The same moving picture over and over 24-year-old advice from the Kerner Commission

May 01, 1992

Following are excerpts from the 1968 report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission). The commission was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after the "long hot summer" of 1967 that saw rioting in Newark, Detroit, Cleveland and elsewhere. Baltimore was to erupt only a few months after the report was issued and days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

WE HAVE cited deep hostility between police and ghetto communities as a primary cause of the disorders surveyed by the commission. In Newark, in Detroit, in Watts, in Harlem -- in practically every city that has experienced racial disruption since the summer of 1964 -- abrasive relationships between police and Negroes and other minority groups have been a major source of grievance, tension and, ultimately, disorder.

In a fundamental sense, however, it is wrong to define the problem solely as hostility to police. In many ways the policeman only symbolizes much deeper problems.

The policeman in the ghetto is a symbol not only of law, but of the entire system of law enforcement and criminal justice.

As such, he becomes the tangible target for grievances against shortcomings throughout that system: against assembly-line justice in teeming lower courts; against wide disparities in sentences; against antiquated corrections facilities; against the NTC basic inequities imposed by the system on the poor -- to whom, for example, the option of bail means only jail.

The policeman in the ghetto is a symbol of increasingly bitter social debate over law enforcement.

One side, disturbed and perplexed by sharp rises in crime and urban violence, exerts extreme pressure on police for tougher law enforcement. Another group, inflamed against police as agents of repression, tends toward defiance of what it regards as order maintained at the expense of justice. The policeman in the ghetto is a symbol, finally, of a society from which many are increasingly alienated.

At the same time, police responsibilities in the ghetto have grown as other institutions of social control have lost much of their authority: the schools, because so many are segregated, old and inferior; religion, which has become irrelevant to those who lost faith as they lost hope; career aspirations, which for many young Negroes are totally lacking; the family, because its bonds are so often snapped. It is the policeman who must fill this institutional vacuum and is then resented for the presence this effort demands. . . .

As Dr. Kenneth B. Clark told the commission:

"This society knows . . . that if human beings are confined in ghetto compounds of our cities, and are subjected to criminally inferior education, pervasive economic and job discrimination, committed to houses unfit for human habitation, subjected to unspeakable conditions of municipal services, such as sanitation, that such human beings are not likely to be responsive to appeals to be lawful, to be respectful, to be concerned with property of others."

And yet, precisely because the policeman in the ghetto is a symbol -- precisely because he symbolizes so much -- it is of critical importance that the police and society take every possible step to allay grievances that flow from a sense of injustice and increased tension and turmoil . . .

We see five basic problem areas:

* The need for change in police operations in the ghetto to ensure proper individual conduct and to eliminate abrasive practices.

* The need for more adequate police protection of ghetto residents to eliminate the present high sense of insecurity to person and property.

* The need for effective mechanisms through which the citizen can have his grievances handled.

* The need for policy guidelines to assist police in areas where police conduct can create tension.

* The need to develop community support for law enforcement. . .

When police receive word of an accident, fight or similar incident, a patrolman is routinely sent to the scene. He is called on to exercise technical and professional skills at which he is practiced -- investigation, individual control and perhaps arrest. Infrequently, he may have to call for assistance. In any event, his judgments, while important, normally have an impact only on the immediate participants.

In the densely populated ghetto, however, even the most routine incident may call for far more than a technical assessment. The responding officer's initial judgment here is critical in two respects. First, it will guide his own conduct. Second, it will guide the response of his superiors. What orders, if any, should they give him? What help should they send if he asks for help? An assessment of this sort may be difficult for the best-informed officer. What makes it even more difficult is that police often do not know what to expect when they respond to incidents in ghetto areas where virtually all the 1967 disorders occurred.

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