Rarely, as Paul Chevigny concludes in his estimable study of police violence, do reports about human rights bring good news. After all, their purpose is to embarrass governments through revelations of abuse, hoping that such exposures will generate reforms. At the same time, such reports can be said to be optimistic, albeit perhaps, naively so. They are based on the assumption that human rights standards are widely recognized, that means exist to hold governments accountable, and that reformation is possible in at least minimally democratic governments.
So on one level, this is an abuse of human rights report. If it were merely that, it would be a worthwhile effort. But letÆs face it, human rights reports, by their nature, rarely offer much in the way of theoretical interest (although the shocking practices they document may make painful yet compelling reading.) ChevignyÆs book, by contrast, is far more ambitious than the ordinary human rights report. By reviewing and analyzing police violence and its control in Los Angeles and New York, as well as in Latin America and the Caribbean -- in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Jamaica and Mexico City -- Chevigny is, in effect, making a formidable claim: that a human rights focus can be infused with enough coherence and theoretical insight to make a useful, if not major, contribution to the literature on policing. Amazingly enough, he convinces this skeptical reader that there is a coherent comparability among the cities; and that the underlying comparability can be the grounding for a fine contribution to our larger understanding of the police and politics.
Chevigny recognizes that the places he considers are distinct societies, differing from policing in the United States as the societies differ from one another. Yet they are joined first, he argues, by common problems of immigration, colonialism, social dislocation and mobility. Nevertheless, he admits that a comparison between cities in the United States and other societies in the Americas seemed unlikely, indeed he could not imagine one, until the Rodney King episode. Then he understood that what also joined the cities was police violence in response to the now familiar crime of "contempt of cop." (xi) That raised the issue for him of how police use violence as a means of repression and social control. The understanding and explanation of DEFIANCE OF POLICE is thus a focal concept joining the cities.
Finally, and perhaps even more fundamentally, Chevigny maintains that policing is a political undertaking. As public fear of crime has become widespread and growing everywhere in the Americas (if not the world) crime has been -- and will -- escalate as a major political issue. As that happens, especially in societies marked by increasing social distance between the have and the have-nots, it is almost inevitable that the police and politics become tightly twined.
But is the concept "political" so grandly abstract as to obscure critical differences in police misconduct? For example, in Argentina the police were recruited during the military regime to employ torture against social and ideological enemies. That is not simply defiance of police. U. S. police have employed "Red Squads" to counter political enemies, but I have never heard of them using torture and killing to destroy and intimidate these foes. The most serious political crimes one can accuse U. S. police of are perjury, invasion of privacy and, in labor wars and other forms of collective protest -- such as the 1968 Democratic Convention -- brutality in the streets, which could accurately be labeled as political violence. ShouldnÆt the idea of the kidnapping, torturing and murdering of political rivals be considered such a difference in kind, such a different order of "politics," as to make comparisons between the New York Police and those in Buenos Aires theoretically untenable?
Especially in his chapter on Buenos Aires, Chevigny makes the case for such comparisons. He reproduces a lucid and powerful indictment of the police by Guillermo Ledesma, a distinguished Argentinean jurist, and a judge at the trials of the dictatorshipÆs discredited commanders -- which, Chevigny says, could be read to describe the problems afflicting the police in Sao Paulo as well as Buenos Aires. LedesmaÆs sketch begins by noting that "The police tend to look for easy ways to fight crime. During the military regime it was torture. Later it was trigger happiness and the pretense of confrontation...Today in police circles there is a sense that crime must be combated by very tough methods, not strictly within the confines of the law..."(181)
Consequently, in a theme that pervades the volume, crime fighting is viewed by Chevigny as the commonality that joins police together across the Americas as a POLITICAL institution. Thus, in Jamaica and Mexico political leaders expect support from the police against the opposition. In many cities in the United States, the police are also a powerful political force. Historically, they were tied to machine politics. Today, the New York City PolicemanÆs Benevolent Association is probably the most powerful lobby in New York State legislature, influencing every aspect of criminal justice policy from substantive criminal law and sentencing to the construction of prisons. And the P.B AÆs support for candidate Rudolph Giuliani played no small part in his election to Mayor. In sum, the police are always in or on the edge of politics. They donÆt carry out their political mandates the same way everywhere. But everywhere their connection to politics arises from the fact of rising crime and fear of crime -- and the need to use the police to control crime.
Chevigny first analyzed the roots of police violence for his classic 1969 book POLICE POWER (from which he quotes in a headnote.) There, explicating the theme of defiance, he adduced a "truly iron and inflexible rule" governing police misconduct against citizens. (59) The precipitating incident is always challenge of the cop, who will impose legal sanctions, from a summons to the use of firearms. Three factors were said to determine the imposed sanction: the officerÆs character, where the encounter happened, and with whom. Chevigny concluded that police are most likely to further abuse anyone who is poor, or who belongs to an outcast group.
Today, he finds that in every city he studied defiance of the police still gives rise to a sanction. However, when viewed across the spectrum of the Americas, sanctions tend to be predictably heavier in Latin America. Thus, he says that in Sao Paolo, police might shoot a fleeing suspect, while in Los Angeles they might beat or slap him -- although shooting is also a possibility. In considering that observation I was of course reminded of the videotaped beating of Rodney King. To me what was most significant about the assault was not just what tended to draw public attention -- repetitive blows inflicted on a human body -- but the fact that a dozen or so officers were watching. It meant that those inflicting the beating understood that they could count on the onlookers to back up any story they might tell higher ups, and that the higher ups would believe those accounts against those of any civilian witnesses. In part, that shows that police violence is rarely, if ever, an isolated incident. It also shows how internal review processes can be shaped and distorted by a subcultural cover-up.
If police violence varies by department, it also varies by society, in an even larger context -- as a way of "reproducing" the normative order of a society, a point made in different ways by generations of police scholars, but most recently and clearly by Richard Ericson. Look at it this way: a cop always has a conception of what is "normal" for a place or a person -- who should be in a certain neighborhood, driving what kind of car, with whom. Violations of the normal always make police suspicious. How police act out these suspicions marks the line between acceptable and sometimes violent police conduct.
Here, where he moves beyond the explicit documentation of abuse, Chevigny makes his more lasting contribution to police and political scholarship. Drawing on Norbert EliasÆs theory of "civilization," Chevigny maintains that both police violence and personal vigilantism are negatively correlated with societal revulsion toward brutal and public punishment. Thus, the more fearful and barbarous the society, the more likely are the police to employ violence.
Everywhere, from New York to Buenos Aires, Chevigny says, the dilemma of civil society is that the police are both essential and mistrusted, because they enjoy the power of exercising force. In one of his most prescient observations in this unfailingly well written and thoughtful book, Chevigny notes that "civil society has limited the legal powers of the police precisely because people mistrust and sometimes fear them." (144) At the same time, society must ask those whom we fear to protect us against criminals. That dilemma sets a challenge to a civil, liberal and democratic order. To achieve public safety we must offer the police instruments of violence. But we also need to develop institutions of accountability to limit inevitable abuses of legal authority, which will vary depending on the social order that we of the larger polity expect police to reproduce.
Elias, Norbert. 1982. THE CIVILIZING PROCESS, Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.