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In their 1969 staff report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, the sociologist Jerome Skolnick and his team of researchers stated that police forces throughout the United States “view students, the anti-war protestors, and blacks as a danger to our political system” and cited a study that concluded that beat cops “see themselves as the political force by which radicalism, student demonstrations, and Black Power can be blocked.” Invoking escalating justifications from law and order to national security, local officers used their coercive power to pursue explicitly ideological goals and vent their hostility on a decadent political culture.
Fast-forward to 2002. In a case referenced by Dan Richman in his article, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that beginning in 1999 the Denver police department had kept a computer database tracking the activities of 3,200 individuals and 208 organizations deemed to be “criminal extremist groups.” The database included members of the American Friends Service Committee and Amnesty International, Catholic nuns and an 82-year-old great-grandmother. According to the Los Angeles Times, the police believed that all of these individuals and organizations “bore watching.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la mème chose.
I mention these facts to make two points. First,although Richman admirably addresses the threat to civil libertiesposed by his recommendation for greater coordination between federalagencies and local police departments in the war on terrorism, he misconstrues the nature of that threat. According to Richman, thespecter hovering over his proposal is the COINTELPRO abuses of the1960s, “when the feds . . . urged the locals to create‘intelligence units’ to gather and disseminate information onpotential ‘civil disorders.’” Richman suggests that most policeofficers, left to their own devices, seek “to protect persons andproperty within their respective jurisdictions” and “to ensurelocal peace.” But once the feds get involved, they may “dragoonlocal police departments into a federally dominated, and potentiallyrepressive, national intelligence network.”
This argument, itseems to me, gets it exactly backward. What history demonstrates isthat police officers often use their powers, with or without federalprompting, as instruments of larger political purpose. The danger ofcooperation between federal agencies and local police is not that theformer will conscript the latter into repressive programs the latterwould not otherwise pursue, but that it allows the police to applythe legitimizing gloss of national security to their own pet projectsof repression. During the McCarthy era, for example, southernpoliticians and law-enforcement officers used the language ofanti-communism to outlaw the NAACP and to arrest and indictcivil-rights leaders for sedition. In the Denver case alreadymentioned, the police used the rubric of domestic security to keeptrack of not only the groups cited above but also a localorganization working against police brutality in the city. This pastsummer, during the Republican Party convention in New York City, theNYPD preemptively arrested more than 1,500 protesters—some of themobstreperous, virtually all of them nonviolent—as well as innocentbystanders. How did the mayor justify the arrest and prolongeddetainment of these individuals? By drawing parallels, according toThe New York Times, “between verbally abusive demonstrators and theSept. 11 terrorists.”
Not to worry, Richman suggests.Times have changed. Today’s police departments are more sensitiveto community concerns, particularly those of minorities. Acombination of civilian review boards and greater electoral cloutamong these communities has forced public officials to use theirpower judiciously, resulting in the happy situation where a “policeofficer who seeks [counterterrorism] information from a localArab-American leader” will have “probably met and assisted thatleader before—protecting his property, ironing out someadministrative complexity, or ensuring his safe worship.” AlthoughRichman is careful to say that it’s not exactly your father’spolice department anymore, he believes that the collaboration oftoday’s reformed police with federal agencies has the potential toproduce more scrupulous counterterrorism efforts and greaterprotection of civil liberties.
I wish there were reason tobe so sanguine, and this leads to my second point: as the Denver and New York cases illustrate, Richman vastly overstates the changes inlocal policing. Only slightly more than half the states in the entirecountry have cities or towns with civilian oversight agencies of somesort—and many have only one such city or town. Most of theseagencies are notoriously weak, with the local mayor and police makingmost of the appointments. In liberal New York City, the mayor and police commissioner appoint eight out of the Civilian ComplaintReview Board’s 13 members. Richman himself acknowledges that “alot of the revolution in policing has been rhetorical,” and thereality bears him out.
Virtually all the examples of good policing in the war on terrorism that Richman cites come from the Detroit metropolitan area, where there is a longstanding Arab-Americancommunity with some electoral power. What Richman does not mention isthat outside of Dearborn, Michigan, there is not a single Americancity of more than 100,000 residents where people of Arab origin ordescent constitute more than four percent of the population. In eightof the ten American cities with the largest Arab-American populations(in terms of absolute numbers), Arab-Americans constitute less thanone percent. It is difficult to imagine how such small numbers, evenwhen concentrated in particular police precincts, could yield thenecessary political clout to force more sensitivepolicing.
Although Richman styles himself a realist, he is also a believer, a dreamer of an old American dream—that freedom is best protected through fragmented government institutions, through the federalist division of labor between national and local officials. But a close reading of American history—from the slave patrols to the red squads to the Denver police—reminds us that shattering and scattering government authority to the peripheries has been a boon, not a bane, to oppressors old and new. For if all politics is local in the United States, as Tip O’Neill reminded us, it stands to reason that a good deal of the political repression is as well."
Corey Robin, Associate Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, is author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea.
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