The title, “Street Justice:A History of Police Violence in New York City,” says it all. Police brutality is an integral part of law enforcement history in the United States. Marilynn S. Johnson uses the history of the organized police force in New York City because it is the oldest (1841) and the largest (up to 40,000 at times) in the country.
The history is cyclical, going through phases of violence, corruption and reform. The targets of the violence have never varied – the poor, the working class, political dissidents and ethnic minorities.
From the point of view of its victims, police were seen as protecting the upper classes. Police violence only came under scrutiny when “decent” people became victims, usually accidentally.
Many police see themselves as part of the upper classes – the enforcers of social values – even while the upper classes see them as ignorant brutes. As a rule, the upper classes were willing to tolerate police corruption, seeing it as a small price to pay for having them do their brutal work.
Police are guaranteed a steady living. Unlike other workers, they typically are not threatened by layoffs or pay cuts. These conditions allow them to see themselves separate and apart from the community of workers and even allow them to see striking workers as their enemy.
Because their targets are the powerless, police act with virtual impunity. One constant in the history of police brutality has been singling out African Americans for harassment.
Who is poor, who is an immigrant, who is working class – all of these have shifted over time. But African Americans, no matter their social status – in fact, regardless of class – have never stopped being in the sights of police violence. There is now a saying, “(Fill in the blank) while Black”: walking, driving, etc.
Johnson observes that when police respect the community and brutality goes down, so does all crime. As the number of citizen fatalities by police goes down, police fatalities are reduced as well.
Over the years, reform measures have worked. Billy clubs were changed to a lighter material and then abandoned; firearms training improved; now every gunshot fired must be accounted for.
What Johnson does not make clear as well as she could is who the police really work for – that they are the gatekeepers for the moneyed classes.
Overall, this book is an insightful and instructive look at law enforcement in the United States.
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