"John Wayne Syndrome."
Once upon a time in the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, “community policing” came forth as the solution to a law-and-order problem. In 2020 hindsight, the road to our hellish crisis today of police practice and racial injustice can seem to have been paved by the very mixed intentions of anti-crime fashion back then. The issues in the ’80s were called drugs, guns, and gangs. They are back to haunt us as mass incarceration, over-policing (like “stop and frisk”), and police immunity, even for murder. A broad chorus in country this summer is demanding change, maybe radical reform in policing. It could hang on getting through the slogans, around the illusions, in touch with real history.
The underside of police work is in the dock this George Floyd summer. Broadly the charge is bringing the tools and the mindset of warfare into American cities—excessive force, with a racial tilt, and impunity when it turns up on camera as open and obvious murder. Our conversation this hour is about “reimagining” police, and William Bratton, who’d be the American police chief if we had one, will get it started. The big theme of the era, Chief Bratton will tell you (theme of his own nearly 50-year career in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles) has been reform and improvement. With bad lapses, yes. But he says we have safer cities in a safer country than we used to. James Forman thinks not. He is a public defender and now law professor, out of a civil rights mindset and family history. He is puzzling why black America enlisted in the Clinton era war on crime, and didn’t see mass incarceration coming. And then the historian of urban rebellion: Donna Murch at Rutgers, who sees a friendly alignment of forces around Black Lives Matter this year.
Former Commissioner of the New York Police Department and the Boston Police Department; former Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Professor at Yale Law School.
Professor of History at Rutgers.