José Torres, of Louisiana State University, discusses his experience as a police officer and later as an academic...
The results of the Kerner Commission Report were published in the midst of racial unrest sweeping across the United States in the 1960s. The commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson and made up of bi-partisan officials, set out to investigate the cause of social unrest. It concluded that the unrest was largely triggered by police actions towards Black people but caused by pervasive institutional racism. If history repeats itself then scores of younger generations are getting a taste of the 1960s and we are confronting the Kerner Commission’s famous line: “We are moving towards two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” These words may be easy to say as a race and policing scholar yet I say these words as a former community police officer who now teaches on the subject of race and policing. I emphasize the history—tracing the relationship between race and policing from slave patrols through today. Through the intentional excavation of my own gaps in historical knowledge on this subject, I have been able to pull back from my individual experience as a police officer and place that experience into a larger historical context. This essay exposes a few of the lessons this excavation has taught me while calling attention to the value that historical pedagogy adds towards understanding race and policing.
Beginning in 2009 I worked nearly three years as a police officer for the city of Norfolk, Virginia, and spent most of that time policing all Black public housing neighborhoods as a community police officer. Those of us who were public housing community police officers were voted on by its members. We went through a trial period to see if they were up to the task and able to be trusted by the community. We practiced a style of community policing that called for us to be in the community as much as possible. I worked sixty-to-eighty hours a week, carried a work cell phone furnished by the housing authority that residents could call anytime, was accountable for one public housing neighborhood, patrolled by vehicle, foot, and bike, and used crime statistics to find patterns of concern. We answered calls only in public housing, and when we couldn’t officers on routine patrol would report to us incidents they responded to in our absence. We would prioritize felony offenses and act as street detectives—gathering information from residents and passing information on to detectives or using already established working knowledge and giving that information to detectives. We used our discretion often with low-level offenses, knowing that the consequences of a minor arrest might harm trust and trigger collateral consequences for residents (i.e. loss of a job, eviction, etc.). The law enforcement side of our efforts was strengthened by enforcing housing authority trespass policy that allowed for the formal banishment of individuals from public housing—a policy which I would later and continue to evaluate.
As a Puerto-Rican who grew up in the lower middle class I was an outsider to the Black residents of public housing. The joy of doing community policing was that it privileged knowing the residents of my public housing community and them getting to know me. We developed connections with community residents by knocking on doors, handing out business cards, following-up with crime victims, and the many routine informal contacts with residents we made while on patrol. We also endeavored to establish bonds with residents through various programs. Two of my partners started on their own, sports programming catered to youth residents. We worked regularly with housing authority staff and community leaders. Had I not done this style of policing I would not have been exposed to the many hard-working people working to make it out of poverty. Had I not done this style of policing I would not have been invited to family dinners and cookouts in the community. I may have easily drawn negative opinions of those living in poverty, and Black people, had I practiced a traditional style of policing that only asked me to respond to calls and enforce the law.
I left policing in pursuit of a doctorate with the idea that I could use my experience to advance knowledge about policing. My research began to concentrate on the policing of public housing through no-trespass policies, community policing, and stop-and-frisk which was supplemented through broader studies of race, and crime and deviance. After getting my doctorate at Virginia Tech in 2016 I joined the professoriate at Louisiana State University (LSU). The timing of this transition is noteworthy. Not long after I moved to Baton Rouge, where LSU is located, the city became engulfed in events that would thrust it into the national spotlight. First came the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of Baton Rouge police officers and then a mass shooting targeting local law enforcement. By the early fall semester, I received permission to deliver a seminar on race and policing for the spring.
To guide my pedagogy on race and policing, and as I live in these times, I continue to be brought back to a quote attached to José Rizal, a leader in the Filipino Nationalist movement and told to me by my professor Dr. Bernadette Holmes during a Race, Gender, and the Criminal Justice System seminar. The quote is: “Know history, know self. No history, no self.” This quote informs what I call a “pedagogy of the self” which intentionally seeks to address the gaps in my own historical knowledge about the subject of race and policing. By the time of my first seminar on race and policing much of my historical knowledge on the subject only covered chunks such as the convict leasing system in the South, policing during the Civil Rights movement and leading into the Kerner Commission Report, the War on Drugs, and contemporary events surrounding racial profiling such as stop-and-frisk in New York City. I set out to engage two broad questions to help fill in the pieces to the bigger picture. How did policing develop in the United States and what role did race play in its development? How did race and ethnicity and policing play out before and immediately after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement? After scouring readings I developed a broader historical understanding of race and policing. Below I reflect on how this broader understanding has informed my thoughts on community policing, stop-and-frisk, and the academy in relation to race and policing.
The history of race and policing has forced me to have a reckoning about community policing and its association with slave patrols. Policing research suggests that community policing began as traditional modes of law enforcement failed to stem rising crime rates in the 70s alongside concerns over deteriorating police-citizen relations. The rise of community policing across the United States was made possible by a shifting federal stance towards crime. As historian Elizabeth Hinton (2016) documents in From the War on Poverty to The War on Crime, since the War on Poverty, the United States has attempted to institutionalize community policing through presidential and congressional involvement in dictating how federal dollars could be used to fund local crime-fighting strategies. Federal involvement in local policing reached ascendance with the Clinton administration who returned the largest crime bill in the history of the United States which provided a community policing arm of the Department of Justice, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. However, since reading Slave Patrols by historian Sally Haden I see community policing not as a novel construction but as a throwback to the philosophy guiding slave patrols in the South. In times of slavery controlling slaves and in turn, protecting economic interests was paramount and slave patrols became integral to preserving the status quo. Slave patrollers patrolled specific geographic areas so that patrollers could gain a working knowledge of the residents and slaves within it and knowing the geography became important for catching runaway slaves. Slave patrollers were pulled from the local community because local residents had a better understanding of the issues specific to the slaves they owned, providing an added buy-in for patrollers to serve. Slave patrollers, while oftentimes cruel in their actions, nonetheless helped preserve the economic interest of their local community by returning slaves to their masters and oftentimes not inflicting harm to slaves because that would jeopardize labor output. There was also much “civilian oversight” to hold slave patrollers accountable to the community’s interest. Today’s calls for community policing are challenging police to serve the interests of Black communities in much the same way slave patrols served the interests of White communities.
The history of race and policing has also made me understand the legal system’s role in providing broad powers to the police that have resulted in constitutional abuses against racial minorities. Vagrant Nation by historian Risa Golubuff shows us that before Terry v. Ohio, which established stop-and-frisk, vagrancy and loitering laws were written so vaguely that probable cause was too easily established and used heavily against racial minorities. This is clear in reading Slavery by Another Name by journalist Douglas A. Blackmon as vagrancy and loitering laws were weaponized to advance the convict leasing system in the South following the Civil War. Numerous legal challenges through the 1960s eventually culminated in the invalidation of such broadly written laws. At the same time, the ruling in Terry v. Ohio opened the doors for courts to extend police investigatory authority through stop-and-frisk. Indeed courts have expanded stop-and-frisk powers by validating the use of subjective identifiers such as suspicious bulge, fits the description, high crime area, and furtive movement among others as qualifiers for reasonable suspicion. The abuse of these subjective identifiers by police against racial and ethnic communities was made apparent in Floyd, et al. v. City of New York.
Finally, learning more about the history of race and policing has challenged my thoughts on the academy and use of data. Science has been historically central to reproducing racial inequalities through the criminal justice system and is well documented. The Condemnation of Blackness Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad showcases how newly emerging crime data collection efforts alongside pseudo-science at the turn of the 20th century was weaponized to advance an ideology of black criminality which would be used to justify exclusionary and discriminatory practices against Black people. Similarly, Race, Police and the Making of a Political Identity Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900-1945 by historian Edward Escobar discusses how statistics were used to cast Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, particularly youth, as violent and thus to justify aggressive policing. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime talks about the prominent role sociologist Daniel Moynihan played in advising President Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both of whom rejected addressing the structural impediments to social progress that address poverty and in turn crime. Thus, even by leaving law enforcement, I cannot escape the possibility I could continue to produce work that stands in the way of racial progress. Nonetheless, we must not neglect that education itself can provide tremendous benefits towards understanding racial issues. To understand today’s climate surrounding race and policing we must first understand how we have arrived to today’s climate surrounding race and policing. In other words “Know history, know self. No history, no self.”
José Torres, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Louisiana State University in the Department of Sociology.
Suggested citation: José Torres, What Teaching Policing and Race as a Former Police Officer Has Taught Me, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 19, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/06/josé-torres-policing-and-race/.
This article was prepared for publication by Brianna Bell, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.