People vs. Butcher
Varieties of Police Behavior
The Police: A Sociological Study of Law, Custom and Morality
“Women were thus endlessly absorbent,” Lambert Strether came to decide, “and to deal with them was to walk on water.” Policemen constitute the only other oppressed minority that has earned the same high compliment, having, like women, developed the subtlest implements to attack and repel while vividly retaining a legitimate sense of injury.
These works are peerings into a cave. Eliot Asinof offers us the case of Laurence Butcher, a Bedford-Stuyvesant Negro who was beaten by two policemen after having refused to pay them off. He then bravely entered upon a struggle for judicial redress, and ended with the reward of a conviction for disorderly conduct. Chevigny’s “study” is less, thank God, a study than an intimate memoir of his career as a lawyer provided by the New York Civil Liberties Union for victims of false arrest. Both books are informed equally by passion and common sense, and are thus essential to understanding the policeman’s means of defense.
Professor Wilson’s Varieties of Police Behavior comes to us from that Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies whose director of publications is increasingly recognizable as our revered tutor Dr. Pangloss. Wilson brought to his task many more troops and much less curiosity than any of the other authors under consideration. To the conviction that he accepted whatever answers the police gave him, we begin to add the suspicion that he accepted their questions too. The very uselessness of his description of the motor responses of policemen has considerable value as a testament to their efficiency, however.
Professor Wilson’s default leave us with the youthful work of William A. Westley as the only witness among these four born with the curiosity and granted the opportunity to help us to understand not only how policemen act but how they feel. In 1950 Westley was a graduate student under Joseph Lohman at the University of Chicago. Lohman, a criminologist who was to become a sheriff and then again an academician, got him access to the police department of a “midwestern industrial city” which he calls “X.” There he was able to interview eighty-five of the city’s 180 policemen at great length and with that ingenuity which alone makes length useful.
His findings were reduced to doctoral form but never published. They survive in photostat in the library of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and nowhere else I know of: an example of policemen’s preference that their intimacies neither be published nor perish.
Sixty-two of Westley’s eighty-five police subjects felt that the public hated them. “We are,” one said, “only 140 against 140,000.”
These policemen liked children (“approving innocents to be guided and taught”). They respected the respectable (“In the better districts, the purpose is to make friends of the people and get them to like you”). But they were armed against the slums (“Those people understand and respond only to force”).
Westley asked fifty of them what they thought of Negroes …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.