Police Reform Won’t Fix a System That Was Built to Abuse Power

tags: racism, Police, police abolition

Stuart Schrader is associate director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing published by University of California Press.

By the end of the summer of 1964, after uprisings in Harlem, Rochester, and Philadelphia, among other cities, Lyndon Johnson’s aides began to think about a federal program to help police. As I show in my book, Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, one relevant bureaucratic model turned out to be the overseas police assistance program: deliver money and expertise from Washington to frontline police. The United States was doing it in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Early in 1965, Congress approved the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, a measure that would begin to do it from sea to shining sea.

IACP leaders played a key role in mobilizing a fractious constituency, chiefs unsure that it was in their best interest to support federal anti-crime legislation. Particularly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed public segregation, police were wary. They often believed that federal intervention meant they would be told how to do their jobs. Desegregation felt like federal overreach to many. Police asked: Would the federal dollars come with strings attached, with outside oversight? Tamm helped convince the chiefs that it would not. Instead, the money would help police innovate. Still, many IACP members “wanted more men and equipment—not studies and innovative programs.”

But the promise of any new money was difficult for chiefs to resist. Many police departments across the United States were as technologically backward as the Third World departments the National Security Council had decided to aid. Alongside Tamm, IACP members testified before Congress, often using the type of tough-on-crime rhetoric that would then be adopted by elected officials themselves. When a far more massive federal anti-crime bill came up for debate, the IACP threw its support behind it.

Congress passed the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act after four years of civil unrest, often caused by police abuse. It created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which over the next 13 years spent $8 billion—$25.9 billion today—on upgrading police forces, as well as expanding and modernizing other aspects of the penal system. Police had learned that if they spoke with a unified voice, taking up the mantle of reform, they could get what they wanted—respect, money, and power.


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