Blogs > Skipped History with Ben Tumin > The "Always Unfinished" Professionalization of the Police

Apr 7, 2023

The "Always Unfinished" Professionalization of the Police

tags: history,Police,Kerner Commission,ben tumin,skipped history,cop city,riotsville,stuart schrader,sierra pettengill

In light of ongoing protests against Cop City, a new police training facility in Atlanta, and the police killing of activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, aka Tortuguita, I spoke to Sierra Pettengill and Profesor Stuart Schrader, two experts on the history of police training.

Professor Schrader, aka Stuart, is an Associate Research Professor of Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. Sierra is an award-winning documentarian. Her most recent film, Riotsville, USA documents towns called “Riotsvilles” where military and police were trained to respond to civil disorder in the late 60s. The New York Times hailed the film as a “must-see.”

The three of us discussed why police professionalization is a constant, ever-evolving, ongoing project; how a government report in 1968 gave rise to new forms of militarized police training; and why Cop City is a continuation but not the end of this history. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.

Ben: Sierra, Stuart—thank you both for being here.

SP: Thank you.

SS: Thanks for having me.

Ben: Stuart, I'd like to begin by exploring some of the history in Badges Without Borders. My first question: when did policing become a profession in the US, and did that development coincide with the rise of Big Donut?

SS: Well, the process of becoming more professional is always ongoing, always unfinished. Anytime the police are inadequate or cause political problems, the answer is always more training, higher standards, better education, more discipline, etc. This has really been the case for decades and decades and decades. 

To be clear, police professionalization is not really about making the police better at crime control or creating more social order. Instead, professionalization is about trying to improve the public image of the police and about attempting to achieve or regain their political legitimacy, which they’re always harming through their actions—which in turn prompts calls for further professionalization.

So, in that sense, though police departments have been around for a couple of hundred years, we're still waiting for the police to become professional, which forces us to ask: at what point are going to be able to admit that “reform” and “professionalization” don't actually solve the problem?

Ben: I guess if you kept writing bad papers or, Sierra, if you kept making bad documentaries, or if I kept making bad jokes, at least two of us would probably find different professions. But with the police, the idea is no, just keep on going, keep training, you’ll get there.

Let’s turn to the 1960s. As Professor Elizabeth Hinton revealed on Skipped History, LBJ initiated some of the most sweeping police “reforms” in US history. To contextualize this period further, Sierra, could you talk a little bit about the Kerner Commission?

SP: Sure. LBJ convened the Kerner Commission in 1967. It was officially called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, but Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois, headed the commission, hence the more popular name.

The Kerner Commission was tasked with assessing the “long, hot summer of 1967,” when there were over 150 race rebellions in cities across the US, most notably in Detroit and Newark. LBJ appointed one Black man and one woman to the commission; the rest were all moderate old white men. There wasn’t a lot of hope that they would actually diagnose the systemic issues that led to the uprisings—which is why the commission’s report, released on February 29, 1968, was so shocking.

The commission, working with a large group of social scientists and activists, found that the issue at the heart of the urban rebellion was inequality caused by white racism. They called for a guaranteed basic income and detailed the different layers of discrimination toward Black communities. They also blamed a lot of the rebellions on the police, pointing to abuse by law enforcement as inciting incidents in most of the uprisings. No one expected such a moderate commission to deliver such a strong indictment of white America.

SS: To add on, the most important, long-resonating line from the Kerner Commission’s report is, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” That’s what’s most remembered today.

Still, I think there are some problems with the metaphor of there being two separate societies. It was more like one society, torn in half, or as Black radicals would argue, Black society was more like a subjugated internal colony.

SP: That’s an important point, Stuart: though the commission went further in diagnosing structural racism than most people expected, it was still far from radical. Some authors of an internal draft working for the commission wrote that Black communities in the US were more like Algerians fighting against the French and that if Kerner and co. really wanted to identify repressive forces, they’d have to point the finger at people on the commission who were senators and heads of industry. The authors of that draft were fired. 

Even still, when the final report came out in ‘68, LBJ pretty much rejected it. He’d put a lot of money into social programs through the War on Poverty, and he was definitively not interested in hearing that addressing the causes of the uprisings would require more funding for social and economic problems.

In the end, few of the funding recommendations in the Kerner Commission were ever implemented—except for a call at the back of the report to overhaul riot control and policing. Almost immediately, the government began giving block grants to local police departments and rushed money into the military to conduct large-scale training of local law enforcement.

Ben: This brings us to Riotsville. What was it, and how did it come about?

SP: I first read about Riotsville in Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein describes how, weeks before the Kerner Commission released its report, a different panel convened by New Jersey governor Richard Hughes released a report on the Newark rebellion from 1967.

The Hughes Commission noted “a pattern of police action for which there is no possible justification,” that “the single continuously lawless element operating in the community is the police force itself,” and that the ultimate cause of the violence was “official neglect.” They concluded, “The question is whether we should resort to illusion or finally come to grips with reality.” 

Riotsville was part of the government’s investment into “illusion.” Almost immediately after the Kerner Commission issued its report, the military formed the Senior Officers Civil Disturbance Orientation Course, called SEADOC.

As part of that course, they built mock cities to put on full-scale, riot control recreations, basically where soldiers played both the police and also the part of protestors. The course happened officially at two bases, beginning at Fort Gordon in Georgia, but the Army also conducted sort of pop-up versions in other parts of the country. If you've ever seen the film Medium Cool, by Haskell Wexler, he captures one of the pop-ups outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968. 

Ben: I haven't seen that but I have seen Blazing Saddles, by Mel Brooks, which also depicts a fake town...

SP: Little bit different.

Ben: Yes. The absurdity in Blazing Saddles is comedic, but the absurdity of the reenactments at the Riotsvilles, so chillingly presented in Riotsville, USA, is anything but funny.

SP: The absurdity comes from how little the recreations resembled the real world; how little the soldiers’ acting resembled actual uprisings and protests. At the mock cities, the Army was more or less training law enforcement on how to conduct war against the country’s own civilians.

In other words, the military created a fiction and then trained police personnel based on that fiction, then applied that fiction to the real world, which went as well as you’d think it would. Riotsville, USA reveals the violent tactics of SEADOC-trained personnel responding to a rebellion in Miami. But as Stuart writes in Badges Without Borders, SEADOC was a massive program that reached just about every police officer in the country.

Ben: Stuart, when discussing SEADOC, you also say “the Army was not actually addressing why police actions tended to exacerbate... civil violence” and that there was criticism at the time from the Department of Justice (DOJ), which found the courses paid too little attention to “precipitating or aggravating actions by law enforcement.”

SS: Well, one thing I would say is when you see the footage in the film, of course the DOJ observer would draw those conclusions—it’s just so clear that law enforcement is being trained in brusque, uncaring, and fairly brutal, imperialistic methods. Meanwhile, as the demonstrations occurred, soldiers, police, municipal officials, and various dignitaries sat in the stands, watched, and occasionally applauded.

Adding to the surreality, it’s also worth remembering that the military at the time was filled with people who’d been drafted against their will. So in reenactments, when a military police officer would tell a soldier who was pretending to be a community member to stop what you’re doing, the drafted soldier’s reaction was screw you because in fact they probably did feel that way.

Ben: When watching the footage, I went from thinking the soldiers were the worst extras in film history to viewing their responses as a fitting encapsulation of the complex dynamics within the military. 

Fast forwarding a few decades, let’s shift to the current effort to build Cop City in Atlanta, an extension of this eons-long effort to train and professionalize the police. Sierra, what do you think of when you view the plans for the new police training site, which includes a mock village?

SP: My first feeling is that the Stop Cop City movement gives me more hope than most things I've witnessed in recent times. I’m in awe of their organizing across many issue areas.

I’d also point out that Cop City is different from SEADOC. It’s not a federally controlled program written by the military, but rather driven by the Atlanta Police Foundation. The foundation is funded by Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Home Depot, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (the main newspaper in Atlanta), Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Equifax, UPS, and more. Clearly, private entities have an interest in the $90 million initiative. 

The other thing I've been struck by is that the plan for Cop City is to bring in other police departments or rent it out to them. So in some ways, it's a revenue generator and also resembles Riotsville in that it’s a place where police departments from all over the country would be trained. This connects to one of Stuart’s central arguments that policing is never actually locally confined.

SS:  Right. Historically, when we look at policing from the 19th century forward, the police have always looked toward a broader scale, a broader canvas for the achievement of social order. The reason for that is fairly simple: the threats to social order are always larger in their conception than the given jurisdiction of their assignment.

So I would echo everything that Sierra said, especially in terms of the really remarkable efforts to stop Cop City. They’ve been nothing short of inspiring. Also heartbreaking.

But I think the challenge is that if Cop city is defeated, it's not the end of the story. As Sierra mentioned, there are a set of reasons Atlanta is the home of it now, but it doesn’t have to be Atlanta. To justify their existence, the police are always finding new threats to address; new rebellions or terrorists or cyber crimes to defend us against. Mock cities are only one part of this endless, expansive vision of training and professionalization that never actually leads to the police becoming more “professional.”

Ben: A fitting way to bring us back to where we began. Readers, listeners: if you have an hour and a half to spare, I highly recommend Sierra's film, and if you have an hour and a half multiplied by... let's say, seven, I highly recommend Stuart's book for more history on the subject. 

Thank you both so much for being here.

SP: Thanks for having us.

SS: Thanks.

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