The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 5, 2018

In 1968, we missed a chance to reform policing—but it's not too late

March 5, 2018

“The abrasive relationship between the police and the minority communities has been a major—and explosive—source of grievance, tension, and disorder.”

That sentence may sound like it was written yesterday, but it actually comes from the 1968 Kerner Commission Report released 50 years ago last week. Commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the report sought to understand the occurrence of civil disorders during the summer of 1967 and outlined recommendations relating to employment, education, housing, and other social programs.

The report uncovered problems with criminal justice, education, federal programs, and discrimination in many institutions. These grievances are still true for many communities of color—just look at the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the lack of heat in Baltimore schools.

With respect to policing, the report suggested establishing effective mechanisms to address grievances against police, recruiting more people of color to law enforcement, and eliminating abrasive practices, including excessive use of force and overpolicing of urban areas. But President Johnson rejected the report’s conclusions and did not implement any of the recommendations.

How policing has evolved since 1968

Some of the policies implemented in the interim exacerbated the problems outlined in the report, with police militarization one of the many examples.

In 1968, neither SWAT teams nor the use of military hardware by local law enforcement were commonplace. Fifty years later, they are part and parcel of many agencies. In a 1996 survey of 548 departments, fewer than 10 reported having a police paramilitary unit (PPU) in 1968. By 1995, 484 departments had a PPU.

These units’ scope of work has expanded from volatile situations like bank robberies or hostage situations to a variety of low-risk activities like marijuana use and gambling. It’s a trend that pits law enforcement against communities—most often communities of color—in intense, adversarial ways that don’t need to be the norm.

The Kerner Commission actually anticipated this issue and warned against it, making a plea to not militarize the police:

The Commission condemns moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns, and tanks. Weapons which are designed to destroy, not to control, have no place in densely populated urban communities.

The government did not heed this plea and instead facilitated the rise of police militarization through the Pentagon’s controversial 1033 program, which serves as a conduit for transferring military surplus items and contributes to a significant increase in their acquisition. This program has become well- known due to the images of tanks, high-powered weapons, and body armor present at Black Lives Matters protests over the past few years—the same type of items the Kerner Commission opposed.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

The Kerner Commission Report could still be used as a blueprint for addressing the troubles that continue to plague communities of color. What does it say about society that our communities are facing many of the same issues 50 years later?

When it comes to police militarization in particular, it isn’t too late to heed the commission’s warnings.

A line of helmeted police stand guard during political protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Miriam Bokser/Villon Films/Getty Images.


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