“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.

Even those few members of the New York department who testify against corruption cannot, being policemen, concede the possibility that it exists because their superiors are merely slothful and tolerant; they insist that it is a system managed by the highest officers on the force. Their conviction that all life is a conspiracy has survived even after they rebel against so many other canons of the police ethic.

It also survives social enlightenment. A friend tells of a conversation some years ago with Sanford Garelik, now President of the City Council and a former Chief Inspector, who owed his rise to his delicate and sometimes sincere solicitude for liberal opinion. My friend recalls Garelik talking rather wistfully about the sound and commendable social concerns of the Students for a Democratic Society. It was only a pity, he said, that they were getting all that money from Peking.

The rule that the police attack to maintain respect for themselves is Chevigny’s subject and Asinof’s. Many of Chevigny’s clients were persons who had argued with policemen and been arrested either for disorderly conduct or, in cases where the officer had been aroused enough to work them over, for resisting arrest. The etiquette in matters of enforcing respect seems indeed so stylized as to impel the enforcers to instruct Chevigny early on in his stewardship. He had a client arrested for disorderly conduct who claimed to have been beaten.

“Counselor,” said the arresting officer in an injured tone, “we never laid a hand on him. You can tell that. If we had, he would have been charged with resisting arrest, isn’t that right?”

Chevigny, without ever losing his sense of engagement, is judicious enough to make us grateful that clients so unfortunate could at least be lucky enough to have had an attorney so sensible. He is capable even of occasionally liking a policeman and he is sensitive to their mystery:

One thoroughly puzzled woman who complained of being man-handled in a welfare center by a policeman told me that the officer had later brought her lunch and said he would like to drop the charges, but he dared not because she might sue the city.

His description of the system, painful as it is, can even occasionally induce in us a destestable and ignominious feeling almost of being entertained. For example:

If there was no crime but rather a personal dispute with the policeman, then the defendant must be charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Other, more serious charges become something of a matter of taste. Experienced men tend to add other charges, in order to increase the pressure for a plea to guilty to one of the charges.

I once heard two transit policemen arguing in the hallway outside the courtroom after one of my clients had refused to plead guilty to disorderly conduct in exchange for a dismissal of a charge of resisting arrest. The more experienced of the two was saying, “You see? He wouldn’t take it. I told you you should have charged him with felonious assault.”

Asinof’s chronicle of the operation of these techniques in the horrors visited upon Laurence Butcher presents an extreme beyond the run of cases so soberly described by Chevigny. Butcher was the son of a striving Georgia family; his course when young was normal in its errancy—statutory rape, a numbers conviction, a disorderly conduct arrest for crap shooting—until he thought he had found his way as proprietor of a grocery store in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

It was a failing enterprise; and his only chance to stay afloat was to keep it open on Sundays. That resort, he and the police were united in the mistake of thinking, was a violation of the Sabbath closing law. On the first Sunday, he was summoned and paid a five-dollar fine. For a while thereafter, according to his version of events, two radio patrolmen visited him every Sunday and he paid them each two dollars as a tolerance fee.

One Sunday, with his affairs at their worst, he told the patrolmen, “I’m not giving you nothing.” They called their sergeant, and Butcher, by now past all caution, announced that the three could just serve him a summons and get out of his store. He was thereafter beaten and pistol-whipped. He spent twelve days in the hospital, unconscious for the first two, and handcuffed to his bed. He emerged charged with felonious assault on a police officer.

Butcher’s family had the good fortune to find Conrad Lynn to represent him. Three witnesses agreed to testify for him. The neighborhood had been so intensely agitated that there had been fears of a riot. But by the time Butcher came out, the normal order of events had asserted itself; his store, a shrine in the early hours, was robbed of its poor stock a few days afterward. The Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Corporation would not grant him a rehabilitation loan; at length he had to give up and sell its husk for $700. One of his witnesses moved away, leaving no address. The police offered to reduce the charge against him to mere disorderly conduct; he refused and demanded a swift trial. The district attorney of Kings County did not prosecute the case until eighteen months after the event.

On the morning the trial began, Assistant District Attorney Sheldon Greenberg solicited a corridor conference with Lynn, Butcher’s counsel, and offered to permit the defendant to plead guilty to disorderly conduct and then be released.

I told him that I would inform my client of this, but I didn’t think he would go for it [Lynn said afterward]. He was an innocent man and he insisted on a complete expression of his innocence…. [Greenberg] said he thought it would be a mistake for me if we didn’t accept this deal. He said he could fix it so we wouldn’t win, sounding as if there was no question about it.

I replied that we were going to trial anyway. He shook his head sadly and said something about how he didn’t want a decent young man like my client to go to prison for this. I guess he was trying to make me feel responsible.

On trial, Butcher listened to the two patrolmen and their sergeant recite their common version of how, alone in his store, he had attacked three armed policemen. On the day his defense began, he and his wife-to-be went to pick up his last two corroborating witnesses, a father and his son. “However no one was home. At least no one answered the door. They rang persistently for over ten minutes without success.” Butcher went off to search for the father at work and the son at school; neither could be found. Somehow, there is nothing in all Asinof’s story quite so sad as his account of those pathetic pilgrimages. When they were over, Butcher had no witness except himself.

He did no worse than a citizen with a few minor convictions can expect to do when there are three witnesses against him, and those policemen. District Attorney Greenberg could make free play with his skills upon an object so lonely as this; by the time he had finished, Lynn knew the risk his client bore if the case went to the jury. Butcher had a record, such as it was; and, if he should be convicted, Judge Joseph Corso would have little option but to sentence him to six months in prison. The district attorney’s bargain held until the case went to the jury: if Butcher would plead guilty to disorderly conduct, the felony charge would be expunged. The morning before the judge was to charge the jury, Lynn advised his client that it would be best to take the plea.4

So Butcher surrendered and pleaded guilty. Both the judge and the district attorney were especially intense about making the record deny any pressure of circumstance as a factor in Butcher’s recantation:

“Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty?” the Judge demanded.

“Yes, I am,” the defendant replied.

“You’re not doing it because of fear of anything else?”

“No, I’m not.”

“You’re doing it because you are in fact guilty?”

“Yes. Yes.”

Laurence Butcher had lost his store and some of his health; but the experience had gained him, for the moment, a status of equality before the law: he was, by force of circumstance, another perjurer for the prosecution. That happens to be the only felony Laurence Butcher is known ever to have committed; its commission, plain to the district attorney and probably suspected by the judge, was not cause for his going to prison but the reason for his staying out.

Butcher was only a peculiarly tormented victim of the custom by which prosecutors collude in what they know is a general policy of perjury among the police. Chevigny provides us with both any number of lesser examples and a final definition:

The Criminal Court is not viewed [by policemen] as a tribunal for the determination of fact, but as a sort of administrative adjunct to the police station for the purpose of obtaining desirable results. Lying is a litigation tool, much like investigation.

This finding, hardly a surprise to prosecutors, makes particularly curious District Attorney Frank Hogan’s recent public estimate that there are no more than a thousand corrupt policemen on the force. His tone seems rather blithe when you consider that this figure represents almost 3 percent of the whole force and a much more sizable proportion of those whose duties offer a chance to take bribes. But catching crooks is hardly the responsibility of the district attorney alone; and we should never complain when he has the dignity to speak of criminals outside his net without the rancor of frustrated vengeance.

The district attorney does seem, however, to have overlooked an obligation which is his alone, the obligation, that is, to present no witness to a jury whose testimony is not absolutely believed by the prosecutor. But we could hardly expect Mr. Hogan to worry much that corrupt policemen might perjure themselves as state witnesses: he must already know that even the honest ones habitually lie under oath. That mendacity is indeed a great help to Mr. Hogan’s work. Very few convictions of numbers runners would be possible in New York unless the arresting officer swore to a description of his search methods which not only managed to fit every test of the Supreme Court but was also a lie so formalized by now as not to vary a syllable from case to case.5

Yet, grateful as we ought to be for the small glimpses, the shafts of light on this corner or that which three of these writers afford us, the cave remains dark. To fish among policemen is to draw a haul whose only meaning seems to be its contradiction; all that can be caught is the non-revelatory anecdote.

The current issue of the student newspaper of John Jay College carries a column on the duty of students to care about their responsibilities to the victims of society. It is very much the sort of thing you find in college newspapers these days.

We are [it says in part] now insensitive to the teeming huddled masses which our “Lady of Liberty” is sworn to protect…. Our politics vary from the absurd to the surrealistic incarnation of the theory of the “might makes right” concept. We accommodate, and vacillate to this “power theory” so frequently that we cannot distinguish our free and willful acts from those which have been dictated to us by our own greedy ambitions. What ever became of “honor,” where has our manhood gone? Perhaps those two noble beings are lying in the same pawnshop where we have pledged respect, duty and responsibility.

This was signed by Raymond Wood, a New York City police detective. In 1965, Robert Collier and two others of the only four known members of the Black Liberation Front were arrested for having plotted to blow up the Statue of Liberty. The other member was an undercover police patrolman who seems to have brought whatever purpose there was to the vagrant musings of the cell, and made such arrangements for this attentat as could remotely be called practical.

This patrolman used police funds to rent the car in which he drove Collier to pick up the dynamite; the Department even paid for the dynamite; Collier and the others were arrested while they were allegedly rehearsing the plan of assault which the patrolman had drawn up for them. One day Walter Bowe, one of the defendants, had come in and said that he had seen the Statue of Liberty that day and would certainly like to blow that old bitch’s head off; the patrolman had answered “Why not?” and was thereafter manager of the project.

The patrolman, of course, was Raymond Wood. His service then is not remembered nor are his words now set forth as irony, but just as mystery.

On the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, one student patrolman entered his classroom at John Jay drunk, stood up, raised his hand, and proclaimed, in tones of heavy derision, “A toast to our fallen leader.” He was wearing his pistol even while off-duty, as department regulations require. He interrupted the lecture with similar displays of taste until the instructor finally managed to quiet him. Afterward, having a beer with the other student policemen, the instructor remarked that he found this a rather disturbing situation, since the demonstrator was armed and drunk. “Don’t worry, Professor,” a student policeman answered. “We had him covered.”

The Seventy-first Precinct in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights seems to suffer the city’s highest incidence of random gunfire upon policemen. There have been at least four cases of sniping, the latest in the summer. Two policemen were crippled from an ambush in August, two years ago. The imagination travels to the Crown Heights precinct as to an armed camp; yet when I visited the neighborhood recently its streets had that sylvan quiet with which Brooklyn maintains so much of its power to surprise us. The precinct house was so quiet that the entrance of a Tactical Patrol Force officer with his prisoner seemed almost an intrusion, like a fist through the window, an invasion of the comfortable by the aroused. Occasionally, when the TPF brings in a prize, a patrolman regularly assigned to the precinct will offer the arrestee a friendly greeting, having likely arrested him many times before. Special anticrime patrols have the function of clearing the streets of the same persons the regular patrolmen used to arrest but sensibly ceased bothering with.

Captain Daniel Berman, the precinct’s commander, was at a meeting of its Community Council at the Jewish War Veterans clubhouse. It turned out to be a forum for happy problems; most Negroes in attendance were Jamaicans and home owners. Their complaints about the police were limited to a lack of diligence in enforcing the alternate side street parking regulation. After the evening ended Captain Berman brought over Patrolman James Rigney, one of the precinct’s two community relations officers, to meet me.

“You ought to talk to Jim,” the Captain said. “He’s been sniped at twice.” He spoke like a host who, while grateful for the decorum of the evening, understands that a foreign guest might like a little more spice.

Patrolman Rigney said his windshield had been shot out in the summer of 1968 and his patrol car demolished by a shotgun last summer. He had been unhurt except for scratches and he had decided that his second assailant hadn’t even known he was shooting at a policeman, being quite past any sense of reality and unrelated to the urban war.

“The community couldn’t have been nicer,” Patrolman Rigney said. “The department offered me a transfer but I wanted to stay. My wife kept asking why I stayed in that crazy neighborhood. I told her it’s not crazy; these people are really trying not to let this city deteriorate them. But then I guess it’s my community; I live in Rockaway, but, with college, I spend more time here than I do at home.”

He wasn’t entirely sure that the snipings had been altogether bad. “They’ve made us understand that the best way of combatting these things is to be more friendly with the people.” He paused, as policemen seem so often to do, as if some interior desk officer has fed them the signal of duty to the garrison. “I’m not saying that all patrolmen feel this way. But I do.”

The one thing you must learn never to expect from any policeman is the thing you expected.

This Issue

November 5, 1970