"They were virtually paralyzed”: America's historic struggle to control its police

Civilian review boards were supposed to help the voiceless police the police. Here's where it all went wrong

By Charles Davis

Published February 25, 2015 5:55PM (EST)

  (© Ap)
(© Ap)

“You can't break the law while enforcing it,” says New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. “And in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, police were breaking the law quite a bit.”

Whether things have actually gotten any better since then is of course a matter of dispute – many more people are in now prison and the war on drugs and war on terror only codified many of the aggressive, previously illicit police tactics that were once only condoned – but then as now the perception among much of the over-policed public was that those charged with enforcing the law were routinely breaking it without consequence. And in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in a number of major cities across the country, that perception spawned demands for reform, namely: the civilian review board, sold by liberal reformers as a sort of societal “safety valve” to prevent civil unrest – a way to let those people angry over brutal policing to blow off steam into a bureaucratic process rather than letting it spill out onto the streets.

The problem with that safety valve was that these boards had no actual power: while they could review complaints from the public that were previously dealt with by the police themselves, their disciplinary recommendations – the actual consequences – were mere recommendations: It was up to the chief of police to carry them out. And with prosecutors then as now unwilling to aggressively and consistently pursue cases against the very police they depend on to prosecute their other cases, the result was more of the same; de facto impunity made legitimate by having been the result of an opaque but official process.

Ultimately, then, those to whom the civilian review reform was supposed to give voice – namely the poor, predominantly people of color – continued to feel voiceless, their outrage over officially condoned abuse, racism and double-digit unemployment eventually expressing itself in the language of the unheard that would raise it voice again and again throughout the 1960s: the riot.

In August 1964, a false rumor that police in North Philadelphia had abused a pregnant woman was the spark that finally set the largely black community's simmering anger over police abuse ablaze. For three days people rioted, looting primarily white-owned businesses in the still economically depressed neighborhood around Temple University. “We want freedom!” a crowd chanted while marching over the broken glass of storefront windows, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Local NAACP leader Cecil B. Moore called for calm on the street that was at the center of action – and which today bears his name – but was answered with jeers and a few rocks. When it was all over, over 300 people were hurt, one rioter was dead and there was $23 million in property damage.

Police and many conservative politicians were quick to dismiss poverty and racism as the root cause of the unrest. Time magazine proclaimed the violence “even more senseless than most,” dismissing high unemployment and the fact that blacks made up 40 percent of the city's prisoners but just 19 percent of the population as contributing factors to confidently conclude that the blame “could not even be placed on both races, since the riot was all-Negro and it was unprovoked by any incident that could conceivably be considered a civil rights violation.”

The real problem, according to the narrative preferred by those in power, was that the nominal oversight of police that Philadelphia enjoyed – that toothless nod toward civilian review of the actions taken by those who ostensibly serve and protect them – had in fact prevented the police (according to the police) from restoring law and order as quickly as they otherwise might have. Too afraid to crack a skull, cops were forced to let an angry and disenfranchised minority destroy a city, or at least their part of it.

“[W]here there is an outside civilian review board the restraint of the police was so great that effective action against rioters appeared to be impossible,” wrote FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a 1964 report to Congress on civil unrest in America's cities (only two cities he examined had such a board: Rochester and Philadelphia). “This restraint was well known in the community and the rioters were thereby emboldened to resist and completely defy the efforts of the police to restore order,” he argued (only one person died in the Philadelphia riot, a civilian, which lasted half the time of that year's riot in Harlem). “In short, the police were so careful to avoid accusations of improper conduct that they were virtually paralyzed.”

That liberal politicians had tied the hands of law enforcement became the preferred explanation for the unrest that rocked the 1960s among politicians and pundits disinclined to consider poverty and race. W. Cleon Skousen, a former FBI special agent under Hoover turned Salt Lake City police chief turned prolific Cold Warrior, wrote in his 1966 book, The Communist Attack on U.S. Police, that independent oversight of the police was actually a Moscow-directed plot to undermine America – an attempt to “get the police out from under the control of elected officials and subject the police to the discipline of a 'civilian' group with the [Communist] Party could infiltrate and control.” No city, wrote Skousen, “can do its police a greater disservice than subjugate them to the intimidating influence of an unprofessional civilian review board.”

At the time, the argument that subjecting to police to the strappings of democracy – to the judgment of the “unprofessional” masses – was a red plot to undermine law and order was not automatically dismissed as mere crack-pottery (“No one is better qualified to discuss the threat to this nation from communism,” President Ronald Reagan would say of Skousen). By 1969, Philadelphia had done away with its civilian review board, heeding the advice of J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Rizzo, who rose from head of the city's riot squad in 1964 to police commissioner in 1968 to mayor in 1971.

For the next quarter of a century the city's police functioned without any civilian input on discipline; the Philadelphia Police Department would go on to bomb its own city in 1985, killing 11 people inside in the headquarters of the cult-like black liberation group, MOVE, and burning down over 60 adjacent homes in West Philly. After a 37 percent increase in complaints of physical abuse by officers between 1989 and 1991, the city council moved to reestablish a review board, liberal politicians selling the $250,000-a-year panel on the conservative grounds that it would ultimately save the city millions of dollars by resolving complaints of abuse before they ended up as litigation (“I think they should use the money to hire more police officers,” is how Michael Lutz of the Fraternal Order of Police reacted to the proposal).

Like the one scrapped in 1969, Philadelphia's review board “takes no authority away from the police,” as then-Councilman Michael Nutter told the press when he proposed the reinstatement back in 1992. Indeed, whether to carry out out the board's recommendations is up to the police commissioner (and when the commissioner does fire someone for misconduct, 9 out of 10 eventually get their jobs back). Powerless to actually punish wrongdoing, it's not even clear the civilian review board can reliably expose it, either: In 2010, former chief inspector Wellington Stubbs claimed that he was forced to resign after helping reporters at the Philadelphia Daily News produce a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on corruption within the city's Narcotics Task Force. After helping push for its creation 17 years before, Nutter – now mayor – was illustrating the limitations of a powerless civilian review board whose members served at the pleasure of one elected official.

It's the same story across the country. In Salt Lake City, for instance, members of the public can complain all they want about the police to a civilian review board, but the chief of police has “complete and final authority over all disciplinary decisions.” In New York, Police Commissioner Bratton disregards the disciplinary recommendations of his city's civilian oversight board more than a quarter of the time. In Los Angeles, when protesters packed a meeting to talk about the police killing of an unarmed 25-year-old named Ezell Ford, Police Commission President Steve Soboroff informed them that the case and others like it “cannot be discussed by the commission” – in fact, “It's a crime,” the commission barred from even talking about cases still under investigation (in the case of Ford, more than 5 months later).

“The problem I see here is the police agencies in this country are not democratic,” Sonny Lloyd, a high school teacher in LA, told the commission at that meeting. Like others who came to talk about police killings – there's nearly one every week in LA County – Lloyd used the pubic comment period not to appeal for action that the commission could not even take, but to comment on its undemocratic irrelevance. “No one here was elected by the public,” he noted. “At my school where I work everybody from the principal down to the janitor has to be hired by a council of students, teachers and parents.” The tension between communities and police is a consequence of the fact that these communities have no say in who's policing them, he argued. “They don't know these people.”

Indeed, for all the talk of community policing, most police officers do not live in the communities where they work. According to The New York Times, almost 400 police departments are also “substantially whiter” than the populations they patrol. And no officer, no matter what color they are or where they call home, need directly answer for their conduct to those in the communities they serve.

The idea of exercising direct, democratic control over the police is, like the civilian review boards it would replace, not exactly a new idea. In 1970, the Black Panther Party gathered signatures for a proposed amendment to the city charter in Berkeley, California, that called for handing “control of the police to community elected neighborhood councils so that those whom the police serve will be able to set police policy and standards of conduct.” The proposal called for dividing the city into four autonomous regions, each of which would have its own directly elected council with the power to set policy and discipline problem officers. The council would also appoint the commissioner to carry out its decisions, who – like the members of the council themselves – could be recalled at any time if their performance did not please the community which vested its power in them.

The proposal didn't go anywhere – the only thing most white reactionaries feared in 1970 more than the Russians were probably militant black nationalists – but the idea is worth taking up again. Why not? For a people so proud of democracy our politicians bomb other countries in the name of it, the idea of anything more directly democratic than a “representative” system that represents the interests of a wealthy few is often treated as alien and suspect. Is it that we do not trust ourselves? In a country where a person of color is shot and killed by a member of law enforcement almost every day – German cops, by comparison, fired 85 bullets in a year – it seems the police and politicians and political appointees are the ones who should not to be trusted. And with militarized cops so quick to pull the trigger, the “intimidation” of direct civilian oversight could provide the encouragement necessary for the police to exercise the restraint that J. Edgar Hoover and his paranoid comrades decried back in the 1960s.

Civilian review boards, whose members are unelected and which possess no real power to enforce accountability, may allow people to let off steam – at the meeting I attended in LA, a young man repeatedly called LAPD Chief Charlie Beck a “coward” to his face – but their existence, now as before, hasn't convinced the thousands of people taking to the streets to protest police brutality that they serve the cause of justice. District attorneys are too reliant on the cooperation of law enforcement to aggressively or even with any consistency pursue incidents of police abuse. And the election of county sheriffs, like the election of other politicians, shows that democracy which isn't direct – which invests the power of the people in the hands of one powerful person, representing millions, who can't be recalled when the community feels its not being adequately represented – is hardly worthy of the name. “We need community control of police,” Margaret Kimberly, a columnist for Black Agenda Report, told me when I asked what should be done about police brutality. “Not community affairs, not PR, but true hiring and firing decisions in the hands of citizens.”

Delegating power to professional politicians and letting the police engage in the task of policing themselves has been tried and led us to where we are today, where in every major city and moderate size town there can be found the friends and family of an unarmed person killed by a cop. Instead of handing over control to the powers that be and expecting any real accountability in return, it's perhaps time the community empowered itself.

Charles Davis

Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles whose work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, The New Inquiry and Vice. You can read more of his writing here.

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