Street Justice

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Marilynn S. Johnson. Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. $30.00 (Hard Cover). ISBN: 0807050237


The reoccurring public outrage over police brutality facilitated debate among scholars regarding long-term patterns of police violence. While some scholars argued that police brutality represented a timeless byproduct of a violent urban environment, other scholars such as Paul Chevigny argued that police violence decreased with the advent of a professionalized police force responsive to the public’s demand for the protection of civil rights and civil liberties (1-2, 307 n. 1). Marilynn S. Johnson chronicled police brutality and violence in New York City since the inception of the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 1845, using the department’s history of violence as a case study to explore new avenues of historiographical debate. Using newspaper accounts, magazine articles, government reports, and secondary sources, Johnson argued that police violence did not represent a linear progression or regression, but a phenomenon redefined over time based on social, political, and economic context.

Methods of police brutality and violence changed over time, a result of shifting socio-economic and political circumstances. As Johnson showed, “[m]ost of the early conflicts did not involve weapons, but growing public hostility would soon prompt officers to adopt tougher tactics, which in turn bred greater public hostility.” The poor relationship between the NYPD and the community led Captain George W. Walling to create “strong-arm squads” that carried clubs, enabling officers to senselessly beat members of the criminal element. As a result, the practice of “clubbing” was born (15, 19). The NYPD started to incorporate another form of police brutality by the early 1880s. When the state legislature allowed all confessions except those “when both parties agreed that abuse or coercion had occurred,” police officers started to administer the third degree to suspects in an attempt to garner confessions, incorporating starvation, sleep deprivation, and psychological intimidation (122-4).

Police brutality also contained elements of race and class. As Johnson maintained, “victims of police brutality were mainly poor and working class, often immigrants or newcomers to the city. Jews and other southern and eastern Europeans were common complainants at the turn of the century, while African Americans and Latinos gradually replaced them by the mid-twentieth century” (4). The Tenderloin Riots exemplified the racialization of police brutality. As Johnson showed, African Americans represented sixteen of the nineteen people arrested. Nearly one-third of the blacks arrested later testified that police abused them at the station. Moreover, William Elliott, an armed hotel bellman arrested during the riot, recalled how police targeted African Americans who carried weapons in an effort to protect themselves from street mobs. The racial aspects of the Tenderloin Riots resulted in the development of defense leagues like the Citizens’ Protective League (CPL) which served as a forerunner to civil rights organizations that would highlight the racial aspects of police violence during the twentieth century (60, 63, 86).

Public outcry over police brutality and violence represented a cyclical occurrence that netted limited reforms. As Johnson argued, “public scandals and investigations into police misconduct have recurred roughly every twenty years and have been followed by periods of reform. In succeeding decades, however, the reform impulse usually ebbed as new political and law enforcement priorities took hold” (5-6). Community oversight into police activity took the form of beat reporters, investigative committees, and, in the twentieth century, video footage. However, the methods of oversight only produced short-term results that collapsed when public attention waned. Johnson, though, noted that new civil rights and civil liberties groups like Amnesty International have formed broad-based coalitions to oversee political activities. Nonetheless, efforts to curb police brutality and violence continued to produce limited results. The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), for instance, has faced budget cuts and changing departmental priorities since the mid-1970s, which, in turn, reduced the number of substantiated cases of police misconduct. As a result, minority groups expressed little confidence in the CCRB’s ability to curb police brutality (6, 283, 293, 304).

Johnson argued that major obstacles remain before anti-brutality activists can break the cycle of police brutality in New York. As Johnson noted, “[o]ne of the main obstacles to such change is the persistent belief that effective law enforcement requires tough, ruthless tactics, and that abusive behavior must be tolerated as the accepted cost of fighting crime.” The Mollen Commission, for instance, showed that police officers used brutality as a means of showing power, subduing defiance, and commanding respect, while simultaneously proving their toughness and loyalty to fellow officers. Moreover, public advocate Mark Green maintained that the NYPD followed a policy of strict punishment on minor offenses as a means of preventing larger crimes (288, 300, 304). Johnson thus argued that anti-brutality activists need to promote successful experiments that illustrate respectful and effective police work, concluding that reduced police brutality will result in improved law enforcement and public safety (305).


Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Johnson engaged her audience by connecting them to people who directly experienced violent police action and the subsequent political ramifications. For example, Ira Wallace, a homeless and unemployed man from Harlem during the Great Depression, was shot to death during an attempted burglary. Wallace’s killing showed how Communists used police brutality as a means of attracting membership. As Johnson stated, “Wallace’s status as a lawbreaker did not prevent the [Communist Party] from defending him, while his impoverished and homeless state became prima facie evidence of police terror against the unemployed” (186). Meanwhile, the death of Amadou Diallo, a street vendor without a criminal record, prompted black political activists such as the Reverend Al Sharpton to engage in civil disobedience activities based on the anti-apartheid movement (297). The wealth of detail which Johnson provided lends an engaging and persistent quality to her discussion on police brutality and violence.

However, Johnson’s analysis lacked objectivity, highlighting a methodological flaw that hindered the overall quality of her study. As Johnson stated, “[w]hile the voices of antibrutality activists are well documented in this study, the police perspective is more elusive, reflected primarily through the mayor’s office and the press” (10). She thus based her analysis on sources generated by anti-brutality activists and victims of police brutality. To compound matters, Johnson’s analysis quickly dismissed the viewpoints and arguments of police advocates. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani argued that the police brutality in the Abner Louima case represented an aberration, she swiftly pointed out that “[a]ntibrutality activists rightly disagreed” (296). Johnson, moreover, tended to adopt anti-brutality positions, calling for an end to police violence through departmental transparency and citizen oversight (11, 305).

Johnson’s stance reflected the position of an activist and not that of a scholar, missing an opportunity to explore the nuanced aspects of police brutality and violence. By calling for the reduction of police brutality, she overlooked the paradoxical nature of law enforcement. Violent police measures protect citizens from violent criminals seeking to do harm. At the same time, the violent tactics employed by police leave innocent, law-abiding citizens vulnerable to illegitimate actions by the state under the guise of public well-being. Johnson failed to explore this important paradox. As a result, her analysis suffered. Johnson’s study contained a wealth of detail, but, by failing to explore the more nuanced aspects of law enforcement, she did little to advance the historiographical discussion on the role of the police within a diverse and divided urban environment.

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