When the Tough Get Going

This is the second of two articles.

In August 1982, superior officers of the New York Police Department gathered at the Police Academy to hear the words of George L. Kelling, director of the Kennedy School of Government's criminal justice program. Kelling was in New York to talk about an article from the March 1982 edition of the Atlantic Monthly that he co-authored with James Q. Wilson, Shattuck Professor of Government.

The article, "Broken Windows," urges policemen to spend more time maintaining order than simply making arrests. Such, "order-maintenance." Kelling and Wilson say, requires the use of tactics other than arrests to drive gangs, vagrants, and other "undesirables" from a neighborhood. Thus, they add, the streets seem more orderly, and therefore more safe.

But Kelling and Wilson's message is disturbing. Encouraging officers to break up groups of tough-looking teens whether they've broken any law or not leaves a lot of discretion in the hands of the cops--who may end up violating the rights of individuals judged by some unofficial standards to be "undesirable." Wilson and Kelling address this question.

We might agree that certain behavior makes one person more undesirable than another, but how do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?

We can offer no wholly satisfactory answer to this important question. We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer, except to hope that by their selection, training, and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority.

Not very reassuring. In fact, Wilson and Kelling propose that officers return to the good old pre-Warren Court days, when chasing out the "undesirables" meant using the old nightstick to keep the neighborhood under control. In big cities, where riots have erupted after incidents of police brutality, suggesting that active harrassment of "undesirables" might improve a neighborhood would further erode relations between police and citizens. And there's always the nagging question of due process, to which even "undesirables" are entitled.

Appearing before the audience of New York policemen (one of whom brought his son to hear the lecture). Kelling summed up the advice he and Wilson had for policemen in one phrase: kick ass. So much for inculcating "a clear sense of the outer limit" of police authority.

This didn't go over too well with the audience of captains, inspectors, and chiefs. They remained stonily silent as Kelling explained that he and Wilson had deliberately chosen a provocative phrase to stimulate discussion. I remember wondering if this was why people study for years, get PhD's and become instructors at Harvard--so they can tell cops to have their patrolmen go "kick ass."

One officer asked if "kicking ass" was a wise thing to do, in light of all the troubles the department had faced a decade ago, the charges of brutality and so on. Kelling responded that the police were now more professional, more interested in doing a good job.

In the time since Kelling's speech, unfortunately, some New York policemen have followed his and Wilson's advice and indeed "kicked ass"--as is evident from the emergence of a congressional subcommittee now investigating police brutality in New York.

The following is a list of incidents of police brutality nationwide, culled from papers such as The Guardian, the Amsterdam News, and the Village Voice, all of which cover brutality cases thoroughly and more consistently than the big-circulation dailies. The Crimson published a list of brutality cases last January; this is a new list which gets longer every week. All the alleged victims in the following cases were Black, unlike the policemen involved.

Kicking Ass in Boston

*In 1975, police officers killed James Bowden Jr., an unarmed man with no criminal record who was returning from a nightly visit to his mother's apartment. The cops said they thought Bowden was driving a car reported earlier that day in connection with an armed holdup in Cambridge (they were wrong). The officers blocked Bowden from pulling away from the curb near his mother's housing project, approached the car and put three bullets in his head.

From there, the account gets confused. A new book, Deadly Force, and a recent Boston Phoenix article written by a reporter who was riding in the police car when the killing took place, both detail several apparent attempts to cover up the officers' wrongdoing. For instance, claims that Bowden fired at the officers and then threw the gun don't square with a pistol being found much later 200 feet from the scene, an impossible throw.

*A few weeks ago, 19-year-old Elijah Pate was shot dead by policemen who say he was trying to run them over in a stolen car. Two autopsies show that the officers lied about the incident. The bullets that his Pate struck areas of his body that couldn't have been exposed if, as the Boston police claim, they shot while he was trying to get away in the car.