A (Very) Brief History of Police Brutality & New York State Reform in the 21st Century: Building Trust Through Positive Contact in Collaborative Dialogues

By Madeline Dunn (December 18, 2020)

Over the past few months, national media coverage has centered around mass protests and calls for systemic change after the death of individuals such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The political movement, led by Black Lives Matter activists, seeks to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes” (Black Lives Matter, 2020). A major tenet of the movement regards the role of police wrongdoing in systemic harm for Black individuals in America. According to Edwards, Lee, and Esposito (2019), about 1 in every 1,000 Black men in America can expect to be killed by police, with risk highest from age 20 to 35. In response to growing concern, on June 12, 2020 Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order calling all municipalities in New York State to create, present, and adopt a plan for police reform by April 1, 2021. This plan utilizes structural reform strategies paired with community collaboration to build trust between law enforcement and their communities, ensuring all citizens have a voice in policy decisions (New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, 2020)

Historical Context

While police brutality has recently garnered national attention, the history of police brutality is both long and complex, interwoven into broader racial issues in America. According to the NPR podcast, “Throughline,” from the mid-1600s to the mid-19th century the dominant role of law enforcement encompassed slave patrols which served to empower white citizens to control the movement of Black individuals (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). By law, all white men aged 21 to 45 were targeted to serve in said slave patrols leading to the mass deputization of white, male citizens into law enforcement with the purpose of surveilling and dispensing corporal punishment towards Black slaves. Their main role was to enforce what is called slave codes, or laws controlling virtually every aspect of enslaved people’s lives. What this created was a systemic empowerment of White individuals with the duty to police Black individuals’s daily movement, facing fines or punishments if found shirking on said duty (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). 

While slavery was outlawed in 1865, ending the use of slave patrols in the South, the surveillance of Black citizens continued with newly created Black codes which allowed White citizens to control multiple varied aspects of Black people’s lives (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). These law codes were created with the purpose of criminalizing African American freedom, mobility, and political and economic power. Moving into the 1860s and 1870s, the Northern states began to have formal police and prison infrastructures while the South utilized Southern vigilante groups to police Black citizens, ultimately leading to the creation of the Klu Klux Klan around 1866. After passing the 13th and 14th amendments to ensure equality and Black voting rights, Southern states banded together to create the Jim Crow laws and the KKK emerged once more to police Black citizens. By the beginning of the 20th century, a mass migration occurred as Black citizens moved North to escape persecution (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). 

However, in the Northern states a more formal police structure existed with an emphasis on crime prevention, community control, and militaristic structures (i.e., uniforms, rank designations, and command codes of discipline) (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). In the North, immigration was booming, and police forces were composed of lower class, often first-generation American’s who focused on policing groups they deemed lower status than their own, establishing a racial hierarchy with African American’s placed at the bottom. Therefore, the origins of policing surrounded surveilling and controlling outgroups with lower status than their own (i.e., immigrant groups, Black citizens, the poor, etc.) with the goal of keeping order within the racial hierarchy. In 1894, the first United States police brutality commission was created, ultimately finding evidence of systemic corruption and violence in the treatment of policed communities (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). 

However, the role of police in lower class and Black communities continued in this manner throughout the 20th century. The long, systemic role of police in upstanding racial and economic hierarchies led to the ignoring of Black community needs while simultaneously suppressing those same communities and individuals. For example, a 1924 study conducted in Philadelphia by the National Urban League found that while only 7.4% of the population was Black, Black individuals made up 25% of arrests and often were overwhelmingly innocent, arrested for “suspicious character” (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). From work done by W.E.B Dubois, The National Urban League, and other civil rights organizations, there was an overwhelming sense that stop-and-frisk policing was being used to arrest individuals on charges that were not actual crimes (i.e., suspicious character) (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). Further, in 1931 attorney general George Wickersham put together the first national commission to examine the criminal justice system, but the corresponding report seemingly ignored patterns of violence directed toward Black individuals, stating that police brutality was decreasing in America (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). This pattern of violence, erasure from the conversation, and disregard for Black identity continued onward through the 20th century and into the 21st century when mainstream media coverage began focusing heavily on police brutality protests organized across the United States (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020).

While historical acts of injustice are not the fault of current White citizens or police officers, working to understand how our identities and viewpoints are informed by the structures which surround us, something deemed the cycle of socialization, is vitally important to enacting systemic change towards equitable treatment in our justice system (Harro, 2000; Tatum, 2000). According to Erik Erikson, our identities are formed within the social, cultural, and historical contexts which surround us through a process of “simultaneous reflection and observation” (Tatum, 2000). In other words, we examine how we fit into the world based on how we a) perceive others view us, and b) judge others compared to ourselves (Tatum, 2000). This process begins during adolescence, but according to Harro (2000), there is a cycle of socialization that begins before we are even born. The environments which we arrive at are preconditioned with biases and notions which shadow our identity development. Therefore, the culture of white surveillance imbued throughout our cultural systems informs our notions, biases, and actions whether it be explicitly or implicitly (Arablouei & Addelfatah, 2020). 

Overall, what the history details is that the problem lies in the structural foundations of policing and how that has informed our viewpoints on Black communities, suggesting that police reform focusing on systemic change can improve police-community relations and perceptions. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (2019), citizens judge and garner perceptions about police “based on how they are treated rather than on the outcomes of interactions” (New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, 2020). Therefore, a huge portion of police reform will depend on improving police-community interactions, working to increase and gain trust. 

Current Action, Research, & Suggestions

According to the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative (2020), local municipalities can help improve police-community perceptions by reviewing and revising the role of police officers in their communities while still ensuring police officer safety. The proposal concerns a) determining what roles the police should play in a community, b) employing smart and effective policing standards and strategies, c) fostering-community oriented leadership, culture, and accountability, and d) recruiting and supporting excellent personnel (New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, 2020). Further, according to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015) there are six pillars police reformers should explore: 1) building trust and legitimacy, 2) policy and oversight, 3) technology and social media, 4) community policing and crime reduction, 5) training and education, and 6) officer wellness and safety. Each of these proposals focus on a wide array of sectors of police structure that need careful attention, but one of the main messages throughout both proposals is that wrongdoing stems from structural issues that cause the role of police to be viewed as that of a “warrior” rather than a “guardian” (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015; New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, 2020). To fix this, each proposal suggests the need for procedural justice, detailing the importance of community partnership throughout the long process of reconciliation (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015; New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, 2020). 

Procedural justice entails treating individuals in a dignified manner characterized by respect, giving individuals a voice during interactions with law enforcement, being neutral and transparent in decision making, and displaying trustworthy motives (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015; New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, 2020). Overall, procedural justice refers to the idea of fair processes, positing that an individual’s perceptions of fairness are strongly impacted by the quality of their experiences (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015; New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, 2020). According to Fagan and Tyler (2005), citizens who experience procedural justice are more likely to view police positively, increasing the chances of compliance with the law. What this culminates into is the idea of increasing positive intergroup contact between citizens and police officers which could lead to enhanced community-police perceptions and interactions (Fagan & Tyler, 2005; Tyler, Fagan, & Geller, 2014; O’Brien & Tyler, 2020). Recently, O’Brien and Tyler (2020) found that after controlling for perceptions of the police as procedurally just, community-level reconciliatory gestures (i.e., collaborative police-community meetings, public apologies, passing out leaflets, etc.) focused on trust-building can lead to increased cooperation (Brown & Hewstone, 2005; Hohl, Bradford, & Stanko, 2010; International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2016). 

According to contact theory (Allport, 1954), prejudicial beliefs can be reduced through intergroup contact via the process of decreased intergroup anxiety, inducing empathy, increasing knowledge about the other group, and decreasing perceived group threats (Al Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013). Studies show that for intergroup contact to yield promising effects, there needs to be a high frequency of contact paired with high quality of said interactions (Al Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013; Allport, 1954). For this to occur, Allport (1954) notes that individuals need to interact in equal status situations that promote cooperation to perform a common goal along with normalization of contact and institutional support. The eventual goal is that contact will form friendships between members of different groups, which can change prejudiced attitudes about the individual that will then hopefully extend to all outgroup members (Al Ramiah & Hewston, 2013; Dixon, Durrheim, & Tredoux, 2005). 

In New York State, Governor Cuomo’s executive order on police reform requires municipalities to start the road along this pathway through requiring collaboration between community members and police officers, specifically by holding “a fact-based and honest dialogue” which “involves the entire community in the discussion” (New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, 2020). In that manner, contact theory can hold importance for initiating such collaboration in a way that could lead to lasting positive trust-building. According to O’Brien, Tyler, & Meares, (2019), when individuals feel their communities have a voice and participate in forming policy, they are more likely to cooperate with authorities. Further, Hewstone (2005) states that framing police-community meetings as a collaboration creates intergroup salience for an intergroup contact experience (Brown & Hewstone, 2005). Further, these dialogues serve the purpose of creating a space for unaddressed violence to be voiced, allowing community members who feel estranged from the system to be heard in a way that could lead to prolonged impact (O’Brien, Tyler, & Meares, 2019; O’Brien & Tyler, 2020). 

However, attempts to reconcile with communities need to consist of genuine acts of resolution. According to O’Brien, Meares, and Tyler (2020), half-hearted apologies and acknowledgement of past wrongdoings can backfire, decreasing trust among community members who have the least trust in police to begin with, such as Black communities (Gallup, 2017). What this study suggests is that issuing public apologies should be paired with statements regarding responsibility and invitations for the community to become involved with initiatives to build trust while playing an active role with crime prevention (O’Brien, Meares, & Tyler, 2020). When intergroup contact occurs between groups with asymmetric power, groups characterized as holding less power not only want to be liked but to also be respected (Bergsieker, Shelton, & Richeson, 2010). Therefore, reformers should consider that in the case of community collaborative dialogues between police and citizens, sincerity and improvements on individual treatment are key (O’Brien, Meares, & Tyler, 2020).


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