Review- Johnson, “Street Justice”

Marilynn Johnson, “Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City” (2003) – A former professor of mine wrote this book. A work of social history, it makes use of the archive left by complaints against the NYPD (both official and unofficial) and the defenses and reforms mounted by the police and their supervisors over the years- which is to say, a lot of the story isn’t and can’t be told, as it’s already been swept under the rug, in some cases for over a century. There’s a dispiriting regularity to how waves of police reform go. The police engage in systematic violence, from “clubbing” passers-by in the nineteenth century to the “third degree” in interrogation in the early twentieth with violent ethnic/racial/class profiling throughout. Coalitions of affected groups, liberal, leftists, and reformers get together to reign things in. You get some questioning of what the police are for and what they’re doing, but in the end discourses against the abuse of “respectable” citizens (implicitly approving of roughing up everyone else) and “professionalism” take the fore, being pressed by more organized and wealthier groups. The police squawk at both radicals and reformers and insist the sky will fall if they can’t torture suspects/club people when they feel like it/profile black people/whatever. But in the end, they wind up becoming quite cozy with the more moderate reformers, many of whom wind up giving police more resources and control in the name of professionalism. The structural issues are left in place, violence finds more permissible targets, and the cycle begins again. In this moment, the forces pressing for structural change seem stronger than they have in a long time, but the dynamics of reform are still depressingly similar. ****

Review- Johnson, “Street Justice”

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