The Heat

Recently police activity began to impinge upon my own life. I live in a San Francisco Negro district and I could see about me a noticeable increase — prowl cars were more evident at all times. On weekend nights they seemed to be everywhere, stopping and questioning many more people than formerly.

An art gallery was raided and welded sculpture illustrating the Kama Sutra was confiscated by the police. This was entirely a police action without civilian complaint. The police lost the case. Student parties in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district were raided again and again and everybody hauled off to jail. Even where the police claim to have found marijuana butts on the floor, the cases were usually dismissed. In New York two parties of the Artists’ and Writers’ Committee Against Vietnam, a group with no political affiliations, were raided without a warrant or complaint and several arrests made.

Friends of mine married to members of another race began to complain that they were frequently stopped by prowl cars and questioned when walking along the street with their spouses in broad daylight. After the [Ralph] Ginzburg decision there was a noticeable increase throughout the country in police censorship; in San Francisco bookshops were visited by police officers who told the proprietors, “Clean this place up or we’ll take you in,” but vouchsafed no information as to what books were in fact objectionable.

Certain costumes seem to be an open invitation to police questioning — beards, dirty jeans, bare feet, especially on juveniles, but more commonly still the uniform of the homosexual prostitute, the studbuster — T-shirt, leather jacket, tight jeans, heavy belt, boots. I began to get all sorts of complaints: a well-known jazz musician taking a breather in front of a perfectly respectable jazz room between sets and talking to his white wife was arrested, taken to the local station, held for two hours, insulted, and then let go. Another driving with his wife was arrested for a minor traffic violation, failure to signal a right-hand turn, and taken to the station.

No policemen had molested me in over forty years. I drink only wine at dinner. Marijuana has no effect on me. I haven’t smoked it since adolescence. I am a very safe driver. However subversive my opinions, I am an exemplary law-abiding citizen. However, one night I parked my car in front of my own home, took my two daughters to the door, left my secretary in the car. When I returned the police, who obviously thought they were dealing with a racially mixed couple, had been questioning my secretary and because they hadn’t liked the tone of her voice were writing a traffic ticket.

In the next block the same patrol had threatened a neighbor with arrest in a similar situation. A few blocks away a Negro youth leader had an appointment for lunch with a police officer. On the way to the lunch he was rousted by that very officer. A Negro high-school boy acting in a school play with my daughter was stopped as he was walking home from rehearsal along a well-lighted business street, rousted, and eventually forced to lie down on the sidewalk, but finally let go.

All of this happened in my immediate neighborhood, to people known to me, in one month. Yet San Francisco’s police force is unquestionably one of the most professional in the country, with the extremely active community-relations detail led by a dedicated officer, an enlightened chief, lectures and classes on civil liberties, race relations, youth problems, and like matters. Reports in the press and from friends in other cities of increasing petty police harassment were far more shocking. It was apparent that The Heat was on — nationally. Why?

What exactly is The Heat and what turns it on? And why should it suddenly go on all over the country? The documentation of police brutality and violation of civil liberties in various cities about the country is staggering. But this is not what I want to write about.

In recent months there have been a number of magazine articles and serial newspaper features on “What’s Wrong With the Police,” and these have been answered in most cases by literate spokesmen for the police, not PR men, but working officers themselves. There’s very little dialogue. One side makes flat accusations, usually well-documented, of police brutality, illegal entry or search, harassment, prejudice against the poor, racism, political reaction, third-degree, and other violations of the rights of those arrested. The other side simply denies that most of these things exist, and counters with the statement, “Police work is a profession with very special problems which the layman cannot understand any more than he can understand the special problems of medicine or law.”

Both sides isolate the problem and treat the police as though they were members of a self-contained society — separate from the rest of us, like monks, professional soldiers, or the inmates of prisons and state hospitals. The problem is the functioning of the police as part of society, not as apart from it. Essential to any understanding is the definition of the roles that the police perform in the society in fact and the different roles which they are supposed to perform in theory, their own theories and those of their critics.

The following article recently appeared in The Berkeley Barb:


Berkeley police with flashbulbs blazing ran swiftly through a gathering of about 40 nude men and women last Saturday. They were “investigating” possible lawbreaking at an East Bay Sexual Freedom League party. “It was like “Gangbusters’,” EBSFL President Richard Thorne told The Barb.” They came in very quickly and told us to hold it, stay where we were, and flashed cameras.” The police searched the house and checked the I.D. of each guest. They stayed for about an hour, around midnight. “After I got dressed, I went to the lieutenant in charge and inquired on what grounds the police were present,” Thorne said. “The lieutenant said that someone had issued a complaint which led them to suspect that there was the possibility of contributing to the delinquency of minors. ‘Of what sort?’ I asked him. He said, ‘Alcohol’.” Thorne and several other witnesses described the police investigation. Desks, chairs, bureaus, and clothes in closets were searched. Ashtrays were examined. Medicines were confiscated. Brown filipino cigarettes were peeled open. Guests who objected to showing their I.D.’s were given the choice of cooperating or being identified “at the station.” At Barb press time, no arrests had resulted from the investigation. One guest, who met a flashbulb as he emerged from the bathroom, described his conversation with the plainclothesman who apparently admitted the other police:
      “I asked him what had happened to give them the right to enter and search without a warrant.
      “He said, ‘Are you a lawyer?’
      “I said, ‘No.’
      “ ‘In that case, it’s none of your business,’ he said.”
      Witnesses described the police demeanor as initially “rude,” “sarcastic,” “snide,” and “up tight.” As the hour passed, they “settled down” and became “mannerly” and “courteous,” guests said. About 20 partygoers remained after the police departed. “Clothes came off again at a rapid rate after they left,” one participant told BARB. “It was as if they wouldn’t let the police intimidate them, and they wanted to release a pent-up rage. It became quite a party. A very fine, successful party.”

Following the publication of this article I took it upon myself to question one of the members of the Berkeley Police Force regarding the matter. Our conversation was friendly and was not confined to the police raid, although it covered the pertinent aspects. Pertinent portions of the interview were in sum and substance to this effect:

INTERVIEWER: What happened at the nude party?

POLICE OFFICER: Oh, we alleged that there were people below the age of 18 there but there weren’t.

I:  Did you really believe that there was someone below the age of 18?

P:  No, we just used that as an excuse.

I:  Well, what happened?

P:  We busted into the place and there were several couples actually fornicating. So, we took some pictures and left.

I:  What did you do with the pictures?

P:  Oh, they’re fun to pass around for all the boys to look at down at the station.

I:  Isn’t that illegal?

P:  Well, I suppose so but they were having a nude party.

I:  Didn’t the attorney general of the state of California specifically say that nude parties were legal?

P:  Oh, we know that there isn’t anything illegal going on, but we feel that if you let this kind of thing happen it’s like opening Pandora’s Box.

I:  Is the police department supposed to prescribe morals?

P:  Somebody’s got to.

I:  Doesn’t the Constitution of the United States specifically allow the citizenry to determine its own morals?

P:  Well, you know how these things are.

I:  Would you want the police busting into your home under these circumstances?

P:  Well, I wouldn’t be doing anything illegal.

I:  Neither were they.

This example, however comic, poses the dilemma: the contradiction between the police as officers of order and officers of law. In the early days of the development of modern police forces perhaps their primary function was the preservation of social order and the enforcement of public morality. They dealt mostly with the poor, who, however unruly, accepted the same values. In a heterogeneous society such as America was in the days of massive immigration, most of the work of a patrolman on the beat in Hell’s Kitchen, the lower East Side, Five Points, Back of the Yards, was extra-legal. He was not a law officer but a peace officer and if he invoked the law to handle all violations of public order he would have found himself hopelessly overwhelmed. Until recent years the Paris police force still operated this way in almost all their day-to-day work. The vicious, disorderly, the conspicuous violators of common morals, were simply taken up an alley and “coated” with a weighted cape or worked over with a truncheon and kicked out on the street with a warning that if they were caught doing it again they’d get worse in the station house.

Vice (prostitution, gambling, narcotics) as distinguished from crime was “policed.” Streetwalkers were protected on their stations from invasion by other whores or pimps, and guarded against robbery or attack by their customers. This type of relationship — which was usually effective — was always advanced in private conversation by American policemen as an excuse for payoff: “If you clout them, you control them.” It still prevails in the Tenderloin districts of many American cities.

America has changed. It is becoming a homogeneous society and the divisions that do exist are of a new kind. First, of course, is the conflict over homogeneity itself to which the Negroes demand they be admitted. The second most important division, from the police point of view, is a change of values, the democratization of what was once the privilege of an elite of radical intellectuals — an entirely new moral code. Emma Goldman, free-lover and anarchist, was quite a sufficient bother to the police of her day. Today there are millions of Emma Goldmans, members of a new kind of middle class. This public resents the police as guardians of public morals. Younger people who live by moral codes which bear little resemblance to the lower-middle-class Irish Catholic morality of most of the police force look upon the policeman as a dangerous and ignorant disrupter of their own peaceful lives.

The police on the other hand believe that they have the right to control the lives of others for their own benefit, that they know better what others should do than they do themselves. They adjust the behavior of those who live by a different moral code to the stereotypes which they have inherited from the past. In its most extreme form: “If you see a nigger and a white woman together, chances are it’s a pimp and a whore.” “All those beatniks,” referring to a bearded student of nuclear physics, “take dope.” “If you watch you can catch one of them making a pass and you’re sure to find marijuana or pills.”

Both press and police commonly refer to marijuana, an intoxicant far less harmful than alcohol, and to LSD and the various barbiturates, tranquilizers, and stimulants as “dope” and “narcotics,” and attempt to deal with the problem exactly the same way that they dealt with the morphine traffic and addiction of fifty years ago. It is significant that the use of most of these drugs results in relaxation and noninvasive behavior while alcohol stimulates aggressions. The police as the Arm of the Squares represent an aggressive lower-middle-class morality in conflict with life patterns of nonaggression which they find incomprehensible and interpret in terms of crime and vice — aggression — which they can understand.

What is it the spokesmen for the police are talking about when they say the public doesn’t understand the nature of police work? Why don’t they explain? The reason is that the contradiction, the dilemma of police work, is something they do not wish publicized. They wish to present to a society concerned about civil liberties the policeman as a functionary of the legal process. They are not prepared to face the fact that he is involved in a symbiotic relationship within the illegal communities that function as subcultures in the society.

It is a common charge of those interested in a reform of the methods of handling the narcotic problem that the federal, state, and, to a lesser degree, city police have a “vested interest,” along with the Mafia, in preserving the status quo. This is an oversimplification. What has actually developed is a great web of petty crime, addiction, peddling which the narcotics officer hopes he can control and which is sensitive to his manipulation.

For instance, to begin at the beginning of the process: A narcotics addict arrested on a petty larceny charge can cooperate with the police in several ways. He can help clear the record by admitting to a number of unsolved petty thefts and he can give information which will lead to the arrest of his retail dealer, and his anonymity will be protected by the police and the charges against him will be reduced to a minimum. In the somewhat bigger time a felony charge can be reduced if the prisoner is willing to cooperate in the arrest of a narcotics wholesaler.

At the bottom of the ladder, a prostitute known to have associates who are either thieves or narcotics pushers or both can cooperate simply by giving general information, or in cases where the police know that the girl has information they want, she is often given the choice between cooperation, being admitted to bail, and receiving only a fine at her trial, or refusing to cooperate, being held without bail for a medical examination, and then given a jail sentence.

All this is done with a great deal of indirection and evasive language, but since narcotics control is something which the police must originate themselves — it is one of several “crimes without plaintiff” which is another definition of “vice” — gambling, prostitution and narcotics — the police can function only if they can keep a complicated machinery of information and actual social contact operating. And the fuel which keeps this machine going is bargaining power: each side has a commodity to exchange of value to the other. Each party to the transaction must make a profit. In this sense the police have a vested interest in the subculture of the underworld.

The remarkable thing about this subculture is that, although it may use the term “square,” both police and criminals share the same system of values. The narcotics peddler, the gambler, or the prostitute may point out that their activities are civil-service occupations in some countries and if the public didn’t want what they had to offer, they would go out of business. To some extent most policemen share this point of view, but both sides in private conversation usually will be found to be convinced that vice is morally wrong.

The underworld subculture does not have the self-confidence attributed to it in fiction. Again, this lack is a powerful psychological tool in the hands of the police. A prostitute who is treated by the arresting officer as “just a hard-working girl,” the victim of hypocritical bluenosed laws which it is the officer’s job to enforce, will be far more cooperative than a girl who feels she is being treated with contempt, most especially so because she herself has that contempt. Organizations like Synanon have made a therapeutic method out of the self-hate of the narcotics addict, but a policeman who used the language of a Synanon session would find himself with a very hostile prisoner indeed on his hands.

What the policeman does as a custodial officer within the underworld subculture is keep it abated, and he applies these methods to other problems of social order.

For instance, for several years I knew a handsome young Negro intellectual who was a professional blackmailer. He would spot a wealthy young married woman slumming in bohemia, strike up an acquaintance, carry on an intellectual conversation, arouse her sympathy. After reciting T.S. Eliot at length he would divulge the information that he cried himself to sleep night after night because his skin was black and his hair was crinkly. As they parted he would thank her profusely, say that he never hoped to see her again but could he write her sometimes when the pain was more than he could bear. The exchange of letters led to an exchange of pictures and possibly even to an affair, and then one day the socialite housewife would get a telephone call that he was in a terrible jam and needed a thousand dollars that he had been offered by a newspaperman for the letters and pictures. Needless to say, journalism is no longer conducted this way but the girls usually paid up and those who were sleeping with him usually went right on doing so.

One night I was in a club in San Francisco’s North Beach and watched the regular cop on the beat question only the mixed couples in the place and concentrate his hostility on this man and his new girl. As he went out the door he said to me, “Okay, Rexroth, say I’m prejudiced but what do you want me to do with that motherfucker? Go up to him and say, ‘You’re under arrest for blackmail’?”

Eventually this harassment may have paid off because the fellow left town for good. This instance explains a good many things. The police still believe that there are enough relationships of this kind, or worse, amongst mixed-race couples to justify a policy of general interrogation and of making those people who do not respond as the police think they should as uncomfortable as possible. Harassment is a method of abatement and the police consider it one which may work when there is no plaintiff or no visible commission of crime.

Take the case of homosexuality. Homosexual acts between consenting adults are no longer policed as such. The laws which the police attempt to enforce are essentially the same as those applied to heterosexuals. The bushes in parks and public toilets are not chosen by heterosexuals for sexual intercourse, and although assignations are made between men and women in bars, this has become socially acceptable in most cities, and it is usually not so obvious as the activities in a gay bar.

With the growing tolerance of homosexuality and the enormous increase in gay bars and other open manifestations of homosexuality socially, there has not only been a great increase in homosexual prostitution, especially amongst floating adolescents, but a tremendous increase in robbery and murder. Not only have a number of well-known personalities in recent years been found robbed and beaten to death in cities with a large homosexual population, but studbusting has become one of the commonest forms of “unexplained” homicide. Middle-aged men, many of them married and with children, are pulled out of the bushes dead, with a frequency the police prefer to say nothing about.

Here is the police problem. No one is going to complain. The partners in a homosexual relationship participate voluntarily. If one is robbed, he will not risk disgrace by going to the police. If he’s dead, he’s dead, and the circumstances of his murder provide no clue. The act itself takes only a brief time and is almost impossible to catch. So the police harass and embarrass the gay bar or the respectable-looking homosexuals frequenting parks or cruising certain well-known streets looking for “trade.” The “trade,” the homosexual prostitute, they make as uncomfortable as possible.

At one time entrapment was a common form of arrest, but the prejudice of the court and the public is so great that it is being abandoned. A judge is very likely to say, “What were you doing when the defendant was fondling your penis?” Besides entrapment does not catch the principal offender, the studbuster, who if he is experienced can recognize a plainclothesman no matter how plausibly disguised.

This leaves the police with degrading methods, peepholes in public toilets and such like which most officers rebel against using. Of course, in all these cases some policemen simply love this kind of work. The favorite term of contempt amongst police as in the underworld is “copperhearted.” Fairy-killers and whore-hunters are not liked by their colleagues on the force, and although police will give all their skill and devotion to cracking a big case of narcotics wholesaling, most men on the narcotics detail sicken of the work with the petty addict and the round of desperation, pilfering, prostitution, squalor, and the hopelessness of changing it.

There is one outstanding factor in common in almost all arrests for “vice.” The cop must judge to arrest, and in court in a legal process based on contest he must stick to his guns and the esprit de corps of the force must back him up all the way up the chain of command. A general cannot deny his troops. This is the reason that the chain of command almost invariably seems to the public to do nothing but whitewash whenever there is a complaint, no matter how grievous. It is this paramilitary ethic, not corruption, which accounts for the runaround. Except for a few cities in the East, corruption from outside is dying out. If it exists today it comes from within the force. Outside the cities that are still controlled by the Organization, policemen, let alone high-ranking officers, are no longer directly controlled by corrupt political machines or by the “Mafia.”

Modern police corruption is a more subtle thing. Many police departments are controlled by intradepartmental political structures, power apparats. Others are the battleground of conflicting groups of this sort, but they are more likely to be generated within the department and concerned exclusively with police rank and privilege than to come from outside. In fact the tendency is to keep such things from the attention of the public, even of the apparatus of the political parties.

In the case of a liberal and enlightened police chief, the increasing polarization of American society is certain to be reflected in an opposition, usually clandestine but often organized, which considers him a nigger-lover and a red and whose members do everything they can to sabotage his efforts and to back each other up all along the chain of command as high as they can go. It is this type of reactionary opposition that accounts for the apparently successful John Birch Society recruitment campaign in the police forces of America, and it is here that you can find charges of whitewash and runaround in cases of police brutality, and especially of racism.

Payoff is, as I said, part of a system for control for which many otherwise honest, old-fashioned policemen will present strong if not convincing arguments. Big-time payoff is another thing and occurs only sporadically in a few Eastern cities. Criminal corruption again arises within a police force prompted only by the generally criminal character of American society. Rings of thieves like those uncovered a couple of years ago in two police forces usually grow out of the general “knockdown” philosophy of American enterprise, particularly in relation to insurance claims. To quote Chief Stanley R. Schrotel:

Most policemen recognize no wrong in accepting free admissions to public entertainment, discounts on their purchases, special favors and considerations from persons of influence, or tips and gratuities for services performed in the line of their regular duty. They choose to look upon these incidents as being strictly personal matters between themselves and the donors and are unwilling to recognize that moral obligations are involved. . . . No matter how much effort is expended in minimizing the derogatory effect of the acceptance of gratuities and favors by law-enforcement officers, the practice has become so prevalent that the public generally concedes that policemen are the world’s greatest “moochers.” Aside from the question of the effect of the practice upon the officers’ effectiveness in enforcing the law, it is a certainty that a reputation for “mooching” does not elevate the standards of the profession in the public’s mind.

This picture has a certain old-time charm: the copper in pith helmet and blue Prince Albert copping an apple off the pushcart. To quote again Banton’s The Policeman in the Community, paraphrasing Morton Stern’s article, “What Makes a Policeman Go Wrong”: “A former member of the Denver police department, in discussing what went wrong there, stressed that a new recruit was not accepted by his colleagues unless he conformed to their norms. When investigating a burglary in a store, police officers might put some additional articles into their pockets. Indeed, they were sometimes encouraged to do so by the owners who pointed out they would recover from the insurance company anyway.” In the Cops-as-Robbers scandals of a few years back, investigation soon revealed the step-by-step process of corruption. The robbery victim, owner of a shop or warehouse, expected and encouraged the investigating officers to help themselves to a couple of mink coats or television sets to run up the insurance claim. From there it was a short step to collusion between police, burglary gang, and would-be “victim,” and from there a still shorter step, the elimination of the middleman, until the police planned and carried out the robberies themselves and moved on to plain, old-fashioned robbery, without the connivance of the robbed.

The corruption that stems from gambling is a special case, although its effects are probably the most far-reaching. Few police anywhere are directly part of the organized narcotics business, and their involvement in prostitution is really trivial, however common, and mostly part of what they consider the necessary web of information. Gambling is different. Today when churches and supermarkets are gambling institutions, it is hard for the average policeman, who is likely to be an Irish Catholic whose church stages weekly bingo games, to take gambling seriously.

Payoff may start as part of the system of control, but since gambling is the major business of organized crime in America, it soon penetrates to the vitals of the police system. Since gambling is also the major bridge between politics and organized crime, it carries with it not only the corruption of vice but the additional corruption of vice-controlled politics.

Collusion with bookmakers and the proprietors of gambling rooms is turned up fairly frequently on the West Coast. Massive infection of the police department and the penetration of high-level, outside, political corruption seems to be far more common east of the Rockies. There is a psychological factor here which must be taken into account. A corrupt police force is a guilt-ridden police force, because with few exceptions policemen do believe in the lower-middle-class values even when they flout them. A guilty police force is likely to be both belligerently puritanical in its attempts to control unconventional behavior, and hostile, quick to react aggressively to any fancied assault on its own authority. Obviously, this sets up a vicious circle which goes round and round in an ever-accelerating separation of the police from the general population.

At the very best, as any honest policeman will tell you, the police live in a ghetto of their own and a great deal of the effort of the human-relations bureaus and details of the better police departments is devoted simply to getting through to the public, to breaking down the ghetto wall. But even with the best public relations the police as a subculture of their own are a garrison society. Policemen associate mostly with one another and have few civilian friends. Policemen’s balls and picnics are characterized by a noisy but impoverished conviviality.

In the case of Negroes, the young man who joins the force is likely to meet with a total cutoff in his community and at the best find himself uncomfortable in his new one, the police society. A neighbor who was a graduate in law in a Southern Jim Crow university joined the force and discovered that he had even lost the friendship of his minister. After a couple of years of isolation, he quit. As a custodial officer in a Negro ghetto the policeman confronts a population in revolt to whom he is a soldier of an occupying army, as both James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin have said.

I have neglected to mention the only way in which the average citizen comes in frequent contact with the police — traffic violation. This is, as we all know, an area of continual exasperation on both sides, and one of the best things a city can do is to create a department of traffic-control officers for all violations short of crime completely divorced from the police department.

To sum up, these are the basic factors in the problem: The police are a closed community, socially isolated from the general population with a high level of irritability along the edges of contact. Police methods have developed in the day-by-day work of control of an underworld of petty crime and vice, in a period when most police work was with the poor, or at least the dwellers in slums and Tenderloin. As a control or custodial officer the typical policeman, in the words of Jerome H. Skolnick, “is inherently a suspicious person, fond of order and predictability. He reacts to stereotyped symbols of potential trouble — even oddities of dress or speech, and proceeds on the presumption of guilt, often while winking at the legal niceties of restraint in searches and arrests. Intent upon ‘controlling crime,’ the officer keenly resents having his results upset on the appellate level.”

Skolnick found that the police feel frustrated by the courts’ affirmation of principles of due process, and generally consider the appellate judiciary as “traitor” to its responsibility to keep the community free from criminality.

We hear a great deal about the professionalization of the policeman from theorists and lecturers in police academies but on the part of the older or more conventional of these people, professionalism really means the development of a high degree of craft skill in playing the role described by Skolnick, a social custodial officer, with maximum efficiency and minimum social friction. This body of social servants with its own ideology and ethic is set over against a society which bears little resemblance to the one which produced it in the first place. To quote Thomas F. Adams, “Field Interrogation,” Police, March-April 1963:

A. Be suspicious. This is a healthy police attitude, but it should be controlled and not too obvious.

B. Look for the unusual:

1. Persons who do not “belong” where they are observed.
2. Automobiles which do not “look right.”
3. Businesses opened at odd hours, or not according to routine or custom.

C. Subjects who should be subjected to field interrogations:

1. Suspicious persons known to the officers from previous arrests, field interrogations, and observations.
2. Emaciated-appearing alcoholics and narcotics users who invariably turn to crime to pay for cost of habit.
3. Person who fits description of wanted suspect as described by radio, teletype, daily bulletins.
4. Any person observed in the immediate vicinity of a crime very recently committed or reported as “in progress.”
5. Known trouble-makers near large gatherings.
6. Persons who attempt to avoid or evade the officer.
7. Exaggerated unconcern over contact with the officer.
8. Visibly “rattled” when near the policeman.
9. Unescorted women or young girls in public places, particularly at night in such places as cafés, bars, bus and train depots, or street corners.
10. “Lovers” in an industrial area (make good lookouts).
11. Persons who loiter about places where children play.
12. Solicitors or peddlers in a residential neighborhood.
13. Loiterers around public rest rooms.
14. Lone male sitting in car adjacent to schoolground with newspaper or book in his lap.
15. Lone male sitting in car near shopping center who pays unusual amount of attention to women, sometimes continuously manipulating rearview mirror to avoid direct eye contact.
16. Hitchhikers.
17. Person wearing coat on hot days.
18. Car with mismatched hub caps, or dirty car with clean license plate (or vice versa).
19. Uniformed “deliverymen” with no merchandise or truck.
20. Many others. How about your own personal experiences?

And Cohn Mclnnes, Mr. Love and Justice:

The true copper’s dominant characteristic, if the truth be known, is neither those daring nor vicious qualities that are sometimes attributed to him by friend or enemy, but an ingrained conservatism, an almost desperate love of the conventional. It is untidiness, disorder, the unusual, that a copper disapproves of most of all: far more even than of crime, which is merely a professional matter. Hence his profound dislike of people loitering in streets, dressing extravagantly, speaking with exotic accents, being strange, weak, eccentric, or simply any rare minority — of their doing, in fact, anything that cannot be safely predicted.

Then Peter J. Connell, “Handling of Complaints by Police”:

The time spent cruising one’s sector or walking one’s beat is not wasted time, though it can become quite routine. During this time, the most important thing for the officer to do is notice the normal. He must come to know the people in his area, their habits, their automobiles, and their friends. He must learn what time the various shops close, how much money is kept on hand on different nights, what lights are usually left on, which houses are vacant . . . only then can he decide what persons or cars under what circumstances warrant the appellation “suspicious.”

All this was all right in a different world. At least the society didn’t fall apart. Today what was once a mob is now a civil-rights demonstration, oddly dressed people are musicians, students, professors, members of the new professions generally (half of Madison Avenue seems to take the subway home to Greenwich Village at 5:00 p.m., shed the gray flannel suits and basic blacks, and get into costumes which the police believe are worn only by “dope fiends”).

Why is the heat on all over America? For exactly the same reason it has always gone on in an American city after an outbreak of social disorder, a shocking crime, or a sudden rise in the crime rate. The police feel that they are dealing with a situation that is slipping away from their control and they are using the methods, most of them extra-legal, by which they have traditionally regained control — “discourage them and they’ll go away.”

Where the police once confronted unassimilated groups of the illiterate poor, they now face an unassimilable subculture of the college educated, unassimilable certainly to their own standards. Homosexuality, once a profitable source of shakedown, and a chance to release a few sadistic repressions, is now open and in fact tolerated. There are articles in theological magazines about the church’s responsibility to the homosexual and an interfaith organization to implement such responsibility — “homophile” organizations of both men and women stage national conventions addressed by notabilities in law, psychiatry, and sociology, and even by a few enlightened police officers. Such organizations recently sued the State of California to gain the right to operate a booth at the State Fair.

Racially mixed couples are common on the streets of every Northern city and are beginning to appear in the South, and they are far more likely today to be students or professional people than denizens of the underworld. Outlandish costume has become the uniform of youth all over the world who are in moral revolt against a predatory society.

Today, when extramarital sex is a commonplace, from grammar school to the senior-citizens’ clubs, we forget that only a generation ago people were still serving sentences in American prisons for fornication, adultery, and oral sex between men and women, but the police have not forgotten, most of them anyway. A weekly book-review section that once refused advertising of all books whatsoever by Kenneth Patchen or Henry Miller now runs a “cover story” on The Story of O, a detailed, graphic description of the most extreme sado-masochism, homosexuality, and “deviance” generally. There are regular underground movie houses which publicly show movies which would shock even a police smoker. Due to their seriousness of intent, they still horrify the police but in a new way.

Adolescent Negro prostitutes in San Francisco when arrested “go limp,” and put up long, highly sophisticated arguments for legalized prostitution and do everything but sing “We Shall Overcome.” I must say that the police with whom I have talked who have been involved in such situations have enough sense of humor to think it’s all just hilarious.

At one time marijuana and the various pharmaceutical kicks were part of a hard-dope subculture and unquestionably led in some instances directly to heroin addiction — “Whatsa matter, you chicken? When are you going to graduate?” This is certainly no longer true. The squares and the oldies have no conception of how common the use of marijuana is amongst the young. Pick-up and put-down pills are used by everybody to sleep or wake up and we have just gone through a craze for hallucinogens that seems to be leveling off. It is my impression that this was accompanied by a proportionate decline in the use of heroin except possibly in certain sections of New York City. Although large numbers of informed people believe that marijuana is harmless and that even the worst of the other drugs cause neither delirium tremens, polyneuritis, extensive brain damage nor lung cancer, the police, egged on by some of the press, persist in treating all users of all drugs and intoxicants except alcohol and nicotine as narcotic addicts.

Everybody talks back to the cop today. This “disrespect for law” has two contradictory sources — the general criminality that seeps through all American business and politics, and the growth of a new culture of revolt against precisely this “business ethic.” In a sense the police are caught in the middle of a class war, a war between antagonistic moral rather than economic classes.

Most policemen come from conservative levels of the society, lower-middle and working-class families that have preserved an authoritarian structure and fundamentalist religion and puritanical attitude towards sex and a fear and contempt for any nonconformist behavior. The great majority of patrolmen in America have no more than a high-school education and that in substandard schools.

An additional factor seldom taken account of is the class hostility of the people on this social level for the educated, sophisticated, and affluent generally and most especially for those to whom the proper definition of bohemianism specially applies, those who mimic the habits of the idle rich without possessing their money or their reserves of power and who forego the commonly accepted necessities of life to enjoy the luxuries. This type, this model personality, is specifically designed to outrage the type or model policeman who is likely to be suspicious of anybody who drinks brandy instead of bourbon or smokes Turkish cigarettes, much less someone who thinks Juan Marichal must be an obscure Spanish poet.

At one time the great web of police custodial care could isolate such types in Greenwich Village or the Near North Side or North Beach. Today they are everywhere and increasing geometrically. If all of their activities, from peddling poetry on the streets or marching in demonstrations to smoking marijuana and attending nude parties, were suddenly to become accepted, the police forces of the country would be threatened with mass nervous breakdown. This may be one of those processes of historical change where the resistance of the past is not altogether valueless. For instance, laws against the possession of marijuana have become practically unenforceable. If everyone who smoked grass were arrested, we’d have to build concentration camps all over the country. Yet even today it would be quite impossible to legalize marijuana by referendum. It is doubtful if 1 per cent of the state legislators of this country would have the guts to go on record as voting yes on a law like the British one abolishing the criminality of homosexual acts between consenting adults.

The most dangerous social tensions between police and people is certainly in race relations. The most enlightened police chief, with the aid of the most dedicated community-relations detail, cannot control the policeman on the beat, in his personal relations with ignorant, poor, and obstreperous members of a race which he does not understand. The only solution for this within the police force is education and the changing of group pressures. As one police officer said, “We all use the word ‘nigger’ in the squad room. You’d be looked on as a kook if you didn’t, but I won’t let my kids use it at home.”

Most chiefs of police rise directly from the ranks and are often less well educated than the new generation of rookies. Most city charters forbid the recruitment of executive officers from outside the force. What this means is that the precinct captains are men from a less enlightened age who have risen by seniority to that point and are not competent to go further. They are the real bottlenecks and they can defeat all the efforts of an enlightened chief and police commission in their own bailiwicks.

The paramilitary structure of the police force is such that it is exceedingly difficult to create a board of review, or an office of complaints or of human relations within the force which will not be dominated by police politics and civil-service inertia. This is the reason for the ever-growing demand for outside surveillance — civilian policing of the police.

Most cities now have boards of police commissioners of various sorts but these are made up of well-to-do businessmen and politicians and seldom meet more than a couple of hours once a week and have at the best only a small secretarial staff. Negro members are usually lawyers and politicians or pastors of respectable churches. It would be possible totally to reorganize such commissions, make them representative, give them power, and a large working staff.

Within the police force itself it is possible to set up an inspector general’s office, outside the chain of command, which would process, investigate, and act on all citizen complaints. This is the common proposal of the more enlightened spokesmen from within the police system.

It would be possible to set up in each city an Ombudsman office with the job of clearing all manner of citizens’ dissatisfactions with the functioning of the city and its employees. This has worked in Scandinavia from which the word comes, but the vision of pandemonium which the prospect of such an American office conjures up is frightening. It is doubtful if it would be possible to get people to take the jobs and certainly not to stay on them.

A civilian review board, either elected or appointed by the mayor from completely outside all political apparatus, would be ideal but the very terms contain a contradiction. How is this going to come about? It is a popular proposal with the civil-rights organizations and the one most fervently resisted by the police. Although it is true, as Bayard Rustin says, that it would protect the unjustifiably accused officer, it would strip naked the paramilitary structure which the police consider essential, not just to their morale but to their actual function.

In some cities, Seattle and Los Angeles amongst others, the civil-rights organizations have set up civilian patrols who prowl the prowl cars. They follow the police and stand by during arrest, politely and usually silently. They must be made up of citizens of all races, of unimpeachable respectability who are willing to donate eight hours at least once a week to difficult and unpleasant work. Obviously they will obtain from the officers in the patrol cars the most elaborate compliance with all the amenities of the etiquette of arrest. How much effect this has in the long run is questionable and by its nature a civilian patrol program is not likely to endure beyond a few critical months. People are unlikely to engage in such activity night after night, year after year.

What is the best of these alternatives? Only experience can tell. If we were to set up in American cities a kind of neighborhood civil militia which checked on all police activity, we would soon find that we had created a police system like that of the Russians in which the law and the police and their party and neighborhood representatives function as agents of public order and education in social ethics. This may be an estimable theory of how to run a society but it is in total contradiction to every principle of British-American law and social organization. We do not want the police as custodians but as instruments of a law which regards all men as equal and at liberty to run their affairs to suit themselves as long as they do not inflict damage on others.

The police spokesmen are perfectly right in saying that what should be done is truly to professionalize police work. This means changing the class foundation of the police force itself. A professional is a man with a salary at least comparable to that of a small-town dentist, with at least one college degree, with an advanced technical and at the same time broadly humanistic education and whose work demands that he keep abreast of its latest developments. The thought of turning all the policemen in America into such persons staggers the imagination. However, the nursing profession, which by and large is recruited from exactly the same level of society as the police, has been professionalized in one generation in everything but salary. An executive nurse in a big-city health department may have more years of college than most of the doctors working with her. She is lucky indeed if she makes $800 a month.

What is the answer? I have no idea. This is one of those many regions of frustration which are spreading across all of modern life, blotches on the skin of a body which is sick within with a sickness of which all diagnoses differ. I suppose society will smell its way to some sort of solution, muddle through the muddle. This is not a very hopeful prognostication for what is, after all, one aspect of a grave crisis, but none of the other prognostications about any of the other aspects is hopeful either.


      A bearded Tom Sawyer, nattily clad in a policeman’s tunic and blue jeans, had a run-in with authority here yesterday.
      Unlike his Mark Twain namesake, San Francisco’s Sawyer lost this round to a pair of policemen.
      Officers Tony Delzompo and Jim Bailey, in fact, found the wearing of parts of police uniforms so unamusing they arrested Sawyer.
      Sawyer, 23, of 1253 Willard Street in the Haight-Ashbury district, was booked on suspicion of possession of stolen property.
      The officers admitted that there was no report of stolen police jackets on file, but said that Sawyer’s uniform, nonetheless, might well be stolen.
      Sawyer, questioned at 7 p.m. at Frederick and Stanyan streets by the officers, told them he got the jacket from a friend.
      Perhaps an explanation for the officers’ investigative zeal could be found in Sawyer’s substitute for the police badge, a large lapel button pinned on the left side of the tunic. It read: “Overthrow the Government.”
      [San Francisco Chronicle, August 22, 1966]

July 1967


This article was originally published in Playboy (July 1967) with the title “The Fuzz.” It was reprinted with the present title in The Alternative Society (Herder & Herder, 1970) and in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1987 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

The original appearance of this article apparently caused Rexroth to be fired from three different jobs, including his position as columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.

Other Rexroth Essays