Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force.

Author:Livingston, Debra Ann

By Jerome H. Skolnick and James J. Fyfe. New York: Free Press. 1993. Pp. xviii, 313. $24.95.

In January 1994, President Clinton invited Kevin Jett, a thirty-one-year-old New York City police officer who walks a beat in the northwest Bronx, to attend the State of the Union Address. Jett stood for Congress's applause as the President called for the addition of 100,000 new community police officers to walk beats across the nation. The crime problem faced by Officer Jett and community police officers like him, the President said, has its roots "in the loss of values, the disappearance of work, and the breakdown of our families and communities."(1) According to the Clinton administration, however, the police -- or at least community police -- can still help make a difference. Law enforcement officers, Attorney General Janet Reno has said, can in fact be "heroes and heroines" engaged in the appropriately Herculean task of "rebuilding the fabric of society" in cities, communities, and neighborhoods that are "adrift."(2)

Concern about crime is once again at center stage. So are the police. Several weeks before the State of the Union Address, the New York Times profiled the New York City Police Department's implementation of community policing, a reform-oriented philosophy of policing that, in New York, has involved assigning police officers to foot patrol and expanding their traditional duties to include broader community service.(3) Officer Jett, the Times reported, walks a beat in a New York neighborhood in which "[s]o many stores have been robbed so often that many, including the Post Office, conduct business from behind thick Plexiglas partitions."(4) Regular patrol officers responding to calls in some areas "are often met with |air mail,' bricks and chunks of concrete that rain down from above."(5) The Times termed the NYPD's community policing effort perhaps "the largest and most important policing experiment any government has tried to conduct."(6)

There is concern, not only about crime, but also about disorder -- the disintegration of norms of civility and mutual respect governing urban life. Here, too, the police share the spotlight. Recent news reports have catalogued the deleterious effects of alleged breakdowns in civic order: the commuter's dread of being harangued by strangers demanding money on the subway; the elderly person's concern about being accosted by obstreperous teenagers in the park.(7) Citing the work of leading academics who argue that the threat of such encounters breeds fear, which may itself endanger community life by causing the fearful resident to withdraw from public spaces, police reformers in cities like New York are looking to revive an older conception of the function of beat cops. In the view of prominent academics and politicians, these new community police officers, no mere crime fighters, should also "resume a long-abandoned role as guardians of civic order."(8)

Some of the current attention devoted to crime and disorder, bred of public fears that politicians exploit by advocating quick -- and ineffective -- fixes, will no doubt dissipate over time. No thoughtful person, however, can fail to be concerned about conditions in our cities today, nor can any student of the police help but reflect on how the police might meliorate these conditions. In fact, prominent scholars over the last ten to fifteen years -- including Herman Goldstein, George Kelling, James Q. Wilson, and others -- have propounded new ideas about the police role and about how the police might improve conditions in our communities.(9) Under the rubric of "community policing," policymakers have taken up many of these ideas and have made them the subject of informal experimentation in police departments across the country. The ideas themselves are varied. Most, however, involve common elements of the "community" strategy: an emphasis on the community, rather than merely on police professionalism and the law, as a source of legitimation for many police tasks; the purposeful decentralization of much police decisionmaking and the reorientation of patrol in the direction of neighborhood-based policing; a redefinition of the police role to include not only response to individual criminal incidents but also matters like promoting the common welfare, solving community-nominated problems that may contribute to crime, and, for some, aggressively maintaining civil order; and, finally, the establishment of close working relationships between police and citizens, community groups, and, sometimes, relevant social service agencies.(10)

Above the Law, by Jerome Skolnick(11) and James Fyfe,(12) does not, at first glance, fit within this now-burgeoning literature of police reform -- a literature aimed at reorienting the police toward the community, the better to address community concerns about crime and disorder. Skolnick and Fyfe are primarily concerned, not with making the police more effective guardians of civic order, but rather with holding police officers to the rule of law -- specifically, constraining them in the exercise of force. The Times's account of Officer Jett's patrol of Beat 12, Sector George, the 52d Precinct in the Bronx, invokes one image of the police in relationship to the community: the image of Officer Jett, a young African American, trudging alone over eight square blocks that he cannot begin to rid of crime or disorder but that he stubbornly refuses to cede to the "drug dealers, gun merchants, loan sharks, pimps, robbers, burglars and extortionists" with whom he must daily negotiate for a measure of community peace.(13) Above the Law powerfully invokes another image of the police and the community, no less salient, nor less anchored in present realities of American policing: the image of Sergeant Stacey Koon, the Los Angeles Police Department supervisor at the scene of the beating of Rodney Glen King, reporting to headquarters on "a big time use of force" in which King, an African American, was "tased and beat . . . Big Time"; the image of twenty-three other police officers who sped to the scene in high-tech patrol cars or hovered overhead in a police helicopter, but who did nothing to interfere as the beating took place (pp. 2, 13).

On its face, Above the Law is about constraining bad cops from misusing their authority, not about empowering good cops to address growing community concerns with the problems of neighborhood deterioration. Yet, Above the Law points to a connection between the twin aspirations of police reformers to control police misconduct and to improve police effectiveness in responding to problems of crime and disorder. Perhaps the book's most intriguing aspect is the authors' belief that the very turn to community policing -- with its attendant deemphasis on law as a basis for police legitimation, decentralization of decisionmaking, and increase in connections between beat cops and community residents -- may itself be a means of limiting the occasions on which police ignore legal restraints. As concerns with both crime and disorder push the police back to center stage and as policymakers indulge in modest hopes that community-oriented policing might help assuage these concerns, the authors' assessment that returning cops to the community will also help keep them from acts of brutality is, indeed, good news. The most frustrating aspect of this thoughtful book, however, may be Above the Law's less-than-full attention to the problems that police face in our communities today and to the possibility that developing better responses to these problems may itself be a precondition to realizing the open, humanistic style of policing that Skolnick and Fyfe believe will help minimize the tragic incidence of police brutality.


In Above the Law, Skolnick and Fyfe, themselves prominent police scholars, set out, for the benefit of a general audience, to do three things: to describe the occasions of police brutality, to explain why it persists, and to offer remedies. The King beating sets the stage for this effort, and the authors begin by noting that the public discussion of police violence engendered by the events in Los Angeles has tended to oversimplify a complex set of issues. We cannot explain police brutality, the authors assert, simply by the absence of mechanisms to hold police accountable to elected authority, though such mechanisms are important. Nor can we explain brutality by the supposed authoritarianism of those drawn to policing, when in fact most recruits who join police forces appear to do so out of a "combination of self-interest" -- the desire for a well-paid and interesting job -- "plus idealism" (p. 93). Finally, the phenomenon of police brutality, the authors assert, cannot be understood simply by invoking the racism of white cops -- because occasions of police brutality, though too often tragically bound up in this country's tortured racial history, have not been confined to instances involving the victimization of minorities (p. xvii).

Brutality, the authors contend, is an occupational risk of policing that we cannot absolutely control but that we can minimize. Its incidence has decreased, they believe, in the last fifty years, and even in the last twenty (p. 18). Contemporary police brutality, Skolnick and Fyfe argue, is historically related to vigilantism, and particularly to lynching (p. 24); its roots can also be found in the history of coercive police interrogation practices and in the indiscriminate use of force to repress large civil disorders throughout this nation's history (pp. 23, 87-88).

Police brutality, the authors note, takes many forms. In most instances of police brutality today, however, cops resort to brutality directed at members of a feared outgroup -- some population thought to be "undesirable, undeserving, and underpunished by established law" (p. 24). The victim is often, but not always, a member of a racial or ethnic minority; he may...

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