It’s “déjà vu all over again,” said Police Commissioner William J. Bratton following the recent killing of two New York officers. He was referring to the turbulent 1970s when, in response to the supposed targeting of police by Black liberation groups, the law enforcement establishment created, in the words of a former Police Academy commander, a “siege mentality.”
This selective remembering of the past creates a self-fulfilling myth and tells only half the story.
It’s a myth that the targeted killing of police was exceptional in the 1970s or that the era of post-World War II political protest made police work into the most dangerous of occupations. Studies of the killing of police officers between the early 1960s and 1970s show a remarkably consistent rate of death. The rate peaked nationally in 1967 with 29.9 deaths per 100,000 officers, but there was no trend up or down during the decade. By contrast, the rate of death of civilians at the hands of the police gradually increased nationally during the 1960s; and in California, the rate increased two and one-half times in a seven-year period.
Contrary to popular perceptions, there are very few documented cases of politically motivated assassinations of state officials in the United States. According to a study of police killed on the job in California in the 1960s, the majority involved robberies in progress and domestic disturbances; and several cases that resulted from negligence (such as accidental discharge of a gun) and poor practice were misclassified as homicides of police officers.
And while police work was (and continues to be stressful and often dangerous), there were other occupations much more harmful: workers in mines and construction, for example, risked death at a rate between two and three times higher than police officers.
Moreover, while the police may have projected an image of being under siege in the 1970s, it was impoverished communities, especially African Americans, who had to engage in self-defense. Typically, police in the urban North, Mid-West, and West played the same repressive role that sheriff’s departments played in preserving racial order in the South. According to a national study that I worked on in 1968-9, “anger, hatred, and fear of the police are a major common denominator among black Americans at the present time”; and “the majority of rank and file policemen are hostile toward Black people.” Another study of policing in the summer of 1966 in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D. C. found that 38 percent of police expressed “extreme prejudice” and 34 percent “considerable prejudice” about Black people. In Los Angeles, cops casually referred to their nightsticks as “nigger-knockers.”
And when prejudice turned to violence, African American men were nine or ten times more likely than white men to be killed by the police; and Black youth and the elderly were killed at a rate fifteen to thirty times greater than their white counterparts. Ten percent of the U.S. population was African American in the 1960s, but they provided almost fifty percent of the victims of police killings.
The exaggeration of Black attacks on police and minimization of the threat posed to Black communities by police justified an unprecedented, federally funded expansion and modernization of policing in the early 1970s, and a counter-insurgency campaign aimed at progressive Black organizations. From 1971 to 1974, spending on criminal justice increased more than forty-two percent, from $10.5 billion to $15 billion, with $8.5 billion going to policing.
As criminologist Paul Takagi predicted in 1974, modernization was likely to make the police more fortified, more dangerous, and more isolated from the communities they policed. Takagi was right. The result was a militarized and anti-democratic institution that resembled an occupying army rather than a public service.
Today, the lack of accountability and transparency is typified in how difficult it is to even get official data about how many citizens are being killed by the police nationwide.
The resurrected rhetoric about the “siege” of the 70s has the smell of Orwellian logic: making lies sound truthful. Mayor Bill de Blasio is wrong in calling for a moratorium on protest: this is the time to march the streets and raise our voices if we want to make sure that rightwing political forces do not use an isolated and rare example of a killing of two officers, by a likely deranged individual acting on his own initiative, to justify an even more militarized, more undemocratic, and more isolated police force.
Originally published in Social Justice’s blog, December 26, 2014: www.socialjusticejournal.org