The History of Policing in the United States, Part 6

Written by Dr. Gary Potter

By the 1960s, massive social and political changes were occurring in the United States. The civil rights movement was challenging white hegemony in the South and racist social policies in the North. The use of professional police forces to suppress the Civil Rights movement, often by brute force did irreparable damage to American policing. From 1964 to 1968 riots, usually sparked by police brutality or oppression, rocked the major cities in the United States. Police handling of large demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s was also controversial. In the 1967-1968 school years there were 292 mass demonstrations on 163 college campuses across the country. All of this political instability was further antagonized by a series of political assassinations: President John Kennedy in 1963; Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968; Governor George Wallace in 1972. Other political leaders, particularly in the African-American community, such as Malcolm X and Medger Evers were also assassinated. National commissions created to investigate riots and political instability frequently and universally pointed to the police as a source of social tension.

The police and criminal justice system response was twofold. First in 1968, as part of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, large sums of federal money were made available for rather cosmetic police-community relations programs, which were mostly media focused attempts to improve the police image. By the 1980s many police departments had begun to consider a new strategy, community policing. Community policing emphasized close working relations with the community, police responsiveness to the community, and common efforts to alleviate a wide variety of community problems, many of which were social in nature. Community policing is the latest iteration in efforts to (1) improve relations between the police and the community; (2) decentralize the police; and, (3) in response to the overwhelming body of scholarly literature which finds that the police have virtually no impact on crime, no matter their emphasis or role, provide a means to make citizens feel more comfortable about what has been a seemingly insoluable American dilemma.

From the beginning American policing has been intimately tied not to the problem of crime, but to exigencies and demands of the American political-economy. From the anti-immigrant bashing of early police forces, to the strike breaking of the later 1800s, to the massive corruption of the early 20th century, through professionalism, Taylorization and now attempts at amelioration through community policing, the role of the police in the United States has been defined by economics and politics, not crime or crime control. As we look to the 21st century, it now appears likely that a new emphasis on science and technology, particularly related to citizen surveillance; a new wave of militarization reflected in the spread of SWAT teams and other paramilitary squads; and a new emphasis on community pacification through community policing, are all destined to replay the failures of history as the policies of the future.

More from this series:

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3
Read Part 4
Read Part 5


Dr. Gary Potter is a professor of online and on-campus courses for the EKU School of Justice Studies. His current research areas include transnational organized crime, human trafficking and the sex industry, and drug trafficking by teenagers in rural Kentucky.

Published on July 30, 2013