounted. So far,
they have not achieved permanent ascendancy in any city, and nationally their
influence has been rather limited. On the other hand, since their inception the
police have been increasingly central to any power network that succeeds in
controlling local government, and there is no indication that this trend is
being reversed.

So long as the faction that maintains control over the apparatus of violence remains loyal to and incorporated within
the network that is the state, the development of semi-autonomous police
institutions may actually bolster the power of the state, especially in times
of crisis when that power is challenged. Under these conditions, though it may
require shifting power and resources to the criminal legal system at the expense of other
state enterprises, the police may—in part because of their high level of
independent organization—be effectively used by the dominant group. But if the
police mutiny for either material or ideological reasons, or if they begin to
make demands that the government cannot accommodate, police control of
institutional resources may threaten the power of civil authorities. Under such
conditions, the civil authorities will feel compelled to break the police
unions for the sake of preserving their own position.

Is there a genuine danger of the police becoming the dominant force in
society, displacing the civilian authorities?
A simple armed revolt would
invite intervention at the state or federal level, and would surely fail. But,
it is conceivable that the police could seize control of a local government if
they proceeded with a combination of electoral and bully-boy tactics, on the
Rizzo and Giuliani model. For the police to seize control nationally, they
would either need to be networked on that level to a greater extent than they
are presently, or else gain the assistance of some other institution
(e.g., the military).

Is this a problem for the ruling class? Might it, under certain conditions,
be to their favor?
Logically speaking, it is possible that police-rule
would favor the ruling class. Capitalists may feel that the cops are more
willing or able to defend their interests than are the civilian authorities.
Such may especially be the case if the authorities are so divided as to
threaten regime collapse, while the police retain the unity necessary to take
control and keep order. The significance of the 1967 riots for the Detroit
police strike is precisely this: the state is more tolerant of some rivals than
others, more willing to accept some challenges to its power than others, and
more ready to bargain with its long-term allies than to face defeat at the
hands of immediate antagonists. As rebellions go, a police rebellion is
particularly likely to gain the support of elites. For though police autonomy
diminishes the power of the courts, civil government, and the rule of law
vis-à-vis the police—it tends on the whole to preserve the
inequalities extant in the status quo, including the inequalities inherent in
these other institutions.

Of course, a full-force police state may make economic demands that prove inconvenient for business, and would almost
certainly hinder the fully autonomous operation of industry. But under certain
conditions, especially those of social crisis, the ruling class may prefer the
stability of police or military rule, with all its accompanying constraints, to
the possibility of facing extinction in the course of revolution. (It was just
such considerations that led the middle and upper classes to support Franco in
Spain and Pinochet in Chile.) More likely, however, is a “soft” coup, by which the police gradually gain a
dominant position within the local government, though never becoming the only
voice. The police could then form the center and base for a new kind of
machine, building the necessary alliances with other social actors, but keeping
the power in the stationhouse rather than in the wards. Formally representative
structures could remain in place while the police use their power to squash
dissent, engineer campaigns, and shape policies—making the most of their
practical monopoly on organized violence. This scenario would seem the natural
ideal of “Blue Power,” and while it may prove compatible to the needs of
capitalism, it is an obvious threat to democracy.

The police have been transformed from a wholly dependent tool of the political
machines to an independent source of power. I noted in an earlier chapter that
the development of modern police forces marked an unprecedented incursion on
the part of the state into the lives of the citizenry, and signified in
retrospect a clear step toward totalitarianism. As the police institution
has evolved, it has become a major source of power not only for the
state, but within the state. This achievement represents another step
in the same direction: as the institutions of violence become more autonomous,
they isolate themselves from democratic control. That is bad enough, surely—but
as these same institutions gain influence over policy and social priorities,
they inhibit the representative aspects of other parts of government. Blue
Power reduces the possibility of democracy.

While the police were undergoing their metamorphosis—from instrument of the machines to bureaucratic apparatus of
class rule, to independent political force—they were simultaneously challenging
democracy in other ways and expanding their social influence in some surprising
directions. The task of the police in preserving race and class hierarchies
made them experts in suppressing dissent, and police departments quickly
developed specializations in this regard. More recently, as we shall see, these
same designs have led them to seek ever-more involvement and greater shares of
influence in aspects of social life quite removed from law enforcement.

7: Secret Police, Red Squads, and the Strategy Of Permanent Repression

Police intervention during industrial strife has had a complex legacy,
producing detailed riot control strategies and specialized units to handle
political intelligence. Judging by appearances, one might not think that these
two sets of activities have very much to do with each other. Riot cops wear
full protective gear and operate in ways that are by definition very public.
Police spies usually wear no uniform at all, and their activities are often
covert. The targets are generally unaware of police intelligence activity; the
public at large barely recognizes its existence. But historically, red squads
were formed with crowd control in mind, and took on their secret police
functions later. Separate divisions now generally handle these duties, but
their operations remain connected at the root.

Haymarket: “Anarchy is on trial.”

The role of police in crushing dissent, and the place of intelligence work
within that pursuit, began to take shape in 1886 in response to the movement
for an eight-hour workday. In May of that year, the nation saw a wave of
strikes demanding “Eight hours for work. Eight hours for sleep. Eight hours for
what you will.” Much of the action was centered in Chicago, where on May
first, 40,000 workers walked off the job, and were joined a few days later by
25,000 more.

On May 3, police shot and killed four workers picketing the McCormick Harvester
Works. Enraged, August Spies—an anarchist—printed a forceful handbill calling
for an open-air meeting on May 4 in Haymarket Square. The flier was headed
“Workingmen, To Arms,” and encouraged workers to come prepared to defend
themselves. The rally began as a typical affair. Three thousand people came
to listen to speeches, but as the evening wore on and storm clouds gathered,
their numbers dwindled to just a few hundred. At last, when the final speaker
was on stage, 180 police appeared and ordered the crowd to disperse. In
response, someone from the crowd—it has never been determined who—threw a bomb
into the line of police. Seventy-six cops were injured, seven later died. The
police immediately opened fire, killing about a dozen of the crowd and injuring
200 more (as well as hitting some of their own).

The Haymarket bomb cost the eight-hour movement dearly, dividing the radicals
from their natural base of support—unionists—and setting off the first serious
red scare in American history. On May 5 and 6, Chicago police, acting under
the leadership of Captain Michael J. Schaack, made more than fifty raids
against newspaper offices, union halls, and other radical meeting spots.
State’s Attorney Julius Grinnell urged the cops, “Make the raids first and look
up the law afterwards.” Schaack apparently decided not to bother with the
law at all. His published notes detailed seventy interrogations conducted
during this period; they revealed that prisoners had been denied lawyers, food,
water, and medical treatment. Meanwhile, around the country, state
legislatures hurriedly passed laws limiting the rights of labor unions, and
courts began convicting strikers en masse. This climate of
political repression lasted well into the 1890s.

Of those arrested, eight anarchists were charged with murder: August Spies,
Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg,
Oscar Neebe, and George Engel. While it was never learned who threw the bomb,
it was certainly none of these men. Most of them weren’t even at Haymarket.
Those who were there were on the speaker’s platform, in plain sight.
Nevertheless, after a highly irregular and explicitly political trial, all
eight were convicted and seven were sentenced to hang. (Neebe was sentenced
to fifteen years.)

The tool for convicting innocent men of a capital offense was the claim that
they had urged others to violence, and were therefore responsible for the
violence that occurred. The prosecutor had originally sought to prove that the
defendants had executed the bombing themselves. Failing that, he resorted to a
theory that they had conspired together to kill policemen, crafting a plot
carried out by another, unknown person. But there was no evidence for any such
plot. Instead the case came to rely on the allegation that the person who threw
the bomb had been driven to do so by the defendants’ anarchistic writings and
fiery speeches. Over the objections of the defense, the prosecutor read aloud
the fiercest anarchist writings he could lay his hands on. Some of these
were written by the defendants, others were not. Nobody paid much attention to
such details, as the purpose of this “evidence” was purely prejudicial.

State’s Attorney Julius Grinnell put it this way, as he addressed the jury:

Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out
by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more
guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these
men, make examples of them and you save our institutions, our society.

That it was anarchy on trial, Albert Parsons agreed. He wrote to a friend:

There is no evidence … that I or any of us killed, or had anything to do with
the killing of policemen at the Haymarket. None at all. But it was proven
clearly that we were, all of us, anarchists, socialists, communists, Knights of
Labor, unionists. It was proven that three of us were editors of labor papers;
that five of us were labor organizers and speakers at workingmen’s mass
meetings. They, this class court, jury, law and verdict, have decided that we
must be put to death because, as they say, we are “leaders” of men who denounce
and battle against the oppression, slavery, robbery and influences of the
monopolists. Of these crimes against the capitalist class they found us guilty
beyond a reasonable doubt, and, so finding, they have sentenced us.

Parsons, Spies, Fisher, and Engel eventually did hang. Lingg committed suicide
while awaiting execution. The survivors first had their sentences commuted to
life imprisonment, and six years later were pardoned by Governor John Altgeld.
Altgeld made it clear in issuing his pardon that he did so because “much of the
evidence given at the trial was a pure fabrication.”

Unfortunately, Haymarket established the pattern that anti-radical campaigns
would follow for the century to come. The basic elements are present: in a
climate of conflict and political polarization, an incident of dubious origin
provides the pretext for suppressing radical movements. Raids, arrests, and
media smear campaigns lead up to a criminal trial, at which the defendants’
political views and associations are presented as evidence.

The authorities involved in the Haymarket affair, Captain Schaack especially,
pioneered the use of radical-hunting as a means of building a career,
consolidating power, and lining one’s pockets at the same time. Schaack used
his position for shameless self-promotion, casting himself as a first-class
sleuth, bragging about conspiracies he had supposedly unearthed and plots he
had foiled, and even writing a book on the matter, Anarchy and
. On top of that, Schaack gained control of a slush fund
established by the conservative “Chicago Citizens’ Association” and used its
resources to bribe witnesses, hire informers, and pay for other related
investigative expenses. In addition to this considerable sum, it was later
revealed that he had, on more than one occasion, personally accepted bribes and
helped himself to a great deal of the “evidence” seized in raids. Schaack
quickly became dependent on the role he had created for himself, the great
anarchist hunter. To justify continued operations, he began creating the
conspiracies he was to uncover. In 1889, Police Chief Frederick Ebersold told
the Chicago Times:

Captain Schaack wanted to keep things stirring. He wanted bombs to be found
here, there, all around, everywhere. I thought people would lie down to sleep
better if they were not afraid their homes would be blown to pieces any minute.
But this man, Schaack … wanted none of that policy.… After we got the anarchist
societies broken up, Schaack wanted to send out people to organize new
societies right away.… He wanted to keep the thing boiling, keep himself
prominent before the public.

Haymarket was not the first police excursion into the realm of political
spying, but it did signify the beginning of a new trend. As Frank Donner notes:

The Haymarket tragedy … marked the emergence of a new form of policing:
anarchists were indiscriminately surveilled not only as a means of crime
suppression, but for ideological reasons alone.… This style of ideological
warfare against anarchism broke ground for subsequent similar police
initiatives against socialism and communism.

Repression 101

There’s nothing surprising about the antagonism between anarchists and
authorities. Anarchists oppose the powerful and the institutions that maintain
their power, especially the state. They don’t like bosses, bureaucrats,
politicians, landlords, or cops. And, for the most part, the feeling is mutual.

The state’s reaction to such opposition is equally unsurprising. It is the
nature of power to preserve itself, and this requires that efforts to change
the structures of society be actively opposed by those who profit from the
existing order. As Alan Wolfe defines it, “Repression is a process by which
those in power try to keep themselves in power by consciously attempting to
destroy or render harmless organizations and ideologies that threaten their
power.” Repression may be accomplished through propaganda, indoctrination,
and other ideological means, or when these fail, through more direct means like
harassment, imprisonment, and violence.

Donner more specifically defines “political repression … in the context of
policing, . . . as police behavior motivated or influenced in whole or in part
by hostility to protest, dissent, and related activities perceived as a threat
to the status quo.” In addition to the means listed above, repression may
involve a much broader range of both overt and covert activities, including
surveillance, false arrest, media smear campaigns, the use of disinformation,
burglary, blackmail, infiltration, sabotage, the promotion of factionalism,
entrapment, threats, brutality, assassinations, and torture.

The form repression takes and the intensity with which it is applied will
depend on a variety of factors, including the aims of the target group, its
popularity, its strengths and weaknesses, its methods, and the goals,
popularity, and relative strength or vulnerability of the government. But
whatever its shape, the purpose of repression remains essentially the same.
Based on his experiences in Northern Ireland, Kenya, Cyprus, and elsewhere in
the crumbling British empire, military strategist Frank Kitson described the
task facing a government when rebellion surfaces:

Translated into normal terms, the aim of the government is to regain if
necessary and then retain the allegiance of the population, and for this
purpose it must eliminate those involved in subversion. But in order to
eliminate the subversive party and its unarmed and armed supporters, it must
gain control of the population.

Repression is a tricky business. And it is complicated by the fact that the
initiative seems to always rest with the subversives. Rebellions may brew,
discontent spread, revolutionaries prepare their forces—all before the
government even realizes it is facing a threat. Intelligence work is intended
to fill this gap.

The Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to
Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee) outlines the three types of
intelligence activities:

The first is intelligence collection—such as infiltrating groups with
informants, wiretapping or opening letters. The second is dissemination of
material which has been collected. The third is covert action designed to
disrupt and discredit the activities of groups and individuals deemed a threat
to the social order. These three types of “intelligence” activity are closely
related in the practical world. Information which is disseminated by the
intelligence community or used in disruptive programs has usually been obtained
through surveillance.

Furthermore, the same techniques may be used for more than one purpose
simultaneously. Surveillance has its obvious uses in collecting information,
but conspicuous surveillance may also be used to harass the target, breed
paranoia and feelings of persecution, and so on. Likewise, informants can
supply information, but they can also be used to disrupt a group’s organizing
efforts—engaging in routine sabotage, provoking rivalries and in-fighting, and
encouraging illegal (especially violent) activities that can discredit the

The specific strategies and techniques involved have been developed over time,
with the twentieth century representing a period of particular progress. The
degree of actual activity has ebbed and flowed, for the most part following the
level of dissident political activity (particularly dissent from the left). At
the national level, this work has been centered in the federal intelligence
agencies—the FBI, the CIA, Army Intelligence—but has also come to involve, at
times, practically every federal agency and every branch of government. At the
local level, the bulk of intelligence work has been shared between the police
and innumerable private agencies, beginning with the Pinkerton Detective
Agency. Within police departments, the branches responsible for keeping the lid
on subversives have gone under a wide variety of names, including the “Radical
Bureau,” the “Anarchist Squad,” the “Bomb Squad,” the “Intelligence Division,”
the “Industrial Squad,” the “Bureau of Special Services,” the “Special
Investigations Bureau,” and others. For the sake of regularity, I will refer to
them here primarily under the generic term “red squad.”

The Red Squads

New York City’s red squad got a head start on the rest of the country.

On January 13, 1874, in what came to be termed the “Tompkins Square Riot,”
7,000 people took to the streets in a demonstration against unemployment, and
the police responded by ruthlessly beating them. Following that debacle, the
police department began assigning detectives to spy on socialist and union
meetings. Within just a few years, their operations expanded enormously. In
1895 and 1896 the NYPD tapped 350 phones, including those of churches.

This pattern was repeated in cities around the United States. The police began
by attacking public events, especially demonstrations. They rigorously enforced
laws, forcibly dispersed crowds, and expended a great deal of energy trying to
identify and nab individual agitators who, they assumed, must be responsible
for any such disturbance. This latter pursuit quickly developed to the point
where police targeted entire organizations, sending informants to their
meetings. The creation of special branches devoted to this task took hold
after 1900, prompted by labor unrest, the increased popularity of socialism,
and a wave of immigration.

The role of the red squads further expanded during World War I, thanks in part
to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his successive campaigns against
radicals and immigrants. Local cops aided the Justice Department first in 1917,
with a series of raids against the Industrial Workers of the World. IWW
headquarters were raided in eleven cities and hundreds of union leaders were
arrested, allegedly for interfering with the draft. The red squads repeated
their performance two years later, beginning in 1919, as they provided support
for Justice Department raids on a wide range of leftist organizations,
resulting in 4,000 arrests and almost 1,000 deportations. Local police
agencies found support for these endeavors among the members of the American
Protective League (APL), a volunteer organization formed during the war to
combat espionage and sabotage, round up draft-dodgers, and spy on immigrants.
Many APL “volunteers” were actually off-duty cops; others were deputized to
assist in raids.

During this same period, laws regulating demonstrations, meetings, and
leafleting granted the police broad powers to determine when, where, and what
speech would be allowed. It thus became the explicit function of the police to
suppress the free exercise of political speech.

As the Great Depression produced a swell of activism and unrest, police
practices shifted toward a focus on intelligence operations rather than direct
intervention. Intelligence became a distinct pursuit, very nearly its own
profession, increasingly removed from law enforcement. While the potential for
such a division had been present as early as 1886, it became institutionalized
during the 1930s as red squads paid less attention to public disorder and more
to the organizations and movements behind such discord.

This change in emphasis was accompanied by a marked escalation in tactics.
Increasing numbers of informants were employed against an ever-widening array
of organizations. The most spectacular abuses, of course, were those directed
from the top. During the 1930s, Los Angeles’s red squad had been used to target
the mayor’s critics and political opponents—even to the point of outright
blackmail. At the same time, active disruption of organizations became a higher
priority, often greatly overreaching the authority granted the police, and even
directly violating the law. For instance, the head of the Los Angeles red
squad, Captain Earl Kynette, was convicted and imprisoned in connection with a
1938 car bomb explosion that critically injured a member of a reform group, the
Citizen’s Independent Investigating Committee, which had been leading a
campaign against police corruption.

Kynette’s zealotry led not only to a prison term, but to the dissolution of his
unit as well. Shortly after his conviction, the City Council eliminated its
funding. Elsewhere in the country, red squads fell victim to their own success.
In the conservative climate of the 1950s, they faced a repeat of Captain
Schaack’s problem—a shortage of subversives. The response to this situation
was two-fold. In part, red squads focused again on their historical opponents,
labor unions. At the same time, they were granted a new mission as auxiliary
forces in the Cold War. But while the FBI still relied on local police for a
great deal of information, the special units saw their numbers and resources
dwindle. As a result, red squads became increasingly isolated within local
departments and their activities became even more removed from regular police

Simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically, Communist-hunting was becoming an
American obsession. A national network of suspicion, denunciation, and
blacklisting emerged. The FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and
Senator Joseph McCarthy stood together at the center, but the inquisition
reached into every level of government, the academy, and private industry.
Under the FBI’s “Responsibilities Program,” which was active from February 1951
to March 1955, the Bureau secretly alerted governors, college presidents, and
other reliable leaders of suspected subversives in their employ. At least 800
people were thus branded as reds, more than half of them educators. Most were
fired. In New York alone, more than 250 city workers were fired for
security reasons. During roughly the same period, 1950—1953, the Bureau
also conducted two million “name checks” of federal employees, looking to see
if they appeared in Mr. Hoover’s voluminous files, and initiated 26,000
loyalty investigations—assisted by a sizeable army of 109,119 informers and a
smaller number of surreptitious, usually warrantless, “black bag” searches.

Much of the information used in this campaign of blackmail, slander, and
career-terminating sanctioning came from the private efforts of American Legion
volunteers and the publicly funded but secret activities of police red squads.
On March 10, 1950, Pittsburgh police, under the direction of HUAC’s chief
investigator, Louis Russell, raided the headquarters of the United Slave
Congress, confiscating the group’s mailing lists and membership files and
turning them over to HUAC. Less spectacularly, the New York State Police
regularly checked the license plates of cars at left-wing meetings and social
events, and routinely forwarded their files to HUAC. Likewise, when the
Citizens for Constitutional Rights hosted a fundraising dinner party, the FBI
sent in an informer, and advised the local (Twinsburg, Ohio) police that the
group was a front for the Communist Party. The cops conspicuously parked two
squad cars outside the house where the party was hosted, marked down the
license plates of everyone who attended, and strictly enforced parking

The McCarthy era facilitated the federalization of intelligence and the
specialization of red squad operations, producing a distinct organizational
culture and a distance from other police (not to mention the citizenry). When
the fifties became the sixties, the police were continually called on to
suppress what seemed to be ever-growing social movements, and these
characteristics solidified. As the role of red squads expanded and the number
of officers involved grew, the flaws, faults, and excesses of intelligence
agencies—perhaps of intelligence per se—increased in magnitude and
became more readily apparent.

A Renaissance of Repression

During the 1960s, in city after city, red squads suddenly swelled like a
fungus. Detroit’s intelligence unit had only six members at the end of the
1950s; by 1968 that number had grown to seventy. In most places, the rate of
growth was sharpest at the very end of the decade. Between 1968 and 1970, the
New York City red squad went from sixty-eight uniformed officers to ninety
(plus fifty-five others assigned to undercover work). During the same period,
Los Angeles increased its squad from eighty-four officers to 167. The
Chicago Police Department had 500 intelligence officers at the end of the
decade, and Illinois State Police Superintendent James T. McGuire estimated
that more than 1,000 federal, state, and local operatives were working in the
area undercover.

As the popular movements developed—first the civil rights movement, then
student movements, anti-war efforts, and a host of others—the police
understanding of these campaigns, their objectives, and the conditions
producing them seriously lagged. The police response, as though from habit, was
to blame a conspiracy and seek out the agitators creating all this turmoil.
Hence identification procedures retained their central place in the strategy of
repression, and photography became a sort of obsession. As with infiltration,
wiretapping, and the collection of dossiers, photography was easily exploited
as a means of intimidation as well as data gathering. At times,
intimidation became the primary function of police photography; cops
would take numerous pictures at close range or, alternately, show their
“subject” photographs of herself when she hadn’t realized she was under
surveillance. Conspicuous surveillance was often accompanied by other forms of
harassment as well, including slashed tires, verbal abuse, and arbitrary

As the role of surveillance was extended, the number—and type—of subjects
increased as well. By the end of the 1960s, many red squads were building
straightforward enemies lists, targeting people outside of any radical
movement. For example, after the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Chicago police
maintained files on churches and members of the clergy, newspaper columnists
and radio commentators, an ACLU attorney, the League of Women Voters, the
Parent-Teacher Association, the chair of Sears and Roebuck, the president of
Notre Dame University, State’s Attorney Bernard M. Carey, prosecuting attorney
Barnabas Sears, Dan Walker (author of the Walker Report on the 1968 Democratic
Convention, and later governor), U.S. Senator Charles Percy, seven sitting or
former aldermen, fifteen members of the Illinois General Assembly, the chair of
the First National Bank, Chicago Bears running back Gayle Sayers, and
Congressional Representative Ralph Metcalf. A few years later, Philadelphia
mayor (and former police chief) Frank Rizzo created a special
thirty-three-member intelligence unit, answerable directly to him. The unit’s
sole purpose was to investigate two of Rizzo’s political adversaries—city
councilor Peter J. Caniel and city council president George X. Schwartz.

As the range of targets grew, so did the range of tactics—first to improve
surveillance and then, as is the pattern, to harass leaders, cripple
organizations, and interfere with their political efforts. Wiretaps and mail
opening came very much into fashion during this period. As in the thirties,
informers were employed in increasing numbers, with a key difference—whereas
previously infiltration was done primarily by private detectives or civilian
volunteers, in the 1960s it became the norm to use police officers

Interestingly, the specialization of undercover work did nothing to abate the
agent’s development from passive observer to saboteur, and then, from saboteur
to provocateur. In fact, informers often suggested the plan, supplied the
weapons, drove the car, and then made the arrest. ACLU attorney Frank Donner
observes, “The most common provocateur is simply a professional police
agent who coldly engineers a single provocative act designed to ‘set up’
leaders for roundup and arrest.”

An infiltrator’s success didn’t always rely on discrediting an organization or
bringing legal action against them. For example, in 1967 the New York Police
Department sent Richard Lyons—a civilian—into the Veterans and Reservists
Against the War (V&R). During the two years he was a member, he advocated the
V&R attack soldiers with tear gas, burn GI weapons authorization cards (a
federal offense), charge police lines during demonstrations, and carry replica
machine guns. Each suggestion was firmly rejected in favor of legal and
nonviolent tactics. Nevertheless, when he was finally exposed in 1968, the
knowledge that they had been infiltrated greatly added to feelings of
demoralization, and contributed to the V&R’s collapse.

In part, the work of infiltrators represented a move away from reactive
practices and toward a proactive, anticipatory approach. Hence, red squads
justified many of their activities with the claim that they were necessary in
order to prevent violence. On the contrary, infiltrators often
encouraged violence, as the V&R case shows. And the red squads’
methods carried with them inherent barriers to law enforcement. For example,
information gathered illegally was usually inadmissible in court, and the
reluctance to identify informants greatly limited their utility in actual

Add to this the fact that so much of the “information” police gathered was
hopelessly off base. One Chicago cop told a Cook County grand jury that he
listed as a “member” of an organization anyone who attended two of its public
meetings. This “information” was passed on to the FBI, and disseminated from
there. More recently, in 2002, files leaked to activist groups revealed
that the Denver Police Department had used the label “criminal extremist” as a
default category when no other description seemed to apply. Featured under this
heading were political activists, members of the clergy, troubled students,
and—for some reason—people who had received honors from the department itself.
A commission appointed by the mayor determined that none of the 3,400 files
could be legitimately maintained, and ordered them destroyed. But the files,
and their inaccuracies, had already been passed on to other agencies.

The harm of such exaggeration is multiplied as misinformation is spread from
one agency to others. For example, in 1973 the Seattle Police Department’s
intelligence division opened a file on a local Chicano activist. The American
Friends Service Committee described the report’s transformation as it changed

It began: “Modus Operandi—participant in demonstrations, supporting UFW x
Safeway [sic], establishment of El Centro.” His only police record is
for failure to disperse during a demonstration. By 1976, however, in describing
him to the Portland Police Intelligence Division, Seattle Police stated, “M.O.
Chicano activist—advocates terrorist acts.” There is no information in the SPD
intelligence files to support such a defamatory and damaging claim.

Inaccuracies and distortions are phenomena familiar to anyone who reads even
standard police reports, but the potential for mis-reporting is amplified by
the nature of undercover work (especially when informants are paid for the
information). As Donner observes:

Both the pressures and inducements, along with the sense of guilt that required
the betrayer to find some justification for his betrayal, tend to produce
tainted information. All too frequently it is inaccurate, highly selective, and
based on sinister and unwarranted inferences. Where a literal version of a
target’s utterances would seem innocent, the informer will insist on stressing
the connotations; conversely, where the language is figurative or metaphysical
[sic] the informer reports it as literally intended. Most important of
all, he seizes on the transient fantasies of the powerless—rhetoric and images
not intended to be acted upon—and transforms them into conspiracies whose
purpose and commitment are wholly alien to their volatile and ambiguous

These interpretive practices underscore the symbolic value of red squad files.
At first a simple administrative tool for collecting and organizing evidence,
these files, like so much in the field of intelligence, quickly became a means
of intimidation, and eventually became an end in themselves, serving to
legitimize the red squad’s other activities.

More often than not, the reported violence was only a much-exaggerated pretext
for heavier repression. Donner describes the pattern as it appeared in

Based on information typically supplied by a street tipster or casual
informant, or “discovered” through several weeks of intensive surveillance by
the CD [the Civil Disobedience unit], police would raid a private residence
where they assertedly found explosives, guns, or inflammatory literature. A
torrent of Rizzo-inspired publicity would then link the raided premises and the
seized material to a group of militants, which, it usually suggested, was part
of a larger and more powerful movement. Front-page stories under banner
headlines would quote Rizzo’s blood-chilling description of the plot,
miraculously aborted, and the closeness of the city’s escape from destruction.
Bail would be set at astronomical levels, but prosecution of the culprits
usually faltered. After long delays (months and even years), the back pages of
the newspapers whose front pages had originally blazed with reports of the
sensational arrests would limply record that the prosecution had been dropped
altogether or the defendants plead guilty to lesser charges (usually possession
of weapons) or other, unrelated charges.

The Philadelphia branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
was destroyed by just such a “dynamite plot,” as was the Revolutionary Action
Movement and—after several such raids—the Philadelphia chapter of the Black
Panther Party.

COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Greatest Hits

The Black Panthers bear the uneasy distinction of being the most targeted
organization of the late 1960s, perhaps the most targeted organization of all
American history. The Panthers were persecuted—there is no other word—by a
campaign, code-named COINTELPRO (for “COunter INTELligence PROgram”).
COINTELPRO was explicitly designed, in the words of FBI Director J. Edgar
Hoover, “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the
activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their
leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their
propensity for violence and civil disorder.”

The Church Committee offers more detail:

COINTELPRO tactics included:

— Anonymously attacking the political beliefs of targets in order to induce
their employers to fire them;

— Anonymously mailing letters to the spouses of intelligence targets for the
purpose of destroying their marriages;

— Obtaining from IRS the tax returns of a target and then attempting to provoke
an IRS investigation for the express purpose of deterring a protest leader from
attending the Democratic National Convention;

— Falsely and anonymously labeling as Government informants members of groups
known to be violent, thereby exposing the falsely labeled member to expulsion
or physical attack;

— Pursuant to instructions to use “misinformation” to disrupt demonstrations,
employing such means as broadcasting false orders on the same citizens’ band
radio frequency used by demonstration marshals to attempt to control
demonstrations, and duplicating and falsely filling out forms soliciting
housing for persons coming to a demonstration, thereby causing “long and
useless journeys to locate these addresses”.…

The Church Committee report devotes a small section specifically to
“Cooperation Between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Local Police
Departments in Disrupting the Black Panther Party.” It details file-sharing
practices involving the FBI and the police in San Diego, Oakland, Los Angeles,
and Chicago, as well as FBI-instigated raids in San Diego and Chicago, and an
FBI-directed disinformation campaign in Oakland. What the report
doesn’t say is that between December 1967 and December 1969,
twenty-eight Panthers were killed as the result of police attacks. It would
require another book to consider all of these cases in detail, but a couple of
examples may be quite telling.

In Chicago, efforts to disrupt the Black Panther Party focused on a young
leader named Fred Hampton. First, the FBI tried to trigger a feud between the
Panthers and a local street gang, the Blackstone Rangers. FBI operatives sent
Ranger leader Jeff Fort an anonymous letter claiming that Hampton had ordered
his assassination. This tactic seems to have been selected in hopes of
producing violence. The FBI memo describing it reads:

It is believed that the [letter] may intensify the degree of animosity between
the two groups and occasion Forte [sic] to take retaliatory action
which could disrupt the BPP or lead to reprisals against its leadership.…
Consideration has been given to a similar letter to the BPP alleging a Ranger
plot against BPP leadership; however, it is not felt that this would be
productive principally because the BPP … is not believed to be as violence
prone as the Rangers, to whom violent type activity—shooting and the like—is
second nature.

When the letter failed to produce the desired results, the FBI moved on to more
direct means of neutralizing Hampton.

On the morning of December 4, 1969, at 4 A.M., fourteen police armed with
submachine guns literally shot their way into Hampton’s apartment. The police
fired ninety-eight rounds, killing Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (head of the
Peoria, Illinois, BPP) and injuring three others. Only a single round of fire
was returned—by Clark, as he died. Hampton was shot five times—three times in
the chest, and then twice in the head.

The raid had been planned a few weeks before by COINTELPRO operative Roy
Mitchell and two cops assigned to a special unit under the direction of State’s
Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan. Mitchell had met with Hampton’s body guard,
William O’Neal, and received from him a detailed floorplan of the apartment,
including the location of Hampton’s bed. He also arranged for O’Neal to drug
Hampton with a barbiturate on the night in question. A week after the raid,
Robert Piper, the Chicago COINTELPRO section head, requested a $300 bonus for

In this case we see local police, under the direction of the FBI, serving as
nothing other than a death squad.

Four days after the Chicago raid, forty SWAT officers and more than 100
back-ups launched a similar attack in Los Angeles. Under the leadership of red
squad detective Ray Callahan, and again working from a floorplan provided by an
FBI informant, the police began their offensive at 5:30 in the morning. This
time, however, the target—Panther leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt—was not in his
bed. The opening burst of gunfire missed him altogether. The Panthers held the
police off until the media arrived and a crowd had formed; then, they
surrendered. Six were wounded and thirteen arrested, but no one was killed.

The raid was a dud, but the campaign against Pratt continued, eventually
resulting in his arrest for the 1968 robbery and murder of a White woman in
Santa Monica. Pratt maintained that he was at a Black Panther Party meeting in
Oakland when the crime was committed, a fact verified by other testimony. The
defense sought to support the alibi with the FBI’s phone tap records, but the
feds wouldn’t cooperate. They first denied that the telephone at the Oakland
BPP office was tapped, then admitted that it was but refused to turn over the
records on “national security” grounds, and finally produced the records—except
for those from the period relevant to the murder case, which they claimed were

Pratt was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The
conviction rested on the testimony of Julius Butler, a former party member who
claimed that Pratt had admitted to the murder. The prosecutor failed to
mention that his key witness was on the police payroll, and Butler vehemently
denied it under oath, saying he’d “never been in all the world a snitch.”
Years later, documents surfaced identifying Butler as a paid informant for the
FBI, LAPD, and district attorney’s office. Furthermore, an FBI report from
June 1970 frankly admitted the bureau’s interest in Pratt: “constant
consideration is given to the possibility of utilization of
counter-intelligence measures with effort being directed toward neutralizing
Pratt as an effective B.P.P. functionary.” After years of legal delays, in
1997 a conservative Reagan-appointed judge, Everett W. Dickey, overturned
Pratt’s conviction. Pratt (who later assumed the name Geronimo ji Jaga)
spent twenty-seven years as a political prisoner, nearly a third of that time
in solitary confinement.


COINTELPRO was only one aspect of the relationship between local red squads and
the federal government. Beginning in 1968, the Law Enforcement Assistance
Administration supplied grants to intelligence units for training and
equipment. At about this same time, the Justice Department’s
Interdivisional Information Unit (IDIU) provided the means for intelligence
agencies at all levels, and from around the country, to share information.
According the Church report, this established a system through which the Attorney General received the benefits of information gathered by numerous
agencies, without setting limits to intelligence reporting or providing clear
policy guidance. Each component of the structure—FBI, Army, IDIU, local police,
and many others—set its own generalized standards and priorities, resulting in
excessive collection of information about law abiding citizens.

Nor was that the extent of federal involvement: Throughout the late 1960s New
York City’s red squad gave daily briefings to Army intelligence. In
Chicago, the U.S. Army Region I, 113th Military Intelligence Group not only
trained and traded information with the local police, but participated in

Never willing to be left out of the action, the CIA offered a six-week training
course for local law enforcement personnel, teaching cops the basics of
surreptitious entry, photographic surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, and
the manufacture and use of explosives. Members of at least forty-four state,
county, and municipal police departments received this training, and in return
the locals helped the Agency gather information, protect informants, and harass
its critics.

Since the practices of local cops inevitably came to resemble those of the
organizations that trained, funded, supplied, and directed them, it is worth
considering the conduct of these federal agencies. The Church Committee summed
it up:

Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and to
[sic] much information has been collected. The Government has often
undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political
beliefs, even when these beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on
behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through
secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps,
microphone “bugs,” surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast
amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of
American citizens. Investigations of groups deemed potentially dangerous—and
even of groups suspected of associating with potentially dangerous
organizations—have continued for decades, despite the fact that those groups
did not engage in unlawful activity. Groups and individuals have been harassed
and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles.
Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made
excessive collection inevitable. Unsavory and vicious tactics have been
employed—including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings,
ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into
rivalries that might result in deaths. Intelligence agencies have served the
political and personal objectives of presidents and other high officials. While
the agencies often committed excesses in response to pressure from high
officials in the Executive branch and Congress, they also occasionally
initiated improper activities and then concealed them from officials whom they
had a duty to inform.

With this in view, the political operations touched on here, and the abuses
that accompanied them, cannot be dismissed as the excesses of individual,
overzealous officers, or even as the dysfunctions of particular departments.
Instead, they should be understood as systemic in nature, institutional in
scope, affecting the entire country, and (despite their purported aims)
undermining democracy. That is certainly true of the most flagrant abuses, but
it may also be true of “legitimate” intelligence operations. However
restrained, intelligence activities function to suppress dissent and undercut
basic political liberties. Yale University law professor Thomas Emerson

The very process of investigating political activities, involving the
questioning of friends, neighbors, employers and other government agents, is
intimidating. The compiling of dossiers, which may be the basis of internment
in the event of emergency or of other reprisals, is threatening. The very
existence of agents, informers, and possible agents provocateurs is chilling.
Opportunities for partisan abuse of intelligence powers become available and
tempting. Freedom of expression cannot exist under these conditions.

Secret police are always the enemies of democracy.

The Death of the Red Squads?

Paradoxically, political repression may itself undercut the public’s faith in
the government’s benevolence.

The 1970s were characterized by massive public distrust of the authorities,
especially the federal intelligence agencies, but also their local
counterparts. Along with the Watergate scandals, other startling revelations
shook public confidence in the government. A researcher for the Pentagon,
Daniel Ellsberg, leaked the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam
War, revealing that the public had been deceived about the aims and methods of
the war and, specifically, about American atrocities. Anonymous persons
similarly released a series of documents stolen from the FBI office in Media,
Pennsylvania, detailing the operations grouped under the heading
COINTELPRO. It is quite ironic that the best tool for proving official
misconduct by federal agencies turned out to be their own cherished files.

In an effort to salvage credibility, Congressional committees and special
prosecutors tried to “come clean.” Even the intelligence agencies themselves
tried to rehabilitate their public image; COINTELPRO and similar programs were
quickly discontinued. And on the local level, opponents of police spying took
the opportunity to move against the red squads.

So what kills a red squad? In Washington, D.C., it was a combination of
lawsuits and pressure from city council. In Birmingham, it was the success of
civil rights efforts and the shift of power that accompanied it. Official
investigations and a change in local statutes did in the Baltimore unit. A
series of court rulings, a change in political climate, the election of a
liberal mayor, attacks in the media, and a sudden loss of allies conspired
against the red squad in Detroit. A series of scandals finally cost the Los
Angeles unit the last of its credibility, leading to its break-up. In
Philadelphia, it was the combination of a Federal Civil Rights Commission
investigation, lawsuits, judicial rulings, and a loss of public support
stemming from widespread corruption. In Seattle, a city ordinance outlawed the
red squad’s activities. In Memphis and Chicago, lawsuits produced consent
decrees limiting political investigations. A change in political climate
brought New York City a liberal mayor and police commissioner; combined with
lawsuits, court rulings, and an overall loss of credibility, the change of
administration spelled doom for the red squad. Of the various weapons used
against the red squads, the most common was litigation. But the political
climate may well have been more important to the success of such legal action
than either the law or the facts of the case.

Author Ken Lawrence describes the limits of legal victories:

[Legal reforms are] more reflective of the political climate than they are a
way of creating a favorable climate. So, it’s a mistake to regard a legal forum
as itself a particularly useful way to create an improved political situation.…
If you win an injunction, that’s more a sign that you have prevailed in
changing the political climate. But it doesn’t for a minute mean that it’s
going to place any serious restraint on the actions of the police.

Success is rarely total, or permanent. Political repression didn’t end with the
defeat of the red squads, any more than it ended with the termination of
COINTELPRO, the death of J. Edgar Hoover, the resignation of Nixon, or the
retirement of Captain Schaack decades before. Repression continues as a
permanent feature of capitalist society and as a central function of the state.
The changes necessary to remove it, then, are far deeper than anything that we
can expect from the courts.

Judges issued a series of favorable rulings; however, as Donner put it, “the
plaintiffs won all the battles but lost the war.” Maintaining the
conditions established by the courts was a separate fight, and a difficult one,
since even judges themselves proved very reluctant to enforce the rules the
courts established. And police actively resisted reform—sometimes through
lawyerly quibbling, sometimes by dragging their feet, sometimes through dirty

Secret Files

In 1976, Judge James Montante ordered the Detroit Police Department and the
Michigan State Police to turn their files over to the people listed in them.
Four years later, the state police finally complied with this order. The
Detroit police never did. Instead, Mayor Coleman Young simply dissolved the red
squad and transferred its files to other units in the department.
Elsewhere, the police responded to lawsuits by destroying files, thus
preempting the legal discovery process, the court’s attempt to inspect them,
and any possible orders to make them public. That occurred in Memphis, Seattle,
Chicago, and in a case involving the Mississippi Highway Patrol.

In Los Angeles, the police hid the files and just claimed they had
been destroyed. Red squad detective Jay Paul rescued over 100 cartons of
documents, storing them in several locations, including his own home. More than
a dozen cops helped Paul with the move. Several others, including lieutenants
and captains, knew it was happening, allowed it to proceed, and even approved
the use of department resources and staff time to assist in the effort.

In 1983, Portland Police Bureau intelligence officer and John Birch Society
member Winfield Falk undertook a similar task, stealing files that were headed
for the shredder, taking them home, and adding to them on his own for several
years. Ranging from a 1924 Communist Party membership card to a 1986
antiapartheid flier, the files contained information on 576 organizations and
more than 3,000 individuals, including elected officials.

Falk’s files provide an unnerving glimpse at the tactics employed by police
agents. They detail the use of informants, and a 1972 document offers explicit
instructions on infiltrating and disrupting dissident groups.
COINTELPRO-style dirty tricks are similarly discussed: when a Black activist’s
mother overheard someone offer to sell her son dynamite, she accused the police
of trying to entrap the young man. Officer Mike Salmon took a report and
forwarded it to the head of intelligence, Lieutenant Melvin “Corky” Hulett,
along with a note: “I’m sending this direct to you, bypassing records, and I’ll
let you decide what to do with the report. For all we know what Mrs. Anderson
says is true (it sounds sneaky, but a good idea).”

Many of the files contain no allegations of criminal wrongdoing, but focus
instead on personal information, including financial records, job applications,
speculation about the subject’s sexual orientation, and family photos. The
file “South Africa—Anti” contained the birth dates, phone numbers, class
schedules, and grades of six high school students who wrote letters against
apartheid. The “IRA” file listed the names of hundreds of people who signed a
petition against the mistreatment of political prisoners. The “Cults” file
included the 1983 annual report of the First Unitarian Church. The file
labeled “Terrorism, Misc.—Oregon” featured information on Physicians for Social
Responsibility, the Portland State University Hispanic Student Union, and
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. Soup kitchens, day care centers, food
co-ops, a bicycle repair collective, a free dental clinic, and a rape crisis
center all appear in the files.

Collecting such information on people not suspected of crimes has been against
Police Bureau policy since 1975, and after 1981 it violated Oregon law as well.
But many of Falk’s reports were addressed to senior officers, indicating that
police commanders knew what he was up to. While careful to deny knowledge
of the files’ existence, former Portland police chief Penny Harrington
recounted an episode in 1985, when Falk called her to report on the activities
of liberal city councilors, alleging they were out to “take over the city
government.” Harrington wasn’t surprised to hear that Falk had kept the files
for his own use: “That was happening all over the country at that time.… Files
were ending up in people’s garages and basements.”

A similar file rescue occurred in November 1990, when San Francisco police
chief Willis Casey shut down his department’s red squad. Instead of destroying
the squad’s files, officer Tom Gerard moved them to his home. From there he
distributed the documents to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (who
passed them on to the Israeli government), and also to the apartheid government
of South Africa. In total, Gerard maintained files on thousands of Arab
Americans, thirty-six Arab groups, thirty-three anti-apartheid groups, 412
“pinko” organizations, 349 right-wing groups, and thirty-five skinhead gangs,
as well as the ACLU, the National Lawyer’s Guild, Mother Jones
magazine, the United Auto Workers, the board of directors of KQED (a public
television station), the Black Studies Department at San Francisco University,
Democratic politicians, and journalists. When Gerard’s operation was
discovered, it touched off a major scandal. But Richard Hirschhaut, executive
director of the Anti-Defamation League Central Pacific Region, shrugged off the
controversy: “[T]he relationship we had with him … was the same as with
thousands of police officers around the country.” Indeed, when the SFPD and
FBI raided B’nai B’rith offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, they
discovered that the organization was keeping computerized files on nearly
10,000 people. Approximately 75 percent of the data in the files had been
obtained illegally from police, federal agents, or the Department of Motor

A Shell Game

As municipal red squads closed up shop, the burden of political repression was
moved off of city police departments and onto county or state agencies. At the
end of the 1970s, as city police were officially getting out of the spy
business, state units were formed in California, Connecticut, Maryland,
Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Georgia.

A simultaneous charade was being played out at the federal level. As attorney
Brian Glick notes:

By discontinuing use of the term “COINTELPRO,” the Bureau gave the
appearance of acceding to public and congressional pressure. In
reality, it protected its capacity to continue precisely the same activity
under other names. Decentralization of covert operations vastly reduced the
volume of required reporting. It dispersed the remaining documentation to
individual case files in diverse field offices, and it purged these files of
any caption suggesting domestic covert action.

From the FBI’s perspective, the problem with COINTELPRO was that it created a
paper trail leading to its exposure. The solution, then, lay not in
discontinuing the operation, but in decentralizing it—thus making it far less

One innovation—the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)—allowed both local and
federal agencies to sidestep restrictions on their activities by working
together. JTTFs are composed of agents from numerous local, state, and federal
agencies, and headed by the FBI. Since local cops are ostensibly acting as
federal agents, their activities are not subject to the supervision of local
authorities and the information they collect remains secret. The FBI
meanwhile can rely on these other agencies to do the heavy lifting, thus
avoiding the unseemly impression of excessive federal involvement.
Accountability disappears in a bureaucratic shell game.

Really, this is an old story: when New York’s “Anarchist Squad” was disbanded
in 1914, its responsibilities were shifted to the bomb squad. Overt harassment
was replaced with clandestine operations, and within a few months the bomb
squad had an undercover unit.

Red Squads Reborn

At least some of those responsible for the reforms of the late seventies (and
early eighties) knew about this history, and understood how fragile their gains
really were. Richard Gutman, an attorney with the Alliance to End Repression,
said in 1982:

History teaches that the intensity of political surveillance is not constant.
It ebbs and flows. When the political establishment feels its power or policies
threatened, political surveillance will resume. That resumption may be marked
by a court-ordered revision of our injunction based upon “changed

And indeed, eighteen years later, the Chicago consent decree fell. In keeping
with Gutman’s prediction, the court decided that:

The era in which the Red Squad flourished is history, along with the Red Squad
itself. The instabilities of that era have largely disappeared. Fear of
communist subversion, so strong a motivator of constitutional infringements in
those days, has disappeared along with the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Legal
controls over the police, legal sanctions for infringement of constitutional
rights, have multiplied. The culture that created and nourished the Red Squad
has evaporated. The consent decree has done its job.

The consent decree’s final test began in 1996, when the Democratic National
Convention was set in Chicago and Active Resistance, an anarchist
“counter-convention,” was scheduled to coincide with it. Despite
court-mediated limits on such activities, police—both in uniform and in
civilian clothing—lurked around the anarchists’ meeting halls and patrol cars
frequently cruised by, slowing down when passing a conference participant on
her way in or out. Police even conducted surveillance from a helicopter,
hovering over the conference area while participants ate a picnic lunch.
Witnesses reported being followed, threatened, photographed, and questioned by
police, and the cops repeatedly attempted to gain entry to the meeting space. A
demonstration connected with Active Resistance was attacked by police using
horses and nightsticks and those arrested were interrogated about their
political views, their participation in protest activity, and related
matters. Finally, on August 29, 1996, the conference space was raided by
several officers wearing uniforms but no badges. They ordered everyone to the
ground, pushing down or pepper-spraying those who refused. They searched
conference participants’ belongings, and seized papers they deemed “subversive
to the government of the United States.”

When the Alliance to End Repression (joined by the Active Resistance organizers
and others) sued to enforce the consent decree, Judge Joan Gottschall rejected
out of hand the testimony of numerous witnesses and found that the police had
not violated the court order. Following her ruling, a U.S. Appeals Court
accepted the city’s motion to lift most of the restrictions the consent decree
had established, citing changes in the political climate, in police culture,
and in the mission of intelligence agencies. Within months, the Chicago
decision was being cited as a precedent in other cities, from New York to San
Francisco, where police were looking to spy without legal hindrance.

But whatever the court might think, the attack on Active Resistance in 1996
foreshadowed similar police tactics, overt and secret, used against the larger
wave of protest activity beginning in 1999. And as it happened, it was
barely a year after the court’s ruling that the Chicago police were caught
spying on some of the very same groups involved with Active Resistance.
Old habits die hard.

The Unreported Repression

The eighties and nineties are commonly thought of as times of social peace and
political conservatism. Yet these two decades were punctuated with surges of
activism concerning nuclear disarmament, U.S. policies in Central America, gay
and lesbian rights, the AIDS crisis, abortion rights, the Gulf War, police
brutality, immigrants’ rights, the environment, prison expansion, and economic
globalization. And, as before, these movements were met with repression
and police interference.

One article from the October 1988 issue of the Progressive cited
example after example of police surveillance, harassment, and interference with
left-wing organizations in the years immediately previous: In 1983, the Georgia
Bureau of Investigation (GBI) placed an undercover officer in a vigil organized
by an group opposed to the death penalty. Three years later, the GBI began
looking at a consumer group, the Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia, for
possible ties to Libyan terrorists; after three months they closed the case,
conceding that their agents were “unable to substantiate any illegal activity.”
In Boston, Capitol Police infiltrated meetings of the Lesbian and Gay Political
Alliance and Mass Act Out. Connecticut State Police photographed the audience
at a Wesleyan University speech by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. In
Puerto Rico, police maintained a list of thousands of suspected “subversives.”
The FBI coordinated a national campaign against the Central American solidarity
movement, while local cops in Chico, California, infiltrated the Committee in
Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), and police in Orlando and
Philadelphia sent informers to Pledge of Resistance meetings. In Orlando,
police also infiltrated the Florida Nuclear Freeze campaign and posed as
journalists to photograph a 1983 rally. In advance of the 1984 Democratic
National Convention, San Francisco police amassed files on ninety-five groups,
including gay rights organizations, labor unions, CISPES, Catholic Charities,
and the ACLU. (“I think it’s silly to spy on the American Civil Liberties
Union,” the head of the police commission later admitted; but when the ACLU
requested its file, the city refused to turn it over.) In 1987, the NYPD sent
informers into meetings of the New York City Civil Rights Coalition.

In Portland, Oregon, in 1993, a scuffle broke out between youth at a punk rock
show and the riot police who had surrounded the venue and refused to let them
leave. Thirty-one people were arrested, among them Douglas Squirrel. Squirrel
had left the show early but was arrested anyway because, as police spokesperson
Derrick Foxworth explained, police files identified him as the “leader of the
anarchists.” Files released during the trial revealed an extensive pattern
of political surveillance, much of it in violation of Oregon law. In
particular, informants had been used against groups with no criminal history,
including those lobbying for a civilian board to hear complaints against the
police. Squirrel was acquitted, and a subsequent lawsuit produced a ruling
limiting police surveillance activities to those attached to an ongoing
criminal investigation. Despite the judge’s ruling, the surveillance continued.
After a 1998 protest against the bombing of Iraq, another activist, Dan
Handelman, was surprised to see his name in a police report, with a brief
synopsis of his political work:

The Peace and Justice Works Iraq Affinity Group has held numerous protests in
the Portland area concerning U.S. involvement with Iraq. This group is headed
by a subject named Dan Handleman [sic] who has been very active in
calling for, arranging, and sponsoring these demonstrations.

Handelman was not arrested at the event, and this political information—likely
drawn from other files—had no bearing on any criminal case. Together these
examples show that the police are loath to respect any restrictions placed on
their operations (whether by the legislature or by the courts), and sometimes
still view social movements as conspiracies hatched by sinister agitators.
In fact, there are indications of COINTELPRO-style abuses and even outright
atrocities during the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years.

Consider, for instance, the case of Judi Bari—bombed by persons unknown, then
unsuccessfully framed by the Oakland police and the FBI. Bari was seriously
injured on March 24, 1990, when a pipe bomb exploded under the seat of her car;
Darryl Cherney was also in the vehicle, and was also injured, though not as
badly. The two were members of the radical environmental group Earth First! and
were in the midst of organizing a civil disobedience campaign against logging
in Northern California. In the weeks before the attack, they had received
numerous death threats, which the police declined to investigate. When the bomb
exploded, the cops—under the always-helpful guidance of the FBI—were quick to
blame the victims: Bari and Cherney were arrested for transporting explosives
and branded in the media as terrorists. But the physical evidence did not match
the official theory that the pair were knowingly transporting a bomb. The
damage to the car, and to Bari herself, indicated that the bomb was under the
driver’s seat, not in the back seat where the police said it had been. The DA
declined to prosecute, the police refused to look for other suspects, and Bari
and Cherney sued.

The lawsuit brought forth evidence suggestive of possibilities far more
sinister than simple incompetence—including details of an FBI-run bomb school
held on lumber company property weeks before the explosion. In the course of
the training, Special Agent Frank Doyle simulated a bombing identical to that
which injured Bari and Cherney a month later. The jury became convinced
that the activists’ civil rights had been violated, and in June 2002, awarded
them $4.4 million. The jury explicitly recognized the political motivations
behind the police misconduct: violations of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment
rights represented 80 percent of the damages. One unnamed juror told the
Press Democrat, “There were too many lies and manipulation of the
evidence. And way too much guilt by association. Law enforcement isn’t supposed
to do that.” Another juror concurred, saying, “Now every time I hear
anything about the FBI where they made an arrest I question it. That’s what
this experience taught me.” But for Bari, justice delayed really was
justice denied—she died of cancer while the case was still in litigation.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, no set of events are
as dramatically damning of police intelligence operations as the Philadelphia
Police Department’s campaign against MOVE. MOVE is a radical Afrocentric,
anti-technology organization inspired by the teachings of John Africa. After
neighbors lodged noise and sanitation complaints against the group, police used
eight-foot-high fences to blockade a four-block area around the home of the
organization’s members. From May 1977 until March 1978, the Powelton
neighborhood came to resemble an internment camp. Under the command of red
squad lieutenant George Fencl, the area was only accessible through a police
checkpoint. Residents were required to show ID to enter, and were escorted to
their homes by police; friends and family were only permitted inside if they
had been previously listed by residents, and if they received police approval.
Residents could only leave their homes with permission from the police.
The whole operation cost $2 million, required 1,000 officers, and ended with a
shoot-out. One cop was killed, and eighteen other people injured (twelve police
and firefighters, six members and supporters of MOVE). The siege ended with
the beating of MOVE leader Delbert Africa as he tried to surrender.

A few years later, in 1985, the neighborhood suffered another poorly conceived
police action. Allegedly trying to serve four arrest warrants, cops fired into
the MOVE house, and then used a helicopter to bomb the building. Eleven people
were killed, including five children. Sixty-one homes were destroyed in
the fire that followed, leaving 250 people homeless. A commission established
to study the incident found that police gunfire had prevented the residents of
the house from evacuating, and noted that the “firing of over 10,000 rounds of
ammunition in under ninety minutes at a row house containing children was
clearly excessive and unreasonable.” The courts have tended to agree with
this assessment, and the City of Philadelphia has paid more than $33 million in
damages related to the incident. Still, no government official has ever faced
criminal charges for the massacre. In sharp contrast, Ramona Africa—the only
adult survivor—spent the next seven years in prison.

Like so many others, this atrocity was the joint work of local and federal
authorities. MOVE members cataloged the weaponry used against them: tear gas,
water cannons, shotguns, Uzis, M-16s, Browning Automatic Rifles, M-60 machine
guns, a 20mm anti-tank gun, and a 50-caliber machine gun—plus, of course, a
bomb. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms granted the police special
permission for this arsenal, and the FBI provided 37.5 pounds of C-4 plastic
explosives several months before the final attack. Philadelphia’s first
Black mayor, W. Wilson Goode, justified the military approach: “What we have
out there is war.” MOVE’s neighbors had a different word for it. As they
gathered on the streets, their homes burning, they chanted at the police,
“Murder! Murder!”

“A New Day in Secret Government”

In terms of official repression, the twenty-first century may come to surpass
the twentieth. Repressive operations have only escalated, and accelerated,
since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade
Center. Both the domestic security forces and the military have used the
climate of fear following the attacks to justify radical expansion of their
activities. Around the country, police pressed for increased powers and sought
relief from the limits imposed in the 1970s.

Just weeks after the attacks, Congress did its part to advance the domestic
espionage agenda, passing the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing
Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA Patriot)

The Washington Post described the law:

Molded by wartime politics and passed … in furious haste, the new antiterrorism
bill lays the foundation for a domestic intelligence-gathering system of
unprecedented scale and technological prowess, according to both supporters and
critics of the legislation.… The bill effectively tears down a legal fire wall
erected 25 years ago during the Watergate era.…

Or, as the ACLU’s Dave Fidanque put it, “this is the dawn of a new day in
secret government.”

The Patriot Act represents the Palmer Raids and Watergate-style black bag jobs,
rolled into one and stamped with congressional approval. Passed and signed
on October 26, 2001, this law expanded the definition of “terrorism,”
formalized guilt by association, reduced the legal rights of immigrants, and
granted the police greater powers to conduct surveillance, while limiting
judicial oversight. It’s definition of “material support” for terrorism is
so “vague” that former president Jimmy Carter expressed concern that “we [at
the Carter Center] will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and
freedom.” His worry may well be real: The Holy Land Foundation was
convicted under the material support provision for funding Palestinian
charities that also received assistance from the U.S. government. The
government did not even allege that Holy Land money found its way to
terrorists, but merely that the programs it funded lent Hamas an air of
legitimacy. It is hard to conceive of a more purely political prosecution.

The Patriot Act also reduced protections for individual privacy by encouraging
secret searches, increasing eavesdropping, and removing many protections for
confidential information. Section 213 allows police to search a person’s
property without notifying her that a warrant has been issued. Likewise,
Section 216 allows for increased surveillance of electronic communication,
removes most restrictions on the use of wiretaps, and substantially limits the
role of judicial review, essentially giving law enforcement a free hand to
monitor telecommunications.

Predictably, by authorizing such practices while preventing any effective
oversight, the law opened the door for more and greater abuses of power. But
the full extent of domestic surveillance wasn’t clear—if, in fact, it is
understood now—until in 2013 Edward Snowden, an intelligence contractor, leaked
documents showing that in 2010 the National Security Agency intercepted 1.7
billion domestic communications each day, forwarding what it found to
the CIA and FBI, practically without oversight. As Snowden explained his
job at the NSA: “I, sitting at my desk, could wire-tap anyone, from you or your
accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal
email.” Glenn Greenwald summed it up: “Taken in its entirely, the Snowden
archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: The US government had built a
system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy
worldwide.” In fact, General Keith Alexander, who headed the Agency from
2005 to 2014 took as his personal motto the phrase “Collect it all.”

In short, the first years of the new century saw the complete restructuring of
the American security forces. The Patriot Act increased information-sharing
between the FBI, CIA, NSA, immigration authorities, and Secret Service, and
granted them access to previously off-limits grand jury information. A
year later, the Homeland Security Act incorporated 170,000 employees from
twenty-two agencies into an integrated domestic anti-terrorism apparatus,
representing the largest bureaucratic re-organization since the creation of the
Defense Department. The new Department of Homeland Security centrally
manages tasks related to sharing information, monitoring electronic
communications, regulating the borders, responding to emergencies, and
coordinating local antiterrorism efforts. It includes 74,300 armed federal
agents and takes on many of the tasks formerly performed by the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS), Customs, the Coast Guard, and the Border
Patrol. The FBI, meanwhile, was ordered to “shift its primary focus from
investigating and prosecuting past crimes to identifying threats of future
terrorist attacks.” In the decade that followed, the Bureau more than
doubled the number of its agents assigned to national security cases. It
created seventy-one new Joint Terrorism Task Forces, bringing the total to 106
JTTFs, involving 4,400 officers from more than 650 organizations. And it
amassed 700 million terrorism files, listing 1.1 million suspects.

Register, Detain, Infiltrate, Entrap

Predictably, the new government powers were first used against the Muslim

In the months following the September 11 attacks, the FBI rounded up an unknown
number of Middle Eastern immigrants. (The Justice Department stopped counting
at 1,147, and the ACLU estimated that the total may have been as high as 5,000
people.) Many detainees were held incommunicado. They were commonly denied
legal representation and their families were not told where—or in some cases,
whether—they were in custody. While Attorney General John Ashcroft called
the detainees “suspected terrorists,” none were charged with a crime related to
terrorist activity. In fact, the Justice Department estimated that only
ten or twelve of those held were connected to al Qaeda, and documents released
under the Freedom of Information Act show that, of the first 725 arrested, 300
were of no interest to any terror investigation. Yet in a clear inversion
of the presumption of innocence, the detainees were held under the pretext of
minor immigration violations until the authorities could be convinced of their
innocence; they were then either released or deported.

In a typical case, Hady Hassan Omar, an Egyptian national, fell under suspicion
because he made airline reservations from a Kinko’s computer. On the basis of
this questionable conduct, he was arrested, held for two months, and then
released without charges. Or, to take another case: Shahin Hajizadeh, a
legal resident awaiting his permanent status, appeared at the INS office in Los
Angeles to comply with regulations requiring the registration and
fingerprinting of all Middle Eastern men over sixteen years of age. He was
detained, kicked in the ribs by a guard, and placed in an overcrowded cell
without adequate food, water, or bathroom facilities. He was then transferred
to an unheated cell in the desert town of Lancaster, allowed to sleep for about
an hour, moved back to L.A., and released.

Hajizadeh was just one of hundreds of Middle Eastern men detained while
attempting to comply with the new rules. As usual, the government refused to
cite exact figures, but put the number arrested somewhere “in the low two
hundreds.” Civil rights activists, attorneys representing the detainees,
and anonymous immigration officials put the number between 500 and 700.
Most of those detained were in the country legally. The registration
requirements thus present immigrants with a classic catch-22: either comply
with the law and risk detention, or violate the law and risk arrest. In the
first year of the program, 83,310 immigrants registered and 13,740 were
deported as a result. None were convicted of terrorism.

The FBI uses the threat of arrest and deportation to pressure Muslims to become
informants. Or sometimes, federal agents resort to simple blackmail. In
Operation Flex, the FBI recruited Craig Monteilh to enter the Orange County
Muslim community and sniff out immigration violations, illicit affairs, drug
use, or other minor misdeeds that the feds could use as leverage when
recruiting other informers. “They wanted information that they could use to
blackmail people,” Monteilh stated frankly.

In addition to using underhanded means to persuade, pressure, or outright bully
people into becoming informants, the FBI was using equally unsavory tactics to
convince foolish, desperate, or unstable people to become terrorists.
In the typical case, an informant finds some sucker with dreams of a holy war,
develops a relationship with him, and helps put together an (ultimately
fictitious) mission. Posing as a representative of al Qaeda or some other
outfit, the provocateur supplies the mark with all the ingredients for an
attack—except the actual explosives—and then has him arrested. As U.S. District
Judge Colleen McMahon explained in reviewing one case:

The essence of what occurred here is that a government, understandably zealous
to protect its citizens from terrorism, came upon a man both bigoted and
suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his
own.… It created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry,
and then made those fantasies come true.… I suspect that real terrorists would
not have bothered themselves with a person who was so utterly inept.… Only the
government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is
positively Shakespearean in scope.

The defendant in the case, James Cromitie, was unemployed, mentally disabled,
recovering from addiction, and suffering schizophrenia. An FBI informer offered
him and three accomplices $250,000 to fire rockets at the Stewart Air National
Guard Base and plant a bomb in a synagogue, while also making vague threats
should they back out. Judge McMahon acknowledged, “There is no way that
these four defendants would have dreamed up the idea of shooting a Stinger
missile at an airplane or anything else; there is certainly no way they could
have acquired a Stinger missile, operative or inert, unless the government
provided them one.” Nevertheless, all four defendants were convicted and
sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, the minimum allowable under the
law. Reviewing the case on appeal, Judge Reena Raggi observed, “The
government came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant

Cromitie’s case, though pathetic, was hardly exceptional. In November
2010, the FBI arrested a Somali-American teenager for trying to bomb a public
Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. In 2009, Mohamed Mohamud,
had tried to email a terrorist recruiter in Yemen. The FBI had intercepted the
message and, almost a year later, sent two undercover agents to contact
Mohamud. Over the course of months, the agents helped him design a bomb plot,
taught him how to detonate the bomb, gave him $2,700 for rent, and supplied
both the van and the (fake) car bomb. Mohamud was arrested after trying to
trigger the explosion. His attorney argued that he had been entrapped, but
a jury convicted him and the judge—who said that the FBI’s actions amounted to
“imperfect entrapment”—sentenced him to thirty years just the same.

Reviewing all 508 federal terrorism cases filed in the decade following the
2001 attacks, journalist Trevor Aaronson found that “243 had been targeted
through an FBI informant, 158 had been caught in an FBI terrorism sting, and 49
had encountered an agent provocateur.” The majority of those remaining were
just “small-time criminals with distant links to terrorists overseas.” Of that
lot, seventy-two were arrested for making false statements to investigators,
and 121 faced immigration charges. “Of the 508 cases,” Aaronson concludes, “I
could count on one hand the number of actual terrorists.”

The NYPD at War

Among local agencies, the most intensive domestic counter-terrorism—or more
accurately, anti-Muslim—effort of the post-9/11 period is undoubtedly that of
the NYPD’s Intelligence Division (“Intel”). With a staff of 600 and a budget of
$60 million, Intel runs investigations far outside the department’s
jurisdiction—in other states, and even in other countries. Its major task,
however, is to learn everything there is to know about the Muslim population of
New York City.

Developed with CIA assistance—advice, training, and embedded staff—and modeled
on Israeli intelligence operations in the West Bank, the program aims for
precise mapping of the city’s Muslim communities, beginning with demographic
information drawn from census data, building toward detailed files on every
mosque, business, and other institution, then identifying key individuals. To
this end, plainclothes officers called “rakers” visit local restaurants, cafes,
and bookstores, chatting with patrons and proprietors, and sometimes just
listening in on conversations. On average, rakers file four reports a day,
classified by ethnicity (covering twenty-eight “ancestries of interest”), and
featuring details of the discussions they overhear, popular reactions to events
in the news, whether or not al Jazeera was on the television, the
nature of literature for sale, the fliers on the bulletin board, and even the
clothes people wear. The idea is to identify and monitor “radicalization

When immigrants from targeted countries are arrested, no matter what the nature
of the charge, they are questioned by officers from the Demographics Unit
(later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit). Interrogators ask, not only about
terrorism, but for broad information concerning the community as a whole: where
to find a cheap room, a fake ID, English-language lessons, a popular mosque, or
a good gym. Sometimes low-level offenders are offered the chance to work
off their charges by serving as “listening posts” in their neighborhood, and
minor problems with immigration procedures or business licenses are likewise
used as leverage to recruit informers.

Paid informers, called “mosque crawlers,” infiltrate Muslim congregations and
report on the content of the sermons, the opinions and private lives of
religious leaders, the ethnicities of those attending services, and the views
of people takings classes. By 2006, the NYPD had catalogued more than 250
mosques, with profiles of their leadership, affiliations, and ethnic
compositions. Fifty-three were listed as “mosques of interest,” and 138
individuals were tagged as “persons of interests.” The goal was to have an
informer inside every mosque within 250 miles of New York City.

The net being cast here is extremely wide. Investigations focus less on
individual suspects than on entire communities, because the emphasis is on
intelligence rather than law enforcement—or, put differently, on politics
rather than crime. As journalists Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman explain:

[The] NYPD wanted to identify terrorists early. Not just before they launched
an attack; that was a given. [Intel head David] Cohen wanted to spot them
before they picked targets, before they bought weapons, and, ideally, before a
toxic ideology took root.

Cohen wanted to know whether you were going to be a terrorist before you knew

The effect, predictably, has been literally a kind of counter-terror—it
terrorizes the subject population. Apuzzo and Goldman continue:

The Muslim community is marbled by fear and isolation.… Worshippers are afraid
to congregate. Young men worry that growing beards will attract police
attention. People fear that talking politics, marching in protests, or
attending academic lectures will land them in police files.

They believe this because it happens.

The Other War on Terror

At the same time, while the U.S. military bombed, invaded, occupied, and
carried out covert ops in an ever-expanding, and ever-shifting, list of
countries (mostly) in the Middle East—Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen,
Libya, Somalia, Iraq again, Syria—and while domestic law enforcement was
engaged in wholesale surveillance and infiltration of Arab, Muslim, and
immigrant communities, another, smaller, less deadly, more focused “war on
terror” was also under way—this one targeting the environmental and animal
rights movements.

The federal anti-eco campaign—sometimes called the “Green Scare”—has been
characterized by extensive surveillance, petty harassment, long-term
infiltration, “enhanced” sentencing, the use of solitary confinement,
entrapment by agents provocateurs, and legal maneuvering to criminalize
political speech.

For example, in 2006, six people affiliated with Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty
were convicted of conspiracy to violate the federal Animal Enterprise
Protection Act. Their crime was maintaining a website that detailed actions
(including vandalism) against Huntingdon Life Sciences and listed the home
addresses of corporate executives. For posting such information on the
Internet, the activists were jailed for four to six years. In February that same year, another activist was arrested
for a lecture he had given, describing an environmentally motivated arson for
which he had already spent four years in federal prison. During the
question-and-answer portion of his talk, Rod Coronado responded to a inquiry
about the design of the firebomb he had used; he then found himself charged
with demonstrating the manufacture of an incendiary device. Pleading guilty, he
returned to prison for twelve more months.

Also in 2006, on January 13, Eric McDavid, Zachary Jenson, and Lauren Weiner
were arrested in Auburn, California, for conspiring to attack the Institute of
Forest Genetics, take down cell phone towers, and blow up a dam. In keeping
with the larger pattern of terrorism conspiracy cases, the plot was chiefly
driven by an agent provocateur working for the FBI, and there was no bomb. The
undercover operative, going under the name “Anna,” arranged the meetings, kept
the notes, paid for their travel, rented the cabin where they stayed, and
supplied the instructions and the materials for making a bomb—all while urging,
cajoling, manipulating, or outright bullying the others to get more serious,
think bigger, set “a damned goal,” and “keep the damned plan.” Diane
Bennett, a juror from the case, accused the FBI, through Anna, of “providing
all of the essential tools for the group; the cabin, the money, the idea, the
books, everything.” For her efforts, Anna was paid over $65,000. Jenson
and Weiner agreed to testify in exchange for reduced sentences (in fact, “time
served”). McDavid was sentenced to nineteen years and seven months in prison,
but was released after nine years when it was discovered that the FBI had
withheld evidence from his attorneys.

The most spectacular success of the FBI’s campaign was surely “Operation
Backfire.” The Backfire defendants were accused of a series of Earth Liberation
Front and Animal Liberation Front arsons from the late 1990s—activities the FBI
characterized as “domestic terrorism.”

The investigation into the ELF had stalled out for years, and only started to
show progress in 2001 when an investigation into a stolen truck led the police
to question a heroin addict named Jacob Ferguson. The police noticed that the
theft occurred on the same night as an arson at a Eugene, Oregon SUV
dealership, and deduced (wrongly) that Ferguson might have started the fire.
Twice subpoenaed to grand juries and finally facing charges himself, in 2004
Ferguson offered investigators information on twenty-two Earth Liberation Front
and Animal Liberation Front actions, naming those involved. He then spent
months traveling the country, meeting up with his old comrades and secretly
recording their reminiscences about their adventures as saboteurs.

Once it was going, the cycle of arrest and denunciation was quick to repeat
itself. A few of those accused fought the charges, plead guilty without
implicating others, or fled. Most, however turned against their friends in the
hope of more lenient sentencing. Confronted with evidence from their former
comrades, new suspects were then quick to inform on others, renewing the
cycle—and leading to more interrogations, more confessions, more naming names,
more arrests, and more jailed activists. Altogether eighteen people were
indicted. Sixteen were sent to prison for as long as thirteen years, one is
still at large, and one—William Rodgers—killed himself, soon after his

Anarchists, Again

Overlapping with the suppression of the environmental movement, the authorities
were also turning their attention, with renewed vigor, to the ideological
descendants of their Haymarket adversaries, anarchists.

More than a year before the 2008 Republican National Convention, undercover
cops started infiltrating protest planning meetings around the country,
and the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center began compiling, analyzing, and
distributing information from police and military databases, DMV records, and
court documents. Just before the start of the convention, sheriff’s
deputies raided the homes of several activists, makings arrests and seizing
protest materials as well as cell phones, cameras, computers, diaries,
checkbooks, and (in their words) “propaganda literature.” By the time the
delegates left town, more than 800 people had been arrested—including eight
members of the ironically-named “RNC Welcoming Committee.” The RNC 8 were
charged with “conspiracy to riot in the furtherance of terrorism” under
Minnesota’s state-level version of the Patriot Act. If convicted, they
faced nearly eight years in prison. Instead, charges were dropped against three
of them and the rest plead guilty to gross misdemeanors. Only one went to jail:
ninety days. This outcome was part of a larger pattern: The majority of
people arrested—584 out of more than 800—were either released without charges
or had their cases dismissed; only ten suffered felony convictions.

Among the unlucky ten were David McKay and Bradley Crowder, two young men
convicted of making firebombs. They had traveled to St. Paul as part of the
“Austin Affinity Group,” alongside an older, more experienced activist named
Brandon Darby. Darby, who became something of a role model to them both, was
secretly working for the FBI.

Almost as soon as they arrived in the Twin Cities, things started to go wrong.
First, acting on a tip from Darby, the police stopped their van and seized
home-made riot shields. The boys were discouraged, but Darby was vocal in
demanding some sort of retaliation: “We’re not going to take this lying down.
You’ve got to do something about it.” That evening, McKay and Crowder made
molotov cocktails, but lacking support from the rest of their affinity group,
decided not to use them. Later, though, at Darby’s urging, McKay suggested
attacking parked police cars. He didn’t follow up on the plan, and Crowder was
already in jail at the time, but they were charged and convicted just the same.
Crowder was sentenced to two years, McKay to four. Darby was paid $12,750, plus
$3,028 for expenses. He’s now a columnist writing for conservative

Such provocateur tactics, already well-established in the creation and arrest
of Muslim terrorists, have increasingly targeted the anarchist movement as
well. In 2012, five young men were similarly manipulated into a plot to blow up
a bridge near Cleveland. An FBI informant posing as an Occupy Cleveland
activist gained influence with the men by providing them with booze, drugs, and
jobs, then offered to help them buy explosives. They received sentences ranging
from six to twelve years. A month later, just before the NATO summit in
Chicago, three other anarchists were arrested for making molotov cocktails,
acting under the guidance and with the direct aid of two undercover cops.
Though they were acquitted of terrorism charges, they were convicted of mob
action and possessing firebombs, resulting in prison terms of five to eight

Also in 2012, on the morning of July 25, FBI agents outfitted with assault
rifles, flack jackets, helmets, and olive drab uniforms broke down the doors of
several Portland homes, searching for paint, sticks, road flares, cell phones,
“diary and journal entries,” address books, black clothing, and
“anti-government or anarchist literature.” Simultaneously, in Portland,
Olympia, and Seattle, the feds were also delivering subpoenas summoning
activists to a secret grand jury. In this case, there was no bomb plot, no
molotov cocktails, no conspiracy charges. Instead, the FBI was purportedly
responding to riotous demonstrations in Seattle on May Day—International
Workers Day, and the annual commemoration of Haymarket. Court documents
indicate, however, that the FBI was closely monitoring a group of Portland
anarchists in advance of the demonstrations.

Those who appeared before the grand jury—most of whom were not even present on
May 1—report a McCarthyite proceeding in which, without the rights to remain
silent or to have an attorney present, they were asked about their political
views, the beliefs of their friends, and who among their acquaintances know
whom. They were questioned, in other words, not about crimes but about
politics and were asked quite literally to name names. Four people who refused
to answer such questions were cited for contempt of court and jailed as long as
five months, much of that time in solitary. In the end, the grand jury
produced no indictments.

Looking Left, Leaning Right

At every level of government, campaigns against dissent have tended to focus
disproportionately on the activities of the left. For example, in 1975, a
former detective leaked to the press a list of organizations with files
maintained by the Baltimore Police Department’s Inspectional Service Division.
Three of the 125 groups listed were classified as right-wing. Other categories
included “subversive, extremist, civil rights, left-wing, pacifist,
miscellaneous, and civic.” The NAACP, the ACLU, the American Friends Service
Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference all had files, as
did a tenants’ group and a tutoring program.

Curiously, the surveillance, harassment, infiltration, arrests, sabotage,
slander, disruption, and petty bullshit endured by the left is only rarely
matched by the level police action against the right. Even during World War II,
when the U.S. was at war with Nazi Germany and allied with the Soviet Union,
the NYPD still invested more resources in infiltrating the Communist Party than
in monitoring fascists. Likewise, though the FBI eventually initiated
COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE against the Klan—an effort that lasted seven years and
included infiltration, sabotage, snitch-jacketing, electronic surveillance,
black-bag jobs, and petty harassment—98 percent of COINTELPRO files
concerned leftist movements. Hoover only added the Klan to his list of
targets when directly ordered by President Johnson, “I want you to have the
same kind
of intelligence [on the Klan] that you have on the
communists.” Still, David Cunningham argues, the Bureau pursued
“distinct overall strategies” against the right and left: “an overarching
effort to control the Klan’s violent tendencies,” contrasted with “attempts to
eliminate the New Left altogether.” The difference, Cunningham suggests, is
that Hoover may have objected to the Klan’s methods, but he opposed the left’s

Broadly speaking, the state’s suspicion of and pressure on the left is
persistent, aggressive, and anticipatory—while its action directed against the
right is episodic, defensive, and reactive. In the latter case, it is only when
some faction pushes things a step too far that the state initiates a broad but
temporary crackdown, followed by a renewed stasis. In the sixties, the Klan
seems to have stumbled over one such political trip line when it started
murdering White northerners. A similar line was crossed in the early 1980’s
with The Order’s interstate spree of bank heists, bombings, and assassinations.
The FBI’s response then was Operation Clean Sweep, a movement-wide multi-year
campaign, leading to indictments against members of The Order, The Covenant,
the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, Aryan Nations, Posse Comitatus, and the
White Patriot Party, as well as select national leaders.

Likewise, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City,
killing 168 people, law enforcement took a sudden interest in the right-wing
militia movement. The resulting campaign saw federal prosecutions of, not only
McVeigh himself, but the Montana Freemen, the Aryan Republican Army, the Aryan
People’s Republic, and the Phineas Priesthood, as well as arrests related to
other bomb plots in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Georgia. At the same
time, the FBI’s anti-terrorism budget doubled, rising from $256 million in 1995
to $581 million in 1998. In 1996, President Clinton signed the
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which laid the foundation for
the Patriot Act, and lengthened sentences for a range of crimes, imposed
increasingly punitive conditions in prisons, expanded the death penalty, and
(as the Freedom Archives’ Claude Marks explains) signaled “the first
significant step in ending habeas corpus.” In sum, the
government’s response to White supremacist violence was to enact legislation
that would mainly harm the interests and curtail the rights of people of color.

Sometimes the state’s bias actually draws the cops into alliances with the far
right. Red squad files have commonly been shared with right-wing
organizations; and at times these relationships have gone further, as
police made use of right-wing paramilitary and vigilante groups to carry out
illegal campaigns of sabotage and violence. For example, during the late 1960s,
the Legion of Justice conducted a series of burglaries, beatings, and arson
attacks on behalf of the Chicago Police red squad. A few years later, in
San Diego, the Secret Army Organization—a group led by an FBI informant and
armed with $10,000 worth of Bureau-supplied weaponry—was busy beating up
Chicano activists, trashing the offices of radical newspapers, and attempting
to assassinate anti-war organizers. Here, too, the rightward bias is
apparent. As Chip Berlet notes, “the U.S. government seems so ready to make use
of the right to violently attack the left, but not the other way around.”

The Left/Right Imbalance

Even in period since the civil rights movement era, as the right wing has
become more hostile to the state—less conservative and more
revolutionary—this official bias has still largely remained intact. Law
enforcement attitudes toward the right tend to be characterized by complacency,
tolerance, and a kind of willful ignorance.

Journalist Will Potter has noted, for example, the that while the FBI was
“exaggerating the threat” posed by the Earth Liberation Front and Animal
Liberation Front (who had damaged property, but never targeted people), the
Bureau was simultaneously “either grossly miscalculating, or intentionally
downplaying murders and violent attacks from right-wing extremists.” Between
2007 and 2009, the FBI counted forty injuries and seven deaths from right-wing
violence. However, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) counted 599
injuries and 108 deaths during the same period. In fact, the CTC estimated that
right-wing violence had increased 400% since 1990, while the FBI reported that
it was in decline.

Likely the cops’ crazily uneven willingness to react to—or even
recognize—subversion or extremism reflects race and class as well as
ideological biases. Considering the federal response to the militia movement,
Leonard Zeskind hypothesizes that had it been Black people “marching though the
woods and firing armor-piercing, cop-killing ammunition, the entire movement
would not have lasted five minutes, much less five years.” Potter, on the
other hand, points out that the victims of right-wing violence are
typically immigrants, Muslims, and people of color, while the targets of
environmental and animal rights activism are among “the most powerful
corporations on the planet”—hence the state’s relative indifference to the
one and obsession with the other.

The hostility to dissent should be understood not simply in terms of individual
conservatism, but as an institutional feature of the entire criminal legal
system—and perhaps even of the state as a whole. Alan Wolfe explains:

It is not so much that the state acts mechanistically, always moving to support
one group and repress the other, as it is that a regularized bias exists in the
operations of the democratic state that tends to support the interests of the
powerful against those who challenge them.…

Despite some variations, when the state acts in a liberal democratic society
such as that of the United States, it acts in a biased fashion.… It is partial
to the dominant interests, hostile to those whose power is minimal. By nearly
all of its actions, it reproduces a society in which some have power at the
expense of others, and it moves to support the “others” only when their
protests are so strong that the “some” stand to lose all they have gained.

It follows that repression will similarly not be a neutral phenomenon but will
have a class bias. We can predict, with good accuracy, that when the state
intervenes to repress an organization or an ideology, it will be a dissenting
group, representing relatively powerless people, that will be repressed and the
interests upheld will be those of the powerful.

The broader pattern helps to explain one partial exception to the left/right
gap in official scrutiny—namely, the domestic aspects of the “War on Terror.”
Al Qaeda is clearly a reactionary organization. Like much of the American far
right, it is theocratic, anti-Semitic, and patriarchal. Like Timothy McVeigh,
the 9/11 hijackers attacked symbols of institutional power, killing a great
many innocent people to further their cause. But while the state’s bias favors
the right over the left, the Islamists were the wrong kind of
right-wing fanatic. These right-wing terrorists were foreigners, they
were Muslim, and above all they were not white. And so, in retrospect
and by comparison, the state’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing seems
relatively restrained—short-lived, focused, selectively targeting unlawful
behavior for prosecution. The government’s reaction to the September 11th
attacks has been something else entirely—an open-ended war fought at home and
abroad, using all variety of legal, illegal, and extra-legal military, police,
and intelligence tactics, arbitrarily jailing large numbers of people and
spying on entire communities of immigrants, Muslims, and Middle Eastern ethnic
groups. At the same time, law enforcement was also obsessively pursuing—and
sometimes fabricating—cases against environmentalists, animal rights activists,
and anarchists while ignoring or obscuring racist violence against people of
color. What that shows, I think, is that the left/right imbalance persists, but
sometimes other biases matter more.

Rethinking Unrest

We’ve come a long way since Haymarket.

Today’s secret police operate a vast network of surveillance and monitor, not
just individual suspects, but whole populations. They tap phones and intercept
electronic communication, not based on specific suspicions, but simply because
the information is there to be collected. They infiltrate, not only political
organizations and radical movements, but places of worship, social scenes, and
even entire neighborhoods. They are increasingly anticipatory in their
orientation, preventive in their aims, preemptive in their methods.

Traditionally, cops have clung to a conspiracy model for understanding
subversion, even when their targets included people quite removed from any
radical tendency. That obsession with conspiracies and agitators reflected a
conservative view of society: the political order was fundamentally stable,
unrest was anomalous and irrational, dissent was not prompted by social
conditions but by Communist plots. As Frank Donner notes:

To equate dissent with subversion, as intelligence officials do, is to deny
that the demand for change is based on real social, economic, or political
conditions. A familiar example of this is the almost paranoid obsession with
the “agitator.” Intelligence proceeds on the assumption that most people are
reasonably contented but are incited or misled by an “agitator,” a figure who
typically comes from “outside” to stir up trouble. The task is to track down
this sinister individual and bring him to account: all will then be well

Working from these premises, the police were incapable of understanding social
movements when they arose, and could do practically nothing to prevent them.
Eventually, the shortcomings of this approach necessitated the shift to
COINTELPRO tactics and the covert disruption of radical movements. But
COINTELPRO, too, was essentially reactive: it sought to dis-organize existing
movements and isolate them from their constituencies, but could not prevent
them from arising in the first place.

Responding to these failures, in the 1970s the police strategy started to
change, directly following developments in military theory. Reflecting on his
experience fighting insurgencies in various British colonies, the
aforementioned general Frank Kitson crafted a doctrine of

Kitson’s analysis of rebellions outlined three stages of a subversive campaign:
preparation, nonviolence, and insurgency. The security forces need to be ready
at every stage, beginning with the preparatory stage when everything seems
calm. Despite its aims, the old model had remained essentially reactive; it
only responded at the second stage, when political activity became visible.
Kitson’s hope was to prevent the “enemy” from ever reaching the second
stage. He wrote:

Looking in retrospect at any counter-subversion or counter-insurgency campaign,
it is easy to see that the first step should have been to prevent the enemy
from gaining an ascendancy over the civil population, and in particular to
disrupt his efforts at establishing his political organization. In practice
this is difficult to achieve because for a long time the government may be
unaware that a significant threat exists, and in any case in a so-called free
country it is regarded as the opposite of freedom to restrict the spread of a
political idea.

Kitson saw that previous efforts at preventing unrest had begun too late, after
a threat had already developed. The task at hand was to prevent subversive
ideas from finding a popular audience.

Kitson abandoned the conservative view of society and, with it, many of the
assumptions driving the old approach. His analysis suggests that society exists
in a state of permanent conflict, which would require a strategy of permanent
repression. Rather than focusing solely on activists, political repression
must be understood in terms of controlling whole populations.

The shift from anti-Communism to anti-terrorism is minor compared to the move
from conspiracy theories to counterinsurgency. The latter has broadened the
scope of intelligence operations and, at the same time, informed the direction
of other police work. In crowd control actions and community policing programs,
as well as in the work of the red squads, the emphasis is increasingly placed
on preemptive and proactive efforts. In each case, police seek to enlist the
support of reliable portions of the population when conditions are stable, and
to neutralize disruptive elements before they present a threat.

The broader implications of this strategy, and the practical efforts to
implement it, will be considered in the chapters that follow.

8: Riot Police or Police Riots?

Despite the efforts of the intelligence agencies, opposition movements continue
to emerge, occasionally developing to the point of unrest. Naturally, when
uprisings occur, the authorities must put them down. Governments necessarily
have a stake in controlling political protest, especially when it becomes
forceful enough to disrupt the usual course of things—that is, when it becomes
an effective threat to the status quo. No one with an interest in retaining
power can allow protest to go so far as to actually jeopardize their ability to
rule. But that presents a problem for the rulers of an alleged democracy, with
its promises of civil rights, free speech, popular assembly, and the pretense
that the people are actually in the driver’s seat. Open repression may
exacerbate a crisis and undercut the state’s claim to legitimacy, while
acquiescence may make the government seem weak and will surely carry with it
unfavorable policy implications. There can be no question of whether
to control political protest, but there is a clear question as to how
it may best be accomplished.

Seattle, 1999: Dance Party, Street Fight, No-Protest Zone

The 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO)
precipitated a sharp controversy in the theory of crowd control, calling into
question police strategies of the previous twenty-five years.

On the morning of November 30, 1999, tens of thousands of people filled
downtown Seattle in protest against the World Trade Organization. Protesters
surrounded the venue for the WTO’s ministerial conference, blocking the
delegates’ access to the meeting and shutting down a large portion of the city.
The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful; many took the form of dance parties
in the street. On the demonstrators’ side, the much-decried “violence” and
“rioting” amounted to only a few broken windows and some tear gas thrown back
in the direction of the police.

For most of that day, the police were helpless to restore order. They stood in
small groups, arbitrarily blocking streets, accomplishing nothing. Occasionally
they would fire tear gas and advance a block, but that was all. For one day,
the streets belonged to jubilant crowds. Shops were not open, cars could not
pass, the WTO meeting was stalled at the outset. By nightfall, a curfew was in
place and the National Guard was on patrol. It was announced that no more
demonstrations would be allowed in the area of the conference. Police chased a
crowd from downtown to the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood, attacking everyone
in the street along the way. The residents of Capitol Hill fought back, and a
pitched battle ensued. The fighting continued late into the night.

On December 1, the streets belonged to the cops. Early that morning, the police
arrested more than 600 people just outside the “No-Protest Zone.” Police were
shown on national television indiscriminately firing tear gas, rubber bullets,
and other “less-lethal” munitions. Beatings were common—not only protestors,
but bystanders and reporters were attacked. Still the demonstrations
continued. On December 2, several hundred people surrounded the jail, demanding
their comrades be released; a compromise was reached when the authorities
allowed lawyers in to see the prisoners—the first legal access since the
arrests began.

In the end, the protestors won. The WTO meeting started late and ended in
failure; no new trade agreements were reached. Most of those arrested were
released, with charges dropped. Norm Stamper, Seattle Chief of Police, resigned
in disgrace. People—workers, students, environmentalists, human rights
activists—stood together against the WTO, the city government, the police, the
National Guard, and the corporate powers they all represent. And the people
won. Before the smoke had even cleared, authorities around the country were
asking what had gone wrong and, more importantly, how they could prevent it
from happening again.

Assessing the Police Response: “What Not to Do”

Everyone agrees that the police action at the WTO was an unmitigated disaster.
A City Council committee charged with reviewing the events noted, “this city
became the laboratory for how American cities will address mass protests. In
many ways, it became a vivid demonstration of what not to do.”

From a civil rights perspective, the 1999 WTO ministerial was marked by a
virtual prohibition on free speech, a plague of arbitrary arrests, and
widespread police brutality. The City Council’s description of the events
bears the standard characteristics of a police riot:

Our inquiry found troubling examples of seemingly gratuitous assaults on
citizens, including use of less-lethal weapons like tear gas, pepper gas,
rubber bullets, and “beanbag guns,” by officers who seemed motivated more by
anger or fear than professional law enforcement.

Police commanders admit that they lost control, not only of the streets, but of
their troops:

An essential element for the successful execution of any plan is the ability to
control operations once officers are deployed. Unfortunately, in several
respects the command and control arrangements for WTO broke down early in the

Nevertheless, from the law-and-order side, the protests represented a vast sea
of lawlessness, complete with attacks against police and property. The Seattle
Police Department After Action Report describes the protests from the police

Numerous acts of property damage, looting, and assaults on police were
committed. Officers were pelted with sticks, bottles, traffic cones, empty
chemical irritant canisters, and other debris. Some protesters used their own
chemical irritants against police, and a large fire was set in the intersection
at 4th and Pike.

Some of the dispute between City Council and police leaders was surely
opportunistic posturing, a typical political game, with politicians scrambling
to cover their asses, point accusing fingers, and associate themselves with the
winners. But it also represents a sharp split between the perspective of the
City Council (as presented in its Accountability Committee Report) and that of
the police (argued mostly by proxy, in a report prepared by an independent
consulting firm—R. M. McCarthy and Associates). Not only are their analyses in
conflict—in places, even the facts they cite are at odds—but their suggested
remedies are in direct opposition.

Funded by the mayor’s office, the McCarthy and Associates report was written
primarily by three retired law enforcement officers from New York and Los
Angeles. They describe every step of the SPD’s WTO operation and urge a more
forceful response when dealing with future civil disobedience. They recommend
establishing the siege-like atmosphere of December 1 well before any
demonstrations begin, arguing that had a restrictive safety zone been established, protest areas designated
outside of the zone, and additional personnel from other agencies been planned
for and deployed in a pre-emptive manner on November 26, the results would
likely have been different.

The report also suggests that the police response didn’t go far enough in the
suppression of civil rights: “The review team believes the decision to allow
any previously scheduled marches or demonstrations to proceed after violence
had erupted was unwise.” Furthermore, it recommends amending police policy
by removing instructions that crowds be moved or dispersed “peacefully,” and
adding explicit orders to make as many arrests as possible.

Describing the McCarthy report as a “crude and unsatisfying” document, the City
Council’s Review Committee reached almost entirely opposing conclusions.
Rather than pressing for a more forceful response, the City Council’s committee
suggested that in many cases the police would have done better to have done
nothing at all: “Members of the public, including demonstrators, were victims
of ill-conceived and sometimes pointless police actions to ‘clear the
streets.’” Aside from its brutality, such an approach is often
self-defeating. For example, “The unintended consequence of police actions on
Capitol Hill was to bring sleepy residents out of their homes and mobilize them
as ‘resistors.’[sic]”

Early Strategies

There is more at stake in this debate than the blame for the WTO debacle. Each
of these reports represents one side in an ongoing dispute over the principles
of crowd control. Spanning more than 100 years, this controversy has been
shaped by a series of similar crises—instances in which the police orthodoxy
proved disastrous.

Prior to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, civil disturbances were essentially
handled like any other military engagement, with the possible exception that
crowds would be ordered to disperse before the police or militia charged with
clubs or opened fire. During the Draft Riots of 1863, for example, New York
Police Commissioner Thomas Acton ordered those under his command to “Take no
prisoners.” George Walling, the commander of the twelfth precinct, was even
more specific in his instructions: “Kill every man who has a club.” I will
term this the strategy of “Maximum Force.”

Such an approach may have had a certain efficacy against localized revolts,
unplanned riots, or drunken mobs, but it met with greater difficulty in 1877
when more than 100,000 railroad workers, angered by cuts to their already
meager wages, went on strike and prevented the companies from moving their
freight. The turmoil was too vast for local police to control, and the
militia proved unreliable.

Historian Eugene Leach writes, “In Pittsburgh, the city where strike-related
violence climaxed, militia displayed opposite extremes of indiscipline:
fraternization and panic.” The commander of the Pittsburgh militia later

Meeting on the field of battle you go there to kill … but here you had men with
fathers and mothers and brothers and relatives mingled in the crowd of rioters.
The sympathy was with the strikers. We all felt that these men were not
receiving enough wages.

The Philadelphia militia, which was also sent to Pittsburgh, displayed no such
sympathy. The New York Times reported that they “fired
indiscriminately into the crowd, among whom were many women and children.”
Rather than fleeing, the crowd was enraged; the militia was forced to retreat.
Likewise, in Reading, when troops killed eleven strikers, the general
population only grew more furious. Strike supporters looted freight, tore up
tracks, and armed themselves with rifles from the militia’s own armory. When
reinforcements arrived, they sided with the crowds and threatened their
colleagues, “If you fire at the mob, we’ll fire at you.”

These same problems arose in every city facing strikes. In Newark, Ohio, and
Hornellsville, New York, militia men openly fraternized with strikers, much to
the dismay of their commanders. In Martinsburg, West Virginia, the commander of
the Beverly Light Guards telegraphed the governor, worried by his troops’
sympathy with the strikers. In Harrisburg, Morristown, and Altoona,
Pennsylvania, the militias surrendered. Half of the soldiers in the Maryland
Sixth Regiment broke into an undisciplined retreat during a Baltimore street
fight. And in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a company of militia mutinied.

In the end, a combination of attrition, fatigue, and military force won out
over the striking workers. But still, the authorities were very
disappointed. They immediately set about building the militias into
well-disciplined machines, capable of quelling riots or, more to the point,
breaking up strikes. During this period, the state militias were
reconstituted into the modern National Guard. Military training was imposed
and matters of discipline rigidly enforced, including inspections by regular
Army officers. In addition, more emphasis was placed on recruitment, and
armories were built throughout the North.

These changes in the organization, training, discipline, and culture of the
Guard were accompanied by new articulations of crowd control strategies. A
number of manuals suddenly appeared spelling out the strategy for stifling
unrest. These books were generally unconcerned with the social causes of
disorder, content to blame them on agitators of various sorts. Most continued
to advocate the principle of Maximum Force: they predicted increased militancy
among workers, and offered increased state violence as the remedy. E. L.
Molineux, the commander of the New York National Guard, wrote: “In its
incipient stage a riot can be readily quelled … if met bodily and resisted at
once with energy and determination. Danger lurks in delay.”

A milder version of the doctrine did emerge, and gained popularity among local
commanders. According to this “Show of Force” (my term) theory:

Strikes and riots were outbursts that could be controlled—perhaps even
prevented—by shows of authority which even rowdy workers were presumed to
respect, or by shows of force which workers would fear. From these premises it
followed that the function of the militia on riot duty was as much
demonstrative, even theatrical, as it was coercive. The goal was to disperse
rioters, not—as General Vodges would have it—to corner them and wipe them

If the workers could be over-awed without firing a shot, so much the better.
One manual stated, “[A] strong display of a well-disciplined and
skillfully handled force will in most instances be sufficient in itself to
suppress a riot.”

This presumption was later shown to be false: a large police presence is not so
much preventive as it is provocative. Such errors were at least partly a
product of the theory’s underlying premise that rioters are psychologically
deranged rather than politically or economically motivated. In any case, the
practical consequence of the Show of Force theory was a new demand for dress
uniforms, public drilling, and parades. It was not shown to reduce the
likelihood of class conflict or to prevent strikes.

In the 1880s, a wave of immigration made the authorities less reluctant to use
force against striking workers. And after the Haymarket incident of 1886,
the Show of Force approach was almost entirely abandoned in favor of more
direct responses: “[T]acticians [came] to favor the use of force over shows of
force,” Leach writes. Tellingly, racist comparisons between workers and
Native Americans became more common. In 1892 the Army and Navy
opined, “The red savage is pretty well subdued … but there are
white savages growing more numerous and dangerous as our great cities become
greater.” This analogy was not merely rhetorical; many of the same units
were used against strikers as against indigenous peoples.

The Maximum Force approach did have its disadvantages. “Fire tactics
appropriate for conventional warfare,” Leach notes, “jeopardized innocent
lives, invited public condemnation, and … simply did not work in the urban
terrain where most riots took place.” As the National Guard’s reputation
for brutality grew, so did sympathy for those who opposed them—especially
striking workers. At the same time, Maximum Force was out of step with the
authorities’ overall strategy in handling strikes, as the government and
businesses came to rely more and more on the pacifying effects of
concessions. Nevertheless, and despite atrocities like the Ludlow
Massacre—when National Guard troops used a machine gun against striking workers
and set fire to their tent city, ultimately killing sixty-six
people—Maximum Force remained the dominant approach well into the twentieth

Rationalizing Force

It was not until World War I and its accompanying Red Scare that the Maximum
Force doctrine was revised. State violence was then rationalized—broken into
discrete, ordered stages. This change represented one component in an early
effort to take some of the conflict out of class conflict. “In short,” Leach
explains, “repealing bellicose post-Haymarket formulas for riot control was
part of a multifaceted drive to wreck the Left, strip the working class of
radical leaders, and put progressive managers in their place.”

Of the new crowd-control strategists, the most influential was Henry A.
Bellows, an officer in the Minnesota Home Guard and the author of A Manual
for Local Defense
(1919) and A Treatise on Riot Duty for the National
(1920). In these works, he drew a distinction between crowds and
mobs, and argued that the key was to keep a crowd from becoming a mob. Ideally
this could be accomplished by preventing crowds from forming in the first
place—or, failing that, by breaking up any crowd that did form and doing so
before it had the chance to transform into a mob. The crowd should be dispersed
with as little actual violence as possible, but without hesitating to use
whatever force was necessary. “Practically every riot can be prevented without
bloodshed…,” Bellows wrote, “if sufficient force can be brought to bear on it
in time.”

Army Major Richard Stockton and New Jersey National Guard Captain Saskett
Dickson expressed a similar view in their Troops on Riot Duty: A Manual for
the Use of the Armed Forces of the United States
. They wrote:

Troops on riot duty should keep in mind the fact that they are called upon to
put down disorder, absolutely and promptly, with as little force as
, but it should be remembered, also, that in the majority of cases
the way to accomplish these ends is to use at once every particle of force
necessary to stop all disorder.

The new theorists sought a doctrine by which force would be prescribed in
proportion to the difficulty of dispersing the crowd. They thus advocated using
tactics suited to the particular situation. As Leach summarizes:

In terms of tactics, giving priority to prevention demanded what later military
thinkers would call doctrines of “sequence of force” or “flexible response.”
Simply put, the idea was to adapt levels of forces [sic] to levels of
perceived menace, escalating to fire-power only as a last resort.… All of the
writers of 1918–1920 endorsed the initial use of verbal warnings, bayonets,
rifle butts, or hoses, as alternatives to firepower.

By 1940, the Show of Force had been reinserted as the first step of this

In this way, the doctrine of Maximum Force was transformed into that of
Escalated Force, which remained the standard approach to crowd control until
the 1970s. As scholars describe it:

[The] escalated force style of protest policing was characterized by the use of
force as a standard way of dealing with demonstrations. Police confronted
demonstrators with a dramatic show of force and followed with a progressively
escalated use of force if demonstrators failed to abide by police instructions
to limit or stop their activities.

Such force took different forms. Sometimes arrests immediately followed even
minor violations of the law, or were used to target and remove “agitators”
whether or not a law had been broken. Other times, police used force instead of
making arrests, either to break up the crowd or to punish those who disobeyed


Figure D. Escalating Force

According to the
Escalated Force theory, violence is only used in proportion to the threat posed
by the crowd. The reality is often quite different. In fact, the actions of the
crowd may not even be the most important consideration in determining the
police response. Other factors include police preparedness and discipline, the
presence of counter-demonstrators, the number of participants, media coverage,
and the political calculus surrounding the event—that is, what people with
power, and the police leaders in particular, stand to gain or lose by attacking
the event or letting it alone. These factors can be classed into six groups:

(1) the organizational features of the police;

(2) the configuration of political power;

(3) public opinion;

(4) the occupational culture of the police;

(5) the interaction between police and protesters; and,

(6) police knowledge.

Even when the police do respond in proportion to the threat, their victims
often include peaceable demonstrators and innocent bystanders, along with the
ruffians. Widespread violence is by its nature imprecise. And questions of
“guilt” or “innocence,” like those pertaining to constitutional rights, are a
secondary concern, if indeed they are considered relevant at all. Dispersal
operations are not designed to uphold the law or to protect public safety;
often the police action itself will represent the most serious violation of the
law and constitute the greatest threat to the safety of the community. Instead
of the law or public safety, the police are concerned with establishing
control, maintaining power. One study recounts:

Well-known demonstrations in which police used the escalated force approach
include those in the Birmingham civil rights campaign (May 1963), the 1968
Chicago Democratic National Convention, and the confrontation between student
protesters and National Guard soldiers at Kent State University (May 1970).
During each of these demonstrations, police or soldiers used force in an
attempt to disperse demonstrators, even demonstrators who were peacefully
attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights—as the vast majority of
them were.

These events, while large in scope and attracting a great deal of media
attention, were not uncharacteristic of Escalated Force operations. In many
ways, they were sadly typical. While Kent State—where the victims were
White—has come to symbolize the murder of student protestors, it was not the
first or last time that students were shot in the name of keeping order. In May
1967—three years before Kent State—a Black student was killed at Jackson State
College in Mississippi. In February 1968, three students were killed at South
Carolina State College. One was killed in Berkeley in May 1969, and another at
North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College that same month. One was
killed in Santa Barbara in February 1970. In March 1970, twelve were shot, but
no one killed, at State University of New York, Buffalo. Most famously, in May
1970, four were murdered at Kent State. That same month, twenty were shot just
down the road at Ohio State (all survived), and fourteen were shot (again) at
Jackson State, two of whom died. In July 1970, one was killed at the University
of Kansas, Lawrence, and another at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Two
years later, in November 1972, two more students were killed at the University
of New Orleans.

Predictably, urban Black people received even worse treatment. In the Detroit
uprising of 1967, forty-three people were killed, thirty-six of whom were
Black. Twenty-nine of these deaths were definitely attributable to police,
National Guard troops, or the Army. The remaining thirteen died from any of a
variety of causes: some were shot by store owners, some died in fires, two were
electrocuted by fallen power lines. No deaths were directly attributable to the
violence of the crowds. Despite the rhetoric surrounding them, historian Paul
Gilje notes, Black uprisings in the sixties “were marked by a relative absence
of violence committed by rioters against people. Careful examination of the
casualty lists shows that police and military inflicted the vast majority of
fatalities and injuries on blacks in the riot area.”

A Glimpse at 1968

These facts speak to the level of police violence, but they say very
little about its prevalence in crowd control situations. For that, we
should consider a sample of police actions during a specific time frame—for
example, during the year 1968, a banner year remembered for producing
rebellions around the world. While in this respect 1968 is exceptional, it may
also (for the same reasons) be seen to typify the official response to unrest.
It certainly provided numerous, widely varied examples for comparison.

In January 1968, San Francisco police broke ranks and charged into the crowd at
an anti-war demonstration, beating protestors. San Francisco also saw numerous
rampages by the police department’s Tactical Squad throughout the year,
especially in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. During one such attack, a Black
plainclothes officer was beaten by his White colleagues. During another,
off-duty Tactical Squad officers moved through the Mission district, clearing
sidewalks and assaulting pedestrians.

Three Black people were killed and almost fifty others injured when police and
National Guard troops opened fire at a February demonstration against a
White-only bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Most of the wounded
were shot in the back.

In March, New York City police attacked a Yippie demonstration at Grand Central
Station. Offering no opportunity for the crowd to disperse, they
indiscriminately beat members of the crowd that had gathered. The same tactic
was repeated at another Yippie march in April, this time in Washington
Square. Later that same month, Students for a Democratic Society held a
demonstration at Rockefeller Center. Jeff Jones, an SDS organizer, described
the event as “very militant, it turned into a street fight. I think there were
eight felony and fourteen misdemeanour [sic] arrests. There were
beatings on both sides.” A week later, on April 29, 1968, New York City
police used clubs to clear some of the same students from occupied buildings at
Columbia University. Police emptied the occupied buildings and then moved
through the campus, beating any students they could find, whether or not they
had been involved in the occupation. One hundred thirty-two students and
four faculty were injured. Also in New York, that fall, 150 off-duty cops
filled a Brooklyn courthouse and beat several Black Panthers who were there to
observe a trial.

A week before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., led 15,000 people
on a march through Memphis, expressing solidarity with the city’s striking
garbage collectors. The police and National Guard used clubs and tear gas to
break up the march, killing one person in the process. In April, following
King’s murder, 202 riots occurred in 175 cities across the country, with 3,500
people injured and forty-three killed, mostly at the hands of police. Also
in April, a peace march of 8,000 moved slowly through downtown Chicago. Having
been refused a parade permit, marchers stayed on sidewalks and obeyed the
traffic signals. Nevertheless, in an incident foreshadowing the Democratic
National Convention later that year, a line of police pushed the crowd into the
streets; almost at once, another line of cops pushed them back to the
sidewalks. The situation quickly degenerated. Ignoring the orders of their
superiors, police broke ranks, chasing and beating members of the crowd. A
panel convened to study the incident lay the blame with Mayor Richard Daley and
other city officials, who set the tone for the action by denying the required

In June, cops attacked a crowd of Berkeley students listening to speeches about
the Paris uprising, setting off several days of fighting. In July, police
responded forcefully to racial unrest in Paterson, New Jersey. A grand jury
later condemned the police for engaging in “terrorism” and “goon squad”
tactics. The jury reported that teams of cops intentionally vandalized
Black-owned businesses and severely beat individual Black and Puerto Rican
people as an example to others. In August, Los Angeles exploded after police
attacked a crowd at the Watts Festival. Three people were killed and
thirty-five injured.

That winter, when students at San Francisco State College went on strike to
demand a Black Studies program, college president S. I. Hayakawa declared a
state of emergency, ordered classes to resume, and called in police to make
sure that they did. (Hayakawa is perhaps best remembered for his assertion,
“There are no innocent bystanders.”) Skirmishes followed throughout
December, during which individual officers broke from their units and charged
into crowds of students. News photos showed police holding protestors while
other cops maced them. The strike was finally defeated in January when
police started making mass arrests, resulting in several felony

This chronology is undoubtedly incomplete, but it makes the point: police
violence against crowds, sometimes perfectly innocuous gatherings, was utterly
common. It was as frequent as it was extreme. Nevertheless, one event
stands out as the paradigmatic police riot—the 1968 Democratic National
Convention in Chicago.

Anatomy of a Police Riot

Televised footage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention shocked the
nation. Mobs of police were filmed beating protestors, bystanders, and
reporters—viciously and indiscriminately. Over 100 people were hospitalized as
a result of police violence. Senator Abraham Ribicoff spoke on the floor of
the convention against the “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” George
McGovern described the scene as a “blood bath,” also making comparison to “Nazi
Germany.” Norman Mailer commented:

What staggered the delegates who witnessed the attack—more accurate to call it
the massacre, since it was sudden, unprovoked, and total—on Michigan Avenue,
was that it opened the specter of what it might mean for the police to take
over society. They might comport themselves in such a case not as a force of
law and order, not even as a force of repression upon civil disorder, but as a
true criminal force; chaotic, improvisational, undisciplined, and
finally—sufficiently aroused—uncontrollable.

Mailer’s characterization of police behavior closely matches that produced by
more systematic studies. Daniel Walker, in his authoritative report on the DNC,
notes, “Fundamental police training was ignored; and officers, when on the
scene, were often unable to control their men.” Walker’s report offers this

A high-ranking Chicago police commander admits that on [at least one] occasion
the police “got out of control.” This same commander appears in one of the most
vivid scenes of the entire week, trying desperately to keep individual
policemen from beating demonstrators as he screams, “For Christ’s sake, stop

Such a breakdown in command, when paired with the widespread and excessive use
of force, is perhaps the defining mark of the classic police riot. In his
1972 book, Police Riots: Collective Violence and Law Enforcement,
sociologist Rodney Stark offers a six-step outline as to how these riots

(1) “Convergence”—There must be substantial numbers on both sides.

(2) “Confrontation”—Either police actions attract hostile crowds, or police
deem some gathering illegal and move in to break it up.

(3) “Dispersal”—Police attempt to break up the crowd.

(4) “The Utilization of Force”—Police use force against the crowd.

(5) “The Limited Riot”—Excessive or punitive force ends once the crowd is
dispersed. The limited police riot is often signified by the disintegration of
police formations into small autonomous groups, charging into crowds, chasing
fleeing individuals, and beating people up.

(6) “The Extended Police Riot”—Attacks continue even after the crowd has
dispersed. Extended riots are most common in densely populated areas, like
college campuses or urban ghettos. Then, police attacks often attract new
crowds, thus renewing confrontations.

There are a number of factors that, in the right circumstances, give police
actions this trajectory. Among them are specific crowd control tactics,
operational deficiencies, the machismo inherent to cop culture, and a
paranoid ideology that leads police to overestimate the threat crowds pose.

On the tactical level, Stark notes:

The incapacities and misconceptions of the police contribute to the occurrence
of police riots in a number of ways. First, simply massing the police together,
given their lack of discipline and tactical competence, provides an opportunity
for them to attack crowds. Second, massive displays of police power provoke
demonstrators and tend to produce confrontations and deeper conflicts. Third,
police tactics mislead policemen about what is expected of them and increases
[sic] their anxiety and hostility. The obsession with officer safety
leads to overpreparedness, overreaction, and a disregard for the general

Add to this an habitual reliance on violence, and the production of a riot
seems quite predictable.

These difficulties were exacerbated by organizational weaknesses common to
police departments, namely the lack of internal discipline. The tactics of riot
control are generally derived from the military, but the police proved to be a
very different type of organization than the Army. “To put it bluntly,” Stark
writes, “the American police cannot perform at the minimum levels of teamwork,
impersonality, and discipline which these military tactics take for
granted.” For example, in the Detroit riot of 1967, the police and National
Guard were responsible for establishing order on one side of town; U.S. Army
paratroopers were assigned to the other side. Within a few hours, the Army had
restored order in their area, having fired 201 rounds of ammunition and having
killed one person. The police and Guard, in contrast, fired thousands of rounds
and killed twenty-eight people, while the disorder continued. Stark explains:

These dramatic and critical differences seem to have stemmed from discipline.
The paratroopers had it, the police and guardsmen did not. The Army ordered
the lights back on and troopers to show themselves as conspicuously as
possible; the police and the guardsmen continued shooting out all lights and
crouched fearfully in the darkness. The troopers were ordered to hold their
fire, and did so. The police and guardsmen shot wildly and often at one
another. The troopers were ordered to unload their weapons, and did so. The
guardsmen were so ordered, but did not comply.

The Guard, whose training approximates that of the Army, may have lost
discipline in part because of how they were deployed. The police effectively
disorganized the National Guard by converting it into a police force. One
National Guard commander complained:

They sliced us like baloney. The police wanted bodies. They grabed
[sic] Guardsmen as soon as they reached the armories, before their
units were made up, and sent them out—two on a firetruck, this one in a police
car, that one to guard some installation.… The Guard simply became lost boys in
the big town carrying guns.

In the case of the 1968 Democratic Convention, other factors also came into
play, in particular the attitudes of civil authorities. Walker mentions,
“Chicago police [had been led] to expect that violence against demonstrators,
as against rioters, would be condoned by city officials.” In fact, this
expectation was validated; Mayor Daley continued to defend his officers long
after his excuses could be considered in any way credible. One further fact
complicates the picture: much of the convention-week violence was
planned. Some reporters received warnings from cops with whom they
were friendly; they were told the police intended to target members of the
media. With these facts in mind, the police riot seems to take on a
different air. The cops did not simply panic; they knew what they meant to do.
While internal discipline broke down, the police action as a whole filled its
intended role. Indeed, the cops had been encouraged, and then protected, by
the mayor. Certain commanders may have been appalled by what they saw—or may
simply have been afflicted by the managerial need to assert their authority in
a crisis—but this did nothing to affect the behavior of the institution as a

Finally, it should be noted that the Escalated Force strategy itself
contributes to the likelihood of a police riot. The police riot, by Stark’s
analysis, moves along exactly the same lines as Escalated Force. (In fact,
Stark refers to his six-stage articulation as an “Escalation Model.”) The
crowd control operation ends and the riot begins at the point where discipline
breaks down. The implementation of the Escalated Force strategy tends to race
toward this point. In practice, Stark notes, police commanders “tend to
maximize rather than minimize the use of force in order to maximize officer
safety and to maximize dispersal” even though “command control and tactical
integrity tend to collapse in contact with crowds and as greater force is
applied.” In other words, as the amount of force is increased, the
likelihood that discipline will be lost and that excessive force will be used
also increases. This lapse, as we’ve seen, was generally either tolerated or
actively encouraged by local authorities; in any case, it was a predictable
consequence of placing large numbers of police in tense circumstances, with
neither the training nor the organization (not to mention to inclination) to
respond with restraint.

While the Escalated Force model did not always produce police riots, it also
did practically nothing to guard against them. In one sense, the police riot
can be understood as the last step in the Escalated Force sequence.

During the sixties, three additional problems with Escalated Force became
clear. First, the deployment of large numbers of cops often created a
confrontation that could have otherwise been avoided. Second, the rigid
enforcement of the law and the quick recourse to force provoked crowds and
sometimes led to violence. And third, as a strategy for restoring order,
Escalated Force failed.

Revising the Theory

Following the disasters of the late sixties, some people started to question
the wisdom of a police strategy designed to “escalate” violence. Several
commissions were set up to study the disturbances of the period, their causes,
and the police response to them. Most prominent among these were the Kerner,
Eisenhower, and Scranton commissions. All three bodies concluded that police
actions against crowds often intensified, and in some cases provoked, civil
disorder. They also recognized that the dangers of the Escalated Force model
were not only tactical, but political.

The Scranton Commission wrote, “[T]o respond to peaceful protest with
repression and brutal tactics is dangerously unwise. It makes extremists of
moderates, deepens the divisions in the nation and increases the chances that
future protests will be violent.”

Consequently, these boards recommended a number of changes in police handling
of demonstrations. The Kerner Commission, for instance, advocated a strategy
emphasizing manpower over firepower, prevention over reaction, and increased
management and regimentation of the police. A new strategy, “Negotiated
Management,” was born.

Negotiated Management was designed to correct for the excesses of the Escalated
Force model. Clark McPhail describes the approach:

Police do not try to prevent demonstrations, but attempt to limit the amount of
disruption they cause.… Police attempt to steer demonstrations to times and
places where disruption will be minimized.… Even civil disobedience, by
definition illegal, is not usually problematic for police; they often cooperate
with protesters when their civil disobedience is intentionally symbolic.

Under Negotiated Management, arrests are used only as a last resort, and force
is kept to a strict minimum. Rather than trying to disperse the crowd, the
police plan so as to contain it. Rather than responding to disorder with force,
the police calculate their tactics so as to defuse potentially explosive
situations. The innovation of this approach lies in the understanding that
de-escalation is sometimes possible. According to the political scientists
Donnatella della Porta and Herbert Reiter:

[T]he three most significant tactical tendencies characterizing protest
policing in the 1990s appear to be (a) underenforcement of the law; (b) the
search to negotiate; (c) large scale collection of information. [Beginning in
the 1980s, police strategy was] dominated by the attempt to avoid coercive
interaction as much as possible. Lawbreaking, which is implicit in several
forms of protest, tends to be tolerated by the police. Law enforcement is
usually considered as less important than peacekeeping. This implies a
considerable departure from protest policing in the 1960s and 1970s, when
attempts to stop unauthorized demonstrations and a law-and-order attitude in
the face of the “limited rule-breaking” tactic used by the new movements
maneuvered the police repeatedly into “no-win” situations.

Under the new model, police focused on preventing a disturbance, rather than
responding to one, seeking to control demonstrations through a system of
permits and a series of negotiations with protest organizers. Elements such
as the time of the event and the route of the march were agreed upon, and
organizers were encouraged (or sometimes required) to provide their own
marshals to exercise discipline over the group as a whole.

A model application of Negotiated Management is described by John Brothers in
his article “Communication Is the Key to Small Demonstration Control.” Brothers
documents a series of anti-apartheid actions on the University of Kansas campus
and details the Kansas University Police Department’s response. Between April
29 and May 9, 1985, the campus was the site of three “moderate-sized”
demonstrations and several small ones, including some accompanied by civil
disobedience. Sixty-five arrests were made, but there were no injuries, no
property damage, and no violence on either side. This small miracle was
accomplished by establishing friendly relations with the demonstrators and
being patient enough to let crowds dwindle on their own. Police kept their
presence to a minimum and carefully crafted a non-aggressive demeanor (in part
by not donning riot gear). They also provided refreshments on hot days, and
waited to receive complaints before issuing citations. By these means, police
won the cooperation of organizers, who met with them regularly to outline their

Clearly this approach is better suited to a political system that espouses
ideals of freedom and popular sovereignty, but the ultimate aim of Negotiated
Management remains the same as that of Escalated Force (or even Maximum Force,
before that)—to control dissent, to render protest ineffective.

Looking now at the Scranton, Eisenhower, and Kerner reports, what strikes the
reader is the apparent schizophrenia of them all. They decry social injustice
with criticisms of racial discrimination, prison conditions, and the plight of
the urban poor. They push for greater inclusivity at all levels of society. But
they also denounce the actions that successfully brought attention to these
problems, and effected change. The Eisenhower report explicitly denounces civil
disobedience; the Scranton report insists that those responsible for campus
unrest be disciplined. These reports push for rigorous adherence to
constitutional guarantees of free speech and the like, while at the same time
offering precise instruction on the means of limiting, containing, and
controlling protests.

It is tempting to read such documents as well-intentioned but politically naive
defenses of the rule of law. But one might also understand them as handbooks
for social managers responsible for controlling dissent. Taken as such, the
reports’ advocacy of civil liberties and the principle of minimal force reflect
the sophistication of the liberal approach to repression. Negotiated Management
was an innovation in the means of crowd control, but the basic aim remained
unchanged. Both Negotiated Management and Escalated Force represented a defense
of the status quo. Brothers’s article, for example, emphasizes again and again
the “neutrality” of the police, but notes that their plans were designed to
“minimize the impact of the event upon the media.” Presumably, had the
demonstrations aimed at goals besides media attention, the police would have
sought to minimize their impact in those areas as well.

The Eisenhower Commission offers the Peace Moratorium March of November 15,
1969, as an example of the success of Negotiated Management:

The bulk of the actual work of maintaining the peacefulness of the proceedings
was performed by the demonstrators themselves. An estimated five thousand
“marshals,” recruited from among the demonstrators, flanked the crowds
throughout. Their effectiveness was shown when they succeeded in stopping an
attempt by the fringe radicals to leave the line of the march in an effort to
reach the White House.

The nature of such an arrangement is not lost on those who study law
enforcement. The academic literature describes marshals who “‘police’ other
demonstrators,” and who have a “collaborative relationship” with
the authorities. This is essentially a strategy of co-optation. The police
enlist the protest organizers to control the demonstrators, putting the
organization at least partly in the service of the state and intensifying the
function of control.

Playing by the Rules

The Negotiated Management model had its weaknesses as well. Its success
required a certain kind of cop and a certain kind of protest. If either was
unavailable, Negotiated Management became impossible.

The Philadelphia police department made a very early attempt at this softer
approach, and failed for lack of the right cop. In 1964, Police Commissioner
Howard Leary created a “Civil Disobedience” unit charged with both keeping
order and protecting the civil rights of demonstrators. This unit was to be
headed by an officer proven to be calm, patient, and friendly. His job was to
build a relationship with protest leaders and work with them to keep the peace.
The unit never functioned as it was intended to. Instead, it quickly
degenerated into a domineering red squad. This quick return to the
antagonistic approach was the result of several deeply rooted features of the
police as a group, including the rejection of compromise and conciliatory
tactics, an obsession with agitators and conspiracies, and the system of
political sponsorship that guided promotion into the unit.

Police/protestor cooperation required a fundamental adjustment in the attitude
of the authorities. The Negotiated Management approach demanded the
institutionalization of protest. Demonstrations had to be granted some degree
of legitimacy so they could be carefully managed rather than simply shoved
about. This approach de-emphasized the radical or antagonistic aspects of
protest in favor of a routinized and collaborative approach.

Naturally such a relationship brought with it some fairly tight constraints as
to the kinds of protest activity available. Rallies, marches, polite picketing,
symbolic civil disobedience actions, and even legal direct action—such as
strikes or boycotts—were likely to be acceptable, within certain limits.
Violence, obviously, would not be tolerated. Neither would property
destruction. Nor would any of the variety of tactics that had been developed to
close businesses, prevent logging, disrupt government meetings, or otherwise
interfere with the operation of some part of society. That is to say, picketing
may be fine, barricades are not. Rallies were in, riots were out. Taking to the
streets—under certain circumstances—may be acceptable; taking over the
factories was not. The danger, for activists, is that they might permanently
limit themselves to tactics that were predictable, non-disruptive, and
ultimately ineffective.

On the other side, Negotiated Management opened a pitfall for police wherein
they might come to rely on this cooperative arrangement. If the police assumed
that activists would conduct themselves within the bounds set by this approach,
they left themselves open for some nasty surprises.

Essentially, that is what happened to the Seattle police in 1999. According to
the SPD’s After Action Report, police planners adopted a Negotiated Management
strategy early on and failed to consider contingencies that would make other
options necessary. Despite well-publicized plans to disrupt the WTO conference,
the police decided to “Trust that Seattle’s strong historical precedents of
peaceful protest and our on-going negotiations with protest groups would govern
the actions of demonstrators.” On November 30, their mistake must have been
only too obvious. When the institutional framework of protest was challenged,
the cooperative relationship proved fragile and the basis of the Negotiated
Management model was undermined. Not only did radicals refuse to play the game
by its usual rules, even respectable protest groups were unable to keep their
members in line. For example, when police changed the route of the officially
sanctioned labor march, hoping to keep union members away from the center of
the disturbance, they were surprised when several thousand of the marchers
ignored the marshals, left the route, and joined the fray.

The SPD offered this analysis of their mistake: “While we needed to think about
a new paradigm of disruptive protest, we relied on our knowledge of past
demonstrations, concluding that the ‘worst case’ would not occur here.”
Such blindness is a typical fault of police agencies. Equally typical is the
panic that followed a defeat—a panic felt not only in Seattle, but around the
country, resulting in the sudden shift in police tactics at demonstrations

Toward a New Model

Police across the country were determined not to repeat Seattle’s mistakes, and
in the wake of the WTO protests the use of force received a new emphasis. Riot
gear, tear gas, mass arrests, and widespread violence returned as common
features of demonstrations. Police violence, while always a possibility, again
began to resemble an open threat. To some degree, the reliance on force was a
sign of desperation. But at the same time, the police were also experimenting,
groping their way toward a new strategy.

With the WTO still fresh in their minds, police in D.C. had a secure perimeter
in place considerably before the April 16, 2000 IMF/World Bank meetings. They
also had more than 500 protestors in jail before the meetings even began,
having surrounded an early march, arresting everyone present. Then they raided
the protestors’ convergence center, where they seized puppets, banners, and
first aid kits; they ordered the building closed under the pretext of fire code
violations. As a result of these preventive measures, the police could rely
less on actual force during the conference itself, and were widely praised for
their restraint. At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia
later that summer, police took a similar approach—raids, seizing protest
material, and preemptive arrests, with the added feature of conspiracy charges
against protest leaders.

At the Democratic National Convention a few weeks later, the LAPD attacked the
crowd at a concert in one of the designated protest areas. The cops cut power
to the stage, declared the event an unlawful assembly, and gave approximately
10,000 people twenty minutes to leave through a single exit. Minutes later,
police charged with horses and fired rubber bullets. The Reverend Jesse
Jackson decried the “unnecessary brutality”; Commander David Kalish called it
“a measured, strategic response.” They may both be right. The ACLU
described the event precisely, referring to it as “an orchestrated police
riot.” A few days later, however, the cops showed a different face when
thirty-seven people sat down in front of the notorious Rampart Division police
station and refused to leave. A senior officer graciously accepted their list
of demands, shook hands with the protestors, and politely placed them under
arrest. One journalist noted: “The civil disobedience action … attempted to
focus on the brutality, corruption, and violence of the LAPD,” but because “the
organizers had collaborated closely with the Rampart police prior to the action
. . . the result was a PR/media opportunity to showcase the civility and
non-violent behavior of the cops.” It was a masterful bit of theater.

The reliance on naked coercion reached its zenith in 2003, at protests against
the Free Trade Area of the America negotiations in Miami. Luis Fernandez, a
sociologist who observed the protests, describes the scene:

[The] Miami-Dade Police Department, in collaborating with dozens of local,
state, and national law enforcement agencies, welcomed protestors with decisive
force. In the days before the protest, the police patrolled the streets with
heavily armored, military-style personnel carriers and swept over downtown
Miami with police helicopters. By demonstration time, the city was packed with
thousands of police officers dressed like soldiers in khaki uniforms with full
black body armor and gas masks, marching down the streets shouting ‘Back! …
back!’ while beating batons against their shields. For no apparent reason, they
fired skin-piercing rubber bullets indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed
peaceful protestors, sprayed tear gas at thousands of others, and shocked still
others with tasers. It is no hyperbole to say that, during the FTAA
demonstration, Miami became a militarized sector, closely resembling a war

Nearly 2,500 cops from forty agencies were assigned to the FTAA events. A large
portion of downtown was fenced off and forbidden to the general public; police
manned military-style checkpoints and positioned snipers on rooftops in the
surrounding area. Before the protests even started, cops were turning back
busses full of union supporters, pressuring churches to rescind offers to house
demonstrators, and forcing businesses to remove anti-FTAA posters from their

Once the demonstrations were underway, police confronted protestors with
batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The attack seemed indiscriminate:
peaceful protests, demonstrations that had been issued permits, groups that
were in the process of dispersing, medics, legal observers, and random
passers-by were all subject to the use of force. One medic estimated that her
team had seen about fifty head wounds, “ten serious, five of them
critical”—including one man who had been jailed overnight without medical
treatment while his brain hemorrhaged. “Most of the injuries we saw were from
the shoulders up,” the medic told me. “That led us to believe that police were
intentionally aiming at people’s heads with rubber bullets.”

In addition to being nearly surrounded by armed and armored riot cops, the
protests were also well infiltrated by plainclothes officers, some feeding
intelligence to the command center, some serving as “snatch squads” to make
arrests without warning, and some acting as agents provocateurs, antagonizing
police and urging demonstrators toward foolhardy or counterproductive
actions. Protest organizers reported being followed, harassed, threatened,
arrested for crimes like “loitering,” and held on high bails until after the
protests had ended. By the conference’s close, 282 people had been arrested;
none were convicted.

Miami Mayor Manuel Diaz called the FTAA operation “the model for homeland

Good Protester/Bad Protester; Good Cop/Bad Cop

By the end of the decade, the various stances, tactics, and techniques, came
together to form something like a coherent approach to crowd control, which
scholars John Noakes and Patrick Gillham termed “strategic incapacitation.” The
new approach draws from both the Escalated Force and the Negotiated Management
models, and incorporates additional elements stressing the role of
intelligence, the control of urban space, and the management of public

The primary goals for police in this new era [Gillham writes] are to preserve
security and neutralize those most likely to pose a security threat. To reach
these ends strategic incapacitation emphasizes the application of selectivity
whereby police distinguish between two categories of protesters—contained and
transgressive—in order to target those perceived most likely to engage in
disruptive activities. Contained protesters, often referred to by police as
‘good protesters’ are generally known by police, use conventional and legal
tactics, negotiate with police, make self-interested demands, and are generally
older. By contrast, protesters considered ‘bad’ or transgressive articulate
more abstract demands, use unpredictable and often illegal tactics, do not
negotiate with police, and are generally younger.

The police work to accommodate and collaborate with the compliant, contained
“good” protestors—within limits. The rules are strict, the conditions are
established unilaterally by the police, and the communication is one-way.
Disruptive, transgressive, “bad” protestors, in contrast, find themselves
subjected to something like the old Escalated Force model, often employed

However, Gillham emphasizes that Strategic Incapacitation is not just
“negotiated management with contained protestors and escalated force with
transgressive ones,” but “a new strategy” incorporating “three other tactical
dimensions”—intelligence, propaganda, and spacialized control. The first
of these is the demand for extensive, detailed intelligence, collected before,
during, and between protest events and shared among police agencies. The second
is the proactive and manipulative use of the media to shape public
perception—vocally tagging protest groups as “good” or “bad” in advance of the
action, undercutting support for the demonstrators’ cause, and preparing the
public for the possibility of violence (that is, warning them that protestors
may be violent, and building an expectation that police will have to respond
forcefully). Finally, the implementation of Strategic Incapacitation depends on
the police controlling the physical space in which protests occur. They
typically do that by creating “hard zones,” which are guarded, fortified, and
off-limits to the public. These find their mirror image in the contained areas
where demonstrations are permitted: so-called “free-speech zones.” These
designated protest areas are often surrounded by concrete barriers and chain
link fencing, encircled by armed guards, and relatively isolated. Between these
two well-defined areas, the rest of the city becomes a “soft zone.” It remains
accessible to the public, but ordinary civil liberties are curtailed.
Demonstrations are practically, if not legally, prohibited and police are
granted extraordinary latitude to conduct searches, use force, and make
arrests. It is in the soft zones that police and protestors are most likely to
clash, and cops generally view demonstrators entering them to be, by
definition, “bad” protestors.


Figure E. Strategies of Policing Protests

The essence of
the Strategic Incapacitation approach is that it preserves the full range of
available tools—but they must be used selectively, with an eye toward
minimizing disruption and maximizing control. For instance, as sociologist
Alex Vitale has documented, during the 2004 Republican National Convention,
“the NYPD deployed a variety of tactics, from mass arrests and preventive
detentions to facilitating unpermitted marches and closing off large sections
of midtown for marches and rallies.” Sizable marches, even those that had been
refused permits, were escorted by large numbers of police, who sometimes used
barricades to segment the crowds but made few arrests. On the other hand, a
Critical Mass bicycle ride suffered 250 arrests and Vitale witnessed some
riders “pulled off their moving bikes by high ranking officers, seemingly at
random.” Likewise, an attempted direct action meant to disrupt the RNC itself
was subject to infiltration and surveillance months in advance. Based on the
information police collected, they were able to identify the target locations
and meet protestors at each site with an overwhelming police presence.

Strategic Incapacitation works as a kind of mass-scale version of the Good
Cop/Bad Cop routine: If the Bad Cop is bad enough, he may only need to act in
minor or symbolic ways to keep the crowd in line, and cooperation with the Good
Cop starts to look more attractive. Both are necessary: the Good Cop and the
Bad Cop need each other if either is going to do his job properly. Therefore,
it is important to remember that they are two aspects of the same strategy, and
we should expect to see the strategic, selective use of both the Good Cop and
the Bad Cop—the carrot and the stick—to regulate, control, and, if they are
successful, to neutralize dissent.

Contested Territory

In the autumn of 2011, a broad, dynamic, unanticipated social movement suddenly
emerged. Occupy Wall Street began with a symbolic civil disobedience action
near the New York Stock Exchange, protesting income inequality, corporate
crime, political corruption, and a host of other ills associated with
capitalism. The first occupation, on September 1, 2011, was quickly ended with
a few arrests. A couple weeks later, however, on September 17, OWS
established an encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park and used it as a hub from
which to launch daily protests timed to coincide with the Stock Exchange’s
opening and closing bells. In short order, Occupy Wall Street had established a
semi-permanent base camp, with a communal kitchen, a first aid station, a
meditation space, and a library. Within weeks, similar “Occupy” camps were
founded in at least 350 locations around the country—not only in major cities
like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, but in places like Cedar Rapids,
Iowa, Providence, Rhode Island, and Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The official response to the Occupy protests was fitful, fickle, and confusing.
The media ignored it, then ridiculed and/or demonized it—abruptly shifting “its
coverage dial from ‘blackout’ to ‘circus,’” as the Daily Show’s Jon
Stewart quipped. Democratic mayors sought to ally themselves with the
movement, or parts of it; then condemned it; and ultimately moved to break up
the camps. And individual cops offered sympathy and expressed support,
even while working to surveil, contain, infiltrate, disrupt, and sometimes
physically attack the protests.

During a September 24 march to Union Square, the NYPD used orange construction
netting to encircle a group of protestors and arrested eighty of them. A
widely-circulated video showed Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna gratuitously
pepper-spraying a group of young women, prompting outrage around the country. A
week later, on October 1, the police trapped a march on the Brooklyn Bridge and
arrested 700. Police also parked their cars outside the homes of prominent
Occupy activists, used old warrants to arrest others, and interrogated people
about their political beliefs and associations. They even produced “Wanted”
posters featuring photos and home addresses of two activists and labeling them
“Professional Agitators”—though notably failing to accuse them of any actual
crime. One human rights report offered this assessment:

[T]here have been reports of repeated excessive or unnecessary police use of
force, massive and continuous over-policing and poor communication, obstruction
of press freedoms and independent legal monitoring, constant police
surveillance, unjustified restrictions on the ability of individuals to
peacefully assemble in public spaces, arbitrary rule enforcement, and
transparency failures. There has also been near-complete impunity for alleged

Things looked much the same elsewhere, though on a smaller scale. On October
10, about 140 activists were arrested at Occupy Boston. On October 22, a dozen
were arrested as Occupy Houston marched on the police precinct. On October 30,
two dozen were arrested at Occupy Portland, and 38 at Occupy Austin. In
Cincinnati, the police first cited demonstrators, issuing 253 tickets for $105
each; later they arrested 60 camp occupants.

Oakland hosted the most prominent Occupy site outside of New York, christened
“Oscar Grant Plaza” in honor of the young man killed by police a couple years
earlier. On October 25, police cleared protestors from the camp and
attacked them with less-lethal weapons—firing tear gas directly at
protestors, hitting an Iraq war veteran named Scott Olsen in the face and
fracturing his skull. Cops then threw concussion grenades at the medics who
rushed to help him. Two days later, protestors tore down fences and took back
the plaza; they called for a General Strike on November 2. The strike fell
short of its “general” ambitions, but 25,000 workers and students took part and
pickets closed the Port of Oakland. Police responded according to their
habit, with riot gear, less-lethal weapons, and over a hundred arrests.

On November 10, the Police Executive Research Forum hosted a conference call
for police chiefs around the country to discuss what to do about Occupy. The
next day a similar call included mayors from eighteen cities, among them New
York, Oakland, Portland, and Philadelphia. Then, on November 14, police
began decisive, coordinated attacks on the main Occupy encampments. Occupy
Oakland was evicted again, leading to more than twenty arrests. Dan Siegel, the
mayor’s legal advisor, resigned in protest.

That same evening, on the other side of the country, police distributed
eviction notices at Occupy Wall Street. Hours later, at 1 a.m. on November 15,
the NYPD raided Zuccotti Park. Flood lights lit the area brighter than day, and
loudspeakers blasted a recorded message ordering people out of the area. Police
maintained a perimeter a block or more away from the park, keeping supporters,
onlookers, and journalists away from the confrontation and using police vans to
obscure their view. About a thousand cops descended upon the area, using
clubs, shields, and pepper spray to force the occupants out. Altogether 142
people were arrested in the park and about 60 others in surrounding streets,
among them a city councilor and several journalists. Human rights observers
documented forty-eight instances of excessive force. Tents, computers, and
approximately 5,000 books from the Occupy library were unceremoniously tossed
into Department of Sanitation trucks; most were destroyed.

The next day, police arrested protestors in Portland, Berkeley, San Francisco,
Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City. Demonstrations opposing the crackdown
continued around the country, with 30,000 in New York on November 17. In
anticipation, the NYPD created a twelve-block hard zone around the Stock
Exchange, and later made about 150 arrests. That same day, Portland police
used pepper spray against activists staging a solidarity march; twenty-five
were arrested. Thirty were arrested in Los Angeles. And Occupy Dallas was
evicted from their encampment, with eighteen arrests. Just hours later, at 2
a.m. on November 18, police raided Occupy Cal, at UC-Berkeley. Then, on
November 27, 1,400 cops raided the Occupy L.A. camp, tearing down tents and
beating protestors; 300 were arrested. And finally, on November 30, police
evicted the Occupy Philly encampment. The Occupiers, while initially willing to
leave Dilworth Plaza peacefully, mounted an unpermitted march through the
Center City area, continuing long after midnight. Police arrested

The loss of the camps signaled the defeat of the movement. Never simply a place
to meet and sleep, the Occupy encampments had become symbolic representations
of disenfranchisement and utopian experiments in direct democracy. Without
them, the movement lost focus and quickly faded, barely two months after it

Yet, whatever its shortcomings, the Occupy movement did reveal a weakness in
the Strategic Incapacitation strategy. OWS expressed widespread public
grievances, identified itself with the broadest segment of our society
(expressed in the slogan, “We are the 99%”), and conducted itself—nearly
always, but especially at the beginning—according to principles of strict
nonviolence. However, it also quite deliberately violated laws, disobeyed
police, and disrupted the usual business of capitalism. As Patrick Gillham put
it, “OWS activists generally elected not to limit their actions to free-speech
zones, choosing instead to engage in transgressive and sometimes illegal
actions.” The police thus classified the Occupiers as transgressive “bad”
protestors, leading (for example) to the use of force against young women
trapped behind police barricades, against students peacefully sitting with arms
linked, against retired school teachers, and people who were walking away, and
many, many others besides. Much of this violence was caught on video, and
when it circulated it generated public sympathy for the Occupy movement,
correspondingly increased antipathy toward the cops, and legitimized the
militancy of later protests. Police brutality pushed Occupy into the headlines,
and made inequality a political issue in a way it hadn’t been before. In
other words, Strategic Incapacitation led the police into the same political
traps that Escalated Force had a generation earlier.

Yet clearly much has changed since, for example, the ’68 Democratic Convention.
It is not just that there is less violence in protest policing, but the
violence is more selective, more strategic. In addition to a greater reliance
on intelligence and more concern with public perception and political
legitimacy, the new strategy also demands greater restraint and improved
command and control. In all of these respects, Strategic Incapacitation is
exactly in keeping with the broader trends that have shaped policing over the
past forty years.

9: Your Friendly Neighborhood Police State

The difficulties of crowd control have shown the need for police to balance
their reliance on force against the possibility of containment, negotiation,
and the co-optation of leadership. Over-reliance on either approach is likely
to lead to disaster: naked repression can create or escalate resistance and
discredit the authorities, while resting on the framework of institutionalized
dissent can leave the state’s forces unprepared for tactical innovations or
renewed militancy among protestors. The challenge for police is to chart a
middle course between the WTO protests in Seattle and the massacre at Kent
State. Though drawn from their experiences with protests and riots, these
lessons have come to shape the development of police strategy overall. They
have thus given rise to the seemingly incongruous—but, in fact,
complementary—trends of militarization and community policing.

Bringing the War Home

“Militarization” is a buzzword, popular chiefly among critics of the police.
The term is in some sense pejorative, as military incursions into the domestic
sphere are taboo in liberal democracies. But militarization is rarely defined,
and the use of the word is often superficial. This is true in two senses:
first, the term is sometimes chosen more for its sinister connotations than for
any literal meaning; second, it is used to describe the most obvious aspects of
policing—the equipment, uniforms, and weaponry. By implication, armored cars,
riot gear, and assault rifles evidence militarization; the friendly cop on the
beat does not.

This dichotomy is false, and dangerous. It misconstrues the nature of
militarization and underestimates its impact. Militarization affects not only
police paraphernalia, but the police mission, the roles of violence and
intelligence, police ideology, rhetoric, training, and organization. A leading
scholar of militarization, Peter Kraska, offers this definition:

Militarization … can be defined in its broadest terms as the social process in
which society organizes itself for the production of violence or the threat

He goes on to list the following “tangible indices of this sort of high-modern

(1) A blurring of external and internal security functions leading to a
targeting of civilian populations, internal “security” threats, and a focus on
aggregate populations as potential internal “insurgents”

(2) An avoidance of overt or lethal violence, with a greater emphasis placed on
information gathering and processing, surveillance work, and less-than-lethal

(3) An ideology and theoretical framework of militarism that stresses that
effective problem solving requires state force, technology, armament,
intelligence gathering, aggressive suppression efforts, and other assorted
activities commensurate with modern military thinking and operations

(4) Criminal justice practices guided by the ideological framework of
militarism, such as the use of special-operations paramilitary teams in
policing and corrections, policing activities that emphasize military tactics
such as drug, gun, and gang suppression, and punishment models based on the
military boot camp

(5) The purchasing, loaning, donation, and use of actual material products that
can be characterized as militaristic, including a range of military armaments,
transportation devices, surveillance equipment, and military-style garb

(6) A rapidly developing collaboration, at the highest level of the
governmental and corporate worlds, between the defense industry and the crime
control industry

(7) The use of military language within political and popular culture, to
characterize the social problems of drugs, crime, and social disorder.

By these standards, the contemporary American police department is highly
militarized in ways that its nineteenth-century counterpart was not.

Developments in crowd control and intelligence have each placed the police on
this course, as have police ideology and the institution’s rapidly advancing
mode of organization. Of course, the rhetoric of policing (and of police
reform) has long made use of a military analogy, though in practice this
amounted to little more than instituting ranks and requiring firearms
training. But following the crises of the 1960s, this analogy was suddenly
taken far more seriously. The rhetoric, of course, never really went out of
style, but it gained a more literal reading than had been possible before.

Radicals were calling on America to “Bring the war home,” and policy-makers
very quietly decided to do just that.

Funding, Arming, Planning

The authorities responded to the disorder of the 1960s by increasing the cops’
funding, upgrading their equipment, and re-organizing departments along more
military lines. To this end, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) was
founded in 1968, and it immediately set about transferring Defense Department
technology to the police. Over the next ten years, the NIJ outfitted police
with military wonders like night vision goggles, soft body armor, forensic and
computer equipment, surveillance devices, and retired Army helicopters.

Two decades later, in 1987, the Pentagon created an office specifically to
facilitate the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement agencies.
In the three years following a 1994 memorandum of understanding between the
Department of Justice and the Department of Defense allowing for the transfer
of military equipment, police received 1.2 million pieces of military hardware,
including 112 armored personnel carriers and seventy-three grenade launchers.
The LAPD alone received 6,000 M-16s.

Then, section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Security Act of 1997
created the Law Enforcement Support Program, authorizing the transfer of
military equipment to local police for “counterdrug and counterterrorism
activities.” In its first three years, the 1033 program filled 3.4 million
orders, transferring $727 million in military equipment to some 11,000 police
agencies. Much of the total consisted of relatively inoffensive items like
filing cabinets, computers, and snow blowers, but the amount of weaponry
involved was not inconsiderable: 8,131 bulletproof helmets, 7,856 M-16s, and
181 grenade launchers, as well as 253 aircraft. Between 2006 and 2014, the
Pentagon had provided local police more than $4 billion in equipment, including
tents, rifles, and mine-resistant armored vehicles.

Police planning also quickly turned in a more martial direction. In 1969, the
NYPD began planning construction of its Command and Control Center. For models,
it visited military installations like the Pentagon and the Strategic Air
Command Headquarters. Mayor John Lindsay described the new center, aptly, as a
“war room.” Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, an ambitious commander named Daryl
Gates was re-inventing the Metro Division of the LAPD:

Breaking from LAPD tradition, we formed sixteen military-type squads with a
sergeant in charge of each ten-man squad, and then we meshed them into two
platoons, each headed by a lieutenant. They were given missions for which they
were responsible. They developed the approach and the tactics without direction
from above. Their only admonishment was to maintain departmental policy and

Gates’s adaptation of military organization to law enforcement was remarkable,
and it did not end with the squad and platoon structures. Military tactics
were soon adopted as well, most famously with the creation of the SWAT team.

SWAT: From Occasional Shoot-Outs to Routine Patrol

The Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics team became the
first of many similar units, generically termed “Police Paramilitary Units,” or
PPUs. SWAT was developed in secret during the late sixties, training with
marines at Camp Pendleton. Though ostensibly designed to handle snipers,
the team’s first mission was a 1969 raid on the headquarters of the Black
Panther Party. A shoot-out ensued, follow by a long stand-off. Growing
impatient, the SWAT team requested—and received—a Marine Corps grenade
launcher, but the Panthers surrendered before it could be put to use.
Altogether, 5,000 rounds of ammunition were fired in the exchange. Four cops
and four Panthers were injured, but no one was killed.

Shortly thereafter, SWAT raided a house where members of the Symbionese
Liberation Army (SLA) were hiding out. Again, a shoot-out ensued, followed by a
long standoff. This time SWAT asked for fragmentation grenades, and Gates
refused. But no matter: when police fired tear gas into the house it caught
fire and burned to the ground. Six SLA members died in the blaze. Gates
later expressed his reservations: “At the moment my main concern was whether
[kidnapped heiress] Patty Hearst had been inside. I didn’t give a shit about
the others.” Apparently, his regard for the neighbors was no higher. No
effort had been made to evacuate the neighborhood before the raid, or during
the stand-off. Nearby homes were damaged in the fire, and several houses were
riddled with bullets.

The LAPD SWAT team was deployed 200 times in its first two years. Since
then, paramilitary police units have become a nationwide phenomenon, and their
rate of use has sharply increased. In 1970 there was exactly one SWAT team in
the United States; by 1975 there were close to 500. By 1995, 89 percent of
cities with a population over 50,000 had a paramilitary unit, and 50.1 percent
of cities with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 did. In 1980, PPUs
were deployed 2,884 times across the country. Fifteen years later, in 1995,
that number had risen to 29,962.

In part, PPUs are deployed more often simply because there are more of them to
deploy. Many small departments have formed their own paramilitary units,
whereas they previously relied on those of larger cities or the state police in
the (rare) event of an emergency. After all, how often do the campus police at
the University of Central Florida face sniper fire, a barricaded suspect, or a
hostage situation? Yet they have their own SWAT team. So do the police
departments of Butler, Missouri (population 4,201), Mt. Orab, Ohio (population
2,701), and Middleburg, Pennsylvania (population 1,363). Many factors
promoted the spread of paramilitary units, including the existence of a
ready-to-use model, the availability of equipment and training, and the
professional prestige attached to the highly specialized teams. The nationwide
craze for SWAT teams marks an advance in the militarization of the police, but
as importantly, the factors sustaining this trend also indicate militarization.

Perhaps more troubling than the replication of the SWAT model is the expansion
of the SWAT mission. In 1994, Fresno, California began using its PPU, the
Violent Crime Suppression Unit (VCSU), to patrol its southwest ghettos. Wearing
black fatigues, combat boots, and body armor, the officers routinely patrolled
with MP-54 submachine guns, helicopters, and dogs. First deployed after a wave
of gang violence (including attacks on police officers), the VCSU quickly went
from raiding houses to stopping cars, interrogating “suspicious persons,” and
clearing people off of street corners.

These street corner sweeps represented an impressive display of force,
beginning with a pyrotechnic flash-bang grenade. Police then moved in with
their guns drawn, sometimes supported by a canine unit. Everyone in the area
was forced to the ground, and civilian dogs were shot on sight. The “suspects”
in the area were then photographed, interrogated, checked for warrants, and
entered into a computerized database. The VCSU produced impressive figures
marking its activity. Misdemeanor arrests increased 48.3 percent, and the unit
averaged one shooting every three months.

Fresno is not alone in its use of paramilitary police for routine patrol. By
1999, there were ninety-four departments across the country similarly deploying
their SWAT teams. One commander described his department’s approach:

We’re into saturation patrols in hot spots. We do a lot of work With
[sic] the SWAT unit because we have bigger guns. We send out two,
two-to-four men cars, we look for minor violations and do jump-outs, either on
people on the street or automobiles. After we jump-out the second car provides
periphery cover with an ostentatious display of weaponry. We’re sending a clear
message: if the shootings don’t stop, we’ll shoot someone.

The application of SWAT techniques in routine (i.e., non-emergency) law
enforcement situations has been termed the “normalization” of paramilitary
units. This process works in two complementary directions. First, the scope
of activity considered appropriate for specialized units becomes ever wider. In
military jargon, this is referred to as “mission creep”—a suitably unpleasant
sounding term. Second, the increased use of the specialized team promotes
the view that their military organization, skills, and equipment are well
suited to general police work; the regular police then come to resemble the
paramilitary units. Both tendencies advance the militarization of the
police, and both have been encouraged by the prohibition of certain drugs.

The Drug War and Other Dangerous Habits

From a managerial perspective the temptation to use specialized forces for a
widening range of activities is understandable. Where such units exist,
commanders are loath to “waste” their capabilities. To justify their continued
existence, in particular their continued funding, they must be used. Inactivity
is bureaucratic suicide. So the mission of these units expands. As it expands,
their operations become normalized. Jerome Skolnick and David Bayley explain:

Because riots and hostage-takings are relatively rare, SSU [Denver’s Special
Service Unit] has had a lot of time on its hands, notwithstanding its demanding
training requirements. So in its spare time, which has amounted to 90 percent,
it has been doing saturation patrolling.

Saturation patrolling offers one solution for the need to keep the paramilitary
teams busy between emergencies. Likewise, mundane police duties can be reframed
as “emergencies”—or alternately, the cops may actually create
emergencies. That is precisely what the police do when they use paramilitary
units to perform “warrant work.”

“Warrant work” is actually something of a misnomer, since many departments
claim that they don’t need a warrant when they fear that evidence would be
destroyed during the time it takes to contact a judge. The searches at issue
are usually drug-related. One commander describes the procedure: “[O]ur unit
storms the residence with a full display of weaponry so we can get the drugs
before they’re flushed.” Paramilitary units usually specialize in
“no-knock” or “dynamic” entries, meaning they avoid announcing their presence
until they’ve knocked down the door and are charging into the house. The LAPD,
in its characteristic style, gave its SWAT team an armored car with a battering
ram attached; rather than breaking down the door, the cops drive the vehicle
straight through the wall. At least half of all paramilitary raids result
in property damage, usually broken doors and windows.

No-knock entries are dangerous for everyone involved—cops, suspects,
bystanders. The raids usually occur before dawn; the residents are usually
asleep, and then disoriented by the sudden intrusion. There is no warning, and
sleepy residents may not always understand that the men breaking down their
door are police. At the same time, police procedures allow terribly little room
for error. Stan Goff, a retired Special Forces sergeant and SWAT trainer, says
that he teaches cops to “Look at hands. If there’s a weapon in their hands
during a dynamic entry, it does not matter what that weapon is doing. If
there’s a weapon in their hands, that person dies. It’s automatic.”

Predictably, these raids sometimes end in disaster. When the Visalia,
California, SWAT team raided Alfonso Hernandez’s apartment in 1998, the
teenager opened fire, injuring one officer. The police fired back without
restraint, hitting Hernandez thirty-nine times and killing him on the spot.
Some of their bullets traveled through walls into neighboring apartments. In
addition to Hernandez, another man in the apartment, Emiliano Trevino, was
killed. Trevino was seeking refuge in a corner when he was shot five times.

On September 13, 2000, the DEA, FBI, and local police conducted a series of
raids throughout Modesto, California. By the end of the day, they had shot and
killed an eleven-year-old boy, Alberto Sepulveda, as he was lying facedown on
the floor with his arms outstretched, as ordered by police. In January
2011, police in Farmington, Massachusetts similarly shot Eurie Stamp, a
sixty-eight-year-old grandfather, as he lay motionless on the floor according
to police instructions. In the course of a May 2014 raid in Cornelia,
Georgia, a flash-bang grenade landed in the crib of a nineteen-month-old
infant. The explosion blew a hole in the face and chest of Bounkham Phonesavanh
(“Baby Bou Bou”), covering his body with third degree burns, and exposing part
of his ribcage. No guns or drugs were found in the house, and no arrests were

Sometimes these raids go wrong before they even begin. Walter and Rose Martin,
a perfectly innocent couple, both in their eighties, had their home raided by
New York Police more than fifty times between 2002 and 2010. It turned
out that their address had been entered as the default in the police
database. That’s the extreme case, but not an isolated problem. NYPD Chief
Raymond Kelly—while defending the department’s tactics—estimated that in 2003
the police conducted 450 no-knock raids every month, and that
approximately 10 percent were warrants served on the wrong address. That’s
forty-five people each month—540 New Yorkers every year—who will be woken
without warning, their doors broken down, their homes invaded, their lives
threatened and their loved ones menaced by heavily armed men, all because of a
clerical error and a society-wide campaign to use military force against
victimless crimes.

In 1990 there were 30,000 SWAT raids in the United States. By 2005, that number
had grown to 50,000. More than three-quarters of all SWAT deployments (75.9
percent) are drug raids. The targets are not always, only, or even
usually the most prominent, powerful, or violent drug traffickers, but
are often low-level dealers or even individual users. In only a third (35
percent) do police find a weapon.

Once mission creep sets in, it can be difficult to reverse. The tendency is to
expand the scope of action, finding new uses for paramilitary units, new
excuses for no-knock raids. In the first years of the new century, the federal
government began orchestrating paramilitary raids against medical marijuana
clinics operating in compliance with state (but not federal) law—“using
state-sanctioned violence,” as journalist Radley Balko notes, “to make a
political point.” A decade later, SWAT teams were arresting doctors accused
of over-prescribing pain pills, undocumented immigrants, suspected prostitutes,
and even unlicensed barbers; they launched raids against bars serving underage
patrons and VFW halls hosting charity poker games. Not only were these
manifestly non-emergency situations, many were non-criminal
as well, involving only minor violations of civil statutes or administrative
rules. Yet, in its attempts at enforcement, the government has mobilized
heavily armed, heavily armored paramilitary teams in dramatic and sometimes
deadly shows of force. The Albuquerque Police Department’s paramilitary unit
shot and killed a homeless man whose only crime was illegal camping; in effect,
the highly-trained elite strike force killed him simply for being homeless.

It is hard to overstate the impact drug policy has had on policing, even
outside the area of drug enforcement. The national obsession with controlling
narcotics has provided a rationale for racial profiling, legitimized prison
expansion and draconian sentencing laws, eroded constitutional protections
against warrantless searches, promoted federal involvement in local law
enforcement, and facilitated the militarization of city, county, and state
police. It has also provided a convenient justification for widening the
scope of police activity.

Officer Friendly?

If the aggressive, armored paramilitary unit represents one face of
contemporary policing, the other is that of the smiling, chatty cop on the
beat. One is the image of militarization; the other is that of community

“Community policing,” like “militarization,” is a jargon term. “Community
policing,” however, provides a feel-good label to be used both by critics of
the police and by the cops’ policy-level allies. It is nearly always used by
people who mean to be advocating for its programs. What it is that they
advocate, however, is the matter of quite some dispute.

Community policing largely grew out of innovations developed during the 1970s.
The seventies and eighties were periods of extreme experimentation in law
enforcement, as departments across the country struggled to recover from the
defeats of the 1960s. As the years progressed, the new ideas were either
refined or abandoned, and those remaining gradually coalesced under the rubric
of community policing. This legacy, plus the community policing premise that
law enforcement strategies should be adapted to local conditions and local
needs, has resulted in a baffling variety of programs operating under the same
label, and has made generalizing about them very difficult.

Community policing largely evolved from the earlier notion of “team policing,”
under which a group of officers shared responsibility for a particular
area. From this base, community policing slowly came to incorporate
novelties like decentralized command, storefront mini-stations, directed
(rather than random) patrol, neighborhood watch groups, permanent assignments,
neighborhood liaisons, door-to-door surveys, public forums, crime prevention
trainings, citizen advisory boards, meetings with religious and civic leaders,
foot patrols, bike patrols, police-sponsored community activities and social
functions, a focus on minor offenses, educational and recreational programs for
young people, citizen volunteer opportunities, and community organizing

Common features seemed to connect many of the more successful programs, and
these slowly formed the basis for the community policing perspective.
Sociologist Gary Cordner groups its elements into philosophical, strategic,
tactical, and organizational dimensions. Philosophically, community policing
is characterized by the solicitation of citizen input, the broadening of the
police function, and the attempt to find solutions based on the values of the
local community. Organizationally, community policing requires that
departments be restructured such as to decentralize command, flatten
hierarchies, reduce specialization, civilianize staff positions, and encourage
teamwork. Strategically, community policing efforts reorient operations away
from random patrols and responding to 911 calls, towards more directed,
proactive, and preventive activities. This reorientation requires a geographic
focus, and encourages cops to pay attention to sources of disorder as well as
to the crimes themselves. Tactics that sustain community policing efforts are
those that encourage positive citizen interactions, partnerships, and problem

A 1994 report composed by the Community Policing Consortium (representing the
International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs’
Association, the Police Executive Research Forum, and the Police Foundation),
and published by the Department of Justice, identifies the two “core
components” of community policing as “community partnership and problem
solving.” Sociologists Jerome Skolnick and David Bayley concluded, based on
a study of six police departments renowned as innovators and trend-setters,
that the governing premise of community policing was “that the police and the
public are co-producers of crime prevention.”

By the early 1990s “Community Policing” was the official religion of police
nationwide, even if nobody knew exactly what it meant. Even Daryl Gates, the
embattled and abrasive former chief of police in Los Angeles, explicitly
advocated community policing in his 1992 memoir, which only underscores
questions about the term’s use. If the notorious LAPD has, as Gates insists,
been practicing it since the 1970s, then what doesn’t count as
community policing? If the term covers everything, then does it mean anything?

Perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, the LAPD did invent some of the
paradigmatic community policing programs, including DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance
Education) and the neighborhood watch. But the clash between the LAPD’s
uncivil image and that of the personable neighborhood beat cop gets to the
heart of the confusion about what is and is not community policing. There is a
difference between adopting stand-alone programs and taking on
community policing as an overall organizational strategy. The Los
Angeles Police Department may have recognized early on the need for community
partnerships, but it—like most departments—has pursued these partnerships
unevenly, haphazardly, and without changing the basic orientation of the police

On the other hand, community policing is not at all incompatible with the
hardnosed, militarized tactics for which Gates’s department became famous, or
infamous. Of the two major strands of community policing programs—“peace corps
policing” and “order maintenance policing”—the latter seems to actually promote
just the sort of excess that Gates favored. As Matthew T. DeMichele and Peter
B. Kraska explain, peace corps policing “emphasized community empowerment,
cultivating constructive relationships with disenfranchised minority groups,
and establishing partnerships between the public and the police,” while the
“order-maintenance” approach “seeks to ‘clean up’ a community proactively,
thereby reducing the potential for crime and diminishing citizens’ fears.”
Linking the two is an emphasis on problem solving and a sense that police work
extends beyond the most basic matters of law enforcement. Hence, both
approaches are proactive, prevention-oriented, concerned with the fear of crime
as well as with crime itself, and generally fit within the framework of
community policing as it is laid out above. Where differences exist, they tend
to be matters of emphasis rather than principle. In fact, peace corps and order
maintenance approaches are sometimes employed in tandem, and—together or
separately—they dovetail with militarization to form a coherent, strategic
whole. To resolve this seeming paradox, we should consider what the police hope
to accomplish with community policing, and what advantages they take from their
community partnerships.

Changing Course

The first thing to notice about community policing is the degree to which it
seeks to undo the reforms of the Progressive and professional eras. Those
earlier reformers sought to centralize command, introduce bureaucratic
management practices, close neighborhood precincts, do away with foot patrols,
narrowly focus on crime control, increase specialization within the
departments, and generally sever the connections between the police and the
public. These efforts were never fully successful, but that is hardly the
point. The point is that they move in exactly the opposite direction from many
of the recommendations made by community policing advocates.

To make sense of this reversal, we need to recognize that community policing
seeks to address a different set of problems than those faced by the
Progressives or the professionals. There is no longer any need for capitalists
to wrest city governments away from Tammany-style political machines, and
police unionization has done more to improve the typical patrol officer’s
standard of living than the move toward professionalization ever did. More
subtly, the police have largely established their institutional autonomy, and
have developed extensive means to defend it. In fact, since the late sixties,
they have moved beyond their quest for independence and have begun to pursue
political power.

Here, perhaps, we can discern a pattern. Historically, the means of social
control have adapted in response to crises, to challenges faced by the existing
authorities. Slave patrols evolved gradually in response to slave revolts. The
rise of capitalism produced new class tensions and higher demands for order;
one result was the modern police. Is it a coincidence, then, that the three
most pronounced trends in contemporary policing—unionization, militarization,
and community policing—gained their momentum during a period of profound social
tension and overt political conflict?

The shortcomings of social control in the civil rights and anti-war periods are
not difficult to discern. Misplaced intelligence efforts meant that the
security forces were often caught unawares by rebellions, and heavy-handed
crowd control tactics exacerbated disorder where it arose. Meanwhile,
government lawlessness—both domestically and in the field of foreign
policy—eroded citizens’ faith in the system. The continuation of such
conditions threatened to render the country ungovernable. The authorities
had to reassess their approach to social control.

The resulting police experiments, which eventually blended into the community
policing approach, were born of the desire to correct for the shortcomings of
the earlier bureaucratic-professional model. They sought to build a bond
between the police and the public in hopes that it would increase police
legitimacy, give them better access to information, intensify their penetration
of community life, and expand the police mission. All of this, in theory,
should make the populace easier to police and heighten the level of police

Pursuing Legitimacy

The first task of any community policing strategist is to make police authority
legitimate in the eyes of the community. Herman Goldstein, a community policing
advocate, identifies “the ultimate potential in community policing” as:

the development of a reservoir of respect and support that could greatly
increase the capacity of police officers to deal with problems with less need
to resort to the criminal process or to the coercive force that officers derive
from their uniform, their weapon, their badge, or the knowledge that they can
summon reinforcements.

The means by which this legitimacy is established are sometimes subtle. Even
the mechanisms through which the community is supposed to voice its concerns
often become forums for the police to promote their own agenda. The most
common of these is the citizen survey. Under the guise of collecting
information about neighborhood problems and community attitudes, the surveys
carefully frame questions to reinforce the fear of crime and present the police
as problem solvers. They also suggest a conservative view concerning the causes
of crime (drugs, a tolerance for disorder), the people who commit crimes (young
people, gang members, strangers), and the solutions to the crime problem (law
enforcement). The surveys function twice in this regard—first, in the
collection of the data, and then, in the presentation of the results.
Community meetings work the same way, turning an atmosphere of inclusiveness
and participation to propagandistic ends. As noted in The Iron Fist and the
Velvet Glove

Although the meetings are supposedly held to deal with the community’s
concerns, these concerns are defined by police within the framework of how best
to reduce crime. The “communication” is frequently a one-way lobby for the
police and their concerns.

Other features of community policing, like foot patrols and storefront offices,
serve to increase friendly contact between police and the residents in the
neighborhoods they patrol. All of these practices, it is hoped, can reduce
friction, encourage communication, build trust, and humanize the individual
officers in the eyes of the neighborhood residents.

When legitimacy is established, the police can rely more on the cooperation of
the citizenry rather than resorting to coercive force. As Gary Cordner
explains, citizen participation can run the gamut from watching neighbors’ homes, to reporting drug dealers, to
patrolling the streets. It can involve participation in problem identification
and problem solving efforts, in crime prevention programs, in neighborhood
revitalization, and in youth-oriented educational and recreational programs.
Citizens may act individually or in groups, they may collaborate with the
police and they may even join the police department by donating their time as
police department volunteers, reserves, or auxiliaries.

Moreover, the police are not just encouraged to mobilize individuals, but to
draw existing civic groups into their efforts and, where necessary, to set up
new organizations to provide the support they need. Thus, the new-found trust
would give the police access to and influence over community resources that may
have otherwise had their law enforcement potential overlooked—or that may have
served as centers for resistance.

Goldstein, for one, specifically encourages police to act as organizers and
advocates in the community. He writes:

After analyzing the problem, officers involved in these projects conduct an
uninhibited search for alternative responses. They may settle on one of the
responses identified above as commonly used in community policing, or they may
go a step further, perhaps pressuring municipal agencies to carry out existing
responsibilities or to invest new resources in an area. They may push for
changes in the policies of other government agencies or advocate legislation
that would enable police to deal more effectively with a problem that clearly
warrants arrest and prosecution.

Hence, community policing advances the autonomy of the institution and
encourages police interference with the functions of the rest of the
government. It provides an incentive to political action, and threatens to blur
the separation of powers and invert the principles of civilian control.

Third-Party Policing and Co-optation

Through their coalition work, police extend their power further into the
community, but the balance of power between the police and the community
remains heavily weighted, always, in favor of the police. The aim is to
turn an ever-widening range of institutions into tools for law enforcement.
This goal is made explicit in the tactics of “third-party policing.”
Third-party policing occurs when the authorities convince or require an
uninvolved individual or organization to take actions designed to minimize
disorder or prevent crime. Popularized by the “problem-oriented”
perspective, third-party policing often involves the use or threat of civil or
administrative sanctions to force bar owners, landlords, social service
agencies, and others in contact with criminal suspects or disorderly persons to
apply pressure such as to control their behavior. A bar owner, under threat of
losing his liquor license, may agree to hire bouncers or eschew certain types
of entertainment (e.g., nude dancers or hip-hop music). Landlords may
be urged to install better lighting, report suspicious activity, and evict
tenants whom the police deem to be problems. Social service agencies may be
asked to exercise additional control over their clients. The police may also
move further up the social ladder. If a social service agency proves
uncooperative, its landlord or funding sources may also be asked to bring their
influence to bear.

Former LAPD chief William Parker famously complained, “I’m a policeman, not a
social worker.” Under community-police cooperation schemes, social
workers—as well as teachers, public health officials, bus drivers, bartenders,
landlords—could register the corresponding complaint: “I’m not a
.” Community policing, especially in the form of third-party
policing, is less a matter of policing-as-social-work than
social-work-as-policing, without the need for any Foucauldian camouflage.

Third-party policing, like many of the tactics that fall within the scope of
community policing, operates by co-opting community resources and existing
sources of power. The Community Policing Consortium report puts it

Community policing does not imply that police are no longer in authority or
that the primary duty of preserving law and order is subordinated. However,
tapping into the expertise and resources that exist within communities will
relieve police of some of their burdens. Local government officials, social
agencies, schools, church groups, business people—all those who work and live
in the community and have a stake in its development—will share responsibility
for finding workable solutions to problems that detract from the safety and
security of the community.

In other words, community policing is a strategy for making the community’s
total “expertise and resources” available to the police. The ultimate goals of
policing (“the primary duty of preserving law and order”) are unchanged, and
police authority is not diminished. But community policing does allow some
parts of the community to share in police power, acting as adjuncts to the
police institution.

For example, responding to a wave of gang violence in the mid-1990s, the Boston
Police Department formed a broad-based working group including social workers,
academics, and members of the Black clergy, some of whom had been vocal critics
of the department. The clergy’s role in “Operation Ceasefire” was two-fold.
First, they served an intelligence function. As David Harris explains, with
enthusiasm, in his book Good Cops:

With their long history on the streets, the ministers … [were] well positioned
to help distinguish between gang ‘wannabes,’ who might be reached with
alternatives and offers of help, and the truly hard-core gang soldiers.… Thus,
by becoming part of Operation Cease Fire, the members of the Ten-Point
Coalition became important sources of intelligence for the police, enabling
officers to target the right people.

Secondly, the involvement of Black ministers—especially those who had been
critical of the police—served to legitimize the anti-gang effort and (as two
academic advisors to the program later put it) “sheltered the police from broad
public criticism.”

The overall result of such efforts is to increase the police role in the
community, meaning that the coercive apparatus of the state will be more
involved with daily life. The state, and the police in particular, will have
more opportunities for surveillance, and can exercise control in a variety of
ways besides arrests, citations, or physical force. This shift can be made to
sound like demilitarization, liberalization, or democratization, but it is
instead just a smarter approach to repression. The goal of community
policing is to reduce resistance before force is required.

What we’ve traced out here is the path from legitimacy to hegemony. The
ultimate goal of community policing is to increase the power of police, and
that represents the most stable limit on the community’s role as “co-producers”
of crime control. The police and the community may form a “partnership,” but
the police always remain the senior partner.

Community Policing and Policy Communities

The demands of community policing may sound contradictory: the police are to
rely on community’s support, but remain in control; community input should
shape police priorities, but without granting the community power. The
corporatist model again becomes useful in understanding the police-community
partnership. Santa Ana (California) police lieutenant Hugh Mooney tells of
his role in the neighborhood:

This is my area.… I am their spokesman.… I support them 100 percent. If I have
to argue with them, I do it here, and we work things out. Then, when I do go
before my peers and superiors I tell them exactly what my people feel.… I
represent them.

Of course, this is only half the equation. The other half is that Lieutenant
Mooney also represents the Santa Ana Police Department to the residents of the
neighborhood where he serves; he presents the organization’s perspective,
promotes its agenda, and couches its demands in acceptable terms.

Where the police succeed in establishing such relationships, and in using them
to increase their power, they create what Martin J. Smith calls a “policy

Policy communities increase state autonomy by establishing the means through
which state actors can intervene in society without using force. By integrating
state and society actors, they increase the capabilities of the state to make
and implement policy. They create state powers that would not otherwise exist
and, more importantly, they increase the autonomy of actors in a policy area by
excluding other actors from the policy process.… It is state actors who
determine the rules of the games, the parameters of policy and the actors who
will have access to the policy community.

Hence, what may be presented in terms of democratic engagement and greater
inclusion tends overall to favor the state’s interests and reinforce state
power. Negotiation and co-optation provide the means for the state to extend
its influence. Thus potential sources of resistance can be neutralized—or even
turned to the state’s advantage—by their incorporation into a policy community,
in this case one centered around and dominated by the police department. In
some sense, the client groups become incorporated into the state itself. It
makes little difference whether the client organization is a police union,
a social service agency, a church, a school, another governmental body, or a
neighborhood watch group. By organizing on a sufficient scale the police can
greatly enhance their own power—not only over these agencies, but
through them—while acquiring relatively few additional burdens for
themselves. So long as the police maintain control over the network as a whole,
no one component of it is likely to make demands that cannot be easily
accommodated (or safely ignored).

Here is the secret to a friendly police state: as the police more fully
penetrate civil society, and as they gain the cooperation of the citizenry and
its various organizations, they become less reliant on their own access to

Or do they? Do they instead, perhaps, become ever less tolerant of resistance
and disorder, ever more forceful in their own demands?

The Hard Edge of Community Policing

In the wake of the Rodney King beating, the Christopher Commission noted with
alarm that distrust of the police was commonplace, especially among African
Americans and Latinos. As a remedy, the commission issued a broad slate of
recommendations, many centering on the full adoption of a community policing
perspective as the guiding philosophy of the LAPD. Giving credit where it was
due, the Commission’s report listed already-existing LAPD programs that made
use of community policing strategies. The report specifically mentioned DARE,
the short-lived Community Mobilization Project (in which police attended block
meetings and arranged for Boy Scout troops to remove graffiti), and Operation

In “Operation Cul-de-Sac,” police erect barriers on streets in high crime areas
so that motorists cannot drive through a neighborhood. The most ambitious use
of this program occurred in a 30-block area of the Newton district of
South-Central Los Angeles. The LAPD set up two cul-de-sacs in the section and
erected small barriers on other streets. The zone was saturated with officers
on foot, horse, and bicycle. “Open to Residents Only” and “Narcotics
Enforcement Area” signs were posted. The aim was to discourage drug dealers
and gang members from driving through the area. At the same time, debris was
removed from alleys and graffiti scrubbed off walls.

The Christopher Commission report went on to voice concerns about the intensive
deployment of officers, the specific targeting of high-crime areas, the
“illusory” nature of the reduction in crime, and citizen complaints that the
area had been converted into an “armed camp.” But despite its reservations,
the commission saw value in the program—and saw its place within the overall
framework of community policing.

This combination of militaristic tactics and community policing ideology is
less mysterious than it might initially appear. The community policing focus on
problem solving can easily tend towards a zero-tolerance approach with a strong
emphasis on public order rather than on crime per se. The effect
is to criminalize an ever-wider range of public order offenses and minor
nuisances—some of which might not even really be illegal. Hence, standard
features of urban life that may previously have been considered mere
irritations, inconveniences, annoyances, or eccentricities, suddenly become
matters for police attention.

Worst of all, the new intolerance sometimes makes crimes out of the most human,
humanizing, and humane aspects of city life, the elements that make it
tolerable—or for some people, possible. Skateboarding, graffiti, loud parties,
and other signs of “disorder” make cities more interesting than they would
otherwise be. More importantly, though, the focus on public order can shut down
soup kitchens and make the streets altogether uninhabitable for those who have
nowhere else to live.

In 1993, San Francisco mayor (and former police chief) Frank Jordan introduced
the Matrix program, which deliberately targeted the homeless for aggressive
enforcement of quality-of-life laws. For two years, pre-dawn police raids broke
up homeless camps in Golden Gate Park. Elsewhere in the city, shanty towns
were leveled with bulldozers, and activists with Food Not Bombs were repeatedly
arrested for the crime of serving free food. Such efforts can push those
already at the margins of society—the young, the poor, people of color—out of
public spaces altogether, making room (it is hoped) for posh restaurants and
trendy boutiques.

Community policing is intimately connected with urban renewal, neighborhood
revitalization, and, ultimately, gentrification. Consider the response of
two academic advocates of community policing, Jerome Skolnick and David Bayley,
to Santa Ana Police Chief Raymond Davis’s efforts to make the destitute
unwelcome in the downtown area. Davis formed an alliance with local business
owners, who pressured judges to issue stiffer sentences for public order
violations. Skolnick and Bayley don’t pause to worry about the separation
of powers, or about private businesses interfering with the judiciary, or about
the human rights implications of targeting one class of people for prosecution
to benefit another class—always targeting the poor, for the benefit of the
rich. Instead, our astute academicians consider removal of poor people as part
and parcel of restoring order. And rather than addressing the social and
economic sources of poverty, they go so far as to blame the poor for
causing economic decline:

Drunks loiter and sleep in front of stores, urinate in alleys, panhandle, and
otherwise annoy the sort of person who might be interested in purchasing a
meal, a pair of shoes, or a floor lamp in downtown Santa Ana. The more the
downtown area became a haven for habitual drunks and transient street
criminals, the more precipitous its decline.

Despite all the happy talk about “community involvement” and “shared problem
solving,” in practice certain populations generally get counted among the
problems to be solved rather than the community to be involved. Priorities
identified by the “community” may suspiciously coincide with the interests of
business owners and real estate developers.

Fixating on Broken Windows

The theoretical justification for the sudden focus on minor offenses is what is
known as the “Broken Windows” doctrine. Though actually quite old, the
Broken Windows idea owes its name and current popularity to a 1982 article by
James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They argue that if minor disorder is
allowed to persist, it leads to both public fear and to serious crime, because
it establishes the sense that the area is uncared for.

We suggest that “untended” behavior also leads to the breakdown of community
controls. A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each
other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a
few years or even a few months to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A
piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop
scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families
move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner
store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter
accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an
inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians
are approached by panhandlers.…

Such an area is vulnerable to criminal invasion. Though it is not inevitable,
it is more likely that here, rather than in places where people are confident
they can regulate public behavior by informal controls, drugs will change
hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped.… muggings will

By this reasoning, it is not just crime and the fear of crime that demand
police attention but the entire range of factors affecting the “quality of

Aside from its implicit class-bias, the Broken Windows theory seems to
assign inordinate importance to keeping one’s lawn tidy. It seems frankly
implausible that litter and abandoned cars lead to rape and murder in the vague
but direct way Wilson and Kelling suggest. Moreover, the zero-tolerance
conclusion does not necessarily follow from the Broken Windows premise. If
panhandlers and dilapidated buildings serve as indicators of disorder, and thus
promote crime, then public safety should be better advanced by the state’s
welfare functions rather than its policing functions (and there is no reason to
subordinate the one to the other). Rather than investing resources in law
enforcement, government funds would be better used to reduce poverty, provide
housing, and help lower-income families to keep up their homes—efforts that do
not require any involvement on the part of the police.

Even if we accept the Broken Windows theory as Wilson and Kelling present it,
there are still good reasons not to make the police responsible for the
maintenance of order. For one thing, many aspects of “order” are not reflected
in the law. Charging the police with maintaining order, without the pretense of
law, comes uncomfortably close to outright bullying. Second, where “order” is
distinct from “law,” it would seem to invest in the police the power to
determine for themselves what counts as proper behavior. That is a dangerous
enough precept to be avoided in its own right. Both of these worries can
be somewhat alleviated if laws are changed to reflect the prevailing standards
and to invest the police with order maintenance duties de jure as well
as de facto.

But that also should be resisted. First, it may raise troubling questions about
the separation of powers—especially where the police themselves lobby for such
laws. And more importantly, we should always hesitate to rely on the police to
solve problems that can be addressed in other ways—or that we can stand to
leave unresolved. There are political reasons for this position: in the
interest of individual liberty, it is better not to expand police power or turn
community problems into a source of police legitimacy. But there is also an
underlying ethical principle, that violence should be always and only a last
resort. When we mark something—a behavior, a person, a “hot spot” location—as
an object for police control, we also authorize an unknown level of violence to
be applied to ensure compliance. The police represent, in Carl Klockars’s
phrase, the state’s “nonnegotiably coercive force.” That is, ultimately,
why they are there. A noisy drunk may be bothersome, to be sure. It is possible
that (as so many business owners seem to believe) panhandlers keep patrons
away. And a group of teenagers sulking on the street corner can make for an
unnerving walk home. But few of us would feel justified using violence to
address these difficulties. And neither should the police. But violence—or its
threat—is implicit in every police interaction and manifests at times when it
is undeniably inappropriate.

To authorize police action is to authorize violence; to direct the police to
act against such minor offenses (or non-offenses) as loitering or public
drunkenness is to authorize violence in circumstances where very few people
would consider it justified.

The Future (and Past) of Public Order

One precursor of the Broken Windows doctrine was Oakland’s “Beat Health”
program. Under the auspices of Beat Health, police were encouraged to take an
interest in the social environment where they patrolled, arranging to have
abandoned cars towed, litter picked up, graffiti scrubbed away. As in Santa
Ana, the Oakland strategy had a close connection to the city’s downtown renewal
efforts. Local businesses funded the Oakland Police Department’s “Fourth
Platoon,” which used foot patrols, bike patrols, horse patrols, motorcycle
patrols, canine units, helicopters, and two Special Duty Task Forces to enforce
public order laws in the downtown corridor. Police made use of a wide range of
tactics, from gentle admonishments to open harassment, warrant checks, arrests,
and violence. The NAACP reported a rise in police brutality as a result.

Denver provides another early example of this philosophy in action. In 1980 the
Denver Police Department began deploying directed foot patrols, focusing on
minor offenses in areas where young people gathered. The plan was quickly
deemed a success, and expanded to deal with homeless campers and panhandlers,
especially in commercial areas. The foot patrols were supplemented with
motorcycle patrols and dubbed “ESCORT” (Eliminate Street Crime On Residential
Thoroughfares). Skolnick and Bayley enthusiastically report:

ESCORT officers are specialized in the enforcement of laws dealing with
behavior in public places. One might call this skilled harassment. Working the
streets’ busy hours, 10 A.M. to 2 A.M. divided into two shifts, ESCORT officers
are told to “find a rock and kick it.” That means combing the streets for minor
violations by people who live persistently in the narrow space between
respectability and criminality.… These people are hit for any infraction that
can be found, from rowdyism to the use of drugs, from propositioning to illegal
parking, from procuring to causing a disturbance.

The zero-tolerance perspective came to inform not only the enforcement of the
law, but the law itself: on July 1, 1983, the Denver city government passed a
new ordinance making loitering illegal.

Much of this pattern is familiar from the nineteenth century, when the newly
formed police were immediately set to the job of keeping the urban poor in
line. The bulk of police attention was not directed toward serious crime, but
to vice and public order—which is a nice way of saying that they tried to
control the morality, habits, and social life of the urban working
classes. A similar task is implied by Wilson and Kelling’s nostalgic
reminiscences about the cop on the beat:

[T]he police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority
by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were
roughed up, people were arrested “on suspicion” or for vagrancy, and
prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. “Rights” were something enjoyed by
decent folk.

Historian Samuel Walker argues that “the tradition of policing cited by Wilson
and Kelling … never existed,” but that’s not quite true. While
unrecognizably distorted by Wilson and Kelling’s rosy description, the
nineteenth century did witness a very real increase in the demand for order—a
demand met with police action. Pleasantries and circumlocutions aside, the
tradition Wilson and Kelling seek to revive is not that of the stationhouse
soup kitchen, but that of the vagrancy law and the saloon raid. That is why
Walker’s protestation misses the point: the reactionary idealization of the
past is a rhetorical device, not an historical hypothesis. It does not seek the
truth about the past in order to learn the truth about the present; it tells
lies about history to support lies about today. Thus, it makes little
difference whether nineteenth-century patrolmen were on better terms with the
community or did a better job of maintaining order, so long as that faded
Norman Rockwell image of the neighborhood cop can be used to justify repressive
police tactics now. If the trick works, policing in the twenty-first
century may resemble, very closely, that of the nineteenth.

Inoculated City: The New New York

Always proud to crystallize an emerging model, the New York Police Department
provides the paradigm case of zero-tolerance policing. After Rudolph Giuliani’s
police-backed rise to the mayor’s office, the former prosecutor immediately set
about transforming the city according to his own view of public order. Within
months, the crackdown had been directed against—not only petty criminals,
vagrants, and drunks—but peep shows, street vendors, and cabbies.

The mastermind behind Giuliani’s police state strategy was NYPD commissioner
William Bratton. Bratton, inspired by Wilson and Kelling’s “Broken Windows”
article, had previously dabbled with zero-tolerance and quality-of-life
measures in the subway system, as the head of the Transit Police. The subway
cops started using plainclothes officers to catch turnstile-jumpers, put
uniformed cops on the trains, and used the loudspeaker to announce periodic
sweeps. These sweeps, code-named “Operation Glazier,” were ostensibly to remove
drunks, though the later use of police dogs indicates another purpose.
Christian Parenti comments, “Such sweeps … are simple political semaphore from
the state to the people: ‘We have the guns, we have the dogs, you will
obey.’” Other symbolism reinforced the message: Bratton issued the subway
cops 9mm semiautomatic handguns and uniforms chosen for their army aesthetic
(“commando sweaters with epaulets, very military”). Meanwhile, an
extensive ad campaign reassured the public: “We’re Taking the Subway Back—for

As head of the NYPD, Bratton was able to experiment on a much broader scale.
Seeing an intolerable array of disorder everywhere he looked, Bratton took his
subway strategy to New York City’s streets:

Quality of Life. Boom boxes, squeegee people, street prostitutes, reckless
bicyclists, illegal after-hours joints, graffiti—New York was being overrun. We
called Police Strategy Number 5 “Reclaiming the Public Spheres of New York.” It
was the linchpin strategy.

The first casualties of Bratton’s obsession with order were, as elsewhere, the
homeless. Squeegee workers in particular suddenly found their efforts to eke
out a living by washing windshields at intersections treated as the first
priority of New York’s finest. Police cleared “squeegee corners” every two
hours, and started making arrests rather than issuing citations. Soon, the
police were hard at work breaking up the homeless encampments under the city’s
bridges. Then they moved on to other sections of the population: truants,
and then students; prostitutes and their clients; then, the workers and
customers in the legal branch of the sex industry; squatters; bus drivers and
cabbies; and, eventually, jay-walkers. Misdemeanor arrests increased from
129,404 in 1993 to 197,320 in 1999; 91 percent of those arrested for
quality-of-life offenses were Black or Latino. In 2005, the NYPD made
22,000 arrests for loitering, the vast majority of which were dismissed in
court. By 2012 they were writing 600,000 tickets each year. Nearly a quarter
of those (140,000) were for drinking in public; 80,000 were for disorderly
conduct; 50,000 were marijuana violations; and 20,000 were for riding a bicycle
on the city sidewalk.

The shift in tactics also brought an increase in complaints against the police.
In 1994, 37 percent more complaints were filed than in the year before; by 1996
the police were receiving 56 percent more complaints than in 1993.
Nevertheless, once New York was making headlines with its aggressive police
tactics, Bratton’s methods spread. Philadelphia cops started pursuing kids
cutting class, hand-cuffing them like criminals. Boston police started
cracking down on street merchants and beggars. A Washington, D.C., Metro
Police officer explained his department’s zero-tolerance efforts: “[The
administrators] want to see numbers, so we’re arresting people and locking them
up for almost nothing.” Indianapolis instituted “quality of life
enforcement” in 1997 with funds from the federal Community Oriented Policing
program. The Miami police department’s focus on safe shopping led a half
dozen cops to kick, pepper spray, and shackle Lewis Rivera, a homeless man
eating at a shopping mall; an hour later Rivera was dead. Even Portland,
Oregon, tried to become the new New York, with a law against sitting on the
sidewalk and neighborhood campaigns targeting churches that fed the
homeless. Bratton himself took his considerable skills to the Los Angles
Police Department, where he began his term as police chief with plans to target
graffiti, begging, and gangs. In 2014, he then returned to New York,
promising to both continue the Broken Windows approach and improve
community relations with “a collaboration unlike any we have ever seen.”

Militarization in the Community Policing Context

Given the popularity of the Broken Windows theory and the world-wide rush to
imitate the New York police, we can begin to understand the use of paramilitary
teams to conduct routine patrols. As a zero-tolerance tool, SWAT teams have a
lot going for them. One officer explains:

We conduct a lot of saturation patrol.… We focus on “quality of life” issues
like illegal parking, loud music, bums, neighbor troubles. We have the freedom
to stay in a hot area and clean it up—particularly gangs. Our tactical
enforcement team works nicely with our department’s emphasis on community

While not exactly building community partnerships, these saturation patrols do
represent an extreme form of the kind of proactive, preventative,
geographically focused operations at the center of the community policing
approach. Such uses of SWAT teams provide a clear instance of the intersection
between community policing and militarized tactics, equipment, ideology, and
organizational structures. The connection is empirically indisputable: many
police departments esteemed for their community policing efforts use
paramilitary units for patrols and other routine operations. Commanders
have been known to move between community policing posts and paramilitary
assignments, sometimes occupying both positions simultaneously. And funds
designated for community policing programs are frequently used to pay for SWAT

Kraska and Kappeler suggest that the demands of reformers help to link
community policing and militarization:

Contemporary police reformers have asked the police to join together in
problem-solving teams, to design ways to take control of the streets, to take
ownership of neighborhoods, to actively and visibly create a climate of order,
and to improve communities’ quality of life.

If we accept the idea of “quality of life” implicit in zero-tolerance police
practices, then militarized policing does all of these things. What is more,
efforts to do all of these may actually tend to promote militarization.

Community policing is not a specific program, but a strategy; militarization is
as much about organization as it is about high-tech weaponry. It is possible
that community policing and militarization can exist independently, but the two
have a definite affinity. Strategies create demands on the organizations
responsible for implementing them. Community policing is no exception. It
requires, as we have seen, a decentralized command, officers working in teams,
and highly discretionary police action.

Decentralization and discretion may not sound like features of a military
organization, but it is a mistake to contrast them with strict hierarchy and
active discipline. Military discipline is not bureaucratic control; it is not
meant to eliminate discretion, but to shape or guide it. Bureaucrats
apply pre-scripted rules to a given situation, with a minimum of personal
latitude. Soldiers are expected to follow orders, adhere to regulations, and
act in accordance to military doctrine, but the application of these various
codes must be determined to a very large extent “on the ground” by widely
dispersed units acting with a minimum of direct supervision. Military
discipline therefore builds in a degree of discretion. As Mark Osiel explains:

[S]ophisticated military managers increasingly prefer the initiative of the
self-starter to the blind obedience of the automaton. Suspicious of excessive
bureaucratic rigidity, they seek to cultivate in professional soldiers the
disposition to act in conformity with the spirit of a command rather than
formalistically with its letter. A felicitous way to do this is to formulate
orders to junior officers (and where possible, to the troops themselves) in
terms of mission objectives.

Discipline is the internalized voice of authority. It is distinguished from
rote obedience by the adoption of the values, aims, and methods of the
institution. It requires obedience, at a bare minimum, and may be
established and maintained in part through punishment. But a well-disciplined
soldier, like a well-trained dog, will behave properly even when direct
orders are unavailable and no punishment is threatened. Orders from superiors
still supersede individual judgment, but fewer orders are necessary. By the
same means, an organization can decentralize its command and maintain a rigid
hierarchy with overall direction coming always from above.

The NYPD command structure shows how these various organizational
elements—decentralization, discretion, teamwork, discipline—can be meaningfully
combined, while at the same time demonstrating how a militarized organization
can pursue community policing strategies. As commissioner, Bratton streamlined
the departmental bureaucracy and introduced a new management style. This shift
worked in two directions. It returned much of the day-to-day control to the
precinct level, but it also established performance evaluations and required
precinct commanders to track weekly crime statistics. At the crux of the new
system was a computerized method of analyzing crime statistics, called

Twice a week, all the commanders would meet and review the situation in one
precinct. This arrangement left each commander with enormous freedom to
determine the day-to-day operations of his area. But every few weeks the entire
precinct’s performance would be brought under close scrutiny, and the commander
would have to answer some hard questions:

I want to know why these shootings are still happening in that housing project!
What have we done to stop it? Did we put Crime Stoppers tips in every rec room
and every apartment? Did we run a warrant check on every address at every
project, and did we relentlessly pursue those individuals? What is our uniform
deployment there? What are the hours of the day, the days of the week that we
are deployed? Are we deployed in a radio car, on foot, on bicycle? Are they
doing interior searches? Are they checking the rooftops? How do we know we’re
doing it? What level of supervision is there? When they’re working together in
a team with a sergeant and four cops, do they all go to a meal together? When
they make an arrest, does everyone go back to the precinct or does one person
go back? Are we giving desk-appearance tickets to people who shouldn’t be
getting them? What are we doing with parole violators? Do we have the parole
photos there to show? Do we know everybody on parole? Parolees are not allowed
to hang out with other parolees, they’re not allowed in bars. Of the 964 people
on parole in the Seventy-fifth Precinct, do we know the different
administrative restrictions on each one, so when we interview them we can hold
it over their heads? And if not, why not?

The grilling could be intense, and it put pressure on the precinct commanders
to get results. This pressure then moved down the chain of command, affecting
every level and every branch of the New York Police Department. Bratton
describes the effect:

We created a system in which the police commissioner, with his executive core,
first empowers and then interrogates the precinct commander, forcing him or her
to come up with a plan to attack crime. But it should not stop there. At the
next level down, it should be the precinct commander, empowering and
interrogating the platoon commander. Then, at the third level, the platoon
commander should be asking his sergeants, “What are we doing to deploy on this
tour to address these conditions?” And finally, you have the sergeant at roll
call—“Mitchell, tell me about the last five robberies on your post”; “Carlyle,
you think that’s funny, it’s a joke? Tell me about the last five burglaries”;
“Biber, tell me about those stolen cars on your post”—all the way down until
everyone in the entire organization is empowered and motivated, active and
assessed and successful.

(Christian Parenti reads one further step into the process: “[C]aptains lean on
lieutenants, who lean on sergeants, who lean on beat cops, who, it could be
said, lean on civilians.”)

The organizational structure demonstrates the possibility of combining tight
command and control with individual discretion. Compstat allows the
higher-level administrators to establish the organization’s values and goals;
precinct-level commanders set strategy for their areas; and street-level
officers have the discretion to adopt the particular tactics they think
suitable. Information moves up and down the chain of command, decision making
is consistently deferred to lower levels, and power is concentrated at the top.
In this sense, Compstat has as much to do with militarization as does

This analysis goes some way toward resolving the apparent tensions between
community policing and militarization, but a puzzle remains. Remember that
theorist-advocates commonly claim that community policing requires, or at least
promotes, “civilianization.” If anything undermines the coherence of
militarized community policing, surely that does.

But what does “civilianization” mean? “Civilianization” refers to the use of
civilians to perform police department functions that don’t require the
authority of sworn officers. These tasks can range from clerical work and
communications, to training and forensic analysis, to equipment maintenance,
and in extreme cases taking reports and performing minor investigations. “An
assumption behind all this…,” Jerome Skolnick and David Bayley note, “is that
civilians do not supplant sworn officers. Civilianization in Houston, for
example, was designed in part to put more uniforms on the street.…” In
other words, when a department is “civilianized,” the actual number of armed,
uniformed officers available for duty increases. Thus, civilianization
is not in any sense incompatible with militarization.

Community policing, as a strategy of social control, stresses proactive efforts
to create order and focuses on problem-solving, broadly construed. This
emphasis can come to justify zero-tolerance policing efforts, and specifically
the use of paramilitary units for routine police work. The degree to which SWAT
teams and community policing campaigns have come to share personnel and funding
demonstrates the close linkage between the two. Furthermore, the type of
organization, discipline, teamwork, officer discretion, and even
civilianization suggested by community policing all tend toward a military
model. All of which indicates that community policing is not only compatible
with, but may actually promote, militarization. On the broader view, when we
look at police action both in terms of its strategic and organizational
aspects, the picture emerging is that of a counterinsurgency program.

Community Policing + Militarization = Counterinsurgency

The ability to concentrate power in the event of an emergency (e.g., a
riot) has been shown to require a shift toward military operations. But
the ability to penetrate communities is enhanced if the police have the consent
(or acquiescence) of the population. That requires legitimacy, and a softer
service-oriented, or “peace corps” approach. Complicating things further,
military organization requires strict, almost automatic, discipline and tight
command and control; community policing requires discretion, localized
decision-making, and a great deal of organizational flexibility. But the two
aspects achieve strategic coherence when viewed in the framework of

Counterinsurgency stresses the need to prevent disorder, rather than simply
repressing it where it occurs. This aim requires that the authorities make
nice with the local populace, creating in the community a sense that their rule
is stable and legitimate. But it also requires heavy intelligence about the
condition of the community, the sources of conflict, grievances, prevalent
attitudes, and the efforts of troublemakers. To both these ends,
counterinsurgency theorists encourage the authorities to actively penetrate the
local community. Community penetration allows for ready access to
intelligence, lets the state present itself as a benevolent problem-solver, and
more subtly gives it the means to co-opt community institutions that might
otherwise provide a base for resistance. All of these elements can be
recognized in the community policing agenda.

The neighborhood watch structure specifically mirrors counterinsurgency
efforts. As British military theorist Frank Kitson writes:

Following the procedure used by the French Army in Algiers, the policeman or
soldier in charge … appoint[s] one local inhabitant to be responsible for each
street who would be instructed to appoint an individual to be responsible for
each block and so on down to one individual responsible for each family. The
avowed reason for doing this would be to facilitate requests by the people
themselves for help.

A December 2002 article in the Portland Tribune demonstrates the
utility of such a system. A front-page photograph shows ten cops in helmets,
bulletproof vests, combat boots and blue fatigues aiming pistols and assault
rifles at a suspect’s house. The cops in the picture were members of the
Northeast Precinct senior neighborhood officer unit, a team that focuses on
quality-of-life issues. The raid was authorized by a warrant based on six
months of intensive surveillance—surveillance conducted, not by police, but by
neighbors who kept logs recording the traffic in and out of the house, disputes
among the tenants, and any suspicious behavior. Police Chief Mark Kroeker
identified the effort as a central aspect of Portland’s community policing
strategy: “We have a police bureau that is understaffed, underfunded and
overwhelmed. But we have a community that is willing to work, willing to

Community policing turns the citizenry into the eyes and ears of the state and
by the same means creates a demand for more aggressive tactics. This is where
street sweeps, roadblocks, saturation patrols, zero-tolerance campaigns, and
paramilitary units come into the picture. SWAT, in particular, was created as
part of a counterinsurgency plan—a fact of which Daryl Gates was quite proud:

[We] began reading everything we could get our hands on concerning guerrilla
warfare. We watched with interest what was happening in Vietnam. We looked at
military training, and in particular we studied what a group of marines, based
at the Naval Armory in Chavez Ravine, were doing. They shared with us their
knowledge of counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare.

Of course, many community policing advocates fail to recognize the symbiotic
relationship between the soft and the tough approaches. Goldstein, for
example, cautions that a department could not long tolerate a situation in which officers in a
residential area go out of their way to demonstrate that they are caring,
service-oriented individuals, while other officers assigned to a roving task
force make wholesale sweeps of loitering juveniles in that community.

Goldstein is simply wrong. Recent studies of SWAT activity show that
departments can and do tolerate the juxtaposition between outreach and
smack-down. In fact, some departments deliberately choose this Good Cop/Bad Cop
approach. Community policing operations can legitimize such sweeps by
mobilizing conservative elements of the community, especially businesses and
property owners. One LAPD officer describes the role of community support:

When the community cooperates and tells you who has been doing things, why they
have been doing them, and how long they have been doing them, you jump at the
chance to get the sons-of-bitches. The community don’t help that much, so you
got to take what you can get while you can get it! Because the community may
change its mind, so you got to act quickly and decisively, or else you’ll lose
the opportunity. That’s why when we know the community is behind us, we’re
going to be aggressive, break their asses and put their butts in jail.

Or—beginning at the other pole, an initial crackdown can repress active
opposition, opening the political space for peace corps–type efforts and
outreach to “responsible” community leaders. In military terms, the sweeps
work to secure territory, and community organizing efforts constitute a battle
for the hearts and minds of the populace.

If this description sounds exaggerated, we should consider New York Police
Department Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple’s plans for “Operation Juggernaut”:

We’ll take the city back borough by borough.…

You go into Queens.… You stay there for six months with eight hundred officers.
There are some bad areas: the 103, the 110, the 113, the 114 precincts. You do
everything that works: buy-and-bust operations, quality-of-life enforcement,
warrants, guns, the whole thing. It works, we know it works. We do our job and
take out the drug organizations and clean up Queens. Now we have it under

After six months, you downgrade by about twenty percent, you leave six hundred
officers in Queens as a standing army and slide two hundred over to Brooklyn
North, plus another seven hundred. We give Brooklyn North the same treatment
for four months, leave several hundred there and slide the rest to Brooklyn
South and then Staten Island. When we’ve cleaned up there, we leave some and
move to the Bronx. We finish with Manhattan. Within a year we kill crime in New

Likewise, the chief of police in one unidentified city described the role of
paramilitary units in his community policing strategy:

It’s going to come to the point that the only people that are going to be able
to deal with these problems are highly trained tactical teams with proper
equipment to go into a neighborhood and clear the neighborhood and hold it;
allowing community policing officers to come in and start turning the
neighborhood around.

This is a direct adaptation of military thinking, a strategy called
“Clear-Hold-Build.” The US Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual, FM
3-24, outlines the following steps: “Create a secure physical and psychological
environment. Establish firm government control of the populace and area. Gain
the populace’s support.”

Operation Juggernaut was only implemented on a trial basis in one small
area, but the same strategy is apparent in the federal Weed and Seed
Program. The Department of Justice describes its “two-pronged approach”:

(1) Law Enforcement and criminal justice officials cooperate with local
residents to “weed out” criminal activity in the designated area.

(2) Social Service providers and economic revitalization efforts are introduced
to “seed” the area, ensuring long-term positive change and a higher quality of
life for residents.

The program was designed in 1991, and was spotlighted a year later as a major
component of the federal response to the Rodney King riots. In the decades
since, it has been implemented in over 300 neighborhoods nationwide.

In 1994, Indianapolis Deputy Chief Jerry Barker turned to Weed and Seed when he
grew concerned about the possibility of unrest on the city’s West Side. In
addition to enforcement-intensive efforts to “weed” out drugs, gangs, and
prostitution while “seeding” the neighborhood with educational programs, public
health projects, and economic development plans, Barker also made a point of
appealing to and forming partnerships with community leaders—the clergy, the
directors of nonprofit corporations, and local activists who had sometimes been
critical of police. From Barker’s perspective, it was a good investment. In
September 1998, when crowds began to gather at the site of a police
shooting—seeking out “an excuse for anarchy,” as Barker put it—one prominent
activist intervened, and the situation was defused. This story, so simple
in its way, shows us so much: the motivation behind Weed and Seed, the blending
of public order policing and community partnerships, the co-optation of local
leadership, and the prevention of unrest—all told, a counterinsurgency success.

Similar dynamics are apparent in the career path of Connie Rice. Rice (who is
not to be confused with her cousin, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice)
is a civil rights attorney and police accountability activist who made her
reputation by repeatedly suing the LAPD. She also helped negotiate a gang truce
just before the 1992 riots and, at the request of LA County Sheriff Lee Baca,
later arranged the negotiations that quelled a prison riot. Her success in
winning reforms—specifically, changing the way the police used dogs to
apprehend suspects—began to shift her thinking toward more of an “inside
strategy.” Slowly she began to look at police leaders as potential allies
rather than permanent adversaries: “Maybe then I could … help officers, on
terms they accepted, transition to constitutional policing without brutality,
bias, or corruption”—in the process “[t]urning community mistrust into
collaboration.” Before long, she began advising the new police chief, William
Bratton, on his anti-gang strategy. Her advice was to use crime data to
identify and focus on “hot zones”: “Clear the danger, hold the stability of
safety, and build a community too healthy and hopeful for gangs—or any other
danger—to take root.” In her new role, she began taking meetings with the
governor’s office, California’s “gang czar,” and the FBI, drafting anti-gang
legislation, and creating a special academy to train police and deputies in
gang enforcement. In return she got her own parking space at Parker Center and
a chief’s badge with her name on it, a gift from Bill Bratton. In June 2008,
she was asked to share what she knew with the Department of Defense as well.
Army officers visited the gang academy, and Rice began briefing military
officials, diplomats, and Army War College instructors.

In the twenty-first century, the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan
renewed the military’s interest in counterinsurgency, and the connection to
domestic policing became increasingly explicit as a result. In fact, one Rand
Corporation report explains counterinsurgency (or “pacification”) “as a
massively enhanced version of the ‘community policing’ technique that emerged
in the 1970s.” It goes on:

Community Policing is centered on a broad concept of problem solving by law
enforcement officers working in an area that is well-defined and limited in
scale, with sensitivity to geographic, ethnic, and other boundaries. Patrol
officers form a bond of trust with local residents, who get to know them as
more than a uniform. The police work with local groups, businesses, churches,
and the like to address the concerns and problems of the neighborhood.
Pacification is simply an expansion of this concept to include greater
development and security assistance.

It may not be surprising, then, to see America’s military planners drawing from
domestic policing practices—Marines embedding with the LAPD’s gang unit before
deploying to Afghanistan, to cite one example. At the same time, advisors
from the Naval Postgraduate School were helping the Salinas Police Department
(SPD) use counterinsurgency theory in their counter-gang strategy. Their
approach included: a demographic analysis; networking with “the faith-based
community, … all the social service agencies, educational institutions, the
library, recreational services, the police, the mayor’s offices, community
organizations, county and state agencies”; and the use of community groups to
“establish a sense of trust” and “ultimately receive more information about
community activity.” As part of the “Community Alliance for Safety and Peace”
(CASP) project, the SPD took control of a community center in the Hebron
Heights neighborhood and stationed two officers there, assigned to perform foot
patrols and focus on minor quality-of-life issues. More important than the
direct police presence, however, was the coordination and intelligence-sharing
between various nonprofits, government agencies, and the police. The
thirty-four members of CASP’s “cross-functional team” met regularly to share
information, discuss emerging problems, and plan a coordinated response.
At about the same time, on April 22, 2010, the Salinas Police Department, along
with more than 200 officers from other local, state, and federal agencies,
conducted a series of raids intended to disrupt targeted gangs and send a
message to others. The immediate results were impressive: police seized a dozen
guns, fourteen pounds of marijuana, forty pounds of cocaine, and made 100
arrests. The Salinas approach, promised NPS provost Leonard A. Ferrari, could
well become “a national model.”

Understood in terms of counterinsurgency, community policing represents an
strategy for establishing and maintaining police control over the community—an
approach enhanced by the insights of military experiences in restless colonies.
Organizationally, militarization provides the model by which the police can
work in teams, enhance officer discretion, and maintain tight command and
control; community policing efforts, meanwhile, create the infrastructure for
intelligence gathering and co-optation. Strategically, community policing
strives toward directed, proactive action, with a geographic focus and
attention to the causes of disorder; military planning gives a central role to
intelligence work and takes an aggressive approach to confronting the enemy.
Hence, military tactics are used to clear and hold contested areas, while
community policing programs seek to build partnerships that bring the police
legitimacy, information, and access to community resources. Ideologically,
community policing serves to legitimize military-type efforts, while the
rhetoric of a “war on crime” can be used to mobilize the community to aid the
police. And of course, the threats of a militarized “Bad Cop” encourage
cooperation with the “Good Cop’s” community policing projects.

Meet the New Cop, Same as the Old Cop

Modern policing has a dual nature—going back to its origins. The twin
developments of community policing and militarization are an extension of the
initial advantages of policing identified by Allan Silver: 1) widespread
surveillance and discretionary action penetrating the community; and, 2) the
capacity for rapid concentration and swift, forceful action. The state has
sought to develop its potential in each of these directions while maintaining a
single organization responsible for enforcement.

The form of discretionary action has changed—from foot patrols to vehicle
patrols, to a combination of the two. And thanks to technological advances and
organizational innovations, the rapid concentration of police once reserved for
emergencies is becoming a standard response to crime and disorder. The discrete
and discretionary aspects are likewise available for increasing coordination.
All the while, the penetration of the community increases—not only through
patrol and surveillance, but also by the co-optation of community institutions.

These developments are, in one sense, quite new. But they come as the latest in
a long series of institutional shifts and political re-alignments, the most
significant of which I have traced out in the chapters preceding.

Our story has followed two related threads. The first is the institutional
development of the police—from informal system to formal, from the
militia-based slave patrols, to prototype City Guards, to modern municipal
departments. The modern departments themselves began as the strong arms of
corrupt political machines, then developed through the processes of
bureaucratization and professionalization, only to be reshaped by the internal
crisis surrounding unionization and its “collusive” (if uneasy) resolution. The
second narrative concerns the relationship of this institution to the rest of
society—roughly divided between “elites” (capitalists, landlords, politicians,
bureaucrats) and the “masses” (the rest of us). The first story is
characterized by a continually increasing measure of autonomy; the second by
the institution’s service to elites at the expense of the masses. I have
suggested that the increased autonomy has been purchased with the institution’s
service to the elites, and is consistently used to further their interests.

The current era of policing began in response to the social conflict of the
1960s. As a result of that period’s turmoil, policing underwent a change that
drew together the two historical currents—the police became, fully, a political
power unto themselves. They could not govern independently—no single body in
our society can—but they suddenly came into their own as a center of power.
This ascendancy was the logical result of the long progression toward
institutional autonomy, but it emerged as an unexpected consequence of the
internal conflict between rank-and-file officers and their commanders. When the
rank and file rebelled and began exerting influence of their own, this
naturally shifted the balance of power within the institution. As it happened,
the change was beneficial to both parties: by re-distributing power downward
the institution was able to seize for itself an additional measure of autonomy
and the police achieved a sense of having political (as well as occupational)
interests in common.

The emergence of the police as a political force changed the institution’s
relationship to social and political elites. No longer simply the instruments
of the ruling class, the cops became an interest group for whose loyalty the
elites had to bargain. Rather than merely acting as agents of the most powerful
faction, police leaders (both administrators and union representatives) became
power brokers themselves, capable of entering into or withdrawing from
alliances with other powerful social actors.

In a related way, the relationship with the masses also changed. Rather than
simply appealing to the “silent majority” or relying on the John Birch Society
to organize “Support Your Local Police” campaigns, police began organizing
their own political efforts and developing their own constituency. Part of this
mobilization happened through the police union, political action committees,
and grassroots support for “tough on crime” or “victims’ rights” lobbying. Part
of it happened through the departments themselves, under the rubric of
community policing. At the same time, police departments were taking on the
organizational form, tactics, weaponry, and ideology of the military, and
modeling their operations after counterinsurgency programs. This complex set of
developments sometimes creates paradoxes and strategic ambiguities, but each
aspect of it moves along the same trajectory: police power is increased, and
democracy suffers a proportional loss.

Afterword: Making Police Obsolete

It is traditional, in a book such as this, to end with recommendations as to
how the police can be made more efficient, more effective, less corrupt, less
brutal, and so on. Those recommendations are almost always addressed to
policy-makers and police administrators. Usually the recommendations are more
technical than political, meaning that they offer detached advice on what, in
the broadest sense, may be considered the means of policing—strategies
of patrol, crowd control, interrogation techniques, use-of-force policies,
organizational schemes, accountability mechanisms, morale boosters, affirmative
action—while taking for granted (but rarely identifying) the ends of
policing. They do not, usually, raise substantive questions about the police
role in society, the need for police, or alternatives to policing.

I am going at things from quite the opposite angle. My recommendations are not
addressed to those with power, but to the public. They are decidedly political,
and avoid the technical. I have, throughout this book, scrutinized the police
role, examined its implications for democracy and social justice, and
questioned the ends the cops serve. I turn now to briefly consider whether we
can do without police.

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

In his essay “The Manufacture of Consent,” Noam Chomsky advises, “If you want
to learn something about the propaganda system, have a close look at the
critics and their tacit assumptions. These typically constitute the doctrines
of the state religion.” With this in mind, it is interesting to note the
things that scholars will not admit, the possibilities that they leave
unexamined. In the “serious” literature, it is a nearly universal assumption
that the police are a necessary feature of modern society.

Rodney Stark writes, “It is vulgar nonsense to be anti-police. Our society
could not exist without them.”

Carl Klockars echoes the point: “[N]o one whom it would be safe to have home to
dinner argues that modern society could be without police.…”

Dozens of similar quotations are available for anyone who wishes to find them.
Yet in one sense these particular remarks are unusual. I present them here
because they come from authors whose critical insights have been invaluable to
my work on this book, and because they clearly state what others quietly take
as given. Most authors do not even bother to assert that the police
are necessary, much less argue the point. They feel no requirement to identify
social needs that the police meet, because the role of the police, as they see
it, is simply beyond dispute. It is outside the boundaries of debate. It is
unquestionable; the alternative, unthinkable. In this context, the defensive
comments of Stark and Klockars read less like arguments in favor of police and
more like evasive maneuvers against the accusation that the authors might
somehow oppose the cops. Their statements serve as a kind of loyalty oath, a
promise to remain within the borders of acceptable opinion.

But the assumption that the police represent a social inevitability ignores the
rules of logic: if we accept that police forces arose at a particular point in
history, to address specific social conditions, then it follows that social
change could also eliminate the institution. The first half of this
syllogism is readily admitted, the second half is heresy.

It is a bad habit of mind, a form of power-worship, to assume that things must
be as they are, that they will continue to be as they have been. It soothes the
conscience of the privileged, dulls the will of the oppressed. The first step
toward change is the understanding that things can be different. This
is my principal recommendation, then: we must recognize the possibility of a
world without police.

Crime as a Source of State Power

There is a question that haunts every critic of police—namely, the question of
crime, and what to do about it.

By “crime” I do not mean mere illegality, but instead a category of socially
proscribed acts that: (1) threaten or harm other people and (2) violate norms
related to justice, personal safety, or human rights, (3) in such a manner or
to such a degree as to warrant community intervention (and sometimes coercive
intervention). That category would surely include a large number of things
that are presently illegal (rape, murder, dropping bricks off an overpass),
would certainly not include other things that are presently illegal
(smoking pot, sleeping in public parks, nude sunbathing), and would likely
also include some things that are not presently illegal (mass
evictions, the invasion of Iraq). The point here is that the standards I want
to appeal to in invoking the idea of crime are not the state’s standards, but
the community’s—and, specifically, the community’s standards as they relate to
justice, rights, personal safety, and perhaps especially the question of

The criminologist Tony Platt, one of the organizers of the 1972 “Tear Down the
Walls” conference, later reflected, “The prison movement of the early seventies
paid almost no attention to crime. Crime was romanticized as a sort of
pre-political form of rebellion.… The issue of violence within communities was
not given a priority.” That was a mistake for several reasons, not least
because people do value their personal safety and that concern should be taken
seriously. The left’s “romantic[sm]” allowed the right wing to monopolize the
issue, using “crime” as a code word for poor and black. It
was easy, then, for conservative politicians to conflate real fears of violence
with their own agenda in defense of economic and racial inequality.

The right made crime a political issue and identified it with poor people and
people of color; because the left largely refused to make crime an
issue, they also failed to challenge this characterization. Successive waves of
politicians—of both parties, at every level of government—have learned to stoke
the public’s fears of rape, murder, drive-by’s, carjackings, school shootings,
and child abduction, as well as rioting and terrorism, and present themselves
as heroes, as saviors, as tough-talking, hard-hitting, no-nonsense, real-life
Dirty Harrys who will do whatever it takes to keep you and your family safe.
The solutions they offer always have the appeal of simplicity: more cops, more
prisons, longer sentences. The unspoken costs come in the form of fewer rights,
limited privacy, greater inequality, and a society ever less tolerant of minor
disorder. These political tactics are nothing new, of course, but the scale of
effect—2.2 million prisoners in 2010—is unprecedented. And unless the left
can do better, we have to expect that these same solutions will be the ones on

The fact is, the police do provide an important community service—offering
protection against crime. They do not do this job well, or fairly, and it is
not their chief function, but they do it, and it brings them legitimacy.
Even people who dislike and fear them often feel that they need the cops. Maybe
we can do without omnipresent surveillance, racial profiling, and
institutionalized violence, but most people have been willing to accept these
features of policing, if somewhat grudgingly, because they have been packaged
together with things we cannot do without—crime control, security, and public
safety. It is not enough, then, to relate to police power only in terms of
repression; we must also remember the promise of protection, since this
legitimates the institution.

Because the state uses this protective function to justify its own violence,
the replacement of the police institution is not only a goal of social change,
but also a means of achieving it. The challenge is to create another system
that can protect us from crime, and can do so better, more justly, with a
respect for human rights, and with a minimum of bullying. What is needed, in
short, is a shift in the responsibility for public safety—away from the state
and toward the community.

The Threat of Community

In the earlier discussion of community policing, I argued that it constitutes,
in part, an effort to co-opt community resources and put them in the service of
police objectives. I did not, at that point, dwell on the reasons
underlying this, but the attempt at co-optation points to a fact that ought not
be overlooked: community is a source of power. As Nikolas Rose explains:

Community is not simply the territory within which crime is to be controlled,
it is itself a means of government: its detailed knowledge about
itself and the activities of its inhabitants are to be utilized, its ties,
bonds, forces and affiliations are to be celebrated, its centres of authority
and methods of dispute resolution are to be encouraged, nurtured, shaped and
instrumentalized to enhance the security of each and all.

Where possible, the state seeks to draw on this power and direct it to its own
ends. Community policing is one such attempt. In exchange for protection, the
police negotiate for access to this power network, insinuate themselves deeply
within it, and try to shape its activities to suit their interests.

One major difficulty facing the state in its efforts to harness community power
is the fact that this power is generally underdeveloped. According to Amatai

Community is defined by two characteristics: first, a web of affect-laden
relationships among a group of individuals, relationships that often crisscross
and reinforce one another … , and second, a measure of commitment to a set of
shared values, norms, and meanings, and a shared history and identity—in short,
to a particular culture.

Such webs of affinity are often painfully lacking from modern urban
life—and where they exist, they do not generally come in easily manageable
bureaucratic packages awaiting official “partnerships” with police. In fact, as
Carl Klockars observes, there is inherent tension between the idea of police
and the ideals of community:

The modern police are, in a sense, a sign that community norms and controls are
unable to manage relations within or between communities, or that communities
themselves have become offensive to society. The bottom line of these
observations is that genuine communities are probably very rare in modern
cities, and, where they do exist, have little interest in cultivating
relationships of any kind with police.

Where genuine communities exist, they are sometimes even hostile to the police.
In such cases, the authorities view community power not as an additional source
of legitimacy, information, and infrastructural development, but as a rival
that must be suppressed. The state has no choice but to interfere with the
means of community action when the community falls into “enemy” hands—that is,
when it resists state control or makes demands beyond those the state is
willing to accept. This rule holds whether the enemy is described in political
or criminal terms. The rationale is the same whether the authorities are
interfering with grassroots political organizing, or whether they’re disrupting
neighborhood life in the name of “gang suppression.” The danger in these
cases is not the lack of community, but the existence of a community
that the state does not control. The police response is the domestic equivalent
of destroying a village in order to save it.

In brief, the state seeks to mobilize community power in support of government
goals, or else to suppress the sources of power opposed to its goals. Either
way, the state recognizes the potential for community power, its promise and
its threat.

This carrot-and-stick attitude may be unsettling, but the underlying analysis
suggests some hopeful possibilities: if the community is a source of power,
then it could exercise this power for its own ends, rather than those of the
state. If, as community policing advocates argue, community involvement is the
key to controlling crime, then this suggests that communities could develop
public safety systems that do not rely on the state. The state’s efforts to
maintain legitimacy thus, ironically, point the way to its destruction. Raymond
Michalowski notes:

Both state-sponsored and citizen-initiated attempts at community crime
prevention are based on the recognition, however unsystematized, that formal,
bureaucratic responses to crime which are both temporally and spatially removed
from the commission of crime can never approach the efficacy of more informal,
more immediate forms of community social control. Equally recognized by the
state officials is that citizen-initiated and citizen-controlled forms of
justice threaten the legal basis of the state itself. The essence of formal
state law—the foundation of state society—is that removal from individuals and
communities of their rights to directly define what constitutes correct
behavior within that community and to take direct action against incorrect
behavior. The substitution of state justice for popular justice is generally
argued as the only viable alternative to mob rule and vigilantism.
Counterposing state justice to vigilante justice, however, is a false dichotomy
which obscures a third alternative. The alternative is organized, community
forms of popular justice operated and controlled by private citizens, not by
employees of the state.

The thought that such community-based measures could ultimately replace the
police is intriguing. But if it is to be anything more than a theoretical
abstraction or a utopian dream, it must be informed by the actual experience of

Luckily, history does not leave us without guidance. The obvious place to look
for community defense models is in places where distrust of the police, and
active resistance to police power, has been most acute. There is a close
connection between resistance to police power and the need to develop
alternative means of securing public safety.

In the United States, the police have faced resistance mainly from two
interrelated sources—workers and people of color (especially African
Americans). This fact is unsurprising, given the class-control and racist
functions that cops have fulfilled since their beginning. The job of
controlling the lower classes (of all races) and people of color (of all
classes) has brought the cops into continual conflict with these parts of
society. It has rightly bred distrust, and a sense that the police cannot be
counted on for protection—that, in fact, any police contact will bring its own
dangers. It has also fostered resistance, sometimes in the form of outright
combat—riots, shoot-outs, sniper attacks. At other times, resistance has led to
political efforts to curtail police power, or to direct attempts to replace
policing with other means of preserving order.

Seattle, 1919: Labor Guards

The role of the police in breaking strikes did not escape the attention of the
workers on the picketline. In the early twentieth century, labor unions
worked strenuously to oppose the creation of the state police and to dissolve
them where they existed. These efforts led, for a time, to restrictions on the
use of state cops against strikers—but this victory has been practically
forgotten today. More significant, for the purposes of this discussion, are
the unions’ efforts to keep order when class warfare displaced the usual

The classic example is the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Coming to the aid of
a shipbuilders’ strike, 110 union locals declared a citywide sympathy strike
and 100,000 workers participated. Almost at once the city’s economy halted, and
the strike committee found itself holding more power than the local government.
The strike faced three major challenges: starvation, state repression, and the
squeamishness of union leaders. Against the first, the strikers themselves set
about insuring that the basic needs of the population were met, issuing passes
for trucks carrying food and other necessities, setting up public cafeterias,
and licensing the operation of hospitals, garbage collectors, and other
essential services. Recognizing that conditions could quickly degenerate
into panic, and not wanting to rely on the police, they also organized to
ensure the public safety. The “Labor War Veteran’s Guard” was created to keep
the peace and discourage disorder. Its instructions were written on a
blackboard at its headquarters:

The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use
of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry
weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.

In the end, the Seattle General Strike was defeated, caught between the threat
of military intervention and the fading support of the AFL’s international
officers. While the strike did not end in victory, it did demonstrate the
possibility of working-class power—the power to shut down the city, and also
the power to run it for the benefit of the people rather than for company

The strike was broken, but it did not collapse into chaos. Mayor Ole Hanson
noted, while denouncing the strike as “an attempted revolution,” that “there
was no violence … there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings.” Indeed,
there was not a single arrest related to the strike (though later, there were
raids), and other arrests decreased by half. Major General John Morrison, in
charge of the federal troops, marveled at the orderliness of the city.

Fight the Power, Serve the People: Deacons and Panthers

Almost fifty years later, more sustained efforts at community defense grew out
of the civil rights movement. As early as 1957, Robert Williams armed the NAACP
chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, and successfully repelled attacks from the
Ku Klux Klan and the police. Soon other self-defense groups appeared in
Black communities throughout the South. The largest of these was the Deacons
for Defense and Justice, which claimed more than fifty chapters in the Southern
states and four in the North. The Deacons made it their mission to protect
civil rights workers and the Black community more generally. Armed with
shotguns and rifles, they escorted activists through dangerous back country
areas, and organized round-the-clock patrols when racists were attacking Black
neighborhoods. As one Deacon explained, “you wasn’t going to receive much
protection from the police,” so Black people “had to protect ourselves.” In
fact, the Deacons sometimes had to protect Blacks from the police.
They eavesdropped on police radio calls and responded to the scene of arrests
to discourage the cops from overstepping their bounds. The Deacons also
served as a disciplining mechanism within the movement. On the one hand, they
worked to calm “trigger happy” youths seeking revenge against whitey. On
the other hand, they confronted “Uncle Toms,” seizing and destroying goods
purchased from businesses under boycott. They also helped identify informers,
who were then publicly upbraided by a group of women from the NAACP.

Williams and the Deacons influenced what became the most developed community
defense program of the period—the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The
Panthers, most famously, “patrolled pigs.” Visibly carrying guns, they
followed police through the Black ghetto with the explicit aim of preventing
police brutality and informing citizens of their rights. When police
misbehaved, their names and photographs appeared in the Black Panther
newspaper. The Philadelphia chapter pushed the tactic further, with
“wanted” posters featuring killer cops.

The Panthers also sought to meet the community’s needs in other ways—providing
medical care, giving away shoes and clothing, feeding school children
breakfast, setting up housing cooperatives, transporting the families of
prisoners for visitation days, and offering classes during the summer at
“Liberation Schools.” In Baltimore, they offered direct financial
assistance to families facing eviction, and during the summer provided a free
lunch to school-age children (in addition to the free breakfast). In
Winston-Salem, the Party ran an ambulance service and offered free pest
control. The Indianapolis branch provided poor families coal in the winter,
held toy drives at Christmastime, founded community gardens, maintained a food
bank, and cleaned the streets in Black neighborhoods. In Philadelphia, the
Panther clinic offered childbirth classes for expectant parents; in
Cleveland and New York, drug rehab. These “survival programs” sought to
meet needs that the state and the capitalist economy were neglecting, at the
same time aligning the community with the Party and drawing both into
opposition with the existing power structure.

The strategy was applied in the area of public safety as well. The Panthers’
opposition to the legal system is well known: they patrolled and sometimes
fought the police, they taught people about their legal rights, and they
provided bail money and arranged for legal defense when they could. At the
same time, they pushed reforms to democratize and decentralize the existing
police. In Berkeley, they proposed a 1971 ballot initiative to divide the city
into three police districts—one for the predominantly Black area, one for the
campus area, and one for the affluent Berkeley Hills. Each district would elect
a board to oversee policing in their area, and the officers themselves would be
required to live in the neighborhoods they patrolled.

The Berkeley referendum was just one of several plans the Panthers put forward
to democratize the police force. At the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional
Convention of 1970, the Panthers—along with delegates from the American Indian
Movement, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, Students for a Democratic Society,
the Gay Liberation Front, and others—adopted proposals to completely replace
the existing criminal legal system. The police would be “a volunteer
non-professional body” overseen by an elected “Police Control Board”; courts
would be “people’s courts where one would be tried by a jury of one’s peers”;
“Jails would be replaced by community rehabilitation programs.” Four years
later, writing in the journal Crime and Social Justice, Huey Newton
advocated a community-controlled “Peace Force,” whose members would be
conscripted from the community and selected according to their orientation to
public service, knowledge of the local area, and social awareness, with an eye
toward diversity of in terms of age and gender.

As much as they were concerned about the police, the Panthers also took
seriously the threat of crime and sought to address the fears of the community
they served. With this in mind, they organized Seniors Against a Fearful
Environment (SAFE), an escort and bussing service in which young Black people
accompanied the elderly on their business around the city. In Los Angeles,
when the Party opened an office on Central Avenue, they immediately set about
running the drug dealers out of the area. And in Philadelphia, neighbors
reported a decrease in violent crime after the Party opened their office, and
an increase after the office closed. There, the BPP paid particular
attention to gang violence, organizing truces and recruiting gang members to
help with the survival programs.

It may be that the Panthers reduced crime by virtue of their very
. Crime, and gang violence especially, dropped during the period
of their activity, in part (in the estimate of sociologist Lewis Yablonsky)
because the BPP and similar groups “channeled young black and Chicano youth who
might have participated in gangbanging violence into relatively positive
efforts for social change through political activities.”

Gang Peace

When the Black Panther Party collapsed, gangs—especially the Crips—filled the
vacuum they left. Yet the influence of the Panther’s gang abatement work
could still be felt decades later. In 1992, shortly before the city exploded in
rioting after the Rodney King verdict, several of Los Angeles’ gangs entered
into a ceasefire. The process of negotiation began more than a year earlier and
continued for years after. It was initiated by older gang members and supported
by the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA), an organization founded by former
Panthers deliberately trying to keep the Party’s legacy alive while also
learning from its mistakes. CAPA served as intermediaries between gangs
early in the process, and the Nation of Islam provided security during direct
talks. Later, CAPA helped found the Community in Support of the Gang Truce. In
addition to supporting gang negotiations, CSGT offered young people video,
computer, and job training, and agitated for reform of the criminal legal

On March 27, 1992, representatives of Bloods and Crips sets from four housing
projects in Watts—Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, and
Hacienda Village—signed an agreement modeled on the 1948 Arab-Israeli
ceasefire. Gang violence immediately dropped. That summer, truce areas
averaged two gang-related homicides each month, down from sixteen the previous
year. What’s more, peace proved contagious. In 1993, at a meeting of more
than a thousand gang members in L.A.’s Elysian Park, the Mexican Mafia declared
an end to drive-by shootings and threatened that those continuing the tactic
would be “dealt with” in prison. They specifically forbade the killing of women
and children, and suggested that disputes be settled by single combat.
Drive-bys immediately declined by 25 percent. By 1998, gang-related
homicides were down 36.7 percent.

The truce held for most of a decade, and even longer in Watts—no thanks to
the cops. The police did everything they could to disrupt the ceasefires,
using many tactics familiar from the COINTELPRO days. They conspicuously
surveilled negotiating meetings, and cops raided parties celebrating the
ceasefire or promoting neighborhood peace. Truce leaders were arrested on old,
minor, or dubious charges, and sometimes targeted for deportation. Groups like
“Homies Unidos,” which promoted inter-gang dialogue, found themselves subject
to continuous harassment. Police even tried intimidating witnesses waiting to
testify about the truce before the California state senate. They also
infiltrated the negotiating teams, spread rumors intended to create distrust,
and snitch-jacketed gang members in a bid to provoke retaliation. Cops in
uniform were photographed spray-painting one gang’s colors over another’s, a
likely trigger for a turf war.

It seems that, however much the cops may dislike gang violence, they like
gang peace even less. “Banging” kept the gangs divided, thus weaker,
and produced fear and hostility in the broader community (which could then be
leveraged into a measure of support for the police). “Trucing” may not have
united the rival sets, but it did mean they weren’t shooting at each other
quite so much, and the effort brought them a level of community support.
It’s not hard to see why the cops would prefer one over the other. Whatever
their limitations and contradictions, in the period of rebellion, gangs
represented an armed challenge to state control. As with so much of police
activity, here, too, crime is less an issue than power.

Feminist Interventions

In the early seventies, while the Panthers were making kids breakfast and
training with guns, the women’s movement began organizing its own kind of
survival programs. Recognizing the limits of the criminal legal system in
response to domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape—the indifference of
police, the indignity of cross-examination, near-impossible burdens of proof,
meager penalties for assault, a general atmosphere of victim-blaming, and the
wholly reactive nature of the entire system—women started organizing
to defend themselves and keep each other safe.

In Detroit, Women Against Rape (WAR) organized street patrols, escorting women
to their destinations and intervening in violence when they saw it. They also
organized street theater performances exposing misconceptions about sexual
assault. In Santa Cruz, WAR published a monthly newsletter listing men who had
recently been reported as rapists; similar lists appeared in Majority
in New York and Sister in Los Angeles. Also in New York,
the Campaign Against Street Harassment organized boycotts of businesses where
the employees “call after women, whistle, make obscene signs and sounds, or
verbally annoy, abuse and patronize women passersby.”

Starting in 1972, a mixed-race working- and middle-class neighborhood in West
Philadelphia mobilized against street crime after three women were raped within
two weeks. Joining together as the Citizens Local Alliance for a Safe
Philadelphia, they organized inconspicuous street patrols, using air horns to
attract attention when something was amiss. CLASP also installed home-made
burglar alarms and engraved valuables with the names of the owners. By 1976,
CLASP had organized 600 blocks across the city, and survey data suggested that
crime had been reduced an average of 33 percent (and as much as 79 percent),
compared to the areas immediately contiguous.

The first rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters, back in 1972 and
1974, respectively, were volunteer-run grassroots political projects. They
offered support, advice, counseling, safe places to stay, and, if survivors so
chose, assistance engaging with police, hospitals, or other institutions. Some
offered self-defense classes and ran campaigns to educate the public about the
realities of rape and other violence against women. Within a few years
there were hundreds of similar centers, all around the country.

As the feminist movement grew and gained legitimacy, it became increasingly
institutionalized and professionalized, the grassroots political action model
giving way to a nonprofit social service model. Rape crisis centers and
women’s shelters started receiving government funding and partnering with
police departments, and in a textbook case of co-optation, the agenda shifted
as well. Anti-capitalism and the critique of the state were soon gone, and the
mainstream feminist movement began advocating more police, mandatory arrest
laws in domestic violence cases, and stiffer penalties for crimes against

In 2001, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and the prison abolitionist
group Critical Resistance issued a challenge to both the anti-prison and the
feminist movements. Their joint statement opens, “We call on social justice
movements to develop strategies and analyses that address both state
and interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women.”
The two groups argue that the reliance on the criminal legal system has not
reduced violence against women, but has further endangered communities of
color, alienated the women’s movement from its historical roots and isolated it
from the left, and invested power in the state rather than in collective
action. Conversely, they also argue that advocates for reforming (or
abolishing) police and prisons have marginalized women of color, and failed to
address the safety needs of women and LGBTQ people. Therefore, both
Critical Resistance and INCITE urge our movements to:

1) Develop community-based responses to violence that do not rely on the
criminal justice system AND which have mechanisms that ensure safety and
accountability for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.…

2) Critically assess the impact of state funding on social justice
organizations and develop alternative fundraising strategies.…

3) Make connections between interpersonal violence, the violence inflicted by
domestic state institutions…, and international violence.…

4) Develop an analysis and strategies to end violence that do not isolate
individual acts of violence … from their larger contexts.…

5) Put poor/working class women of color in the center of their analysis,
organizing practices, and leadership development.…

6) Center stories of state violence committed against women of color.…

7) Oppose … prison expansion, criminalization of poor communities and
communities of color.…

8) Promote holistic political education … [explaining] how sexual violence
helps reproduce the colonial, racist, capitalist, heterosexist, and patriarchal
society we live in as well as how state violence produces interpersonal
violence within communities.

9) Develop strategies for mobilizing against sexism and homophobia WITHIN our

10) Challenge men … to take particular responsibility to address and organize
around gender violence.…

11) Link struggles for personal transformation and healing with struggles for
social justice.

This challenge has yet to be met, but the first years of the twenty-first
century saw the emergence of a variety of attempts to address patriarchal
violence in its various forms. Most of these were short-term projects,
extremely localized, and many were situated in the overlap between the
anarchist, queer, and counter-cultural social scenes. A few, however, became
stable collectives with articulated principles and deep roots in the community.

Sista II Sista, a non-hierarchical collective of African-American,
Afro-Caribbean, and Latina young women in Brooklyn invested three years
“building our base, developing collective leadership and consciousness, and
supporting the organizing of our allies” before initiating their own projects.
In the summer of 2000, after police killed two teenage women of color in the
Bushwick neighborhood, SIIS conducted a survey of 400 young women in the
immediate area to learn what problems they were facing. A few months later,
they began street theater performances about sexual harassment and conducted a
community forum (along with INCITE) about solutions to violence. The following
year, they produced a documentary about police harassment, held a demonstration
at the 83rd Precinct, and conducted “Know Your Rights” trainings and
self-defense classes—all supplemented with regular fliering and

As their projects developed, they realized that “we need to do more than
strongly critique” the criminal legal system; “we must also begin to envision
and create what we want to replace it with!” Again, they began by hosting a
community forum with INCITE, this time following up with a series of local
meetings. After three years of planning and organizing, on June 28, 2004, they
held a block party to declare

Sista’s Liberated Ground, a space where violence against sistas is not
tolerated, and where women turn to each other instead of the police to address
the violence in their lives. SLG includes extensive outreach with flyers,
posters, T-shirts, stickers, and murals to mark the territory. There is also an
action line, a phone number that women can call to get involved in SLG. The
squad members are also developing a series of workshops for young women from
the community on sexism, conflict resolution, collective self-defense, and
other topics to raise consciousness, and build relationship with other women in
the neighborhood.

In terms of direct intervention, “SLG is also organizing Sista Circles,
collectives of support and intervention for cases of gender violence with
groups of sistas that are friends, neighbors, and coworkers.” For example,
Paula Ximena Rojas-Urrutia explains, “When somebody is getting stalked, the
whole group would go to the [stalker’s] workplace and embarrass him in front of
the boss … and make some direct demands of what he needed to do. And it would
work actually—more than calling the cops.”

Nearby, in Central Brooklyn, Safe Outside the System was creating a network of
Safe Spaces—“visibly identified public spaces that are willing to open their
doors to our community members who are fleeing from violence”—and training the
employees of participating institutions to counter homophobia and transphobia
and to interrupt violence without calling the police. Further south, in
Durham, North Carolina, a collective called UBUNTU (meaning, “I am because we
are”) was finding ways to support community members facing violence at the
hands of their partners. As one member, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, explains, their
tactics include “offering our homes as safer places to stay; staying at the
community member’s home; providing childcare; researching legal options and
community-based alternatives; … and listening and listening and being ready to
support.” They also, in partnership with the Ella Baker Project, were
working with residents in public housing to create a community mediation
council and declare a “Harm Free Zone.” Across the country, In Portland,
Oregon, the Hysteria collective was supporting survivors in whatever way they
needed—going grocery shopping with them, taking them to see the doctor, staying
with them at night—while also organizing support groups and consent workshops,
helping other groups design “safer space” policies, and occasionally
confronting perpetrators directly.

Since 2002, the Seattle-based Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian,
and Gay Survivors of Abuse has offered a six-week course on relationship
skills. Covering all kinds of relationships (including family, friends, and
romantic partners), the curriculum emphasizes “personal agency” and “making
choices and being responsible for our choices.” The Northwest Network also
organizes support groups for queer survivors of domestic violence and, with its
Friends Are Reaching Out (FAR Out) program, trains friends and family to
support each other in order to prevent and respond to abuse.

Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, Creative Interventions spent three years studying
existing models, designing their own program, and assembling an Interventions
Team. Their pilot project, which ran from November 2006 to May 2009, led them
to intervene in eighteen situations of violence, meeting with more than 100
people. Based on the lessons of that experience, they then assembled a tool
kit to help others doing similar work.

The Accountability Crisis

In short order, within a certain subset of the left, the “accountability
process” became the default approach to addressing domestic violence, sexual
assault, and other types of abuse. As INCITE defines it:

Community accountability is a process in which a community—a group of friends,
a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighborhood,
etc.—work together to do the following:

—Create and affirm values & practices that resist abuse and oppression
and encourage safety, support, and accountability

—Develop sustainable strategies to address community members’ abusive
, creating a process for them to account for their actions and
transform their behavior

—Commit to ongoing development of all members of the community, and the
community itself, to transform the political conditions that reinforce
oppression and violence

—Provide safety & support to community members who are violently
targeted that respects their self-determination

Most of these accountability processes were oriented, at least in principle,
toward a conception of “transformative justice”—in which the individual
perpetrator, the abusive relationship, and the culture and power dynamics of
the community are transformed—as opposed to enacting revenge, retribution, or

Among the most well-known and well-documented efforts were those of Philly
Stands Up and Philly’s Pissed, two groups formed in 2004 after three women were
raped in the course of a weekend-long punk rock festival. They took a
two-track approach, working independently, but in relation to each other:
Philly’s Pissed supported survivors, while the Philly Stands Up work[ed] with perpetrators to recognize, understand, and change behavior, not
to simply punish them or run them out of town. Dealing with an assaulter
includes the long term goal of ensuring that they are not a threat to others,
recognize what they have done, and work to permanently change their

As one member clarifies, the behavior in question may be “a specific incident
or [repeated] behavior pattern of emotional, physical and/or sexual assault
with an intimate partner or random stranger (or any person on the interpersonal
spectrum in between),” and the process may also lead them to address “substance
and alcohol abuse, mental health, and any number of other influencing

PSU’s work was guided by three fundamental principles:

—A steadfast commitment to supporting survivors through centralizing their
needs to assert control and power in their lives and surroundings.…

—The belief in the particularity of each sexual assault situation, and with it,
a unique effect and opportunity for the perpetrator to better understand
physical, sexual, and emotional boundaries and communication

—The intrinsic importance of humanizing perpetrators.…

Sometimes a survivor would make specific demands of a perpetrator, or those
around them. When they did, Philly’s Pissed “encourage[d] them to envision what
would make them feel safe and more in control of their lives again, and what
would make them feel like the person who assaulted then is being held
accountable for their actions.” Sometimes the survivor would want the aggressor
to write a letter taking responsibility, or do some reading on issues of
consent and sexual violence, or quit drinking, or leave whenever they happened
to be in the same space. Sometimes she would want other community members to
make sure the aggressor follows through on those agreements. “Other actions
that survivors have taken include passing out flyers with details about the
perpetrator and their pattern, distributing a public call-out asking
individuals to spit on a perpetrator, and asking people to stop supporting a
perpetrator’s work financially.”

Around the same time, in Seattle, Communities Against Rape and Abuse were
developing principles and practices to address sexual violence in a variety of
contexts (though, admittedly, with varying degrees of success). As Theyrn
Kigvamasud’vashti, one member of CARA, explained:

If an individual comes to us and says there is a perpetrator living in my
community, whatever that community is, we try to give that individual the tools
that will pull everyone in the room around that issue. The language and tools
already exist in the community, people haven’t had the opportunity to use them;
so when we get together it is [with] a specific intention of putting those
tools to use. There are multiple examples of how that happens, because there
are multiple communities that exist, people are very creative about what they
want for safety and accountability.

For example, when a male leader in a police accountability organization was
making inappropriate advances toward young, female volunteers, CARA met with
the perpetrator, had conversations with the women in the group, supported one
of the young women in writing a letter and reading it aloud during the
organization’s meeting, and facilitated a program on understanding sexism. In
the end the man resigned from the group. In another case, to address sexual
assault in the punk scene, CARA released a public statement from survivors,
distributed fliers denouncing a perpetrator, and organized a boycott of the bar
where he worked. In a third, following a sexual assault at a conference, they
helped the survivor contact other young women from the host organization, and
learned that it was a pattern. The survivors met and demanded that the
perpetrator remove himself from leadership and pursue counseling, and that the
organization incorporate rape prevention education in its programming. All
three demands were met. In a fourth case, after several women were
assaulted by the same man, they all wrote down their stories and presented the
document to some male community leaders. CARA facilitated a meeting about rape
culture, and the men asked the perpetrator to step down from his position.
After a suitable amount of time, he was allowed to resume his

Similar projects were initiated around the country, coordinated by groups like
Support New York, the Challenging Male Supremacy Project (also in New
York), Praxiss and the Pink Tape Collective (both in Portland), the Burning
River Collective (Cleveland), Dealing With Our Shit (Twin Cities)—as
well as those already mentioned and dozens of unnamed ad hoc efforts.

But by the mid-teens, fatigue, disappointment, and disillusionment—even
hostility to the notion of “accountability”—had become widespread in exactly
the same circles that were most vocally pushing it a few years earlier. It
was not unusual to hear that “accountability processes never work” or that
“they always go wrong.” That was not entirely true, but the sentiment reflected
several important realities. First, the processes that go wrong tend to go
wrong in spectacular, divisive, disastrous ways, while those that go well are
slower, quieter, and less controversial—therefore also, less known and less
remembered. Second, the idealism that leads people to pursue transformative
justice may also produce unrealistic expectations, and thus, inevitable
disappointment. Furthermore, specific goals or standards are often lacking, and
so it is not always clear what counts as success, or even what could
count as success. And finally, there is the fact that developing such a process
is inherently challenging. There are far more ways for it to go wrong than to
go right. And, collectively, we are very new at it, still developing skills,
theories, practices, and models.

Most of the projects cited here were short-lived; it is unusual for a group
involved in accountability and support efforts to last even as long as a couple
of years. Part of that is the very nature of the work. It is stressful,
time-consuming, emotionally taxing, and generally thankless. It is also usually
a volunteer effort, which avoids the problems of co-optation and
professionalization, but limits the resources available and often overburdens
the few people trying to keep it going. As Praxiss’s Tabatha Millican observes,
taking foundation or government money changes the work, “but not taking the
money also changes the work.”

The Pink Tape Collective’s Genevieve Goffman outlines numerous difficulties in
accountability processes. Some are practical, such as a scarcity of
resources, the absence of meaningful sanctions, and both a lack of clarity
about what can be expected from the process and a tendency to promise
unrealistic results. Others are structural: relying on the immediate
friend group when a dispassionate outsider might see things more clearly, or
adopting models intended for close-knit communities and applying them to loose
social scenes. There are, of course, strategic mistakes—the failure to
intervene before a crisis occurs, the erroneous assumption that consequences
for the perpetrator will necessarily facilitate the survivor’s healing, and
processes that keep the survivor engaging with the perpetrator when what they
really need is distance. And there are the political problems of
reproducing punitive logic, falling into unrecognized power dynamics, and the
like. Her greatest frustration, however, is with our “failure to learn”—from
history, from our mistakes, and from each other.

The Northwest Network’s Shannon Perez-Darby cautions:

Where I think our community accountability models have missed the mark is in
our desire to rush into action. In our visioning, we have confused our desire
to have communities with the skills and knowledge to respond to violence with
the reality that most of us are walking around with a dearth of accountability
skills. In other words, I think we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves.

Reflecting similar concerns, and looking critically at her own experience with
the Northwest Network, Connie Burk concludes, “our activist communities do not
presently have the skills, shared values, and cultural touchstones in place to
sustain Community Accountability efforts.” She recommends, as preliminary step,
a shift in focus, “from a collective process for holding individuals
accountable for their behavior to individual and collective responsibility for
building a community where robust accountability is possible, expected and
likely.” She calls this the “Accountable Communities” approach. The emphasis
here is on creating a collective, cultural shift as a predecessor to
personal transformation, rather than emphasizing personal work as the means for
social change.

Burk lists several characteristics of this approach, including:
skills-building; a consideration of “context, intent, and effect” as well as
“behaviors”; “the expectation of loving-kindness” and a refusal to ostracize
others; supporting and encouraging healthy relationships; “recovering and
advancing culturally relevant practices” such as rituals of atonement and
forgiveness; and the principle of “engagement before opposition.”

The experiences of American activists are instructive, perhaps as much for
their limitations as for the positive example they offer. More developed models
arise, predictably, where revolutionary movements are more advanced, more
successful, and stronger. For examples, we must look beyond our own borders,
and turn our attention to the struggles of colonized people in South Africa and
Northern Ireland.

South Africa: Popular Justice and State Power

When a revolutionary movement gains the support of the population, it acquires,
intentionally or not, responsibilities that it must meet to maintain that
support. Increasingly the population will turn to the revolutionary
movement—and not the government—to meet its needs. And to the degree that the
military campaign is successful, the authorities will be likely to abdicate
their responsibilities, adding to the legitimacy of the revolutionaries, but
also obliging them to meet additional demands. If the movement can do so, while
withstanding whatever repressive measures are directed against it, it may be
able to transfer power to itself and away from the state.

That is essentially what happened in South Africa. The apartheid government was
never particularly concerned with meeting the needs of the Black population, so
the anti-apartheid civic organizations took on many welfare functions,
including services related to banking, childcare, insurance, healthcare, and
assistance to the elderly and unemployed. Meanwhile, the African National
Congress (ANC) engaged in a campaign to, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “make
government impossible.” That strategy had clear implications for crime
control. The South African police were famously indifferent to crime in the
Black townships, and the Black population was none too eager to cooperate with
the cops. This situation created a vacuum in the area of conflict
management and public safety, and local communities painstakingly evolved
institutions to fill it.

In the 1970s, townships established community courts modeled on traditional
chieftain structures. These makgotla were patriarchal and
conservative—dominated by older men, upholding traditional hierarchies of
gender and age, and participating in the local government. Slowly, over the
course of two decades, the makgotla were replaced by “People’s Courts”—and
later, “Street Committees”—connected to the growing resistance movement. As
these forms spread, younger people gained a more prominent place, as

These new committees were elected in public meetings and made responsible for
preserving order and resolving disputes in their areas. Though sometimes
relying on physical punishment, often at a brutal extreme, the Street
Committees tended to emphasize restorative justice rather than retributive
justice. Hence they focused less on punishment than on healing, on putting
things right and preserving the community. Short of violence, Street
Committees could rely on other community institutions to enforce their
decisions, limiting access to savings clubs, welfare services, and

Under apartheid, the police estimated there were 400 Street Committees
operating throughout the country. In many places, the organizations have
survived into the post-apartheid era. According to a 1998 survey of Guguletu,
Cape Town, 95 percent of respondents reported that there was a Street Committee
on their street, 58 percent said they attended the Street Committee’s meetings,
and 69 percent thought that the committee did a good job. When asked, “Where do
you go for help if a young man in your family does not obey his parents?” 41
percent said that they would go to the Street Committee. When asked where they
would go if the neighbors played their music too loud, 69 percent said they
would take the complaint to the Street Committee. About two-thirds (66 percent)
said they would go to the Street Committee if “a boy in the street” stole a
radio from your house. In addition to minor criminal cases, neighborhood
disputes, and family troubles, Street Committees also handle grievances against
employers, merchants, and creditors.

In the post-apartheid period, Street Committees have survived mostly in poor
neighborhoods, where the cost of hiring a lawyer puts the state’s legal system
out of reach for most people. Because of their greater accessibility, one study
found that—despite conservative and patriarchal biases among their
members—Street Committees were nevertheless more responsive than the courts in
handling cases of domestic violence. Heléne Combrinck and Lilian Chenwi
wrote of the Street Committee’s advantages for poor women:

[T]hey are founded and run in and by the community, meetings take place near
the complainant’s residence, and there are no monetary costs associated with
travel and the services rendered. They operate at all hours, and can attend to
cases as they are reported. There are no language barriers and proceedings are
familiar in procedure and resolution, which means they are recognized as

Their approach seems aligned with the complainant’s wishes: it creates an
opportunity to be heard, and to share the problem whether or not resolution is
achieved, or indeed sought. In this sense, informal mechanisms have a greater
potential to alleviate violence than a [court] protection order.

More recently, as apartheid and the struggle against it fade into history, with
crime and incarceration (as well as economic inequality) remaining at very high
levels, the government has been increasingly successful at incorporating the
Street Committees into the punitive state system. The ANC has both
promoted the formation of Street Committees—using them to gain public support
at election time (and, critics say, to suppress political opposition)—and has
greatly reduced the scope of their authority and activity, turning them into
simple adjuncts to the police. “Just catch the criminals and hand them over to
the police,” Jacob Zuma told supporters in 2008. Nevertheless, vigilante
violence, such as expelling suspected criminals from slums by beating them and
destroying their shacks, continues with tacit support of the police and active
support of sizeable portions of the population.

The contradictions here are numerous: vigilante action and Constitutional
legality, popular conceptions of justice and demands for human rights,
resistance to inequality and the defense of private property—all coexist and,
to some degree, seem to feed each other. Some of that, surely, is the
result of the ANC’s transition from popular insurgency to ruling party, and the
country’s transition from apartheid to neoliberalism. The persistence of the
Street Committees indicates something of the tensions between the aims of the
anti-apartheid movement and the means it employed. The ANC sought to avail
itself of popular direct action and to establish a new state. It
achieved both, and is left trying to reconcile the two.

Popular Justice in Northern Ireland: The Other Peace Process

In Northern Ireland, the search for popular justice followed a similar path as
in South Africa. There, too, the insurgents sought out popular support while
subjecting the authorities to unrelenting harassment; and the authorities again
responded with a mix of repression and neglect.

In 1969, after Loyalist attacks on Catholic neighborhoods, Republican residents
formed Citizen Defense Committees for their own protection. These committees
built and supervised barricades and maintained continuous foot patrols. As
a consequence, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) simply gave up policing
militant areas of West Belfast and Derry. With extraordinary levels of
unemployment and poverty—and without state intervention—these “no-go” areas
became extremely vulnerable to crime. So Catholics elected Community Councils
responsible for welfare and justice in their neighborhoods and created
“People’s Courts” to hear minor cases. Petty criminal matters and neighborhood
disputes were usually resolved through restitution or community service, but
serious offenses were referred to the Irish Republican Army (the IRA).

When the People’s Courts broke down after a couple of years, the IRA had little
choice but to take over their crime control efforts. This role fell to the
paramilitaries for several reasons. First, it was widely felt that the IRA had
already established its responsibility for protecting the community, and many
residents were demanding that something be done about crime. Second, crime
posed a security risk, since the police were liable to use petty criminals as
informers. And third, crime had a destabilizing and corrosive effect on
the very communities the movement depended on for support.

Unwilling to cede ground to Republican forces, the RUC sought to reassert its
authority, but its efforts were not terribly successful. Security concerns
made it difficult to police Catholic neighborhoods. The police were slow in
their response to calls, and they often brought soldiers with them when they
arrived. Worse, the cops tried to recruit crime victims as informants; those
unwilling to serve as snitches publicly exposed and vocally denounced these
clumsy efforts. All of which occurred in a context of continual human rights
abuses, and only amplified the Catholic distrust of the authorities. In many
areas, residents became entirely unwilling to cooperate with the police,
refusing even to report crimes.

But the IRA did not have an easy time of it, either. It had few resources to
devote to investigations or corrections, little time (or patience) for due
process considerations and human rights concerns. Hence, their response to
crime usually took the form of threats, beatings, property destruction,
knee-cappings, expulsions, shootings, and executions. It was typically
unpleasant for all concerned. The accused had practically no chance of
presenting a defense and faced punishment out of proportion to the crime.
Innocent people were punished, sometimes killed. IRA volunteers, meanwhile,
were burdened with the job of beating up petty crooks when they wanted to be
driving out the British. And worst of all, from a revolutionary
standpoint, the friction created by this situation threatened to isolate the
revolutionaries from their constituency.

One Republican activist explained the dilemma:

[T]he conflict has created a cycle of dependency, where the community expects
the [Republican] movement to deal with anti-social crime, the IRA feels
responsible and must act but lacks the resources to deal with it other than
through violence and the result is damaging the kids who are after all part of
the community.

This dependency worked two ways: the IRA depended on the Catholic community for
protection, discretion, and support; the community relied on the IRA to protect
it from crime, the state, and the Loyalists. The difficulty arose when
protecting the community from crime undercut the community’s support for the

To resolve the dilemma, Republican activists sought a means to “disengage
responsibly,” ideally by empowering the community to address anti-social
behavior directly, without relying on either the IRA or the police. Republican
activists approached a group of academics—criminologists and conflict
resolution experts—and asked them to design a system that did not rely so much
on breaking people’s legs. The scholars obliged, publishing their
recommendations in the Blue Book. The authors of the Blue Book, in extensive
consultation with the local communities, set out to design a restorative
justice system that met the following criteria: community involvement and
support; nonviolence and operating within the law; proportionality of the
sanctions to the offense; due process and a guarantee of human rights;
consistency; engagement in the community; contact with community programs; and,
adequate resources.

With the endorsement of Sinn Fein, Community Restorative Justice Ireland
(CRJI) programs based on the Blue Book were implemented on a trial basis,
beginning in 1999, with four pilot projects in Republican areas of Belfast and
Derry. The IRA pledged its support for the process, ending punishment
beatings and referring cases to CRJI. In the first year, the new programs
handled 200 cases, clearing 90 percent of them. By the end of 2001, 1,200 cases
had been processed through the program, including complaints about drugs,
noise, family conflicts, parking disputes, burglaries, property damage, violent
crime, and chronic offenders. Between 15 and 20 percent of these cases would
previously have been handled with violence. By 2004, CRJI’s 310 volunteers
were managing more than 2,000 cases every year, and closing about 85 percent of
them. The CRJI programs were soon reproduced throughout the north.
And a similar program, Northern Ireland Alternatives (NIA), was initiated in
Loyalist areas.

As recommended by the Blue Book, the Community Restorative Justice programs
used mediation and family group counseling, monitored the agreements they
negotiated, and employed charters outlining the rights and responsibilities of
community members. Also recommended in the Blue Book, but not implemented by
the pilot programs, were the use of professional investigators, community
hearings, and boycotts of persistent offenders. Tellingly, the police
denounced the effort, leading one IRA spokesman to quip, “the opposition of the
RUC to the programme is the finest recommendation it could receive.”

Even as the IRA disarmed and Sinn Fein began (as one of their local officials
put it) “enforcing British rule in Ireland,” policing remained a sticking
point. It took most of a decade for the government to overcome Catholic
antipathy and reclaim its exclusive authority in the area of criminal justice.
It began by dissolving the universally despised RUC and replacing it with the
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Following a community policing
philosophy, the PSNI actively recruits Catholic officers, emphasizes human
rights in its training, and pursues community partnerships. Its mission
statement promises “a proactive, community-driven approach that sees the police
and local community working together to identify and solve problems.” In
2007, Sinn Fein endorsed the reconstituted constabulary. For the first time,
CRJI began cooperating with the cops and the courts, and the state started
regulating its operations—beginning with inspections of all previous case

In 2013, CRJI handled 1,806 cases and closed 79% of them, but serious crimes
are no longer a focus. Instead, the staff are doing more work with
schools, advising the housing authority and probation office, and training the
police. Much of their present work seems to be helping the Police Service
manage its public image. As the agency’s Operational Plan for 2013–14
makes clear: “CRJI will contribute to improving relationships between police
and communities with historically low levels of engagement based on
programmatic, honest dialogue (including when appropriate constructive
criticism).” The agency’s annual report for 2011 is full of photos of CRJI
staff alongside police officials.

The transition seems to have been discouraging for the staff. In his report of
2008, immediately following the change in policy, CRJI chair Jim McGivern
complained of “unparalleled political interference” during the previous year,
and notes that after “the decision by Sinn Fein to call on Nationalists to
support the PSNI” most of the organization’s energy was taken up “consulting
our staff and volunteers on the issues.” Likewise, a local leader

The biggest challenge for us was dealing with the new policing dispensation.…
This has been very difficult for the practitioners as the whole ethos of CRJ up
to now has been that the victim had the right, except in certain circumstances,
had the right to choose CRJ as the vehicle to deal with their issue. The
practitioners understand the protocol and understand that we can’t deal with
crime but it doesn’t lessen the feeling that we are, in some way, letting the
victim down and it doesn’t get any easier the number of times that we do

CRJI had presented itself as an alternative to the criminal legal system, and
members of the community continue to look to the staff for that service, either
because they prefer the restorative justice framework or because they want to
avoid contact with the police. Having suffered a crime and sought out
assistance, to then be told for reasons related to national policy and party
politics that the police were the only remaining option, would not just come as
a disappointment, but must feel like a betrayal.

The Search for Legitimacy

Whatever the shortcomings of these historical examples, they do at least
suggest the possibility of crime control without police, and perhaps even
without the state. What’s clear is that in none of these cases were the
people dependent upon the government to protect them—in fact, quite the

Based on his observations in Natal, South Africa, David Nina concludes “that
there could be peace when the formal sovereign is not in control … [but] only
if the structures of popular participation are running democratically and are
accountable to the immediate community in which they operate.” Toward
these ends, Harry Mika and Kieran McEvoy identify seven elements necessary for

(1) Mandate is the broadly-based license for program development which
is secured through basic research (audit) in areas to ascertain needs and

(2) Moral authority [is] the bas[i]s upon which the community
acquiesces power and authority to representative members.…

(3) Partnership is the sense of restorative initiatives emanating from
the community, empowering and building capacity in the community, parlaying
local resources to the ends of antisocial crime control and prevention in the
community, addressing needs of community members who are victims and offenders,
and working constructively with other community groups, associations, and

(4) Competence involves the purposive and long term development of
appropriate skill sets among individuals and organizations in conflict
resolution including training materials and courses.… Generally, competence
involves program performance at a level sufficient to satisfy key program
objectives (addressing needs of victims and offenders, community safety, crime
prevention, and the like), thereby both demonstrating and affirming community
capacity to respond to antisocial behavior and find justice for its members.

(5) Practice includes establishment of standards for justice
processes, protection of participants, and responsiveness to the community.…

(6) Transparency involves mechanisms for public scrutiny, local
management and control, and opportunities for public input.…

(7) Finally, accountability refers to ongoing program monitoring and
evaluation, to ascertain compliance with published standards, as well as
program impact and effectiveness.

If we look back at the frustrations expressed, not merely by critics but by
practitioners of the type of accountability processes currently
employed in queer/feminist/anarchist circles in the United States, I believe
we’ll find that many of them correspond to a shortcoming in one or more of
these areas. At present, there are no shared norms, no common
standards, understandings, or expectations—even within the respective
subcultures or political milieus—on which we might base a mandate, a claim of
authority, a partnership, measures of competence, ethical practice, or
accountable evaluation; there is, in short, no agreement as to what justice is,
what it entails, or how it is achieved. There is no institution that
could hold a community mandate, exercise authority, engage in such
partnerships, develop the necessary competence, enact just practices, and make
itself transparent and accountable. Worse, for the most part, there is no
available to take on the corresponding roles.

That’s not to suggest that there couldn’t be. And a community doesn’t
necessarily have to achieve any sort of unanimity for the required sense of
legitimacy to take hold. In fact, the most successful of the alternative
justice programs have been those that arose precisely in contexts where
legitimacy was most sharply contested. It was, in other words,
because the state’s authority was being systematically challenged that
the alternatives arose, gained acceptance, and (for a time, and to some degree)
served their purpose. It was the social movements to which they were attached
that brought them into being, gave them their oppositional character, linked
them to the community, and loaned them a sense of legitimacy. (That is even
true, though in a different way and to a lesser extent, of the gang truces.)
But then, when those movements crested, as they were defeated or co-opted, the
alternative justice programs shared their fate. If they didn’t wither away,
they at least lost their oppositional character. Detached from social
movements, they could then be drawn into the state apparatus, sometimes as an
adjunct to police, prison, and probation, and sometimes as a generally harmless
social service agency. In any case, the revolutionary potential was lost, and
what started as a vehicle for liberation became, instead, another tool for
state power.

Unanswered Questions (Or, What’s So Funny ’bout Peace, Love and

I have argued that both the legitimacy and the success of an alternative
justice system will likely depend on its connection to a broad and oppositional
social movement. And I have suggested that to permanently abolish the police
that movement needs to seek to transform society without also trying to seize
state power. Of course, if we take that possibility seriously we still face the
hard work of finding an alternative system suitable to a diverse and disjointed
society like that of the United States. We are left, I feel, with more
questions than answers.

Reflecting on the work of Community United Against Violence, Morgan Bassichis

How can organizations such as CUAV help advance a liberatory approach to ending
violence? How can we simultaneously address the urgent need for healing in our
communities and the need for confronting the systemic conditions that create
violence? How can we effectively push back on the state systems of punishment
and violence given their scale and speed? How will we negotiate backlash and
painful mistakes that will challenge our credibility and capacity? How can we
practice deeply the values of sustainability and accountability
organizationally that we are working toward in our communities? …

How can we ensure that our notions of community safety, accountability, and
justice are not misused as justifications for shame, exile, or punishment (as
they are by the current system)? How can we practice challenging violence
without replicating state power, the PIC [prison-industrial complex], or the
many forms of oppression and abuse we are working hard to eliminate? What
internal accountability do we need to cultivate for community accountability to
be authentically transformative rather than retributive?

Clearly, none of our models are perfect. No model is. No model can be. But
also, luckily, no model needs to be. The work of a social movement, as
Orwell pointed out, “is not to make the world perfect but to make it
better.” An insistence on perfection does not, in general, lead us to
utopia but instead discourages us from making the attempt. Any movement that
challenges power has to take risks, which means that sometimes we will make
mistakes; the crucial thing is that we avoid repeating them.

The efforts I’ve described here—and others, documented elsewhere—were
bold, inventive, and radical. They sought new means of achieving justice, ones
that did not rely on the state and actively avoided replicating state systems
on a smaller scale. Many of them also sought new types of justice,
understood not as vengeance or retribution, but as personal and social
transformation, addressing both the immediate causes and the deeper roots of
crime. Understood as initial attempts rather than final outcomes, such efforts
are heartening, even inspiring. Despite their decisive, and sometimes tragic,
limitations, their ultimate significance may lie in the potential they embodied
and the possibilities they embraced. Viewed as experiments, at least part of
their success or failure will depend on our willingness to learn from their
examples and improve on them.

From that point of view, it is actually good to have the sort of
questions Bassichis proposes. They suggest a curiosity, a cautiousness, and
also a courage. They show a willingness to engage with the world, to face its
complexity, to be proved wrong again and again until finally we get it
right—or, at any rate, more right. It is in this vein that INCITE’s
Andrea Smith advocates “revolution by trial and error”—which is, of
course, the only kind there is.

But as we question, as we try and err, it is still important to identify the
values and outline some standards by which we might judge our failures and our
success. For I believe that how we achieve justice matters.
Indeed, it is largely by the means that justice will be defined.

It is no accident that many of Mika and McEvoy’s criteria for legitimacy
represent practical limitations on the alternative justice system’s power, and
especially, on the possibility for abuses of that power. There are dangers to
popular justice that cannot be ignored. The Blue Book identifies the major
weaknesses of the earlier Republican arrangement: inconsistency, a lack of
training, few resources, a paramilitary character, the absence of
accountability, the removal of the community from the process, and the reliance
on the IRA. There is also the danger that informal systems could be used
to settle personal grudges, attack political rivals, or give expression to the
community’s prejudices. The chief hazard, as one Irish feminist
organization worried, is the “danger of groups being mirror-images of the
forces they are combating in terms of tactics and attitudes, even if their
objectives remain revolutionary.” These dangers provide clear guidance for
those who wish to fight oppression. Underlying the search for justice is a
simple principle: our counter-institutions cannot be immune to the demands we
place on the existing institutions—demands for democracy, accountability,
transparency, and most of all, real community control.

It seems to me that there are four standards against which every justice
project should be measured. The first is its own immediate goals: Did
we accomplish what we set out to do? The second is a comparison with the
state: Were our process and outcomes—taken as a whole—better or worse
than what we could expect from calling the police? Third, inaction:
How do our efforts, in their practical results, compare to simply doing
nothing? The fourth is our ideal of justice: How did it inform our
actions? How was it present in the outcome? Where did we fall short?

It is important, in the course of evaluation, to consider everyone’s
experiences, everyone’s interests—victims, perpetrators, witnesses, mediators,
and the community at large. With those various, oftentimes conflicting
perspectives in mind, one should nevertheless be able to reach some broad
conclusions as to what went well and what went badly, and why. If we fail to
meet our immediate goals, it may be that our process needs to change, or it may
be that the goals were unrealistic. If we fail to do even as well as the state,
our process definitely needs to change. Likewise, even if the outcome is
somewhat better than in a scenario of complete inaction, we still need to weigh
the benefits against the time, effort, and stress for those involved. On
the other hand, if our attempts at justice actually match our ideals—probably
we are aiming too low. For as we approach our ideals of justice, freedom, and
equality, as our sense of the possible expands, our vision grows clearer and we
learn to see power where it was invisible to us before. Therefore, in
proportion to our achievements we also discover new obstacles to overcome.
While our exercise of justice must be grounded in reality, in the here and now,
in the world we have and with the people who are in it, our practices should
also point us toward something better, toward the world we want to create and
the people we want to become.

Generation Five, an organization attempting to end child abuse without recourse
to the prison system, rightly notes, “We must create the solutions to the
problems we face, and we must create the world in which we want to live.”
They continue:

The only way to liberate ourselves from violence and oppression is to envision
that possibility, to take one step at a time, and do it together. The more
steps we take toward this end, the more possible it becomes. Transformative
Justice is both a personal process and a vision for a more just world; it is a
lesson plan for what we can learn together and a strategic plan for what we can
do together. The only way to acquire a world without violence is to built

Modest demands can be the seeds of major upheaval. The demands for human
rights, for community control, for an end to harassment and brutality—the basic
requirements of justice—ultimately pit us against the ideology, structure,
interests, and ambitions of the police. The modern police institution is at its
core racist, elitist, undemocratic, authoritarian, and violent. These are the
institution’s major features, and it did not acquire them by mistake. The order
that the police preserve is the order of the state, the order of capitalism,
the order of White supremacy. These are the forces that require police
protection. These are the forces that created the police, that support them,
sustain them, and guide them. These are the ends the police serve. They are
among the most powerful influences in American society, and some of the most
deeply rooted. In this sense, our society cannot exist without police.
But this needn’t be the end of the story. A different society is possible.


Books do not write themselves; and I doubt that many authors manage without an
enormous amount of help.

I know I have benefited from the advice, encouragement, and direct practical
assistance of a great many people—nearly all of my friends, a large number of
acquaintances, and not a few actual strangers. Thank you all, very much.

Thanks, again, to Daniel Buck, Carl Caputo, Jamie Dawson, Laura Grant, Candace
Larson, Geoff McNamara, Tabatha Millican, Missy Rohs, Clayton Szczech, Robert
Williams, and Shira Zucker—all of whom read and corrected earlier drafts. I am
particularly grateful to Andrea Ritchie for her comments on the near-final
draft, and of course, for her gracious introduction to this edition.

And as always, I owe special thanks to Emily-Jane Dawson. I was fortunate to
receive her advice in the course of my research, her help in locating obscure
sources, her criticism concerning early drafts of the manuscript, and her
technical assistance in the design of the graphics in this volume. But above
all else, I am grateful for her friendship.

Chapter 3: The Genesis of a Policed Society

Chapter 4: Cops and Klan, Hand in Hand

Chapter 5: The Natural Enemy of the Working Class

This combination of class bias and Puritanical moralism was characteristic of
the period, and translated into rigid standards of conduct for women
especially. Its effect was evident, for example, in New York’s campaign against
prostitution. “In a city so concerned with defining both women’s proper place
and the place of the working class, the alarm over prostitution stemmed in part
from general hostilities to the milieu of laboring women from which prostitutes
came.” Stansell, City of Women, 175.

Especially in the South, enforcement was highly discriminatory, part of the new
model for subjugating the Black population after slavery. Davis, Are
Prisons Obsolete?
, 29; and Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 31.

The brunt of repression was felt in Allegheny County and western Pennsylvania.
There, the authorities responded by deputizing 5,000 scabs and banning all
public assemblies—including, in some places, indoor meetings. Mass arrests and
physical attacks became common, with strikers facing violence from police,
deputy sheriffs, scabs, company guards, vigilantes, and sometimes state troops.
Many were injured, twenty were killed. Under such pressure, the strike
collapsed in January 1920. The workers returned to work, having won nothing.
Samuel Yellen, American Labor Struggles, 1877–1934 (New York:
Pathfinder, 1936), 261–63, 271; Brecher, Strike!, 123; and Zinn,
People’s History, 371–72.

In 2003 several janitors walked off the job to protest the removal of a
sympathetic supervisor. One of them later recalled, “One manager threatened to
call immigration if we didn’t go back right away.” Quoted in Human Rights
Watch, Blood, Sweat, and Fear, 97.

FOPs were also organized geographically, rather than by department. And they
sometimes formed auxiliaries including people from outside of law enforcement.
William J. Bopp, “The Police Rebellion,” in The Police Rebellion, ed.
William J. Bopp (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 1971), 13.

In June 1919, the AFL announced that it would begin chartering police unions.
By the end of August, thirty-eight such charters had been issued. Lyons,
“Boston Police Strike,” 151; and Francis Russell, A City in Terror—1919—The
Boston Police Strike
(New York: Viking Press, 1975), 25.

The police faced similar reprisals when they acted in solidarity with other workers during the Baltimore AFSCME strike
of 1974. The strike began among garbage collectors demanding higher pay. Soon,
the strikers were joined by other public employees, including jailers, park
workers, zoo keepers, highway workers, and sewer engineers. After several days,
on July 11, the police joined the strike, in violation of Maryland law. Looting
ensued, and one rioter was killed by an on-duty officer. The next day, Governor
Marvin Mandel sent in the state police, with an armored car and police dogs.
The National Guard was placed on alert. By July 15, most of the city workers
were back on the job, and the strike was defeated. The police union was fined
$25,000, and the union president was personally fined another $10,000. Russell,
City in Terror, 242–44. See also: Pamela Irving Jackson, Minority
Group Threat, Crime, and Policing: Social Context and Social Control
York: Praeger, 1989), 81.

James Richardson notes the political advantages of this arrangement for mayors: “A hands-off policy means that the
mayors can disclaim any responsibility for police operations.… Thus ‘no
political interference’ may not always be self-sacrificing. A mayor may give up
police patronage or influence, but by so doing he also gives up any political
responsibility for the police.” Richardson, Urban Police, 131.

Ironically, the Progressives failed to recognize the biases inherent in this perspective. Reformers identified the
interests and objectives of their own class as those of the public at large.
The ability to sustain such a view, of course, relies on one’s own position in
the dominant group; it may be that we can ascertain when a class begins to
achieve hegemony by the emergence of just such a perspective.

They could also have pointed to, more notoriously, the economic system of
Fascist Italy. Michael T. Florinsky, Fascism and National Socialism: A
Study of the Economic and Social Policies of the Totalitarian State
York: Macmillan, 1936). For more on corporatism, see: Philippe C. Schmitter,
“Still the Century of Corporatism?” The Review of Politics 36 (1974):

Black people were not the only group subject to discrimination like this. New
York’s Police Benevolent Association excluded women until 1968. Levi,
Bureaucratic Insurgency, 27.

This analysis has clear implications for
our understanding of other concepts, including “state autonomy,” “state
interests,” and “reasons of state.” Clayton Szczech points out that “the state
cannot effectively pursue its self-interested agenda because no such unified
agenda exists.… For example, what the Department of Defense wants and needs may
not always coincide with what the Department of Commerce wants and needs, and
both of them must utilize networks with social groups, elected officials and
other bureaucracies to realize any goals at all.” Szczech, “Beyond Autonomy or
Dominance,” 17.

The absence of clearly demarcated
boundaries (defining the limits of the state) seems to me a theoretical
advantage. It allows us to replace a binary opposition, in which an agency is
always either identified with the state or not, with a continuum in which it
should be considered a part of the state to the degree that it is incorporated
into the relevant power networks. Privatized services, subsidized research and
development, and police unions are thus more a part of the state than
are church-run charities, family farms, and the IWW, but less a part
of the state than Congress, the Ar