The Kerner Commission and Modern Police Community Relations

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Editor’s note: We are quoting straight from a historical document, and in the 1960s certain language that today is no longer used, was.

July 11, 2016 (San Diego) 1967 was one of those years in the course of US History. According to the report: “The worst came during a two-week period in July, first in Newark and then in Detroit. Each set off a chain reaction in neighboring communities.” This is not unlike our current era, where we have the rise of tension. This is a tension between people of color and the police. Many of the same issues that burned clear in 1967 are still here.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson established the Kerner Commission to answer a few questions. The report can be found in full here. They were simple questions that make sense:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

These are questions that are currently part of the lexicon. We are asking the same questions. These last two weeks have not seen a riot or two, but we have seen incredible levels of violence. Many in our minority communities feel that men, mostly black men, and also Latino, are getting hunted by police, and the statistics bear this feeling out. But then there is the shooting in Dallas of 12 officers, 5 of whom died.

Like 1967 after Ferguson we had a commission formed, and a report issued, Policing in the 21st Century. The Kerner report had one over arching conclusion, that was stark and complete.  This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal. it also had certain language that would enter into our modern concepts of policing. That is the language of disorder. This language would lead to the root of some of our modern issues. That is broken window policing.

This report was also issued to stop the increasing polarization of the society. This is the same language emerging today from political leaders. There is a sense of polarization that lingers. We are going our separate ways. There is also a sense that this is structural. The Kerner report reads:

 What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget–is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

This has not changed in some ways. There was a recognition back then that this was structural, and that many in white society did not get it. Today academics might speak of white privilege, but this is truly at the academic level. The media and other institutions still resist that talk, and rarely if ever, use the language. The Kerner report did recognize elements that have not changed. Again, from the report:

  • Opening up opportunities to those who are restricted by racial segregation and discrimination, and eliminating all barriers to their choice of jobs, education and housing.
  •  Removing the frustration of powerlessness among the disadvan­taged by providing the means for them to deal with the prob­lems that affect their own lives and by increasing the capacity of our public and private institutions to respond to these problems.
  •  Increasing communication across racial lines to destroy stereo­types, to halt polarization, end distrust and hostility, and create common ground for efforts toward public order and social justice.

This could have been written last week. It has many elements in common with what current specialists speak off when we talk of the inner city, and the conditions of the urban cores. This is not to say that things have not changed. Things have. But for a segment of the minority population not much has changed. IN some ways, things have gotten worst.

One issue that was diagnosed was the pervasive unemployment. Under employment and unemployment is a persistent issue today. African Americans have a much higher level of unemployment when compared to the white population. This adds to the level of quiet desperation and even those with college degrees will have a harder time making it. There is also a differential in pay. While red lining is technically illegal, it is still practiced.

Many of these people are still going to do lower payed service jobs, even when training is higher. This recommendation fits in the current environment like a glove:

Take new and vigorous action to remove artificial barriers to employment and promotion, including not only racial discrimi­nation but, in certain cases, arrest records or lack of a high school diploma. Strengthen those agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with eliminating discriminatory practices, and provide full support for Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act allowing federal grant-in-aid funds to be withheld from activities which discriminate on grounds of color or race.

This is a reflection of both the past and the present. In some ways it shows how much some things have not changed. Structural racism remains. The Kerner report had a few observations that we can see today. We are quoting from the report, and their recommendations:

Our recommendations embrace three basic principles:

  • To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems:
  • To aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance;
  • To undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society.

Policing in the 21st Century had similar observations, and both had a few other things in common. Such as policing using forces that reflect the community. Both also emphasized training, and force professionalization. Both also emphasized some new technology. In the case of our modern-day counterpart the issue is using body cameras, which has been embraced by many police departments across the country, including our own. San Diego Police has been on the leading edge of the adoption of the technology.

This is actually a very American view of problem solving, The technology will set us free. Technology might be part of the solution, but a body camera does not replace attitudes.

Echoes from the Past…

The Kerner Report still had elements in it that reflect a present condition. In some ways the report could have been written in 2016, and might offer a view to attitudes that have not fully changed. The main theme was that of disorder. Nor was the talk of what happened in 1967 normal, or typical. There was a particular theme that can be heard today. So it is worth quoting in full:

The civil disorders of 1967 involved Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society, authority and property in Negro neighborhoods–rather than against white persons

We hear this currently when people discuss current events. In that sense, themes have not changed that much. There us a fear, going back to the slave revolts, that this is an uprising against order, white order. For example, when Rudy Giulani speaks of Black Lives Mater as a racist symbol, he is reflecting that fear going back hundreds of years that also help to perpetuate the structural racism that is at the heart of many of these issues.

Of course the other major element in the report, just like Ferguson, is about property damage. In a society that is capitalist and capital takes that primary role in society, that concern for property makes sense. It is integral to the system, but also betrays a certain level of concern that is not quite normal. Property over lives seems to have a level of coldness to it, that betrays a society’s values.

There is a difference from 1967. Most of the incidents this last two years have not seen that much violence or rioting, Never mind that we have had that fear expressed by the media. Most of the demonstrations across the country have remained overall peaceful, though there has been a massive police response, We have seen officers don riot gear and engage in the use of military grade equipment.

We also think it is worth noting the main complaints, as it were, from 1967:

First Level of Intensity
1. Police practices
2. Unemployment and underemployment
3. Inadequate housing

Second Level of Intensity
4. Inadequate education
5. Poor recreation facilities and programs
6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms

Third Level of Intensity
7. Disrespectful white attitudes
8. Discriminatory administration of justice
9. Inadequacy of federal programs
10. Inadequacy of municipal services
11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
12. Inadequate welfare programs

It is of note that police practices have come under scrutiny once again, The rest of the issues are still present. Moreover, these days Welfare Reform and mass incarceration has added insult to injury. In some ways the old system of control has been replaced by a new system of control. We also have yet to invest heavily in these communities, and with Free Trade agreements, any good jobs have left these communities, leading to even deeper under employment or unemployment.

These are serious issues that are once again staring at us. The fact that the Kerner report led to mass incarceration and broken windows policing, as well as over policing of minority communities must also be put in context, The question is whether Policing in the 21st Century will significantly change things for the better? Or wether that will be another series of window dressings?

Oh things have indeed gotten better. The level of discrimination is less, but not in these communities, There are patterns that have to be taken into account. One reason Ferguson PD was engaged in stops of poor minority residents was a funds raising scheme. The reason why New York Police engaged in Stop and Frisk Practices that later were found to be less than kosher was as a means of control. San Diego State is still looking at the data from San Diego Police, but they seem to also engage in more stops and more aggressive policing in poor communities of color.

None of this is a coincidence, nor is it limited to one area of the country, or to just large, or small police departments. It is illustrative to read the 1967 report, It points to way too many things that have not fully changed. They remain a constant, since they are structural to the system. There is a need, and until we as a society acknowledge it, to police the poor and those with higher skin pigmentation. Part of it is integral to the country and our system of caste. As much as Americans like to think we have no class, and that we are a classless society, we do have a class and a caste system. Reports such as this reveal it.

Now the big question comes: How can we change? A lot of what we see from police and even society, is encoded in the social system. There is a fear of the black man, or the brown man to a lesser extent. Perhaps this is not a conscious fear, but one does exist. There is also a social need to over police the poor, after all they do not have good lawyers, and lady justice it seems is blind, but can smell the Benjamin’s. This over policing of the poor, and dismissing of their needs goes back to the colonial period, and indentured servants that were brought across to serve their masters as cheap labor. They were seen back then, and still are seen, as disposable people, if you will as white trash.

So the changes recommended in reports, whether they are body camps or training officers in implicit bias in 2015, or changing police practices and training in the 1967, are not going far enough. We need a change in social attitudes and how we see each other. We also need to reexamine the role of police in a democratic society. We need to reexamine how they are equipped and the role of things like the Special Weapons and Tactics Teams (SWAT.)

Those teams were formed for a very specific need, and when formed first in Los Angeles, they were responding to the very rare hostage rescue situation for which the department was not prepared to answer. They came about from a reactive situation, just as giving sergeants AR-15s after the Hollywood shooting, where officers were over powered by two heavily armed robbers, who also wore body armor.

The problem is that SWAT has expanded it’s role to high risk warrant services. These days it seems all is a high risk warrant service though. So they are used constantly. They are also used more in places that tend to be poor, and predominantly of color. As witnesses have told us, Bearcats going down the streets of South East San Diego with heavily armed officers, in full tactical gear, is not a rare occurrence. This leads to charges of officers behaving like an occupation force, which pretty much they look like.

Then there are the civil forfeiture laws, used to take property away from people on the excuse that they could be coming from illicit activity. Much of this property was legally obtained, but the people who now have to sue, don’t have the money or lawyers to do so. This is the kind of abuse of power that also needs to be evaluated. But as long as police departments rely on that money for part of their, albeit unofficial budget, the practices will continue.

So in this sense, police practices need a full top down review, just like they did in 1967. As a society there are a few new things that have emerged from 1967. In fact, some of them came out of the 1967 report, that need to be fully re-examined. The first is our concern with disorder. This has led to one type of policing, nationwide. While crime rates were going up back then, they topped off in 1992, and police practices have toughened since.

The second is the rise of mass incarceration and the role of private prisons in the system. Our tough on crime school has led to the rise of a system of social control that keeps scores of young men of color under some sort of judicial control at all times. It also keeps many of them away from the ballot, and under employed, Just like 1967, we need to remove artificial barriers to employment, such as the box asking a person if they had any convictions?

We also need a top down review of other practices, including a return to reintegration of former felons to society, Recidivism is very high in the system, which makes sense when private prisons need bodies. But as a society that is a short term gain for some, but a loss for the society at large. We really need to consider returning the prisons to what once they were, places where people were encouraged to get both treatment (real treatment) for drug issues, but also an education. There was a time when the goal of the prison system was not cheap labor, but rehabilitation.

We also need to end the war on drugs, which has been a disaster for communities of color. It was meant to target these communities, and has done that well.

When we look at the past, long forgotten reports, that reach across the decades to the present, it is instructive to see how some of those recommendations are the same as today. So while things have changed, some things have not changed. This summer perhaps we will start having that moment of national self reflection that we so sorely need.

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