U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Open Forum: Intellectual History and Policing

Image from here: http://imgur.com/a/tyJ9T#5

Image from here: http://imgur.com/a/tyJ9T#5

It would be pointless and fruitless for me to hide from USIH blog readers my feelings about recent events in Ferguson (Michael Brown), Cleveland (Tamar Rice), New York (Eric Garner), Ohio (John Crawford III), and on and on. I’m appalled. These are not tragedies, but travesties.

But, as always at USIH, when things seem bleak we try to look at problems historically. What does historical thinking bring to the table when the public discussion feels inadequate? With this post I want to open a forum on intellectual history and policing.

My professional experience with this topic is limited. In my work on Adler, I found that he attempted—with this colleagues with the Institute for Philosophical Research—to look into the history of policing. This occurred around 1970, in the context of police disorder and “police riots,” the latter phrase made popular coordinate with events at the 1968 Democratic Convention. I still own photocopies of what the Institute produced, but never found the time to study it. I think I’ll look for it tonight.

In the meantime, let’s talk. Some thoughts and questions:

1. What have intellectual historians done on the “broken windows” theory of policing? What still must be done?
2. How much work has been done on the thought of James Q. Wilson, or George L. Kelling?
3. What has been done on police riots?
4. What have legal-USIH historians done on use of lethal force by law enforcement? How does this differ state-by-state?
5. What have political-USIH historians done on the “get tough” politics of the 1970s and 1980s?
6. Surely there are Progressive Era roots in all of this. What do the SGAPE people have to say about the professionalization of law enforcement? Was it all about Taylorized efficiency, or were there substantial differences in administrative theories?
7. Apart from the work of historians like Robin Kelley on policing and blackness, what other interesting stories have turned up in histories of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality?
8. How have the ideas of tolerance and diversity affected the history of police work?
9. Have USIH’ers explored the work of Oscar Newman, particularly his 1972 book, Defensible Space, and “defensible space theory”?
10. As always I’m thinking about anti-intellectualism. Since the events in Ferguson, however, I’ve been thinking about popular anti-intellectualism in relation to police expectations. I mean, safety is more of a sensibility involving emotions and reason rather than reason alone. So how does anti-intellectualism figure into what we want and expect from policing?
11. What of police training and education levels? Some early research demonstrates that a college education provides police persons with the equivalent of nearly ten years of learning by experience. What is the history of police training?

That’s all I have for now. Let’s dive in together. The historical thinking will be therapeutic for me, and maybe for you too. – TL

30 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Tim, you ask some very good questions about the historiography of policing .Yet, I fear that in all the media discussion there appears to be a tendency toward demonizing the police. I am posting anonymously because I am both a historian and the wife of a man who spent 32 years in urban law enforcement. I fear being cast as married to a racist. My husband started as a street cop and ended as a homicide detective. His work was stressful, dangerous, sometimes gruesome, in which he saw his co-workers killed, and countless devastated victims. At times, he was more a social worker looking for services than a cop looking for criminals. A large percentage of the victims where people of color.

    I am torn; on the one hand, I understand the systemic nature of racism and grieve particularly for young men of color who live under racist suspicion. Having sons, I can not imagine the worry of their parents. So, I understand the protest. One of my sons, the son of a cop, has joined in the protest.

    On the other hand, most officers are good people who struggle to do a dangerous job every day. My husband was motivated by fairness and justice; only to see within the system situations of injustice he was powerless to confront. He has also saw the change in the police from one that was there to protect the people, to the militarization of the police to protect the government from the people. He has opposed all militarization of the police that is now part of the national security state to protect from all threats foreign and domestic without a difference.

    I fear that the police is being painted with the broad brush of brutality. Words are powerful eroding trust and further alienating the police from the people they serve. We do this at our peril. So the question is what is it that we want the police to do? How can we stop the militarization of the police? How do we hold other social systems accountable whose failure making police intervention (and prison) the last resort? How do we reconnect the police to the communities they serve?

    The problems are complex, dynamic and systemic, so let’s not hang it all on the police. If one does not understand, find a cop and talk to him. If we don’t like how policing and grand juries are doing let’s change the law. I sympathize with peaceful protest, believing they are good in keeping the system honest; change will only come through constructive dialogue, mutual understanding, and action. Most of this will not happen by greater federal intervention but by community initiatives.

    • Thanks for this. I pray that this post doesn’t come off as putting all the blame on law enforcement. The systemic problems most certainly transcend individual officers and their work.

      This makes me wonder how much cuts in funding to public services have affected the delivery of various trainings and educational courses that would up the competency of police to deal with tricky situations. It also makes me wonder how much pressure our current economic extremes have put on police to be policing on behalf of the upper 1 percent? Who is the existing “order” defending and protecting? – TL

  2. A great starting point on this subject is Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s book The Condemnation of Blackness, which is almost two books in one: an intellectual history of the association between blacks and crime in Northern cities from 1890-1940 (largely by following discussions within the developing social science professions), and to some extent in its later chapters, a political/social history of local activism against police brutality in Philadelphia, showing how racialized conceptions of criminality played out in day-to-day confrontations.

      • No problem! I am actually hoping to teach it to a seminar next semester, and will be curious to see what others think of it.

      • Ray: I’m so sorry I missed that post. I guess, at the time, I was still sorting out my feelings about the mess that is policing black communities.

        Otherwise, I’m surprised that this post is generating so little conversation. Perhaps the scholarship really is thin? Or maybe people are looking into the scholarship, trying to figure out the historiographic lay of the land? – TL

  3. Tim- in response to your last question (for some reason I don’t see a button to reply directly to it)- I think maybe the issue is not so much that the literature is thin, but that it’s still percolating. I can think of a dozen dissertations and books in progress on related topics just among the ones I happen to know of, working on policing, “tough on crime” politics, etc.- so I think it is a literature that may be somewhat thin now (depending how you frame it, and at least as to more recent time periods) but will not be in 5 years or so.
    A few very recent publications perhaps of interest (neither of which I’ve read yet) include Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-first-civil-right-9780199892785?cc=us&lang=en&
    and Megan Ming Francis’s new book on NAACP anti-lynching work:

    All that said- on the specific subject of juvenile justice and how race intersects with ideas about childhood/innocence/delinquency etc., there is an enormous social history literature going back a few decades that may be of interest, although not intellectual history per se. A good starting point might be the revised edition of Tony Platt’s The Child Savers which was reprinted with a number of other scholars’ historiographic essays on the subject:

  4. On the “broken windows theory” of policing (from here):
    In 2004, James Q. Wilson told an interviewer that broken windows “was a speculation.” “I still to this day do not know if improving order will or will not reduce crime.” But there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that points to the policy as an important factor in reducing crime. Kelling has said, “The burden’s on the other side to [show] there is no link between disorderly conditions and serious crime,” and the various rather far-flung attempts by its critics to discount its influence on what in the late 1990s was known as the “New York Miracle” have been neither quantifiable nor convincing.

    • Another excerpt from the NYRB piece (linked to just above) that goes to intellectual history (bolds mine):
      The broken windows theory was never meant to be the arrest machine that it became in practice. The objective wasn’t law enforcement, but order enforcement. What Kelling and Wilson did not want was for police to be “governed by rules developed to control relations with suspected criminals,” because the police actions they advocated “probably would not withstand a legal challenge”—apparently they were referring to unwarranted searches and roughing up those who resisted. In other words, show them whom the streets belong to and let the niceties of constitutionally protected civil liberties fall by the wayside—and do it on the street itself. But don’t haul them in, if you don’t have to. “I’ve never been long on arrests as an outcome,” Kelling recently told The New York Times. This may not be an especially humane style of policing, but it’s very different from incarceration as a first resort.

  5. Perhaps 95% of these recent happenings could easily and simply be avoided if every police officer were armed with a taser pistol and of course if the perpetrator heeded the officer’s commands. Yes?

    • Provided those demands are reasonable—which is the point of thinking about police policies related to “broken windows theory.” Arrests and commands are less likely to be resisted if the so-called perpetrator feels she/he isn’t being targeted because of skin color and the topic on hand isn’t trivial. – TL

    • Tasers are lethal. Hundreds of people have been killed over the past several years by being electrocuted with tens of thousands of volts. The liberal political blogger known as Digby has done an excellent job of documenting the numerous instances of police use of tasers. Check out this story, of an elderly white man in the high crime area of Marin County California tasered for refusing to go to the hospital for after falling down in his yard.

      http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/stop-resisting-this-could-easily-be-any.html (He did receive a $1.9 million dollar settlement. Being white his pain and suffering matters.)

      Walk your dogs without a leash, you could be tasered.


      I think this was an important post by Professor Lacy. I think part of the problem is a lack of works by historians. The works I know of on the “broken windows” theory of policing have been done by sociologists. Also, police policies are created via the political process, so one needs to examine the political rationales used to justify definitions of criminal behavior. For example, there has never been shown a correlation that marijuana use is a gateway drug to harder drugs, or a correlation between pornography and sex crimes, or that capital punishment deters crime. Yet the public and our elected officials beliefs have no basis in reality.

  6. I apologize for not being able to chime in sooner, but I’d like to bring everyone’s attention to a special issue of the Journal of African American History–the Spring 2013 Issue, was was dedicated entirely to “African Americans, Police Brutality, and the U.S. Criminal Justice System: Historical Perspectives.”

    I’m not sure how many of you will have access through JSTOR, but here it is. http://www.jstor.org.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/stable/10.5323/jafriamerhist.98.issue-2

    I’m going to write tomorrow’s post partially around what they’ve talked about in this issue, and of course add in some of my own ruminations about black intellectuals in the 1960s–and beyond–on the relationship between the police and African Americans. Again, thanks Tim for doing this open forum.

  7. This was pointed out on the Facebook page, but I want to direct readers of this post to this piece by Slate, published December 5 and authored by Justin Peters. It serves as a short history of the “broken windows theory” of policing. – TL

  8. He’s not a historian, but Bernard Harcourt (University of Chicago) has done some really fantastic work on this front.

    His most recent book, The Illusion of Free Markets, actually does a pretty good job of presenting and critiquing the intellectual history of punishment. His book “Illusion of Order” offers a thorough theoretical critique of Wilson’s broken windows theory.

  9. These are all great questions. Thank you, Tim for getting us going.
    There was a lot of important work done in the burgeoning field of radical criminology on these questions by Tony Platt (The Childsavers) and others in the 60s and 70s at UC-Berkeley (before the Criminology School was disbanded and reborn as “Law and Society”). However, the archives of the journal Social Justice provide some trails for those interested to follow. This issue might be a good place to start. http://www.socialjusticejournal.org/?product=40th-anniversary-issue-legacies-of-radical-criminology-in-the-us-vol-401-2
    My piece in the issue addresses some of the debates btw liberal and radical criminology. The radical criminologists were debating with Kelling and Wilson and crew.
    In addition, the book that they produced–*The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove*–remains essential reading on the history and politics of policing.

    In addition, Stuart Schrader, who is finishing his dissertation at NYU is doing urgent work on this topic. He’s dug into the archives in extremely substantive ways to trace the intellectuals devising counter-insurgent policing strategies. http://www.stuartschrader.com/

    Another important text is Rebecca Hill’s *Men, Mobs, and Law*. Amongst other things, she draws on Ida B. Wells to discuss the theorizations of a police-mob continuum in different historical-geographies.

    • David, these links are so helpful! I was particularly interested in the Editorial on the Berkeley School of Criminology republished in Social Justice. Joseph Lohman was Cook County Sheriff and led major reforms of the jail in the 1950s. I had wondered about what happened to him at Berkeley.

      Folks new to the history of criminology might find some of the essays in the book “A Second Chicago School?: The Development of a Postwar American Sociology” helpful in building the context for people like Lohman who pioneered “applied criminology” in sociology departments that provides a bridge between earlier progressive criminology and the later radical critique. UChicago students from this era were key players on the Katzenbach commission, the federal and state LEAA apparatus, and many of the criminal justice programs established in the 1970s.

      Also- for those interested in looking at primary sources about policing and criminal justice topics, the Office of Justice Programs maintains a great abstracts database that has a lot of open access PDFs from the 1960s onward. https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/AbstractDB/AbstractDBSearch.aspx

  10. Great questions, Tim. I’m enjoying the conversation. I hope no one minds if I post a long response.

    I study the urban uprisings of the 1960s and “get-tough” policing in the twentieth-century U.S. “Broken windows” put a name on a set of police practices that predate the 1970s and even, in some form, World War II. All the hallmarks of modern urban policing—the weapons, the gear, the sophisticated statistical models—may have developed after the 1960s. The roots of our current War on Crime, however, lie in the urban rebellions of that decade. By 1968, a powerful retributive brand of law-and-order politics known as “get-tough” had achieved dominance. “Broken windows,” I’d argue, is a subset of that governing mindset. More concretely, it draws upon many of the practices that big-city police departments first implemented, albeit in more ad hoc fashion, after World War II.
    In the 1960s, “get-tough” was more explicitly racist. African Americans rebelled against police authority because officers used causal violence and racism to maintain order. Police routinely ordered people off of corners, solved run-of-the-mill crimes by arresting “suspects” on open-ended charges such as vagrancy or “suspicion of…,” detained interracial couples or groups, conducted massive sweeps rounding up hundreds of young black men over a single weekend. Sure, police executives, like Orlando Wilson, said they were just following the numbers. They put pins in maps where robberies and other violent crimes congested. With this method, they said they could predict, depending on the day of the week and the time of year, where certain crimes would concentrate. In the 1950s, they set up Tactical Patrol Forces to flood these areas on particular nights. They had names like “flying squadrons.” Every day, they frisked dozens, mostly young black men, brought them in for questioning and released them without charge. You got your freedom back, but now you were a “known criminal” to the police. It wouldn’t be long before you were picked up again.
    This was the “old” War on Crime before the War on Drugs—a war that dates at least to Prohibition, when northern urban police forces revived long-discarded vagrancy-type laws to arrest rich men like Al Capone who had “no lawful means of support,” to drive “bums” from Skid Row during the Depression, and round up young black men of the second ghetto who hung out on corners to gossip, talk politics, and pick up day work. This was the world of the dragnet.
    In the 1960s, “broken windows” was known as “aggressive preventative patrol.” It lacked a fancy social-scientific pedigree. It was the brainchild of Wilson, a cop and a reformer. It was hardly systematic. But the outcome was largely the same as it is today: a crackdown on poor urban black neighborhoods.

  11. Great questions and responses.

    I second David’s suggestion on looking at the “Iron Fist and and the Velvet Glove” on many of these issues.

    Just off the top I think a great resource on Broken Windows/ quality of life policing is also: Alex Vitale “City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics” (http://www.amazon.com/City-Disorder-Campaign-Transformed-Politics/dp/0814788181)

    One of the fascinating things I find in Los Angeles is the immediate adoption of Broken Windows terminology and practices by the LAPD in the 1980s (something I think gets missed in popular thought of it as a 1990s development) that really did, as Alex mentions, just extend similar approaches of earlier decades.

    My work on the 1960s period parallels much of Alex’s but with a focus on Los Angeles as well as the relationship between African American and Mexican American social movements with the police. Here we see the ways residents and activists responded to law and order campaigns, aggressive policing, and the war on crime with their own interpretation of law and order (and disorder) in cities based on ideas of fairness and justice in policing (largely through community control of the police). These sorts of groups active in the 1960s and 1970s offer interesting historical examples for our current crises albeit in a different historical context. Some of the work in the JAAH that Robert references gets at some similar themes of responses to police targeting of African American neighborhoods.

    As I final thought I recently returned to a less well-known book by Michael K. Brown “Working the Street: Police Discretion and the Dilemmas of Reform” published in 1981 on police discretion (http://www.amazon.com/Working-Street-Discretion-Publications-Foundation/dp/0871541904/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418270433&sr=1-8&keywords=michael+brown+police). He raises important questions about police bureaucracy, decision making, and state authority that I think help to tease out some of the ideas about individual officer intentions and the culture of a larger system.

  12. Hi all, sorry not to have seen this post earlier. Thanks, David, for mentioning my work. Very good posts by others already.

    Four points I would make, which I develop in my dissertation:
    1. Policing is an intellectual project. It relies on already produced knowledge and produces knowledge in its everyday activity (Condemnation of Blackness is excellent on this), but policing experts also engage in debates that reflect broad intellectual trends and move them forward.

    2. As a result, policing is also a particularly good object of analysis for those interested in feedback and reflexivity between intellectual production and on-the-ground implementation. Nils Gilman has called for this sort of reflexive thinking in analyzing modernization, and there’s no reason not to do the same for policing. It helps that in the period we’re discussing, modernization experts were in conversation with security types, as I show in my diss, and relied on them because they possessed knowledge/experience the theorists lacked. They also faced fascinating difficulties of translation from seminar room to interrogation room or squad car.

    3. Relatedly, I think that the relative paucity of historical work on policing in this period has left us with an impoverished understanding of how crucial law-enforcement thinkers and questions of crime were to the transformations after the 1960s we can all cite: neoliberalization, rise of new right, explosion of mass incarceration, globalization, rational choice thinking, whatever. The little bit of popular writing that has trickled out looking at Broken Windows, some of which is cited above, begins to hint at it, particularly by talking about intellectuals like Banfield. Max and Alex are both exactly right to say that Broken Windows describes something that was already happening. A key question then becomes why did it resonate as an intellectual framework when it did. How did it result from but also shape a new common sense?

    4. Also related to all the above is that these debates played out transnationally. This is a key aspect of my research. Because of the overlap with modernization thinking and because law enforcement was so deeply enrolled in the Cold War, the transformations of US law enforcement in advance of and especially in response to 1960s upheavals drew on experience of and knowledge about upheavals overseas.

    5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is a field where the intellectual work done by African American thinkers and activists has been way ahead of the game. Some of the basic insights/intuitions of people like George Jackson or even much less well known folks publishing in venues like The Black Scholar in the 70s are only now being “confirmed” by historical research using archival evidence.

    All in all, a fertile topic for research, indeed. Hope the conversations can continue.

    • Oh my goodness. Your first paragraph concisely stated the intuition behind my post. Thanks so much, Stuart. Please get back to work because it sounds like we need your completed dissertation book project YESTERDAY. 🙂 – TL

    • Thanks for this reply. Your points are well taken–especially your last one. African American intellectuals in the pages of “Black Scholar” and elsewhere were wrestling with these questions for decades. I’m definitely intrigued by your dissertation project!

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