Monday, June 8, 2015

Useful Research on Policing

Following the events this weekend in Texas (see here and here, and (coincidentally) watching Fruitvale Station (now on Netflix), I’ve been thinking a lot about policing. This has been a particularly disturbing year for police violence and excessive force, particularly in racially disparate ways. Throughout the year, I have dealt with my anger over what is going on by going into my “academic place”---trying to make sense of what has been happening, analyzing it with the resources I have (as someone who is not a policing scholar). Research by two scholars has continuously come to my mind. 

The first is an article by Jeffrey S. Adler in the Law and History Review (2012) called, “‘The Killer Behind the Badge’: Race and Police Homicide In New Orleans, 1925–1945.” This is not a particularly optimistic article, but it does help to explain some of what is going on, and by explaining it, perhaps I feel more control over a situation in which we feel helpless.

The first takeaway—although this isn’t really a point expressly made in the article—is that what we see happening is nothing new (but see p. 530). I think most of us know that, at least on some level—police killings and abuse of black men (often unarmed black men) are more visible now because of the ubiquity of cellphone video cameras, the ability of average people to post videos to youtube and let it go “viral,” as well as media outlets covering these stories. But there is something haunting about reading descriptions about long ago that feel too familiar after this year: 
New Orleans policemen killed fifty-nine people during the 14 years for which complete records have survived between 1925 and 1945, accounting for one out of every twenty homicides in the city and claiming more victims than did local robbers. Municipal law enforcers committed forty-four percent of all white-on-black killings in the city. (Adler 2012, 505) 
Again and again, the deadly confrontation began when a lone patrolman stopped an African-American young man and questioned him for being disorderly, loitering, or acting suspiciously, often speaking loudly or skulking in an alley—behavior that Myrdal termed “a minor transgression of caste etiquette. (Adler 2012, 511)
Using newspaper accounts, police records, and court records, Adler describes in vivid detail several police homicides of black men in early 20th Century New Orleans. Though not an apologia for police violence, the article does explain why these were so common—and why police officers were more likely to shoot black men than white men. Nor does Adler claim the New Orleans police were simply racist—though racialized beliefs, reinforced by structural inequalities, were important. Instead, the article offers a nuanced explanation:
Rather, policemen’s use of lethal force reflected both their formal mandate to preserve social order and their own experiences, perceptions, and definitions of racial order and social stability. African-American New Orleanians’ daily experiences and perceptions of local law enforcers influenced police homicide as well. This collision of experiences and perceptions shaped the interactions between law enforcers and minority residents, creating a cycle of escalating mistrust, acrimony, and violence. (Adler 2012, 498) 
It was both police policy and police interactions, which shaped police officers' future perceptions of suspects' dangerousness, that contributed to these outcomes. First, Police policy was to use violence when confronting (potentially) violent suspects: "police administrators encouraged local law enforcers to shoot to kill and celebrated such deadly encounters" (510). Second, when police encountered black suspects, they expected violence. Why? For one reason, black neighborhoods were among the most violent in the city (515). For another reason, police officers believed black people to be "prone to impulsive, unpredictable eruptions of violence" (516). And one of the more interesting reasons, I thought, was that specifically because many of the African American men who were shot did not have a criminal record, they were unknown to the police, and thus the police officers did not know (as they did with the more familiar white suspects) whether or how violent the black suspect would be, introducing the role of biases or preconceived notions about violent black people (511). 
Adler also describes the importance of other racialized beliefs, particularly about authority, hierarchy, and respect, what we might think of the police version of Code of the Streets.
if the suspicious person responded slowly or, worse still, defied the instruction, the patrolman became more aggressive, setting in motion a series of actions and reactions that frequently ended with a New Orleans policeman fatally shooting an African-American resident.... These police homicides were purposeful and were bound up with ideas about authority and racial order. New Orleans patrolmen viewed an African-American suspect’s refusal to follow instructions as an act of defiance and a challenge both to police authority and the racial hierarchy. (Adler 2012, 512)
(An amazing episode of Scandal this season captured this dimension well.)

I have been recommending Adler's article to people all year, and I am doing the same now. It is a really interesting and well-written article.

The second piece that I keep thinking about, particularly after Ferguson and the protests that erupted across the Bay Area, is by Jerome Skolnick. In 1969, Skolnick (really, the Task Force on Violent Aspects of Protest and Confrontation of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence) published, The Politics of Protest, aka, “The Skolnick Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence: Black Militants, Student Riots, Anti-War Demonstrators.” 

A good portion about the report is intended to actually explain protesting as a political activity---and not one carried out by social deviants but by employed people and  “good students” (xxi). The report suggests that increasing police authority and “firepower” or social control is not the answer; what was apparently a relatively shocking finding for the time, they describe instances of police-instigated violence. While they do not call for more policing, they do call for better policing and greater social awareness. The problem, they argue, is “the policeman is overworked, undertrained, underpaid, and undereducated” and immersed in a law enforcement culture that ignores social factors that help to explain and contextualize protests (1969, 288). The report itself is an effort (I think) to promulgate some of this context:
our research finds that mass protest is an essentially political phenomenon engaged in by normal people; that demonstrations are increasingly being employed by a variety of groups…; that violence, when it occurs, is not usually planned, but arises out of an interaction between protestors and responding authorities; that violence has frequently accompanied the efforts of deprived groups to achieve status in American society; and that recommendations concerning the prevention of violence which do not address the issue of fundamental social and political change are fated to be largely irrelevant and frequently self-defeating. (1969, xix-xx) 
They later elaborate “that mass protest is an outgrowth of social, economic, and political conditions” and not the “‘weakness of the human soul’” (1969, 4).

Reading Skolnick, I feel somewhat more optimistic: with better police training, and greater social awareness, maybe we will see less police abuse. And we probably would---the question is how much less? Given the long-standing and structural biases against black people (and other people of color, for that matter), as evidenced so poignantly by the Adler article, training might not be enough. 

And here, I think more of Skolnick's earlier work, Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society (1966). In this work, Skolnick explores a kind of due process v. crime control  dilemma for the police, except that he terms it "the rule of law" v. "the practical dilemmas they face" (1966, vii) in carrying out the rule of law:
Are the police to be principally an agency of social control, with their chief value the efficient enforcement of the prohibitive norms of substantive criminal law? Or are the police to be an institution falling under the hegemony of the legal system, with a basic commitment to the rule of law, even if this obligation may result in a reduction of social order? How does this dilemma of democratic society hamper the capacity of the police, institutionally and individually, to respond to legal standards of law enforcement? (1966, 1) 
The police in democratic society are required to maintain order and to do so under the rule of law. As functionaries charged with maintaining order, they are part of the bureaucracy. The ideology of democratic bureaucracy emphasizes initiative rather than disciplined adherence to rules and regulations. By contrast, the rule of law emphasizes the rights of individual citizens and constraints upon the initiative of legal officials. This tension between the operational consequences of ideas of order, efficiency, and initiative, on the one hand, and legality, on the other, constitutes the principle problem of police as a democratic legal organization. (1966, 6, italics in original)
Here, Skolnick concludes rather pessimistically---things won't change unless we institutionalize respect for the rule of law (or due process/rights perspective of law enforcement).
the dilemma can never be resolved since it contains a built-in dialectic…. If this analysis is correct in placing ultimate responsibility for the quality of ‘law and order’ in American society upon the citizenry, then the prospectus for the infusion of the rule of law into the police institution may be bleak indeed…. Without widespread support for the rule of law, it is hardly to be expected that the courts will be able to continue advancing individual rights, or that the police will themselves develop a professional orientation as legal actors, rather than as efficient administrators of criminal law. (1966, 244-5). 

Update: While I'm at it, I should include a link The Guardian's "The Counted" site---a tally of "people killed by the police in the US."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! There's a Blue Code of Silence theme in the new NBC show Aquarius as well.