Is O'Malley ignoring the past?

Police: The foundation of Baltimore's anti-crime plan is contradicted by a report sparked by the "long hot summers" of the 1960s.

April 09, 2000

LAST WEEK, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley named Edward T. Norris as the city's new police commissioner. Norris is a former New York police commander, and a disciple of zero-tolerance policing. O'Malley also unveiled an aggressive anti-crime strategy that calls for putting more officers on the streets.

While O'Malley has vowed to lower the city's homicide rate, some are worried that his plan will lead to police abuses. Is O'Malley repeating the mistakes of the past to make good on his campaign promise? Is he trying to use the police department to solve a complex social problem rooted in class and race?

Perhaps the answers lie in a 32-year-old report issued by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. President Lyndon B. Johnson created the commission in late July 1967 after riots ripped Newark, N.J., Detroit and other cities and towns.

Members of the bipartisan commission visited riot cities, interviewed many witnesses and sought advice from experts across the nation. In 1968, shortly before the nation was hit with another round of rioting sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the commission issued its report which concluded: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."

The report paid special attention to relations between police and black communities because many of the riots were sparked by incidents involving police.

Today, the conditions in many urban neighborhoods are as bad -- or worse -- than they were in 1968. Meanwhile, some cities -- such as New York -- have returned to aggressive police practices that were condemned by the commission 32 years ago. The 1968 commission concluded that aggressive policing increased police-citizen contacts sparking racial unrest.

Is Baltimore headed in the same direction? Is the "aggressive preventive patrol" concept discredited a generation ago coming to Baltimore with a new name or perhaps no name at all?

Here are excerpts from the report:

"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 the entire system of law enforcement and criminal justice.

"As such, he becomes the tangible target of grievances against short comings throughout that system: against assembly line justice in teeming lower courts; against wide disparities in sentences; against antiquated corrections facilities; against the 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 deeply perplexed by sharp rises in crime and urban violence, exerts extreme pressure on the 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 ghetto Negroes 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 for those who lost faith as they lost hope; career aspirations, which for so 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.

"Alone, the policeman in the ghetto cannot solve these problems. His role is already one of the most difficult in our society. He must deal daily with a range of problems and people that test his patience, ingenuity, character and courage in ways that few of us are ever tested. Without positive leadership goals, operational guidance, and public support, the individual policeman can only feel victimized. -- 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 the property of others.'

Patrol practices

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