A. An Entrenched Culture

The depraved abuse of Abner Louima spotlighted a culture which government authority figures have refused to recognize. Nonetheless, police brutality has long remained a reality for the poor and minorities. The primary targets of police violence in nineteenth century New York City were “young, working-class citizens from poorer ethnic neighborhoods ... as they still are today.” An 1881 New York Times article, A Brute in Police Uniform, provides an account of an officer approaching John McDonald as he sat outside his home on a hot night. When McDonald understandably refused the officer's arbitrary order to return inside his home, he was brutally beaten with a heavy club. Like Rodney King and many other victims of police brutality, McDonald was subsequently arrested and incarcerated after enduring this injustice. The next day in court, McDonald's clothes were covered in blood and his face was “one mass of cuts and bruises.”

This incident was by no means isolated. The New York Times alone reported more than 270 cases of police brutality between 1865 and 1894. It apparently required very little to warrant a beating, as seventy-five percent or more of those cases involved misdemeanors, and numerous cases resulted in no charges at all. In fact, only three percent involved major felonies. Over ninety percent of these cases occurred in public, primarily in poor immigrant neighborhoods. Some of the brutality proved fatal; nine percent of victims died during or shortly after the incident. These statistics indicate that “physical violence was an accepted police practice that did not require an arrest or ‘cover charge’ to legitimize it. The public nature of most of these incidents likewise suggests that clubbing was a common and accepted tactic among police.”

This situation was largely the product of close ties between police and corrupt political administrations of the time. The relationship “tended to produce a self-perpetuating culture of violence.” Strong-arm tactics employed to combat rampant crime even won approval from some segments of the public, because they found considerable success in dispersing gangs by “beating senseless” every known gang member in the area. Further, New York's government did not appear to be an exception to the rule. Government officials from nearly every American city employed similar tactics, operating in conjunction with powerful neighborhood bosses to create state-sanctioned monopolies on violence.

Circumstances in the South were even worse. The Civil War left wide disparities between the landowning upper class and newly freed slaves. The Republican Party aligned itself with Black voters and relied on the occupying Union military to quell dissent. The Democratic Party fed on the negative sentiment this created and ingratiated itself with the old guard of the South, including disenfranchised Confederate soldiers, plantation owners, and other former slaveholders. This tendency lent political legitimacy to prevailing xenophobic sentiments, and, as a result, police in the southern U.S. became entwined with racist vigilante movements like the Ku Klux Klan. The line between state action and the actions of vigilante squads quickly blurred. Local police forces often sympathized, were complicit, or actively participated in the atrocities. Both the police and the Ku Klux Klan have deep roots in an entrenched Southern tradition, the slave patrol. In the Reconstruction era:

Southern whites were forced to adopt laws and policing methods that appeared racially unbiased, but [that] relied upon practices derived from slave patrols ... [T]he more random and ruthless aspects of slave patrolling passed into the hands of vigilante groups like the Klan ... [M]eanwhile, policemen in Southern towns continued to carry out those aspects of urban slave patrolling that appeared race-neutral.

Racial tensions mounted in northern cities as well. A series of riots, beginning with the Tenderloin riot in 1900, fanned the flames of racial prejudices between the primarily Irish police force and the rapidly expanding black community in New York City. Officers during this period openly assaulted black civilians; the police chief even “gave the men ‘a night off’ to ‘teach the niggers a lesson.”According to the chief, “[t]he men appreciate [d] it.” Other growing communities of racial minorities were targeted as well, including Jewish, Italian, and Chinese residents. Increased persecution gave rise to dissatisfaction with the police administration, and organizations like the Citizens' Protective League (CPL) sprang up in response. These organizations demanded that corrupt police officials be held accountable for their actions: “[a]ny attempt by the [politically]-dominated police department to investigate itself, [reformers] argued, was doomed to failure.” Although they were short-lived, these organizations laid the groundwork for permanent entities like the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The defense leagues found success in quelling the riots, but they failed to address the commonplace police brutality afflicting poor and minority civilians.