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Police Brutality


POLICE BRUTALITY. Police brutality is the use of any force exceeding that reasonably necessary to accomplish a lawful police purpose. Although no reliable measure of its incidence exists—let alone one charting change chronologically—its history is undeniably long. The shifting nature and definition of police brutality, however, reflect larger political, demographic, and economic changes.

Much police brutality in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was officially sanctioned, aimed at undermining labor actions or controlling working-class leisure. Some scholars have argued, however, that local police often sympathized with workers, obliging industrialists to call upon state or private police to forcibly regulate discontented laborers. For example, the Pennsylvania state militia, not members of the local police force, killed twenty during the 1877 Pittsburgh railroad strike; between 1869 and 1892, private Pinkerton officers were involved in brutally breaking seventy-seven strikes.

Progressive era reform efforts to professionalize crime control paradoxically distanced local police from the communities they served, thus eroding important social checks on abuse. Local officers, for example, beat hundreds at a 1930 labor rally in New York City, while Chicago police killed ten strikers in the Republic Steel Memorial Day Massacre of 1937. Less dramatic, but equally revealing, Dallas police formally charged less than five percent of the 8,526 people they arrested "on suspicion" in 1930.

The waves of labor migration after 1917—most prominently, African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban North—racialized police brutality, leading to three major eras of riots stemming from conflict between police and minority groups: 1917–1919, 1943, and 1964–1968. Both the civil rights movement and subsequent urban unrest laid bare the flaws in a model of police professionalism that focused narrowly on fighting crime while ignoring the needs of the communities, especially poor communities, being policed.

Some observers, relying on findings that an officer's race is unrelated to the propensity to use force, assert racial animosity alone cannot account for brutal actions by the police. Such scholarship holds that brutality under the guise of "quality-of-life" policing serves economic elites by paving the way for urban gentrification. The accelerating reorganization of post-industrial urban economies

around financial, cultural, and high-tech activities has not only decimated employment prospects for low skilled (and often minority) workers, but also required their displacement as a new knowledge-professional class seeks fresh neighborhoods in which to play and live.

Despite early enthusiasm, civilian review boards—able neither to investigate nor control departmental policies—have often proved disappointing, leaving critics to view legislation as the last best hope.


Friedman, Lawrence. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Garland, David. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Websdale, Neil. Policing the Poor: From Slave Plantation to Public Housing. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

Gregory FritzUmbach

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