Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force

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Editorial Reviews

Stuart A. Scheingold
This is a practical, policy oriented book, and it covers its subject, excessive use of force by the police, like a blanket. Given its unflinching focus on an ugly subject, this is also a surprisingly upbeat book. Skolnick and Fyfe are upbeat because, despite current impressions to contrary, their view is that police violence is less of a problem than it used to be; because there are proven reforms that can reduce police violence; and because it is more and more widely acknowledged that a reduction in police violence is the precondition to effective policing. Thus, their optimism concerns not only the reforms themselves but extends to chances of these reforms being widely accepted in American policing. Moreover, while they are uncompromising in their denunciation of police violence, Skolnick and Fyfe clearly admire and respect police officers whom they see as victims of their own (and the public's) unrealistic expectations, of perverse organizational incentives, and of a violent subculture. The tone of the book as well as its major themes are established in a prologue that uses a detailed recounting of the Rodney King incident to demonstrate how and why a police department can go wrong. This prologue is the book in microcosm and is followed by an expansive, discursive and well documented inquiry divided into three parts and ten chapters. The authors draw widely and eclectically on the relevant academic literature, journalistic accounts and their own extensive personal experience. Part One examines the circumstances in which the police are tempted to misuse force -- considered in separate chapters: vigilante justice, the third degree, and public order policing. Vigilante justice serves as a kind of metaphor for this entire section. Regardless of whether police violence is used as a substitute for the judicial process (as with Rodney King), to extract a confession from a suspect in a criminal case, or against political protests and ghetto riots, in resorting to excessive force, the police are reenacting a familiar American drama: [S]omewhere deep in the American experience is the idea that the legal order and its system of punishment are inadequate to cope with THE PROBLEM, whether defined as crime, as immigrants, or as minority groups (p. 25. italics in the original). The emphasis here is very much on how and why this police lawlessness is ordinarily directed against marginalized Americans. Part Two examines the factors that nurture police violence. There is one chapter on the subculture that leads the police to think of themselves as the proverbial, and under appreciated, "thin blue line" between civilization and barbarism. A second chapter is devoted to the unfortunate tendency to import military models into police organizations and to apply military metaphors to the struggle against crime. The military metaphors encourage the police to think of themselves as "ghetto gunslinger" at war with the communities they should be serving (p. 133). The section concludes with a third chapter on the retreat from police accountability that accompanied the depoliticized professional approach to policing. This approach further distances the police from the public -- in part through an impersonal style of policing and in part through a bureaucratic organizational structure that discourages street level ingenuity and initiative. In Part Three Skolnick and Fyfe turn to reform. They believe that reform must begin at the top with an able and determined police chief. They go on to express support for both community and problem oriented policing, for a police cadet corps as well as for civilian oversight of complaints against the police. Conversely , they doubt that courts have the will and/or the means to establish effective control over police violence. Included in Page 85 follows: their skepticism is the currently fashionable idea that civil cases with monetary damages will put pressure on the police to mend their ways: In big police jurisdictions, verdicts and settlements are cheaper than paying for enough new cops to make a real difference in a department's ability to mount a street presence (p. 207). According to the authors, the evidence from cities like Los Angeles suggests that public officials INCORRECTLY believe that "police violence may inhibit offenders" (Ibid.), thus providing "law and order" on the cheap. As for civilian oversight, Skol- nick and Fyfe do not see it as a panacea, but do believe it will make accountability more credible and point also to its effectiveness in New York: [I]n the two decades since this system was put in place by Patrick V. Murphy, the rate at which New York cops killed people has been among the very lowest among big American cities. They have also enjoyed one of the lowest mortality rates among police in any U.S. city (p. 235). In short, the recipe for reform provided in ABOVE THE LAW is a more open and accountable form of policing that engages and rewards the talents of well trained street level officers. As this summary suggests, there are no major surprises in ABOVE THE LAW. It is primarily a work of synthesis informed by the sensibilities of two very savvy and knowledgeable students of policing. It is also a gritty book that provides many, many graphic examples of both good and bad police work in a readily accessible form. Skolnick and Fyfe know what they like and what they do not like, and they present and defend their preferences with considerable verve. A major strength of the book is the way in which the underlying argument builds as chapters reinforce one another and disparate ideas converge. Still, Skolnick and Fyfe's "can do" message leaves little room to consider in more than a pro forma way some of the serious questions that have been raised about the reforms they support. Community policing is, for example, a much more controversial reform than their analysis suggests (Greene and Mastrowski, 1988). Nor is it clear that a tough and resourceful chief can turn things around in the way they suggest. Just such a chief, Anthony Bouza, former head of the Minneapolis department put it this way in a P.O.V. documentary aired on public television. I think when a chief of police comes to take over an organization, he has one of two choices to make. He is either going to serve the police and their comfort and convenience or he is going to serve the people. And those two ideas are I think irreconcilable. People will say you can do both, and I say you can not. Similarly, Skolnick and Fyfe celebrate the post Knapp Commission success of Patrick V. Murphy in New York, but a recent NEW YORKER article raises troubling questions about his achievements (Lardner, 1993). Finally, while I am not necessarily pessimistic about the political prospects of their recipe for reform, the politics of police reform is itself a neglected issue that merits more than the cursory attention it is given in ABOVE THE LAW. It would be unfair to make too much of these reservations. This is first and foremost a book of responsible advocacy. It presents and defends a plausible plan not only for reducing police violence but, in a more positive vein, for redefining policing to better serve a society characterized by "change, diversity and disparity" (p. 238). Accentuating the positive will make it more likely, I suspect, that this knowledgeable, respectful, upbeat, and readable book will get the attention of the influential people who must be convinced if reform is to be achieved. Page 86 follows: REFERENCES Greene, Jack R., and Stephen D. Mastrofski (Editors), COMMUNITY POLICING: RHETORIC OR REALITY. New York: Praeger, 1988. Lardner, James, "The Whistle Blower," THE NEW YORKER, July 5, 1993, pp. 52-70 and July 12, 1993, pp. 39-59.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780029293126
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/1992
  • Pages: 264

Table of Contents

Prologue: Whatever Happened to Dragnet?
1 The Beating of Rodney King 1
Pt. 1 Occasions
2 Vigilante Justice 23
3 The Third Degree 43
4 Public Order Policing 67
Pt. 2 Explanations
5 The Culture of the Police 89
6 Cops as Soldiers 113
7 Beyond Accountability 134
Pt. 3 Remedies
8 Police Administrative Reform 172
9 Police Accountability I: The Courts 193
10 Police Accountability II: The Public 217
11 Renewing The Police 237
Notes 267
Index 301
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