POLICE REFORM: 1950-1970


There have been two major periods of reform through the history of modern American policing. The first period of reform was sparked by August Vollmer in an attempt to move beyond the patronage and corruption that characterized policing during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vollmer advocated professionalism, careful selection of officers, and rigorous training as the means to reform. By the 1930s, most major police departments had adopted Vollmer’s initiatives and moved from the political era into the reform era (Kelling and Moore 1988). The influence of Vollmer and his proteges, O. W. Wilson and William Parker, was evident as police departments across the nation adopted a professionalism approach that defined police functioning from the 1940s into the 1960s.

The second period of reform was based in the 1960s and came to fruition in the 1970s. After World War II, America experienced an unusual period of tranquility. Soldiers returned home, found jobs in the booming American industrial economy, and settled in the suburbs. By the mid-1960s, the ”baby boomer” generation had matured into their criminogenic period (age sixteen through twenty-five) and the resulting crime increase, movement toward racial and gender equality, and clashes with the police indicated a need for reform. This article describes the rise of police professionalism during the 1950s, the ensuing problems of the 1960s, and the eventual need for reform.

1950s—The Rise of Professionalism

During the 1950s, ”professionalism” was the watchword of the day. Officers were encouraged to function and behave in a strict, legalistic fashion. As police departments moved forward in the shift toward reform and away from the corruption of the political era, the personality of the individual beat officer was no longer emphasized, and officers became cogs in the larger police organization. Officer-level attitudes and values during the reform era were significantly influenced by the shift to professionalism. As police agencies implemented a quasi-military model of policing through the 1940s and 1950s, the individuals who were drawn to policing began to reflect these ideals. More and more police were ex-military men.

This was a change from early American police, who were likely first- or second-generation immigrants tied to ethnic and political groups as a function of their own ethnic background (MacNamara 1967). This shift toward ex-military personnel distanced the police from concepts such as patronage and old European ideas, where those with political ambition could purchase public offices through favors or bribes (Wilson 1968). The applicants who filled the ranks of police after returning from the military during the Second World War were more accustomed to a hierarchical model of authority, and the police shift to professionalism was well on its way.

A variety of factors shaped individual, officer-level functioning during this period. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led by J. Edgar Hoover, rose to prominence during the 1930s, local law enforcement agencies sought to emulate the FBI’s professionalism. The FBI gained notoriety through the pursuit and apprehension of public personality criminals (such as Bonnie and Clyde and Babyface Nelson). Unfortunately, local law enforcement has always had to deal with a myriad of issues and can never possess the discretion over case selection of the FBI. Thus, seeking to resemble the scientific, professionalism model of the FBI was an unattainable goal.

Another set of factors that influenced officer-level values and behavior during the 1950s concerned the technological advances available to the police. August Vollmer and O. W. Wilson, the leaders in police innovation during the first half of the twentieth century, advocated placing police officers in brightly marked patrol cars to conduct preventive patrol. As described by Uchida (1997), August Vollmer and O. W. Wilson advised placing police officers in highly marked patrol cars for several reasons (Wilson 1963). First, officers would be readily available to respond to calls. Second, officers would fulfill a deterrence function by driving around and being highly visible. Third, officers would be removed from society, only coming into direct contact with their constituents when summoned.

This third objective was developed in response to the corruption of the political era. Officers who had limited contact with the public were unlikely to develop the corrupt relationships that had precipitated the shift to the reform era. The increasing availability of the telephone and the two-way radio served to allow the public, and subsequently dispatchers, to contact the police and send them where they were needed. This provided a more responsive police force but served as a second step distancing the police from the public.

1960s—Factors Precipitating the Fall of the Reform Era

By the 1960s, the professionalization movement was entrenched, and most American police departments had adopted the tenets of the reform era. However, many of these agencies were emphasizing the law enforcement mission of the police to the detriment of the social service role and community relations. A series of Supreme Court decisions restricted police actions and ”handcuffed” the police, requiring them to pay more attention to an individual’s rights and constitutional protections (Skolnick and Fyfe 1993). The civil rights movements culminated in a series of riots during the 1960s, spotlighting the poor relations between the police and the population, especially among minorities, young activists, and the poor (Pelfrey 1998).

While officer attitudes and values during the first portion of the reform era were characterized by the shift toward professionalism, the latter portion of the reform era saw officers become insulated from society and the focal point of controversy. The emphasis on law enforcement during the early portion of the reform era served to focus the police profession and decrease the scope of corruption. However, when social conflict emerged, this reliance on law enforcement left the police unprepared and created a community relations crisis.

A variety of factors precipitated the eventual shift away from the reform paradigm. The withdrawn nature of the police, originally designed to reform corruption problems, eventually produced negative byproducts. The shift toward vehicle-based patrol as opposed to foot patrol kept officers away from the temptations of corruption; however, this practice served as the first of several steps to insulate the police from the public. When officers are in cars, they are much less accessible to the general public. Officers gradually lost the close relationship with their constituents and grew out of touch with the changing times of the 1960s.

Unfortunately, this withdrawn nature produced a negative and ultimately destructive byproduct—a police force that was out of touch with society. Officers came into contact with the public in limited, often problematic instances. This social distance culminated in the discord of the 1960s, where the police response to demonstrations sparked a variety of riots and critical incidents (Fyfe 1988). Since few police of that time were trained to handle civil disobedience on a broad scale, police often initiated violent conflict, ultimately exacerbating tumultuous conditions.

Although the civil rights movement began in the 1950s, it peaked during the 1960s. Protests, led by civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King, forced public attention on the conflicts between minorities and local governments. As these protests grew in numbers and prominence, the police were required (by local officials) to intervene. Since the police of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s had little experience handling unruly crowds, disaster often ensued. The injury or killing of a protester could spark a riot, necessitating an even greater use of force by the police.

This problem was magnified by television—incidents of police battering unarmed, minority protesters in Newark, Los Angeles, and Detroit during the mid-1960s were televised and brought into the homes of citizens across the nation. Many of these citizens then rose in angry protest, leading to localized riots. Frustrated police in previously peaceful cities saw protests and riots develop as a result of, for example, a shooting in New York or a beating in Alabama. These frustrations, on the part of both the police and the protesters, evidenced a serious disconnect between the police and many of their constituents.

On the final day of one of the bloodiest riots of the 1960s (in Detroit in 1967), President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to review current police practices and develop recommendations to avoid such conflict in the future. The Ker-ner Commission and the 1967 President’s Crime Commission advised the police to institute new selection and training procedures, especially relating to minorities. They recommended police departments alter hiring practices to make the departments more closely resemble the populations they policed. The traditional attitudes and values of the police were suddenly spotlighted and questioned. The Kerner Commission observed that many of the cities with the most significant problems had the most highly respected and professional police departments in America.

The President’s Crime Commission made a number of influential suggestions regarding the development of police-community relations and encouraged the review and adoption of alternative police strategies, suggesting the traditional role of the police should be considered and revised. In his review of this report, twenty-five years after its release, Walker (1994) states that the seeds of community policing are evident in the report.

An outcome of President Johnson’s efforts was the LEAA—the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. This federal agency provided funds for police to go to school and earn collegiate or graduate degrees. Many of these officers moved into academics and became the first wave of criminal justice scholars. The LEAA also distributed funds to study the basic precepts of policing. These studies, including the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Study, the Response Time Study, and the Rand Detective Study, represent landmark research in criminal justice and sparked many other important investigations.

The Supreme Court made a dramatic impact on policing during the 1960s. With Earl Warren serving as chief justice, the Court addressed numerous aspects of police discretion and elected to limit the scope of police power in virtually every decision. In Katz v. United States (1967) and Chimel v. California (1969), the Court forced the police to exercise much greater care in acquiring warrants and conducting searches of residences and defined the limits of a legal search. The Fifth Amendment protection of access to counsel received notable attention first in Massiah v. United States (1964), then in Escobedo v. Illinois (1964). In both the Massiah and the Esco-bedo decisions, the police were precluded from obtaining confessions from those suspects who had retained counsel. This protection forced the police to rely on investigative procedures to produce convictions as opposed to coercing, or forcing, a confession. Finally, with the Miranda v. Arizona (1966) decision, police were required to inform arrested individuals (who the police wished to question) of the basic protections extended by the government.

These and other Supreme Court decisions (such as Mapp v. Ohio and Terry v. Ohio) did more than restrict the police in their dealings with suspects. The police were forced to change their style—instead of a heavy-handed approach to policing, involving coercive tactics and the threat of force, the police had to rely on evidence, investigative technique, and forensics. This approach was not well suited to the stereotypical police officer who relied on force, or the threat of force, to achieve order and justice. Instead, an intelligent and educated officer who knew the utility of science and the law began to emerge as the prototypical police officer. Agencies picked up the forgotten admonitions of August Vollmer and became more active in recruiting educated candidates for police positions.

Social upheaval, exemplified by riots and the civil rights movements, forced police into dangerous situations, where they fared poorly (Kelling and Moore 1988). A series of commission reports suggested that the police had become disconnected from society, and serious questions were raised about the current practices and philosophies of police (Walker 1994).

By the end of the 1960s, the Supreme Court, social scientists, and police administrators turned their attention to decreasing the level of discretion available to police officers and improving the relationship between the police and the community (Pelfrey 1998).

1970—The Need for a New Paradigm

As the practices and philosophies of policing during the reform era began to fall under question, police administrators and researchers began to question standard police practices and their outcomes. Part of the difficulty police experienced during the 1960s was founded in the lack of contact with the public and the changing set of expectations of the community. Although community values changed, the police failed to adapt. This produced conflict and strife between the community and the police, evident through deteriorating police-community relations. The new philosophy of community policing encouraged officers to foster relationships with the community and develop an exchange of values. Wilson and Kelling (1982, 34) note, ”The essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself.” This can only be achieved through an understanding of these informal control mechanisms, which is best derived through a community policing strategy (Manning 1988).

By 1970, the field of policing was ripe for change. The factors described previously demonstrated that the need for change was present. However, for a shift in paradigms to occur, there must be a new set of ideas available (Kuhn 1962). These ideas emerged through the research of the Police Foundation (1981) and Boydstun and Sherry (1975) and through the ideas of Herman Goldstein, who developed the problem-oriented policing philosophy (1979), and Wilson and Kelling, who fostered the broken-windows notion (1982).

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