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New York - For Police, When It Comes To Law And Order, 'Order' Historically Comes First

Published on: December 24, 2014 10:00 AM
By: Reuters
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A woman reacts as New York City police officers push people out of an intersection in Times Square during a protest in New York, New York, 04 December 2014. EPA/MICHAEL NAGLEA woman reacts as New York City police officers push people out of an intersection in Times Square during a protest in New York, New York, 04 December 2014. EPA/MICHAEL NAGLE

New York - Police misconduct has ignited a political firestorm in New York and many other cities across the nation, not seen in quite some time. Relations between the public and the police are fraught with tension, mistrust and violence. Many are outraged. Politicians and the media are posturing and promising reform. The police are angry, feeling besieged.

It is all pretty ugly — and thanks to modern media it appears that things are worse than ever before. We can now watch video of people being killed. Protests can be organized, recorded and broadcast instantly. Guns make deadly confrontations easier to provoke.

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There are many reasons specific to this time that have brought us to this unhappy point in the relationship between the police and society. But the problem of police violence is hardly new.

New York Police Commissioner Bratton speaks as New York Mayor De Blasio looks on at a news conference at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York

In New York City, recent events have stirred memories of violent confrontations of the not-so-distant past, from Sean Bell and Abner Louima to the murdered policemen Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster. Violence, however, has always been inherent to policing, and its troubled history goes back much further than anyone alive can remember.

Police brutality has long been a source of tension between the police and the public. It has regularly provoked political controversy, as it did in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Then, and after, however, graft and corruption, not violence, have proved easier problems to address than the much thornier issue of brutality.

Modern militarily organized police forces first appeared in American cities in the 1840s, during the first great wave of urbanization and immigration in the United States. Their mission was not to detect or investigate crime, but to pacify what was then called “the dangerous class” — meaning young immigrants and unskilled workers. Violence was naturally intrinsic to this mandate.

Philadelphia’s first police force, for example, was created in 1845 as a direct response to vicious ethnic and religious riots the year before. Many of the new policemen were members of one of the warring factions — ensuring that some of the same violence would now be undertaken in the name of order.

Protesters observe a moment of silence in a chokehold gesture during a march at Grand Central Station for Eric Garner in New York

The expectation that the police should be violent was not so explicit elsewhere. But it was quickly understood. In neighborhoods where the “danger” was thought to be greatest, the goal of the police was to maintain physical control of the streets.

Patrolmen were armed with stout clubs in order to establish police authority over those who congregated in the streets. Typically, a policeman ordered people lounging on the street to “move on” — an instruction resisted at the peril of arrest. The mostly young men on the receiving end of such orders were seldom cowed at that prospect, however. Most patrolmen understood that the physical challenge implicit in a gang member’s refusal to move had to be met if the police were ever to truly have control of a beat. So out came the club.

In New York City by the end of the 19th century, this led to a virtual science of brutality among the police, using the instrument that gave them their advantage over civilians in the days before firearms. One New York police commissioner, a particularly honest and celebrated one, titled his autobiography Night Stick.

The most famous policeman of 19th-century New York, Alexander “Clubber” Williams, was known for saying that there was more justice at the end of his club than in all the courts of the land. Use of the club was so instrumental to the job of policing New York that the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens referred to it as an “art.”

tr as police commish

Williams gave an admiring Steffens instruction on the proper technique — how to club a man so that he would be neither killed nor battered, but instead knocked unconscious. “One lick,” Williams pointed out, “is always enough.”

He boasted to critics that clubbings were all that were needed for him to keep the peace on his beat. On Steffens’ recommendation, Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt gave a plum assignment to one of Williams’ most notorious protégés, happily expecting him to be his “big stick.” Another patrolman remembered how he “dispensed the law with the night stick, seldom bothering to make arrests” when he patrolled the Bowery district.

Patrolmen learned to initiate violence strategically, once they gained enough experience to be able to spot a likely recalcitrant in advance. They would sail into an aspiring tough “with that good old night stick, and believe me he would give up the idea of becoming a tough.”

In this way, police brutality toward working-class boys and young men became routine, with or without an arrest. Though there were many of those — more than 60,000 were arrested for disorderly conduct each year around the turn of the century.

The city was teeming with new immigrants — almost none of them represented on the police force — and the city was rife with ethnic conflict and misunderstanding. Police violence often had ethnic overtones, and their routine brutality against ordinary people helped fuel the crucial politics of police reform in fin-de-siecle New York.

A woman passes by NYPD officers as they stand guard while a small group of protesters demanding justice for the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Akai Gurley take part in a “die-in” at Grand Central Terminal in New York

The annals of the 1895 Lexow Commission hearings, which inaugurated the reform frenzy, include endless pages of testimony about police brutality in the most mundane of circumstances. The epochal municipal reformers of the Progressive era like Steffens and Roosevelt, however, found police violence much less troublesome than other forms of police misconduct, such as their protection of gambling and commercial sex, and their intimate role in political corruption.

The police had by 1900 largely become an arm of the Tammany Hall political machine. People wanting appointment to, or promotion within, the New York Police Department had to contribute substantial sums to the machine or one of its clubs. That only encouraged policemen to collect graft from illegal businesses in their districts, often operated by machine-connected businessmen.

It was in this context that the idea that police should “serve and protect” emerged. Before that there was never any sense that the police should have a role in social policy, in modern parlance, to be “social workers with guns.” But before police reformers ever concerned themselves with improving community relations and assisting people in need, or even fighting dangerous crime, they sought to break the machine in order to control the police and harness their violence in pursuit of reform ends.

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Not everyone agreed that the end of destroying corrupt politicians and fighting vice justified the continuation of aggressive and violent law enforcement. The most penetrating criticism came from New York State Supreme Court Justice William J. Gaynor, who was elected New York City mayor in 1909 largely on the strength of his criticism of police violence and abuse. He warned his fellow critics of the police not to “go into a reform which hopes to reform the world by means of a police club. Don’t go into a reform that takes for granted that the police are our masters instead of our servants.”

But Gaynor’s was a relatively lone voice in reform and political circles. The moment was missed. The police were wrested from machine control and became an instrument of social policy, which had many salutary effects, including improved police-community relations.

The vexing issue of police violence, however, was largely avoided. Violence remains at the core of police work, as it has been from its inception in American cities. It is less routine than in the 19th century, but far more lethal and militarized. The police have more amicable and structured relationships with urban populations than they did then, and cities are markedly more peaceable than they were. But the primary responsibility of the police to patrol the streets and maintain order, however defined, through the threat and sometimes use of serious violence, remains intact.

It’s both a thin blue line and a very slippery slope. If another moment for serious reform is again upon us, let’s hope we don’t miss it again.



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Read Comments (7)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Dec 24, 2014 at 10:26 AM esther Says:

reuters just plain stinks.

2

 Dec 24, 2014 at 10:42 AM fat36 Says:

Why is the problem with only a certain group of people's most other people's behave civilized and they do not run into any problems and yes they are cops that are rotten and should be handled The right way. This morning's news a black teenager pulls a gun at a police officer gets shot and there is a riot you tell me what's wrong with that picture

3

 Dec 24, 2014 at 12:26 PM blubluh Says:

The cutesy headline suggests that law must come before order, which sounds almost intuitive. However, is it always possible to have law in the face of disorder? Any degree of disorder?

One gets the impression that some critics of the police have zero-tolerance of violence by law-enforcement. They might agree in theory that there may be circumstances where some violence might be required, but not in practice.

Ironically, the same critics don't hold violent citizens to the same non-violence standard since they presume that violent citizens are less accountable for their actions.

We can only reach a consensus on appropriate police practices if we abandon our polarized views of those involved.

4

 Dec 24, 2014 at 02:56 PM yonasonw Says:

Reply to #3  
blubluh Says:

The cutesy headline suggests that law must come before order, which sounds almost intuitive. However, is it always possible to have law in the face of disorder? Any degree of disorder?

One gets the impression that some critics of the police have zero-tolerance of violence by law-enforcement. They might agree in theory that there may be circumstances where some violence might be required, but not in practice.

Ironically, the same critics don't hold violent citizens to the same non-violence standard since they presume that violent citizens are less accountable for their actions.

We can only reach a consensus on appropriate police practices if we abandon our polarized views of those involved.

As a law enforcement professional, my response to you is...So many words...such little substance.

One would expect some serious knowledge of Yiddishkeit before one would be justified to pontificate about hilchos Shabbos.

I for one apply the same standard here. This is a complicated issue which law enforcement management wrestles with all the time...there is real chochmah to be applied here...not just airy bs.

There is right on both sides of the issue. I am seriously "pro Blue," but that does not mean that that I deny that minorities, and specifically Blacks, have legitimate concerns here. As I have posted before, Black law enforcement officers themselves are often the most eloquent in describing the kind of abuses a Black man may be subject to out of uniform.

I ask the choshev and enlightened like yourself the following;

How do you think YOU would treat minorities on the streets of Brooklyn if you were in law enforcement . With an even hand? I doubt it…your anti-Black biases are lit up like neon lights.

5

 Dec 24, 2014 at 03:08 PM yonasonw Says:

Reply to #1  
esther Says:

reuters just plain stinks.

Argumentum ad hominem...the refuge of one without anything substantive to say.

6

 Dec 24, 2014 at 10:09 PM esther Says:

Reply to #5  
yonasonw Says:

Argumentum ad hominem...the refuge of one without anything substantive to say.

tempus fugit so why would anyone waste an extra syllable on trash like Reuters.

7

 Dec 24, 2014 at 11:12 PM charliehall Says:

Reply to #4  
yonasonw Says:

As a law enforcement professional, my response to you is...So many words...such little substance.

One would expect some serious knowledge of Yiddishkeit before one would be justified to pontificate about hilchos Shabbos.

I for one apply the same standard here. This is a complicated issue which law enforcement management wrestles with all the time...there is real chochmah to be applied here...not just airy bs.

There is right on both sides of the issue. I am seriously "pro Blue," but that does not mean that that I deny that minorities, and specifically Blacks, have legitimate concerns here. As I have posted before, Black law enforcement officers themselves are often the most eloquent in describing the kind of abuses a Black man may be subject to out of uniform.

I ask the choshev and enlightened like yourself the following;

How do you think YOU would treat minorities on the streets of Brooklyn if you were in law enforcement . With an even hand? I doubt it…your anti-Black biases are lit up like neon lights.

Thank you. I praise HaShem that we have sensible dedicated people like you in law enforcement. May HaShem protect you as you go about you work protecting us.

8

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