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People vs. Butcher

by Eliot Asinof
Viking, 239 pp., $6.95

Police Power

by Paul Chevigny
Pantheon, 298 pp., $6.95

Varieties of Police Behavior

by James Q. Wilson
Atheneum, 309 pp., $2.95

The Police: A Sociological Study of Law, Custom and Morality

by William A. Westley
an unpublished University of Chicago doctoral thesis, 310 pp.

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.1

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. Thirty-eight had an unfavorable opinion; twenty-two of the fifty thought that the Negro is biologically inferior. Sixty percent of the sample explained Negro crime as a taint of the Negro character; “lazy, irresponsible by nature” (25 percent of the whole); “savages” (19 percent); “born criminals, love crime” (8 percent); “lacks sense of morals” (6 percent); “mentally underdeveloped” (3 percent). By all evidence from which surmise is possible, Westley’s City X sounds like Gary, Indiana, which suggests that Mayor Richard Hatcher inherited a police force nearly half of whose members, after serious reflection, had once judged him their biological inferior.

Westley tested a few of his subjects by posing a question approximately like this:

On a two-man radio patrol, you arrest a drunk. In searching him, you find $500 on his person. You drive him to the precinct; your partner sits in the back with the prisoner. When you arrive, the $500 is missing. Only your partner could have stolen it. Upon recovery, the drunk files a complaint against both you and your partner. Would you testify against your partner?

Eleven of the fifteen patrolmen confronted with this hypothesis answered that they would perjure themselves rather than tell the truth about their partner.

When seventy-four policemen were asked when they would think themselves justified in roughing a citizen up, the most frequent reply, volunteered by more than a third, was “Disrespect.” An outrage to one’s own dignity was offered as an excuse for the use of force more than three times as often as outrage against society, represented by cases involving “hardened criminals” (5 percent), “people you know are guilty” (3 percent), or “sex criminals” (3 percent). None mentioned self-defense. Altogether 66 percent of the subjects felt that rough treatment was justified in cases where it is absolutely unlawful.

What Westley explored then was the mind of a garrison, formed most of all by the sense of the outsider as enemy, and with a concept of law entirely its own and unrelated to the theoretical concepts of the general community:

When these men are confronted with the alternative of breaking the law by perjury, most of them break the law. [To them] the law is subordinate to secrecy. Sixty-six percent believe in [police] violence for illegal but group ends.

Eleven of twelve policemen said that they would overlook enforcement of the statutes against vice, gambling, and shoplifting if their chief told them to. All these incidences of duty subordinated to the needs of the group bring Westley to this plausible conclusion:

When enforcement of the law conflicts with the ends of the police, the law is not enforced. When it supports the ends of the police, they are fully behind it. When it bears no relation to the ends of the police, they enforce it as a matter of routine.

Policemen, like Black Panthers, draw their social cohesion not from the school but from the experience of the streets; they are formed by the “rejection and hostility of the public and the warmth and fraternity of the force itself.” All the younger patrolmen in Westley’s sample remember two common moments of initiation: they were embarrassed at being so conspicuous in the uniform and all the older policemen tried to help them. The rites of passage into the force seem singularly easy; all the recruits had expected hazing and none had suffered the smallest burden of it. Being thus warmly accepted, they are glad to accept instruction in the wisdom of the experienced, which seems to have two major principles: (1) “What happens between you and I is strictly between you and I. You shouldn’t talk about police work off duty.” (2) “It is not good for public relations in the police department to arrest too many people.”2

The police as a social group,” Westley concludes, “possess collective ends arising out of their feeling that the community is hostile to them and their experience as a social stereotype‌. Their vehicle of self-protection is the rule of silence—secrecy. That of attack is the emphasis on the maintenance of respect for the police.”

The rule of defense by secrecy best explains the habit even of police departments as sophisticated as New York City’s of burdening their patrolmen with clerical work from which they ought, in all logic, to be relieved by civilians. An Albany senior officer explained to Professor Wilson that if “you get a civilian in here, to him it’s just a job. He’ll learn things and start blabbing them around. You get a lot of sensitive stuff in police work and you have to know how to keep your mouth shut.” Wilson’s dutiful inference seems to be that the “sensitive stuff” involves matters of law enforcement; in fact, nothing is more sensitive than the internal privacies of the police force itself. Any police department’s diffidence toward outsiders arises from the condition that they are not trained to silence.

When the Times began to discourse on the subject of police corruption, the New York Police Department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs started its own investigation. This curious process seems to have been limited to summoning the few policemen indicated from prior experience as the sort who complain about corruption, and having them depose on the record that they had never said any such thing to the Times. At one such confrontation, the inspector-in-charge turned on his tape recorder and asked the suspect if he knew anything about police corruption. He answered that he certainly did and would now proceed to give instances. Thereupon the inspector-in-charge turned off the tape recorder and announced that the hearing was adjourned.3

In this case, the senior officers of the department showed themselves not so much bothered by corruption as bothered by the intrusion of outsiders complaining about it. Their primary impulse was to hold back a siege, to repel the Times, and to discover traders with that enemy. The garrison mind which directed the resulting scene is, of course, Westley’s central subject.

Professor Wilson’s major defect, on the other hand, is his persistence in describing police practices as though the garrison mind, instead of being the governor, did not exist in the motor at all. He will cite Westley on other subjects but never on this one. Albany is the only city of the eight he studies where corruption appeared to him a problem more than remotely alive. So he asked the police about it; unsurprisingly, they blamed the politicians. Almost every high policeman would give the same sort of outsider-blaming answer to any such question; for honest and crooked alike, the protection of internal secrets is the prime consideration whenever one talks to civilians.

The core of Wilson’s philosophy is that old familiar “Whatever is, is right,” which Basil Willey called Cosmic Toryism. It follows then that police corruption, a matter of fairly serene indifference for Wilson when he deals with the institution as it exists, becomes a horrid danger when he comes to deal with suggestions for changing it. The argument for neighborhood control especially disturbs him because “the opportunities for a small self-serving minority to seize control of the police or the schools will become very great indeed.” Such a peril certainly ought not to be overlooked; still it is curious to find such alarm in a scholar who has managed an extensive tour of police departments and returned immune to suspicion that their affairs might already be controlled by “a self-serving minority.”

The procedures of the Bureau of Internal Affairs, of course, reflect the assurance, which emerges from almost any long conversation with a policeman, that everything is a conspiracy. Westley does not mention this occupational weakness for conspiracy theories, but he does provide one explanation for it. The policeman, Westley says, thinks of himself as having only a single source of social prestige: “He knows what’s going on.” What is going on, of course, is seldom worth talking about; but social need eventually drives the policeman to pride in “knowing” something he could at best hope only to imagine.

  1. 1

    I was guided to Westley’s final resting place by David Burnham, The New York Times‘s police specialist, to whom I had confessed my wish to know more about the scholarly work in the field, a sense of deficiency which, candidly, has not since been decreased by reading Professor Wilson. Burnham, who has the patience to read all and the discrimination to reject most of the relevant academic studies, assured me that, if I read Westley, I need not feel alarmed about not having read any of the others.

    The John Jay College, thanks to the confusions of the New York City Police Department’s admirers and detractors alike, is generally thought of as solely a superior trade school for policemen. Actually, it is a branch of the City University with a liberal arts college and a graduate school. Young policemen go to the college largely to get the degree which will allow them to escape the Department; older ones go to the graduate school to study their science and get promoted. John Jay’s undergraduate school began as an example of the Police Department’s unique social status; any New York City patrolman could be admitted there without reference to his high-school grades, a tolerance then rendered to no other social group by the senior colleges of the City University.

    This year, with the open admissions policy, which had favored them alone, extended now to everyone, policemen make up only 44 percent of John Jay’s undergraduate enrollment. Its police cadre’s command over undergraduate opinion has already commenced to erode and rather surprisingly from within. Last spring a student referendum narrowly rejected a proposal to close the college as protest against the Cambodian adventure; the result could not have been as close as it was if at least 400 student policemen had not voted with the protesters. The sovereignty of education is not, of course, a notion invariably fortified by contact with its beneficiaries; it seems to be Chevigny’s experience that, the better educated the police witness, the more skillful his perjuries.

  2. 2

    The second rule is pervasive to a degree hardly suggested in the utterances of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. This year the New York City Police Department has ordered its probationary patrolmen to take courses at John Jay in Basic Communications Skills, Group Interaction, and Social Perception. Their time in class, of course, is a substitute for what would otherwise have been time spent on patrol. The acting Police Commissioner defined the purpose of the program as “to develop greater sensitivity towards human behavior and towards the social setting.” The purpose suspected by sophisticates, however, is to get the patrolmen off the streets awhile since they are making too many arrests and clogging the jails and the court calendar.

    Professor Wilson, by the way, seems to admire the Oakland, California, police department more than any of the others in his study. It is a fanatically legalistic department:

    In Oakland the members of the traffic division are expected to write two tickets per man per hour…. The police raided a bingo game run by a seventy-year-old lady…. The [gambling] arrest rate was over ten times that of Albany and Newburgh…. In Oakland police officers arrest many juveniles for misdemeanors as well as felonies.

    The Oakland police crack down on everyone, which may explain why a jury convicted Huey Newton on the lightest count possible of the charge that he murdered a policeman. It is possible for respectable people in Oakland to believe that a policeman could be the aggressor because the police aggress against them.

    A contrast is Brighton, New York, which, Wilson tells us, periodically has to deal with “a minor executive of a local firm” who occasionally breaks loose as a Peeping Tom. “When such an incident was reported, the police would call the man’s wife and tell her, ‘Your husband’s at it again.’… A serious effort to secure an arrest…would make public the behavior of the culprit and no doubt cost him his job.” If a moment ever came when a Brighton policemen had to swear against a poor defendant, his jurors could clearly be trusted to accept his word.

  3. 3

    After their non-publication, Westley presented his findings, in abridged form, in articles in Social Policy and The American Journal of Sociology. They seem to have been repeatedly cited since, even by Wilson; yet, as Chevigny himself handsomely concedes, a fifteen-year-old sample of eighty-five policemen is hardly large enough or current enough to stand as an authority for police attitudes. Chevigny nevertheless finds the state of mind described by Westley in the full bloom of health today.

    Westley’s stature, in any case, comes not just from his ability to perceive but from his unique opportunity to get in. Gary’s police chief seems to have made the mistake of ordering his force to talk candidly to Westley. That mistake has not since been repeated; and these eighty-five policemen seem to remain as the only ones whose attitudes have been subject to the observation of a precise and sensitive scholar. The rule of secrecy ever since has made it impossible for Westley, modest as his claims to authority are, to be superseded. A $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to study the mind of the New York policeman has reportedly remained unspent for two years now because the department refuses to cooperate.

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