Assoc. Prof. Marilynn Johnson (History): "This is an issue that really does go way back. It's just not something that was a product of the 1960s. As I started to keep my eyes open to this issue in the 1990s - right around the time of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles - it seemed that police brutality was back in the news again." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Good Cops, Bad Cops
Historian Johnson takes a long look at police violence in New York
By Reid Oslin
Whether it has involved an angry police officer freely swinging his baton in an unruly crowd of immigrants or a street crime dragnet defined by racial profiling, police violence has long been a lightning rod for civic controversy in the United States.
Assoc. Prof. Marilynn S. Johnson (History) addresses the issue in a critically acclaimed new book, Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City, that she hopes could be a valuable tool for government leaders and law enforcement officials seeking to implement effective crime control strategies while maintaining the rights and liberties of the public they are sworn to protect.
Street Justice traces the history of police violence and law enforcement corruption in New York, ranging from the immigrant violence of the mid-1800s to the aggressive response to civil rights activities and anti-war demonstrations in the last 50 years.
The impetus for police violence as well as the brutality itself has changed over the years, says Johnson. In the late 19th century, illegal police violence was seen as resulting from the moral and political corruption of the Tammany Hall political machine. Later, the heavy immigration waves to New York turned the issue into a racial and ethnic problem. Recent concerns about public safety and national security could lead to new troubles, she says.
Studying the police violence itself, Johnson chronicles the changing cycles from unrestrained physical brutality to the "third degree" interrogation methods and the racial profiling of recent years.
"This is an issue that really does go way back," she said. "It's just not something that was a product of the 1960s. As I started to keep my eyes open to this issue in the 1990s - right around the time of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles - it seemed that police brutality was back in the news again.
"I started looking around to see what I could find about the history of the issue and there had been very little written about it."
Street Justice has received a number of favorable reviews since its publication. Kevin Baker of The New York Times called the book "a well-written, intelligent and at times even colorful examination of one of the perennial problems of urban life" and "an invaluable contribution to the histories both of New York and of American law enforcement is general."
Boston Globe reviewer James Alan Fox wrote, "Between the thin blue lines of Street Justice may be found a virtual manual for effective defense against... perils to our safety and security. It should be required reading in the police academy, if not more broadly."
A native of Long Island who attended graduate school in New York, Johnson decided to limit her research to just one city and discovered a relative abundance of resources available to her in New York. Her book also tracks the parallel growth of neighborhood and civic organizations dedicated to opposing brutality by law enforcement organizations and the occasional formation and effectiveness of various boards, commissions and statutes created to address the issue at a government level.
"In almost every case, you had tremendously divergent accounts," Johnson said. "That's why I chose not to try and write about individual cases - except those that were very publicized, litigated and written about - and resolve what I thought had actually gone on, but to look at larger patterns."
Johnson hopes Street Justice will help develop a more effective and long-term solution to the problem of police violence. "What I found was a sort of cyclical pattern of violence that would recur every 15 to 20 years, leading to new periods of public concern and public outrage about new episodes of police violence.
"I wanted to try and figure out what had changed over the years, what had been successful, what had worked in the past - a kind of template of reform that we could develop for the future.
"The angle I used in approaching this subject was often through the perspectives of victims and the civil rights organizations that represented them. I wanted to understand the problem itself and the language used to describe it, as well as the aspects of police violence and the kinds of violence that were emphasized at one time as opposed to another.
"I did find that there were areas where changes had been made fairly successfully," Johnson said. "One of my purposes in writing this book was to create some sort of institutional memory."
Johnson said her work on Street Justice came to a halt in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York when the city's police officers and fire fighters were suddenly lionized for their heroic efforts in the aftermath of the tragedy.
"It was difficult, being a New Yorker myself and being very much affected by the events of Sept. 11. I was completely paralyzed and unable to work on the book," Johnson said.
"I was distracted, like many people were," she said. "But one of the things that I noticed before long is how very quickly we were starting to see the same things come back into play, like how the police operated and some of the changes in how the police were responding to terrorism.
"The heightened concern with public safety and national security justified all kinds of new curbs on civil liberties and civil rights and brought out certain types of racial profiling."
Johnson sees a strong current trend to keep New York law enforcement on an even keel, offering strategies that can be used nationwide. "The Bloomberg Administration has done some really good things," she noted. "It has certainly changed the public perception of police. They are much more transparent in their dealings. They don't seem to have that combative Giuliani style that made assumptions that the victims [of police violence] were always wrong and the police were always right.
"There have been a lot of changes for the better [in New York], they have had fairly strong statements about orders on prohibiting racial profiling and banning street crime units, but these are the initiatives of one administration.
"How long will it last?" she asks. "The reform impulse wears off after a while and a new administration will have new crime fighting priorities that come up and then we forget that this stuff happened before, and we're right back where we were.
"There are other ways to do it," she said. "There have been studies of certain precincts and programs in the city that found ways of being tough without being abusive and treating everybody alike.
"We need to focus more on these kinds of experiments to try to find ways to have good, effective policing."