Themis Chronopoulos

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Urban America and the Police since World War II Special Section of the Journal of Urban History.

Edited by Christopher Agee and Themis Chronopoulos

This special section on police and cities surveys the repeated rounds of exposure, disruption, and redemption urban American police departments have undergone since World War II. New citizenship models, new social practices, and new understandings of democratic governance repeatedly forced urban police to re-authorize their power. Moreover, these challenges to police legitimacy sparked and steered much of the postwar expansion of police power. As a result of these past crises, modern police now root their authority in a racialized harm principle and in the seemingly contradictory ideologies of police professionalization and community partnership. Each contributor of the special section's essays uses the police to expand our understanding of urban governance. Collectively, the essays explore the vast range of urban actors—including community activists, academics, black mayors, liberal police chiefs, and rank-and-file officers— who attempted to use disruptions in police authority to reshape postwar law enforcement. The essays also consider different types of cities—including deindustrializing metropolises, small cities, and cities in America's territories—to help us more accurately identify national trends. Together, the essays in this special section make clear the central role urban police have played in the histories of American citizenship and democracy.

Table of Contents

Crisis and Redemption: The History of American Police Reform since World War II

By Christopher Lowen Agee

Dirty Work: Police and Community Relations and the Limits of Liberalism in Postwar Philadelphia

By Eric C. Schneider, Christopher Agee, and Themis Chronopoulos

Police abuse of African Americans was an immediate trigger for the urban uprisings of the 1960s, and civilian review of police actions became a central tenet of civil rights liberalism. The failure of Philadelphia's Police Advisory Board (PAB), the nation's first independent civilian review board (1958), to meliorate police–community tensions suggests the limitations of civil rights liberalism: an inability to confront the role of police as "dirty workers," who performed the unacknowledged but widely demanded function of maintaining racial hierarchy in the postwar city. Working-class African Americans, the most frequent victims of police brutality, came to see civilian review as a charade and rejected the limited vision of civil rights liberals. The PAB's failure shows that police reform is impossible without a broader commitment to overturning racial hierarchy.

Cruising in Plain View: Clandestine Surveillance and the Unique Insights of Antihomosexual Policing

By Anna Lvovsky

The mid-twentieth century witnessed a boom in policing against homosexual cruising, the practitioners of which relied on a set of robust defense tactics to avoid detection by strangers. Frustrated by the difficulties of catching suspected cruisers, police departments developed a variety of surreptitious, deeply intrusive surveillance tactics for monitoring public bathrooms. Yet while necessitated by the insularity of modern cruising culture, these surveillance tactics were legitimized in court partly through judges' very skepticism of that culture. Weighing the utility of clandestine surveillance against its intrusion on innocent citizens, judges frequently justified surveillance by characterizing cruisers as sexual predators eager to expose themselves to innocent victims. From inception to conviction, the utility of clandestine surveillance thus depended partly on an epistemic lag between the arms of the criminal justice system: a disconnect between the police's sensitivity to contemporary homosexual practices and judges' continuing insistence on an older paradigm of perverse predation.

More than Cosmetic Changes: The Challenges of Experiments with Police Demilitarization in the 1960s and 1970s

By Stuart Schrader

In response to civil unrest, many U.S. police forces in the 1960s and 1970s adopted more aggressive postures, including "militarized" uniforms and tactics. A few, however, directed reform efforts toward "demilitarization." This article focuses on the Menlo Park Police Department, in California, led by the maverick reformer Victor Cizanckas. It analyzes his attempts to change relations between the police and the public in his municipality, especially by decreasing incidents of abuse in one predominantly poor, black neighborhood. He instituted, for example, new uniforms and a nonhierarchical bureaucracy in the department. The article details how Cizanckas used emerging networks of law-enforcement professionalization to disseminate his ideas. It also analyzes the failures and challenges of these reform efforts. The article concludes that even radical police reform efforts in the period could not overcome racial inequality or a right-wing backlash against progressive ideas in policing.

Liberal Law-and-Order: The Politics of Police Reform in Los Angeles

By Max Felker-Kantor

After his election in 1973, Los Angeles's first African American mayor, Tom Bradley, worked to implement reforms that would increase civilian oversight and accountability of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Ensuring procedural fairness that treated all residents equally, Bradley and other liberals believed, would lead to reductions in police harassment, abuse, and shootings. Placing their faith in the power of government to effectively manage the police allowed liberals to pledge both strong support for tough law enforcement and propose police reforms. This liberal law-and-order, however, did not result in similar police reforms, such as civilian review, pursued in other Democratic-run cities. No event demonstrated this limitation of Bradley's liberal law-and-order approach to police reform as the Rodney King beating and the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. Rather than demonstrating the failure of liberal reform, Los Angeles shows how liberal law-and-order facilitated the expansion of police authority after the 1960s.

"The Public Does Not Believe the Police Can Police Themselves": The Mayoral Administration of Harold Washington and the Problem of Police Impunity

By Toussaint Losier

The article examines the tenure of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, and his relationship to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). It suggests that while police accountability had been a long-standing goal of Washington and his allies, he failed to sufficiently address the impunity of the CPD once elected. From the outset, the Washington administration exemplified this contradiction by appointing the police department's first black superintendent, but one who would leave in place a failed structure of a police accountability that made it possible to cover up an ongoing pattern of police torture and coerced confessions. These cases of police torture throw into relief the obstacles faced by this first generation of black mayors who attempted to uproot the institutional underpinnings of police impunity amid the emergence of mass incarceration.

They Don't Care if We Die: The Violence of Urban Policing in Puerto Rico

By Marisol LeBrón

In this essay, I trace how punitive policing in Puerto Rico has deepened existing racial, spatial, and class-based inequalities and further limited life chances for some of Puerto Rico's most vulnerable citizens. To demonstrate how policing intensified forms of violent exclusion, I focus on mano dura contra el crimen, or iron fist against crime, a law enforcement initiative that sought to eliminate drug-related crime and violence by targeting public housing and other low-income spaces around the island for joint military and police raids during the 1990s. I argue that mano dura promoted an uneven distribution of risk, harm, and death by tacitly allowing the proliferation of violence within economically and racially marginalized communities. Although law enforcement agents engaged in acts of intimidation, harassment, and brutality during mano dura operations, it is perhaps the measures they implemented to concentrate violence in low-income communities that most contributed to the premature death and proximity to harm that barrio and public housing residents experienced. Furthermore, police and other state officials positioned the alarmingly high levels of drug-related violence and death occurring within the confines of these classed and racialized urban spaces as a necessary by-product of the island's "war on drugs." Ultimately, police intervention under the auspices of protecting el pueblo puertorriqueño, or the Puerto Rican people, as well as those moments when police deliberately "failed" to prevent violence related to the informal drug economy resulted in greater exposure to harm and death for marginalized communities on the island.

The Making of the Orderly City: New York since the 1980s

By Themis Chronopoulos

IThis article advances the concept of the orderly city, which has structural qualities and as a vision has dominated ideas about law and order in New York since the 1980s. The realization of the orderly city depended on the successful implementation of broken windows policing. This implementation required considerable reforms in the criminal justice system and the provision of substantial financial resources. Even then, without a considerable decline in serious crime rates, the city government would be unable to justify a war against minor infractions. The crime decline that occurred in the 1990s allowed the city government to equate the safe city with the orderly city. Moreover, as the economy of New York improved, the orderly city was promoted as a precondition of affluence. This article shows how these correlations are questionable and how the orderly city is based on morally and legally questionable actions such as racial profiling.


Christopher Lowen Agee (PhD, University of California, Berkeley, 2005) is an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver. He is the author of The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972 (University of Chicago Press, 2014). He is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, and his work has appeared in The SAGE Handbook of Global Policing, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and Notches. He is currently researching the history of liberalism and community policing during the 1980s and 1990s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Houston, Texas; and Portland, Oregon.

Themis Chronopoulos is associate professor and director of American Studies at Swansea University in Wales, United Kingdom. He is the author of Spatial Regulation in New York City: From Urban Renewal to Zero Tolerance (New York: Routledge, 2011) and the coeditor with Jonathan Soffer of After the Urban Crisis: New York and the Rise of Inequality forthcoming as a special section of the Journal of Urban History. His current research and writing examine topics such as race and ethnicity, social inequality, housing and urban development, and neighborhood change.

Eric C. Schneider was an assistant dean and associate director of Academic Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the author of three books on U.S. urban history, and his book Smack: Heroin and the American City (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) won the Urban History Association's Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book. His most recent research examined the history of murder in Philadelphia.

Anna Lvovsky is an academic fellow at Columbia Law School. Her dissertation, Queer Expertise: Urban Policing and the Construction of Public Knowledge about Homosexuality, 1920-1970, examines the role of municipal policing in mediating between popular and scientific understandings of gay men in the twentieth century.

Stuart Schrader is a postdoctoral fellow in Global American Studies at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. His research interests include policing and counterinsurgency, U.S. empire and racism, urbanization, and critical theory. He is currently writing a book for the University of California Press on the effects of overseas counterinsurgency efforts during the Cold War on domestic law enforcement and the rise of the carceral state.

Max Felker-Kantor received his PhD from the University of Southern California in 2014. He currently teaches at Marian University in Indianapolis. His research focuses on post-World War II urban history, policing and crime policy, and social movements. He is currently revising a book manuscript for the University of North Carolina Press entitled "Battle for the Streets: Police, Politics, and Power in Los Angeles." His recent publications include: "'Kid Thugs Are Spreading Terror through the Streets': Youth, Crime, and the Expansion of the Juvenile Justice System in Los Angeles, 1973-1980," Journal of Urban History (2016; published online ahead of print) and "The Coalition Against Police Abuse: CAPA's Resistance Struggle in 1970s Los Angeles," Journal of Civil and Human Rights (Spring/Summer 2016).

Toussaint Losier is an assistant professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His research interests include urban social movements, U.S. political history, modern African history, and the political culture of the carceral state. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled War for the Cities: Mass Incarceration, Black Liberation, and the Remaking of the Carceral State. With Dan Berger, he is coauthor of the forthcoming Rethinking the American Prison Movement (Routledge).

Marisol LeBrón is an assistant professor of American studies at Dickinson College. An interdisciplinary scholar, her research and teaching focus on social inequality, policing, violence, and protest. She is currently at work on her first book, which examines the growth of punitive governance in contemporary Puerto Rico.

Themis Chronopoulos
Associate Professor of American Studies
Department of Political and Cultural Studies
Swansea University
Swansea SA2 8PP