JEROME H. SKOLNICK:
POLICE DECEPTION AND BRUTALITY
Theories of police brutality and deception have existed as long as the police have existed. The theory of one criminologist, Jerome Skolnick, will be examined and applied to events that have occurred in the recent past. Jerome Skolnick explains the subculture of the police and the development of their working personality. He establishes reason to study these perspectives, which are debated daily throughout cities across the country.
HISTORY OF JEROME SKOLNICK’S THEORY
Jerome H. Skolnick earned his Bachelors Degree from the City College of New York in 1952. Skolnick then went on to Yale University where he earned both a Master’s and Doctoral Degrees in the field of Sociology. Mr. Skolnick has studied various fields in the social sciences, but has published most of his work in the field of criminal Justice.
Jerome Skolnick’s first book focusing on police work was Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society written in 1966. At this time in history the civil rights movement was in full swing and had preceded a major increase in rates of violent crime. One of the goals of the civil rights movement was to eliminate racial bias from law enforcement. Skolnick’s book focused on the “working personality” of the policeman. He analyzed three elements of the policeman’s personality: danger, authority, and efficiency. He claimed there are, “ distinctive cognitive tendencies in police as an occupational grouping” (Skolnick, 1966).
In 1967, “The President’s Commission on Criminal Justice” investigated the status of the justice system due to the climbing crime rates in 1960’s. The crime commission’s report demanded improvements in policing and community empowerment to help reduce crime (University of Nebraska at Omaha online 1998). The emphasis on police and their function during this time period provided the environment for which Jerome Skolnick’s earlier models were developed. This attitude put the police under great scrutiny by the public and groups that wanted to police the police. In 1966, Henry P. Newton and Bobby Deale founded the Black Panther party. Their initial purpose was to control the inner city ghettos. The first Panther establishment was organized in Oakland California, where incidents of police brutality against blacks reached peak levels. Black Panthers sought to end police brutality by continuously patrolling neighborhoods with unconcealed, loaded, automatic weapons, which was legal at that time. The Panthers would watch policeman from afar and when an incident took place, they would rush to the scene and confront the police.
In 1993, Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe published Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force. Skolnick and Fyfe review the subjects of police deception, brutality, and the “blue wall of silence”(Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993). They offered solutions for dealing with these occurrences. An incident that contributed to this model was the beating of Rodney King in 1991 by Officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. It instantly created a political and social arena that demanded policing activity be reviewed.
Jerome Skolnick's theory originated by looking at the subculture of police and its effects on police deception. He began by analyzing the three elements that create the policeman’s “working personality”; they are danger, authority, and efficiency (Skolnick, 1966). Skolnick explains there are "distinct cognitive tendencies" in police as an occupational grouping. This analysis can be found similar among departments across the country and across the world (Skolnick, 1966). This “working personality” creates the subculture of the police, which Skolnick continually refers to.
The "working personality" develops with the element of danger. This makes the policeman constantly aware of those who may break the law. This results in the policeman becoming a suspicious person. This causes them to be less likely to develop friendships with any civilians who they may see as a potential lawbreaker.
The element of authority combined with danger can isolate the policeman. Authority can cause the citizens that the officer must protect, to see him as an outsider to their community. As a result, the policeman feels isolated because he or she must wear that hat of authority 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An example of this would be traffic enforcement. Most people have experienced a situation where they have been reprimanded by a police officer, this can cause a civilian to stereotype officers, which, can fuel the isolation of the police from the community. The feeling of isolation from the community will also create solidarity amongst the police and their co-workers. This is what Skolnick feels contributes to the idea of a culture created by officers, which demands they cover each other on the streets and perhaps even during an internal investigation (Skolnick, 2000).
Deception is considered by the police to be acceptable in many aspects of their job. A cop learns to back up the stories colleagues tell to superiors and investigators; in turn he is confidant colleagues will back him up (Skolnick, 2000). This is sometimes referred to the "blue wall of silence." A police officer may find himself stuck between the "blue wall of silence” and the need to notify his or her superiors of any police misconduct. An officer does not want to tell on another officer and be labeled a "rat". This label can follow an officer for the length of his/her career if he or she would choose to reveal information about a co-worker and their misconduct. Skolnick states that the blue wall of silence can cover-up and possibly encourage violations of civil rights, and small less extreme incidents of violence and abuse. These actions may only be uncovered if there is pressure from an internal investigation or the threat of prosecution (Skolnick, 2000).
Police use deception daily through their work. They view it as a natural tool to help catch the bad guys. Skolnick stated, "the law often, but not always, supports police deception" (Skolnick, 1997). The court system and the police subculture permits and sometimes demands deception used in the investigative and daily activities of police work. However, the police rarely allow for the deception of fellow officers. A police officer may pose as a drug dealer in the course of their work in order to catch the criminal. This deception is supported and upheld by the court. Skolnick argues that “courtroom lying is justified within the police culture by the same sort of necessity rationale that courts have permitted police to employ at the investigative stage: “The end justifies the means”. In other words, the police may lie in order to get the truth. Skolnick claims that police freely admit to deceiving suspects and defendants. However, the police do not admit to perjury (Skolnick, 1975). The policeman lies because lying becomes a routine way of managing legal impediments - whether to protect fellow officers or to compensate for what he views as limitations the courts have placed on his capacity to deal with criminals (Skolnick, 1997). The officer may feel he needs to lie because the system favors the criminal.
Jerome Skolnick has used his theory throughout the last thirty years to explain the behavior and practices of the police. Although his theory has not changed drastically, neither have the events for which he has expressed his opinions. The constant is deception used within a police department, whether it is during an investigation, a cover-up, or during court testimony. It creates a culture that becomes unique to the police. Skolnick originally spoke of the police brutality and reforms created from the 1960's stemming from the civil rights movement. He later and more publicly examined the Los Angeles Police Department in the beating of Rodney King. The deception that was undeniably used in the OJ Simpson trial was seen with the testimony of Detective Mark Fuhrman. Most recently, he published articles addressing New York City Police Department's 70th Precinct cover up, when they saw Abner Louima assaulted by Police Officer Justin Volpe. Skolnick also addressed the problems in the New York City Police Department when 41 bullets were used to stop a suspect, Amadou Diallo (Skolnick, 2000).
In 1967, David Bordua reviewed James Skolnick's book Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society in the American Sociological Review. He stated that Skolnick's book was a foremost contribution to a growing sociological literature on the police and law enforcement. Although Bordua agrees with Skolnick's point of view he does criticize aspects of his writings. Bordua states that Skolnick comes down hard for more "law" in the law vs. order dilemma, but his explanation of why police cannot comply leaves something to be desired. Bordua stated that Jerome Skolnick attempts a general explanation of police behavior, but leans too heavily on the work ethic, in what he calls "democratic bureaucracy". In closing, Bordua stated that Skolnick's heavy reliance on "democratic bureaucracy" as an explanation leads to a somewhat misleading emphasis on the negative consequences of police professionalism. Bordua believes it was too little stressed that police professionalism has brought with it not only gains in efficiency, but also in formal legality (Bordua, 1967).
Kirkus Reviews completed an evaluation of Skolnick and Fyfe’s Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force in February 1993. Although this review revealed no actual criticisms it demonstrated the interest that the book developed at a time when the focus on police brutality was at one of its highest points - the beating of Rodney King. This review stated that few would quarrel with the authors’ demonstration of how vulnerable Americans of all races and classes are to abuses of power. This book was regarded as an excellent history and analysis that balances sympathy for the dangers of police work, with concern for its victims and with persuasive, if not profound, suggestions for reform (Kirkus reviews, LP 1993).
Selwyn Raab of the New York Times also reviewed this book in 1993. Raab starts his review by revealing an incident that he had encountered with police brutality. Needless to say his review also agreed with Skolnick and Fyfe's theories of police brutality. Mr. Raab states that, in his experience as a reporter, he had discovered how difficult it was to document and publish articles about cases of severe police abuse. He went on to state that the blue code of silence among police officers helped conceal even the most outrageous examples of misconduct. Raab agrees with Skolnick and Fyfe's belief that the strongest deterrent to institutionalized misconduct is strict accountability from the highest to the lowest rank in every police unit. Raab states they propose a provocative remedy: Recruit and support police chiefs who will unhesitatingly fire or demote any supervisor who has in his command an officer found to be brutal or corrupt. Raab closes his review by stating that this suggestion is long overdue (Raab, 1993).
On the contrary to what has been stated earlier, there are those who disagree with Skolnick's theory of police deception and brutality. Although the criticisms are not directly aimed at Skolnick's writings, they can show the differences of these ideas depending on what side of the thin blue line one finds them self on. One group, which paralleled the time line of Skolnick's theory as it developed, was known as The John Birch Society. This group launched a program to support the local police in 1963 during the civil unrest of the 1960's, 70's and through the 1990's including the attacks on police after the Rodney King incident. The John Birch Society has encouraged all Americans to support their local police through its spokespersons, programs, informational reprints and flyers. The events, which inspired the John Birch Society, resemble the events that are documented in Skolnick's publications. An example of this is with Skolnick's book Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society in 1966 to Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force in 1993. While Skolnick attributes police deception to the police subculture, The John Birch Society states that this same subculture enables police officers to perform the daily task of protecting the community with the confidence that they can trust a fellow officer with their life. An instrumental part of the development of The John Birch Society was ironically the development of the Black Panther Party. As the Black Panther Party was policing the police by observing their actions, the John Birch Society was supporting officers. This included Seneca DeGraw and Joseph Scamardella who were attacked by the Black Panthers in New York as they arrested a man while the Black Panthers observed (The John Birch Society - Online, October, 2000). As Skolnick suggests programs such as civilian review boards, the John Birch Society encourages its audience to vote for leadership that will not support this idea.
Jerome Skolnick's theory has not changed with criticism. If in fact it changes at any point, it would be only because the events at the time of his publication warrants such a change. Skolnick's ideas of police misconduct stayed consistent with the civil rights movement in the 60's to the beating of Rodney King in the 90's. Skolnick's most recent writings still remain consistent with what he originated as his theory in 1966.
Jerome Skolnick’s theory is still being developed at the turn of the century. In comparison to a lot of criminological theories, Skolnick’s can be seen as relatively new. He was first published regarding the topic of police deception and brutality in 1966, and continues to write articles today developing his theory.
Mr. Skolnick’s theories are not testable through standard means of social science measurements, which limits the amount of research that is based on his theory. It is difficult to prove a theory about an issue that is according to its own profession hard to define, investigate, and prosecute. However, new researchers continue to cite Jerome Skolnick when the topic of police brutality is raised. This is more evident since Skolnick’s 1993 controversial writings regarding the beating of Rodney King. Skolnick continues to publish his research to show similar situations and what police authorities can learn from related incidents that occur across the country.
In May of this year, Skolnick published an article entitled Code Blue in the journal The American Prospect that reiterated some of the same ideas he published in 1966 and 1993. He just applied them to current cases of police deception and police brutality.
Jerome Skolnick’s theoretical framework can be found in other research. Peter K. Manning published an article in Research in the Sociology of Work entitled Structure and Control: “Deviance” in Police Organizations. Manning argued that police deviance arises from the structure of police work. He makes the observation that the state gives the police broadly defined authority that empowers them to take immediate and decisive actions as the occupation demands, which combine to create interpretations of the law that can lead to “overstepping the boundaries of legitimate authority”. Manning also states the extent of deviance among the police is not known because of the nature of police work, strong police cohesion, and the fact that police do not always recognize their own violations (Manning, 1999; 117-138).
Current usage of Skolnick’s theory can also be found in research conducted by D.A. Kessler in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology. A study conducted at the Houston Police Department used complaint data from the Internal Affairs Divisions of their Department. This research examined whether officers assigned to areas of the city that implemented community policing have fewer complaints than other officers. The results showed that officers working in areas where community policing had been implemented received significantly fewer complaints than officers working in other areas (Kessler, 1999).
Jerome Skolnick’s ideas are referred to in articles published by T. Prenzler in the Australian Journal of Public Administration, which studies the idea of “police culture”. Prenzler states that this idea has some value when seen in the context of the general idea of occupational cultures and of specific elements of an organization’s traditions and task environment which generate counter productive and unethical practices (Prenzler, 1997). An article published by J. Chan in the British Journal of Criminology reviews the concept of police culture and its utility for analyzing the impact of police reform. Chan states that police culture results from an interaction between the field of policing and the various dimensions of police organizational knowledge. This article suggests a new way of conceptualizing police culture, one that recognizes its interpretive and creative aspects, as well as the legal and political context of police work (Chan, 1996).
Jerome Skolnick’s theories will continue to remain popular with the turn of the century especially with the technology of the media. What was once able to be covered-up is now broadcast on the evening news by the hovering helicopter providing live coverage of police activities. Although his theory is not always scientifically testable, it is worth researching and developing. These ideas can have an impact on police reform and programs that make the police officer better.
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