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Policing and the Problems of “Reform”

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Continuing the week-long roundtable on my book over at the African American Intellectual History Society, historian Max Felker-Kantor weighed in yesterday to highlight the things my book points out implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) about the dangers of “fixing” policing simply through a reformist lens. (Felker-Kantor is the author of the superb book Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD.

[In the 1960s, CPD Superintendent Orlando] Wilson attempted to reshape the relationship between the police and the city’s residents. If the police officer on the beat would only treat all Chicagoans with respect and fairness, the long history of mistrust between the Black community and the police could be improved. But reining in discriminatory practices rested on a belief that for officers to aggressively fight crime they needed the ability to make arrests. To create such conditions, Wilson, as police reformers did in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, looked to expand police power by advocating for greater discretion for police officers to make arrests.2 Aided by the Supreme Court’s 1968 Mapp v. Ohio decision, which rolled back some of the limits related to stop-and-search practices, Wilson pushed forward a new strategy of aggressive preventive patrol to control crime on Chicago’s streets. As Balto succinctly puts it, “Arrests were the strategy’s entire point.” (159)

What developed in Chicago should look eerily familiar to anyone paying attention to policing in recent years. Arrest quotas and stop-and-frisk tactics became the norm. Unsurprisingly, Black Chicagoans bore the brunt of such police “reforms.” Even as Wilson adhered to the harm principle, which meant that officers should focus on crimes that materially harmed others, such an approach did not apply to Black and Brown communities. Aggressive preventive patrol required harsh punishment of crime. Noting that Wilson was a racial moderate, Balto shows the insidious nature of liberal reforms. Policies intended to ensure fairness actually led to even more inequitable and racist policing. Employing the use of crime statistics as a supposed neutral indicator of crime without considering the racist structure of policing, violence, and structural inequality of the growing urban crisis, for example, Wilson released the police department to continue the overpolicing and underprotecting of Black life. Because the policy was based on the theoretically neutral metric of crime rates, Wilson enabled racist policing under the guise of objectivity and fairness.

Under Wilson — not to mention the Daley administration — the only way to combat crime in Black neighborhoods was to send in more police. Here is where Balto makes an important departure from other scholars who look to the role of the federal government in expanding the police power after the 1960s.3 The growth of the CPD’s budget — as was the case in Los Angeles with the LAPD — coincided with the federal War on Crime but “doesn’t mean it happened because of it.” The local level was not governed by federal policy, especially when it came to the police, something that we continue to see as local police departments routinely seek to insulate themselves from any government oversight whatsoever and to expand their authority within municipal politics. Indeed, federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) funds often represented only a small fraction of local police budgets. This is not to say that federal funding was unimportant. While Balto is convincing and his point reflects my own work on the LAPD, attention to how the War on Crime and LEAA funds aided the CPD and other police departments in their political project to expand their authority is worth noting.

Within this context, Wilson attempted to make sweeping reforms aimed at regulating officer behavior and bringing accountability to the police, such as establishing new promotional exams, streamlined and hierarchical lines of communication, and, most importantly, the establishment of an Internal Investigations Division. As with many police reformers, however, Wilson faced resistance from rank and file officers and the Chicago Patrolman’s Association. As a result, accountability measures were limited in implementation and, as was often the case, Black residents faced the brunt of this failure in the form of police brutality and violence.

Balto provides a window into the complex interplay of police violence, aggressive preventive patrol, and community violence. Community violence, mostly a result of gang activity, surely expanded in the 1960s. Yet, as Balto astutely shows, the growth of crime rates in Chicago occurred after Wilson implemented the aggressive preventive patrol policies. More policing did not necessarily produce a safer city. In fact, it coincided with the city becoming less safe. (179)

Why is this important? It demonstrates that in order to fully historicize violence and crime in American cities, we must see the police as central actors in the story contributing to such conditions and not as merely neutral crime fighters.

Wilson’s efforts at professionalization, modernization, and reform also ran headlong into Chicago’s freedom movement. Discontent with the expanding urban crisis and the rebellion in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. exposed Wilson and the limits of professional policing. Wilson’s commitment to containing threats to law and order effectively overrode whatever commitment he may have had to anti-discrimination or fairness in policing. Or as Balto puts it, “once again, black freedom was less important than law and order.” (186)

Wilson retired abruptly in 1967. The lessons from his tenure reveal truths about policing both past and present. Modernization of police forces and racial repression were joined at the hip, a common thread that we can point to in city after city as police department’s modernized and professionalized. Professionalized policing did nothing to restructure policing in Chicago, or Los Angeles or New York for that matter, and Black communities continued to bear the brunt of an institution aimed at containment and control.

Perhaps what Balto shows most clearly in this chapter — and the book as a whole — is that any discussion of police reform without considering political economy, the protection of capital, and the role of the police in maintaining order above all else fail to understand a fundamental truth: that the problem of policing is the police power itself. As a result, reform is not only doomed to fail but has the potential to create more inequitable and racist outcomes. When we hear politicians and law enforcement officials talk about “reform,” in other words, we should heed the warning implicit in Balto’s history of Orlando Wilson: professionalization aimed at advancing “police objectives” provided a means to institutionalize racist repression as police department policy under the guise of something seemingly benign.

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