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  • Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City
  • Allen Steinberg
Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City. By Marilynn S. Johnson ( Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. 365 pp. $19).

One of the fundamental features of the modern state is its monopoly of legitimate violence in society. At home, this monopoly is ordinarily exercised by [End Page 230] the criminal justice system, making police violence a basic part of government. Bizarre then is the nearly complete neglect of this subject by historians, and it is made all the more so when one learns in Marilynn S. Johnson's Street Justice that abusive policemen have almost always been on the minds of the people of a place as important as New York. Fortunately, Johnson's comprehensive history of police violence in the United States' largest city begins to repair this breach between the American people and their historians.

Johnson tells a grim story of brutality and bigotry, protest and reaction, opportunism and, occasionally, grudging reform. Though we are never meant to forget the constancy of routine violence in the countless day-to-day encounters between policemen and the policed, the book's narrative is driven by prominent controversies, infamous events and social movements. Beginning with the outrage over clubbing that helped provoke a major political scandal in the late nineteenth century, Johnson takes us through the corruption-saturated era when the police were little more than Tammany Hall's security and collection agency, the race and religion-influenced police riots of the early twentieth century, the tough cop admiring police reformers of the Progressive era, the third degree and other forms of torture employed by the police to combat the Prohibition and depression induced "crime wave" of the twenties and thirties, conflict between the police and leftists before World War II, and then with civil rights and antiwar activists afterwards. She examines the fitful efforts of New Yorkers to establish a measure of effective civilian oversight of the police during the late twentieth century and ends with the pro-police reaction of the Giuliani years, when several particularly outrageous incidents of police brutality led to the latest round of limited reform.

Throughout this detailed and action-packed book Johnson advances several main points. One is the consistency of police brutality and its main targets—members of racial and ethnic minorities and the working class. Another is the frequent tie between brutality and corruption, and a third is that the history of popular resistance to police violence is one of "cycle(s) of scandal and reform" (p.304). This is a story that stresses continuity over change. Johnson sticks close to her sources, and as they become more weighted towards the social movements that clashed with the police and made police brutality a cause celebre in the twentieth century, the book becomes more about those movements and their modest achievements, and less about either the police or their brutality.

Street Justice is a dense, sometimes breathless narrative, and this is good as far as it goes. But the author's thematic restraint and reluctance to face squarely the major vexing issues about police authority also make it a missed opportunity. There are two main problems. First, because Johnson sticks so close to her sources, which are mostly generated by critics and victims of police violence, and because she clearly sympathizes with the victims, she tends to adopt their point of view, which is that police brutality is not just bad, but an aberration—unnecessary deviance that should and can be eliminated. This is a fine perspective for an activist, but for a scholar it begs the big question. Police violence isn't aberrational, it's essential. Johnson laments the "persistent belief that effective law enforcement requires tough, ruthless tactics" (p.304). But the problem isn't this belief, it is the truth that lies within it, the same truth that lies within covert [End Page 231] surveillance, profiling and other anti-democratic law enforcement tactics that raise profound and intractable Constitutional questions. The essential tyrannical nature of police authority is the reason we need Constitutional protections in the first place. Instead of engaging this central...


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