Book Review: Cop Watch: Spectators, Social Media, and Police Reform

Date01 June 2013
Published date01 June 2013
Subject MatterBook Reviews
elsewhere in late 18th-century and early 19th-century America. Bessler meticulously pores over
many of the Founders’ own writings and speeches, including those of Madison, William Bradford,
Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, and others, in his
quest to document their views about the purposes of criminal punishment and the boundaries
separating permissible and cruel and unusual penal sanctions.
Much in Cruel & Unusual is also forward looking. Bessler makes a persuasive case that the
Framers of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights deliberately chose expansive language in defining
fundamental rights to better ensure that the freedoms enjoyed by future generations of Americans
would not be narrowly cabined by the past. Accepting this premise liberates the Eighth Amend-
ment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments from an interpretation that compels the
conclusion that the death penalty, which of course was widely accepted and practiced when that
amendment and the others comprising the Bill of Rights were ratified, must necessarily be consti-
tutional. Social conceptions of ‘‘cruelty’’ change over time and those changes invite, if they do not
demand examination of whether the practice of capital punishment remains consistent with contem-
porary societal ‘‘standards of decency.’
This foray into evolving cultural understandings of the meaning of cruel and unusual punishments
includes a somewhat obligatory analysis of well-known competing schools of thought regarding
constitutional interpretation, particularly those distinguishing ‘‘originalists’’ or ‘‘strict construction-
ists’’ from those who advocate on behalf of a ‘‘living Constitution’’ that was designed to grow and
adapt in response to evolving societal needs and circumstances. The discussion further embraces
Supreme Court case law interpreting the Eighth Amendment, focusing particularly on the justices’
death penalty jurisprudence. It also locates the United States as an outlier among its contemporary
peers in the international community, almost all of whom have repudiated capital punishment.
Bessler is not a dispassionate historian. He unabashedly celebrates the progressive, antideath
penalty bent of the late 18th-century writings of Cesare Beccaria and Benjamin Rush, to whom
he dedicates the book. He unapologetically yearns for the day when their views are rediscovered,
emerge triumphant, and the nation’s death penalty jurisdictions are relegated to graveyards of their
own making. The partisanship evidenced in his writing threatens to tinge some of the interpretations
he impresses on the Founders’ ruminations about punishments and the characteristics defining them
as cruel and unusual. At the same time, it imbues the volume with refreshing candor and poses no
barrier to readers being able to draw their own conclusions from the documentary evidence that is so
expansively and carefully presented. Cruel & Unusual shines new light on issues that have long been
debated and it brings attendant clarity to them. It is not always an easy read, but it is a worthwhile
and thought-provoking one.
H. Toch
Cop Watch: Spectators, Social Media, and Police Reform Washington, DC:
American Psychological Association, 2012. 184 pp. $49.95. ISBN: 1433811197
Reviewed by: Matthew DeMichele, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
DOI: 10.1177/0734016812460245
In Cop Watch, Hans Toch provides a social psychological view of police–citizen interactions. His
approach incorporates Goffman, Muir, and others to propose that police practices and citizen
responses are shaped through an intersubjective feedback process. By looking at the relationship
Book Reviews 243

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