The Urban Origins of Militaristic Policing

As the nation is gripped in the throes of large-scale protests and there are calls for justice in the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, as well as for an end to systemic racism and police brutality, this excerpt from Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America details how the War on Crime, begun in the ’60s, focused mainly on urban crime and unfairly targeted African Americans.

In a 1969 petition called “The Forgotten Cities,” sixteen mayors from the urban Midwest complained to Attorney General Mitchell about the way state planning agencies kept law enforcement funds from the places in the state with the most severe crime problems. Instead, crime control block grants were awarded to powerful state legislators representing rural constituencies. These mayors as well as like-minded policymakers contended that urban crime was as much a threat to the security of the United States as was Vietnam. “The forces of lawlessness appear to be alarmingly close to victory over the forces of peace,” Indiana Democrat Vance Hartke told his colleagues in Congress in support of the petition. “If positive action is not taken, and taken soon, a crime crisis of unprecedented proportions will soon surely envelop the nation.” It seemed to Hartke and many other politicians and law enforcement officials that the LEAA did little more than build criminal justice bureaucracies at the state level. Not only did state criminal justice planning agencies use substantial portions of LEAA funding for other agencies, such as the Federal Housing Authority and the Department of Defense, but planners in Hartke’s own state of Indiana used block grants for seemingly foolish programs.

Concerned about the misguided use of block grant funds, LEAA administrators debated “the degree of federal intervention required to achieve national purposes.” Even if state criminal justice expenditures failed to address the problems stemming from urban street crime as policymakers had intended with block grants, the White House and the Justice Department shaped the course of the national law enforcement program with novel use of discretionary aid to ensure that “high crime” neighborhoods would be adequately patrolled and that “hard-core” criminals would receive swift and sure punishment. Treating the “all-out war” on black urban street crime as a “military operation,” Nixon officials sought to “first establish the machinery that enables us to gain control of the problem before we can hope to solve it,” as White House aide Tom Charles Huston put it in a March 1970 memo. This meant not only appropriating more discretionary funds but also creating new opportunities for the arrest and sentencing of the citizens whom the White House held responsible for the nation’s crime.

The Nixon administration led Congress in a series of steps that successfully expanded the carceral state at the local level and maintained the War on Crime’s intended focus on low-income black urban communities. First, following the recommendation of his Advisory Council on Crime and Law Enforcement, Nixon pledged to launch a special crime control effort in Washington, DC. The administration could channel funds to the District via the “Large City Special Grants” section of the Safe Streets Act in the interim. Under this discretionary program, cities could receive up to $100,000 in federal funds based on formulas that took into account population size and crime rates. Although DC did not meet the same criteria as did New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Baltimore, Dallas, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and San Francisco, the District had been a federal concern since it assumed a black majority and received a special grant. Congress gave cities the freedom to spend the funds for “any phase of law enforcement or crime control activity” as long as the program was “targeted at high crime areas and high crime problems.” When the legislation came up for reauthorization in 1970, congressional representatives allocated even more funds to “the nation’s large cities where high crime incidence and law enforcement projects present the most difficult challenges.” Whereas Congress allocated $32 million to discretionary funding in 1969, with a third going to large cities, that figure more than doubled to $70 million the following year, with more than 40 percent going to large cities. Further reflecting the federal government’s commitment to fighting street crime, the maximum grant skyrocketed from $100,000 to $1 million during the same period, an allocation that only New York City received. Finally, with the 1972 election approaching and with rates of reported crime continuing to soar, top White House and Department of Justice officials planned the discretionary High Impact program in eight cities with serious crime problems and fewer than a million residents. Although the program was touted as an “across-the-board attack on burglaries, robberies, muggings, assaults and rapes,” during the four years in which High Impact operated, these problems worsened in all of the cities involved.

Nixon began to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Council on Crime and Law Enforcement less than a week after his inauguration, refocusing anticrime attention on troublesome urban areas. On January 27, 1969, at a press conference publicizing the $123,524 grant the local police department received from the LEAA that day, Nixon declared a separate “War on Crime” for Washington, DC. The District had evolved into a majority black city with one of the highest rates of reported crime in the nation over the course of the 1950s, as federal employees steadily moved to the suburbs. The president believed that lack of safety in the capital city, where federal officials would not “dare leave their cars in the capital garage and walk alone,” was a “tragic example” of the national crime problem. The District had been a testing ground for federal law enforcement initiatives since the anti-delinquency programs of the Kennedy administration, and Lyndon Johnson’s DC Crime Control Bill of 1967 set the precedent for the federal government’s explicit focus on law enforcement in the District.

After receiving a set of recommendations from the President’s Commission on Crime in the District of Columbia in late 1966, Johnson sent Congress a legislative proposal for action. Johnson’s version of the bill gave police the authority to issue citations to suspects on the streets and in lieu of taking a person into custody, allowed warrantless arrests with probable cause, and instituted “investigative detention,” whereby DC residents could be questioned for up to three hours without formal charges. All of these measures enabled law enforcement officials to establish criminal records on a wider range of residents and to easily bring suspects into the criminal justice system. In anticipation of future uprisings, the legislation also included a special riot control law that regulated the gathering of residents in groups of five or more persons. With conservative representatives leading the way, the House overwhelmingly passed Johnson’s bill in late June 1967 with a few critical additions. The House version made robbery a crime of violence in the District and attached a host of new mandatory minimums of one to five years for burglary, two years for robbery, and an indeterminate sentence of two years to life for any crime committed with a firearm. Before the bill passed the Senate with these provisions, Iowa’s Republican senator Jack Miller introduced an amendment that extended the warrantless arrests for residents who appeared as though they were “about to commit” a misdemeanor. Both the House and Senate accepted this provision by voice vote, as did the president when he signed the bill into law. Foreshadowing the same reluctance he would go on to express in enacting the Safe Streets Act — not because of block grants but because of the questionable wiretapping provisions the legislation included — Johnson signed the DC Crime Control Bill into law despite his reservations about the mandatory minimum sentences the act imposed. Along with northern Democrats and moderate eastern Republicans, Johnson viewed such measures as an attack on judicial discretion and a “backward step in modern correctional policy.” Ultimately however, “no more serious domestic problem faces America than the growing menace of crime in our streets,” as Johnson said in his remarks on signing the DC Crime Act, regardless of the ethical and constitutional issues they raised.

The Nixon administration built eagerly on this precedent, beginning with the January 1969 grant. Under Nixon, roughly an eighth of the entire budget of the LEAA went to DC, resulting in the largest number of police per capita in the world. With pressure coming directly from the White House, Washington police chief Jerry V. Wilson instructed his captains in 1971 to reduce crime in the city or expect to leave the force. To help the city reach Wilson’s goal and the federal government’s shared objectives, the LEAA funded a four-person “warrant squad” to arrest parole violators with discretionary “Large City Special Grants” funding. It also supported measures to supervise suspects released on bail in the District, relying on new statistical systems the federal government was funding and developing, including the National Crime Information Center and Project SEARCH (System for Electronic Analysis and Retrieval of Criminal Histories). These initiatives received a $50 million LEAA grant to coordinate criminal information and make arrest histories easily accessible to officers.

Congress expanded the federal government’s authority in low-income urban areas with discretionary allocations, whereby national programs could be implemented outside of the block grant funding structure, to enable municipal authorities in Washington, DC, to fight their own crime war complete with an unprecedented criminal code. The Nixon administration’s District of Columbia Court Reorganization Act of 1970 — the first of the administration’s crime control bills approved by Congress — reflected the approach of the most ardent law-and-order policymakers, bureaucrats within the administration, and conservative criminologists, all of whom believed only severe sentences and wide-spread arrests could make a dent on crime.

The 1970 legislation introduced an entirely new plane of punitive policy. It required a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for anyone convicted of a second armed offense and allowed life sentences for those convicted of a third felony in an early version of the “three strikes and you’re out” law later adopted by California and New York. It also reduced judicial discretion by establishing several categories of offenders and requiring standardized punishments for various new classifications. “Dangerous special criminals” who committed “offenses with high risk of additional public danger if the defendant is released,” such as bank robbery or narcotics trafficking, could now be confined for longer periods, and “narcotics addicts” suddenly faced prison time. The act permitted judges to increase sentences of habitual offenders by thirty years if the suspects were charged with a third offense, and applied the same formula to first-time offenders if the crime seemed to fit a “pattern of criminal conduct.” The act also gave judges the authority to place individuals on probation without a verdict for relatively minor crimes such as disturbing the peace or public intoxication, and established a permanent requirement for formerly incarcerated city residents to submit to drug testing. Finally, the legislation was particularly harsh on youth offenders. It stipulated that any youth age sixteen or above (and in very special cases, fifteen or above) charged with first degree burglary, armed robbery, rape, or murder or with an intent to commit one of these offenses should be taken out of the jurisdiction of juvenile court. As a result of this measure, adult courts soon heard more than half of all juvenile cases in the District, and the act effectively increased the likelihood that young residents would be incarcerated for long periods.

Walter Fauntroy, the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church who would be elected that fall as the first delegate to Congress from DC, characterized the law as “the cutting edge of fascism and oppression in the United States.” Indeed, the DC Court Reorganization Act pioneered several measures whose widespread adoption the Nixon administration hoped to encourage. Preventative detention — the practice of detaining suspects without bail for up to two months — appeared for the first time in the American criminal code in the legislation. For Nixon’s officials, the preemptive policy offered a “reasonable and necessary approach to the crime problem” by ensuring that accused criminals were behind bars and thus unable to possibly commit crime. Because most of the people who were detained as a pretrial measure were too poor to make bail, the opponents of the practice charged that it violated the equal protection clause and prohibitions against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution. In addition, the broad wiretapping authority the legislation provided to federal and local police forces, as well as the “no knock” raids it endorsed allowing police to break into the home of a suspect without a warrant or without announcing their purpose, presented a direct assault on the Supreme Court’s expansion of defendants’ rights and search-and-seizure rulings during the 1960s. Despite the questionable constitutionality of the legislation, with DC as its “showcase,” the administration set a precedent for state and local governments to endorse a more punitive approach to patrol, arrest, and sentencing and the wider adoption of mandatory minimums and preventative detention. Variations of the “no knock” provision were already on the books in twenty-nine states, but immediately following the enactment of the DC Court Reorganization Act, law enforcement officials arrested thousands of residents while conducting thousands of “no knock” raids from New York City to Atlanta. In 1973, New York State revised existing codes and instituted the drug laws favored by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, which called for a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years to life for suspects caught with relatively small amounts of heroin or cocaine. Five years later, the Michigan legislature passed the “650-Lifer Law,” requiring judges to sentence offenders convicted of the possession of 1.5 pounds of cocaine or more to life imprisonment without parole. Although the federal government and most state governments did not embrace preventative detention practices until the 1980s, when half of all the current laws were enacted, the practice of incarcerating individuals believed to be dangerous to the public went on to become widely sanctioned during the wars on drugs and terror as a mechanism to detain suspects.

When Congress reauthorized the LEAA in 1970, it advanced the federal government’s commitment to fighting urban street crime by allocating nearly 40 percent of the agency’s discretionary budget to support projects in “the nation’s large cities where high crime incidence and law enforcement problems present the most difficult challenges.” Ostensibly, the $25 million grant was intended to improve “coordination and understanding” between black residents and police in “high crime” neighborhoods. But in reality, the Nixon administration was increasingly distancing itself from police-community relations programs. Half of the discretionary funds continued to support the hardware and manpower needs of local police departments. Following the pattern that emerged during the early law enforcement programs of the Johnson administration, crime increased after the LEAA placed more police officers with advanced weapons on the streets.

With this substantial raise in discretionary funding from Congress, the Nixon administration initiated the single most ambitious project the LEAA would launch in its short history, costing $160 million (just under $1 billion in today’s dollars). Vice President Spiro Agnew, Attorney General John Mitchell, White House domestic affairs assistant John Ehrlichman, and head Law Enforcement Assistance Administrator Jerris Leonard devised High Impact in late 1971 to focus the national government’s law enforcement intervention beyond major metropolitan centers. The program sought to “bring sharp, rapid reduction in street crime and burglary — the types of violent, serious crime most prevalent and most feared by the public” in eight selected cities with less than a million residents, the majority with high concentrations of low-income African Americans. The LEAA guaranteed each city $20 million over a three-year period to create local criminal justice planning agencies to design and implement innovative law enforcement programs with extra assistance and oversight from White House and Department of Justice officials.

In January 1972, LEAA administrators announced the High Impact program to great media attention, claiming it would lower rates of serious crimes by 5 percent in the first two years and as much as 20 percent within five years. Martin Danziger, one of the main High Impact planners at the Criminal Justice Institute, later commented on the crime indication figures: “I just made them up. It sounded good They needed the twenty percent goal for sex appeal. It was an educated guess and it was important to start sending quantified goals in the criminal justice system.” Nevertheless, these quantified goals provided Nixon with a powerful talking point during the 1972 campaign if his record on crime came into question, since the problem had worsened under his watch despite the promises of his 1968 campaign.

The administration’s selection of High Impact sites had clear electoral and racial implications. Nixon needed to carry Texas, Oregon, and Colorado to secure his reelection. Thus, the administration selected Dallas, Portland, and Denver for the program — High Impact’s “advantaged cities,” as federal planners called them — despite their comparatively low crime rates and the fact that all three cities had witnessed an increase in both population and manufacturing sector employment during the 1960s. With black populations of less than 10 percent each, the LEAA granted the local criminal justice planning agencies in these southern and western cities relative autonomy in administering the program. In Newark, Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta, and St. Louis — High Impact’s “disadvantaged cities” — LEAA officials worked closely with municipal authorities to develop guidelines and strategies for High Impact projects. A black majority seemed imminent in these eastern and midwestern sites, and all five faced higher percentages of families living below the poverty level, the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, and the decline of middle-class tax bases in the wake of urban unrest during the previous decade.

Reflecting the larger strategies that federal policymakers developed for the crime war, the priority of the program was to improve street patrol and surveillance. The federal funds would support the influx of “more policemen, with better tactics, equipment, and training,” as LEAA director Leonard put it. High Impact planners drastically expanded street patrols more than any other facet of the program. In its grant application, Baltimore indicated that it would use High Impact funds to engender a fivefold increase of foot patrolmen by 1973, from just seventy officers to 410. As soon as Baltimore officials received their first grant installment, they used nearly half of their $1.8 million check to add fifty-two policemen to the streets, using the remaining funds for walkie-talkies, helicopters, and the addition of nine special tactical units. High Impact directors could easily get funding for new equipment such as helicopters (which, the Department of Justice averred, had “been successful as a crime deterrent in some areas”) and improved radio and dispatch systems to dispatch officers to crime scenes efficiently, and Baltimore officials took full advantage of this federal priority.

Not surprisingly, given federal policymakers’ long concern about delinquency and crime among young low-income urban residents, many of High Impact’s youth-focused programs continued the strategies that emerged during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that tied anti-delinquency efforts to social services. Planners in Cleveland concluded that “male young adults and juveniles, non-white, uneducated and unemployed” had committed most of the crimes in the city. Local officials turned to the Youth Service Bureau model, spending $6 million to establish a center for young people with criminal records and “potentially delinquent” youth. By comparison, the Cleveland Vocation and Educational Program, providing summer recreation for low-income youths and generating “adequate jobs for the socially disadvantaged and economically deprived,” received a paltry $1.4 million in funding from the High Impact pot. Baltimore planners limited the participation in these types of job training programs to juvenile offenders alone. The Port of Baltimore Sea School trained and prepared convicts for maritime careers, providing educational and counseling services for the sixteen- to eighteen-year-old male participants. The Sea School and other such programs in other High Impact cities increasingly made access to social services available only to residents who had criminal or prison records, or who appeared vulnerable to criminal activity. New approaches to juvenile corrections, including alternatives to institutionalization, vocational education for ex-offenders, counseling services, and employment placement, amounted to a meager 14 percent of all High Impact initiatives.

The actual results of the High Impact program exposed the War on Crime’s essential misfires, as two separate evaluations of the program concluded — one by the private Mitre Corporation with $2.4 million in LEAA funds, one conducted independently by the National Security Center (NSC) — that the 200 separate anticrime projects launched by the program had no immediate impact. (The NSC characterized the High Impact program in its 1976 report as an “irresponsible, ill-conceived and politically motivated effort to throw money at a social program.”) Instead of dropping 5 percent as Attorney General Mitchell promised, total crime in all eight cities rose more than 43 percent from 1972 to 1976. As planners in Baltimore focused on hardware and security in housing projects, spending $200,000 for additional guards, television monitors, and intercoms in public facilities, crime in the city went up nearly 50 percent. In Dallas, which spent more than $50,000 on a program that tied burglar alarms to a helicopter response system, crime shot up 82 percent. Theft and burglary rates did stabilize in some cities, but violent crime grew to be an even more severe problem by the end of the program.

Whether the reported escalation of crime in the High Impact cities was due to the increase in patrol and surveillance technologies the federal government introduced in the targeted areas with discretionary funding, it was clear to the Nixon administration that the national law enforcement program was losing the war against the “enemy within.” Instead of seriously reevaluating their own strategies, policymakers and law enforcement officials increasingly came to view the failures of federal crime control programs as evidence that black urban violence was a foregone conclusion. Unsuccessful law enforcement programs, proponents said, were less the result of questionable tactics and misguided strategy and more the consequence of community pathology. In this respect, the War on Crime had not gone far enough. In order to effectively stop crime, the national law enforcement program needed to shift the focus of its urban intervention, deploying its foot soldiers not only in courts but also in prisons.

The unprecedented federal investment into local police departments from 1965 onward during the first stage of the War on Crime produced an increase in arrests that led, in turn, to the overcrowding of urban jails, court systems, and, increasingly, rural correctional facilities. At the same time, the provisions of the DC Court Act and the practices it generated eventually doubled the number of felony indictments, fueling the incarceration of young urban black men during the 1970s, who accounted for half of the increase in the national prison population during what Nixon officials came to regard as a “new era” for penal confinement. The government’s response to the perceived crisis of crime in DC and other cities with high concentrations of African American residents had produced a new series of problems in its penal and juridical systems. Accordingly, the Nixon administration led Congress in enacting fundamental changes to the scope and purpose of American prisons. By revising the LEAA’s block grant structure yet again, federal policymakers started a new direction for their punitive intervention within the corrections arm of the criminal justice system, a critical complement to the Nixon administration’s general use of discretionary funds and the punitive climate officials spawned in Washington, DC, with an ongoing focus on low-income black urban Americans.

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