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America Has a Policing Problem, Part ∞

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This is a guest post by Simon Balto, Assistant Professor of History and Director of African-American Studies at Ball State University. His book, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, will come out next year from the University of North Carolina Press. He previously wrote this post for us. Expect to see more regular commentary here from Simon in the near future.

Dispatches from the Garden State:

Frank Nucera Jr., 60, who had been chief of the Bordentown Township Police Department, was arrested, and the charges against him were unsealed Wednesday. The allegations are notable for the blatant racism they describe in a law enforcement leader.

According to a criminal complaint in the case, filed in federal district court in New Jersey, Nucera frequently referred to African Americans by racial slurs and espoused violence toward them. In November 2015, for example, when he was talking to a subordinate officer about an African American man he believed to have slashed the tires of a police vehicle, Nucera said, “I wish that n‑‑‑‑‑ would come back from Trenton and give me a reason to put my hands on him, I’m tired of ’em. These n‑‑‑‑‑s are like ISIS, they have no value. They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad, I could do it,” according to the complaint.

Loomis asked me to do some writing for the blog, as an historian who specializes in race and policing in America. (As a longtime reader of LGM, I can only assume that this invitation signals the rapid decline of this once-proud site.) I’ve got a book coming out next year-ish on policing in black Chicago from that city’s infamous 1919 race riot up through the rise and fall of Black Power in the early 1970s. (This is intended to establish credentials, not make shameless plugs. The shameless plugs will come once the book is available to buy.) Spoiler alert: it is not a happy story.

One of the things that I encounter fairly often when I talk about my research, and about law enforcement officers now and past like Frank Nucera, is that people have a very dedicated wish to think that this sort of extreme and sometimes violent racism is an outlier component of American policing. This is incorrect. Opinions like Frank Nucera’s are fairly commonplace, even if Nucera can be accused of saying the quiet parts extra loudly. The Chicago-based Invisible Institute has a pretty remarkable website up for public exploration that’s known as the Citizens Police Data Project. It’s comprised of 56,000 complaint records filed since 2001 against officers with the Chicago Police Department, including literally hundreds of complaints against officers for racially driven verbal abuse. Bear in mind that those hundreds of complaints don’t account for acts of violence or force that are informed by racist logics or animated by racist opinions. Nor do they account for the fundamentally racist ways that police departments like the CPD are organized at a systematic level. (In terms of racist policies like stop-and-frisk and profiling.) All that’s captured there are incidents that involve officers allegedly using explicitly racist language in an interaction with a citizen.

The entire site contains a trove of depressing information, and is very navigable for those interested in understanding the actual dynamics of policing and police-citizen interaction. But for those without the time, let me summarize the basic gist: 1) officers do a lot of things that citizens find abusive, violent, and obnoxious; 2) charges are rarely sustained when channeled through the internal review system; 3) when charges are sustained, officers are even more rarely meaningfully punished; 4) most citizen complainants are black or Hispanic; 5) a majority of accused officers are white.

Let me offer the usual caveat that of course not all police officers in America are racist, whether racists of the Frank Nucera stripe or the quieter kind. The point, simply, is that no one should take any comfort whatsoever in the fact that Nucera was fired because he eventually got caught on tape saying the things that he’d probably believed for the duration of a police career that lasted thirty-three years. It is impossible to believe that Nucera’s behavior was some sort of sudden shift, or that it was not widely known throughout a department that he was promoted all the way the top of. Bordentown Township is not exceptional in allowing men like him to serve. There are men like him in American police departments everywhere.

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