History Repeating

It’s Time for a New Kerner Commission on Police and Race

More than 45 years ago, America learned a lesson about police and minority relations after race riots engulfed American cities. Today, it has forgotten this lesson; it needs to learn it again.

Joshua Lott/Reuters

As we watched the shocking confrontations in Ferguson, Missouri, America’s long history of racial repression and conflict, and of police over-reaction, were suddenly again thrust into our public consciousness.

We have seen this saga before. In 1964, Harlem erupted, followed in 1965 by the Watts district of Los Angeles, and then terrifying outbreaks in cities across the nation in 1967, most prominently in Newark and then Detroit, filling our TV screens with images of raging fires, rampaging mobs, and cities occupied by police and National Guard. Armed soldiers, machine guns at the ready, were shooting into urban streets. As reports mounted of millions of dollars of property damage and dozens of shooting deaths, the nation was paralyzed by racial fear.

The FBI advised President Johnson that the outbreak of riots was a coordinated attack by black militants to overthrow the U.S. government as part of a communist-inspired conspiracy—the terrorism of its time.

Faced with this astonishing FBI assertion, President Johnson appointed the National Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to find answers.

The commission’s 1968 report remains an example of thorough investigation, forthright analysis of a complex national dilemma, and clear policy guidelines—many highly controversial.

Among the most significant elements of the commission’s report was the discussion of police practices. It was rooted in the commission’s findings that, contrary to the FBI report to the president, the basis for many of these urban outbreaks was long-standing, racially-based aggressive police practices that alienated minority communities. Isolated incidents of abusive police behavior, often the shooting of an unarmed black male, then triggered community eruptions. The resulting police overreaction often inflamed the situation and resulted in the deaths of unarmed citizens, the commission found. Rather than the FBI’s conspiracy of outside agitators, the Kerner Commission found that fault often lay within our own police forces.

Throughout this period, one city had stood apart: New York, led by Mayor John Lindsay. Lindsay had mounted unusual outreach efforts to the city’s ghettos, including his frequent personal presence through his famous walks. And he introduced bold initiatives in police practice, from appointment of a Civilian Complaint Review Board (voted down in a referendum), to strict policies on the use of force and the insistence on police restraint, especially in the face of riots and disorders.

The contrast was dramatic. Journalist Nick Pileggi has written that during the Harlem riots of 1964, the city’s police under Mayor Wagner had fired 1,500 bullets, while two years later, faced with disorder in East New York, the police, now under Lindsay, didn’t fire a single shot. While the FBI was issuing harsh rhetoric about suppression of disorders, New York City introduced a new approach characterized by massive police presence, overseen by enormous numbers of visible command officers, strict discipline, and clear guidelines on restraint in reaction and against firing weapons. It was highly controversial and Lindsay was attacked for giving in to rioters, “handcuffing” the police and being soft on criminals. But he was decisive and undeterred. As other cities convulsed and burned, New York remained relatively stable and peaceful.

Lindsay’s choice was apparent in April 1968 when multiple cities again erupted following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. Faced with rampaging youths, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley issued a strict “shoot to kill” order to police to halt looting. When word reached New York’s City Hall, Lindsay responded, “We don’t shoot children in New York City.”

Lindsay was selected by President Johnson to be vice chair of the Kerner Commission and, as its most knowledgeable member, he had a profound impact on its policy recommendations. The Commission Report in many ways endorsed the New York approach and ushered in an era of federal activism in providing training and technical assistance to local police departments to assist them in preparing for disorders and in adopting policies of restraint.

So it’s disappointing that 47 years later, we see the very same terrifying images on the streets of Ferguson: police, armed for warfare, with tanks and high powered weaponry at the ready, pointed at civilians in the most provocative manner—the very conduct that the Kerner Commission had found inflammatory and had helped to end.

Yet the federal government was apparently a major facilitator of such conduct, the very reverse of what it had discouraged a few decades earlier. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the nation was again gripped with fear. But instead of urging restraint and calm with sound historical perspective and detailed fact-based inquiry, as Kerner had done successfully, the federal government mounted a massive effort to arm local police departments everywhere to deal with “the terrorist threat.” What is the possible need for tanks and armored personnel carriers, with high-powered weaponry, in a place like Ferguson, Missouri? In the end it will only be turned on its own citizenry.

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The issue of how police should respond to disorder, once thought settled, has now suddenly been reopened. Worse still, under the guise of anti-terrorism protection, and driven by rampant irrational fears, the federal government’s excessive arming of local police has indirectly inspired dangerous and provocative police behavior in places like Ferguson. And unlike the 1960s, where the threat of disorder was real and actually experienced in cities large and small in virtually every region of the country, there have been almost no federal voices of reason urging restraint when arming police so heavily, and no local models like John Lindsay to help set the nation on a better course.

We must stop these shocking images of an armed America turning high-tech weapons of war on its own citizens. We need to start with a dramatic change in federal policy and then once again provide federal leadership in rapidly re-introducing policies and training for restraint and discipline in police departments. Luckily, there seems to be growing bipartisan support for such action, led by the strong statement of Rand Paul. President Barack Obama’s decision over the weekend to review the policy providing these armaments is a step in the right direction. But there needs to be a much more vigorous outreach to minority communities by local police, as well as changes in policy and behavior. A Second Kerner Commission, as focused, fact-based and practical as the first, with knowledgeable leaders in the mould of John Lindsay, may be the best way to achieve that objective. We did it once at a time of far greater national unrest. We can and must do it again.