City Journal

Tamar Jacoby
The Uncivil History of the Civilian Review Board
How the Issue Divided the City Three Decades Ago
Winter 1993

The Mayor calls for a civilian review board to monitor the abuse of political power; his proposal angers police and divides the city along racial lines. It happened in 1992—but it also happened in 1966, when John Lindsay was mayor and no one quite suspected how explosive the issue would be.

Suddenly this fall, New York’s not-very-secret skeleton popped garishly out into the open again. Not that race was ever very far from anybody’s mind, but it had been some time since the city’s top public figures had traded in it with so little restraint or decorum. Rudy Giuliani harangued the raucous police demonstration at City Hall, even as officers in the crowd hurled racial epithets at Mayor Dinkins. The mayor’s supporters responded in kind, upping the racial ante by comparing Giuliani to David Duke and dwelling on the prejudice they said was at the heart of police objections to a civilian review board. Where the mayor once scrupulously avoided introducing color into the public debate, he now seemed to relish the confrontation and the chance to talk about “racist” cops. Black and Hispanic City Council members with mixed feelings about civilian review admitted they would now have to vote for it, strictly for racial reasons. The city seemed to have taken a huge step backward: to the mindless tyranny of racial polarization. Sadder still, the issue that had provoked the ugliness was an attempt by the mayor to improve race relations—between black civilians and the mostly white police.

Ironic as this outcome was, it was also predictable. The same thing had happened under Mayor John Lindsay in the mid-1960s. The two mayors’ initiatives differed somewhat: Lindsay created a seven-member police review board with a majority of civilian members but a Police Department staff; Dinkins pushed a 13-member, all-civilian panel, entirely independent of the department. More important, though, in both cases the mayor’s aim was the same—and largely symbolic. Neither review board would have much power or make much real change in the police bureaucracy. Each concerned itself only with minor rule infractions: Any incidents involving alleged brutality, false arrest, or other illegal conduct by police were, and are still, passed on to the district attorney. Neither board had enforcement powers, and both stopped well short of the reforms in the department—internal changes in command structure, training, discipline, and accountability—that most experts now agree are necessary to make a dent in police abuses.

In each case, then, the mayor’s goals were modest: to improve police manners and make the streets more civil. Yet in each case, the effort exploded in the mayor’s face, spurring not civility but open racial antagonism. In 1966, arguably, no one could have predicted that outcome. Today, it should have been clearer—and avoidable.

In 1966, many New Yorkers, eager to do the right thing by blacks, found the idea of civilian review hard to resist. Never before, North or South, had a big-city establishment risen quite so unanimously to support a demand from the black community. Both the Times and the Post supported the idea. So did the ACLU, the Liberal Party, the City Bar Association, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council of Protestant Churches. When it emerged that the Policemen’s Benevolent Association was going to oppose a civilian board, Lindsay’s media adviser, David Garth, organized a coalition called FAIR (Federation of Associations for an Impartial Review Board). Anyone who was anyone in liberal New York rushed to join: black and white, Republican and Democrat, white-shoe elite and ghetto grassroots.

Police oversight struck many liberals as a dream investment: It seemed to require little political or financial capital, looked virtually risk-free, and promised a huge payoff in relations between blacks and whites. Even then, of course, it was clear to the mayor and others that civilian review would not fix all that was wrong with race relations—certainly not what was already being called “the cycle of poverty.” Still, white liberals felt, the race problem was surely solvable—and the solution must start by establishing a sense of trust between black and white. They hoped to begin with the civilian review board, prove that white society “cared,” and after that, move on to the other, merely concrete problems, like deteriorating schools and housing and the steady erosion of the job base.

For liberal whites, the review board’s biggest selling point was that it was what the ghetto said it wanted. At the very least, advocates reasoned, it would calm rising black anger and signal to Harlem’s restless youth that someone powerful took their side. Civilian review looked like the all-important first step toward black inclusion in the mainstream. That the problem might be deeper, that angry blacks might not be appeased by a gesture, that many city whites might not understand and might feel badly slighted: None of this was clear in 1966, as it apparently is still not quite clear today. Idealistic whites were not wrong to make interracial trust their highest priority. But because they had little contact with either ghetto youths or working-class whites, they badly miscalculated the size of the gap between the two groups—misjudging how differently black and white New Yorkers would see police issues, and how attempting to force a solution could expose and expand that gap.

Lindsay was right that something had to be done about relations between blacks and cops. Then, as today, blacks saw police abuse as one of their foremost problems. The ghetto was thought to breed all manner of crime, and cops did not expect to have to answer questions about what they did there: whatever it took to maintain public safety. At the same time, many ghetto youths knew few whites other than surly policemen, and naturally focused their resentment on them, making tensions worse.

The idea of creating a civilian panel to oversee the New York force had surfaced first in the 1950s, among the militant fringes of the black community, with Malcolm X one of the first to trade in resentment of the police. By the early 1960s, more-moderate leaders like Martin Luther King and CORE’s James Farmer had taken up the banner, in part to establish their bona fides among the restless youth who were being drawn to Malcolm X. Police and business groups joined forces and buried the idea—until the summer of 1964, when rioting in Harlem put the issue back on the agenda.

The disturbances began with an incident between a cop and a black youth. Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan was off duty the afternoon he came across 15-year-old James Powell and two buddies throwing garbage at a doorman who had sprayed them with a garden hose. Gilligan tried to stop the fight; Powell lunged at him with a knife. Gilligan drew his gun and fired three shots, killing the youth. Rumors swirled through Harlem for the next two days and nights. The incident was quickly distorted. Gilligan had acted in cold blood, it was said, and the knife was planted after the shooting. Before long, there was looting and arson, then a pitched battle with police, and there was little question that some officers went too far. When the dust had settled, all of Harlem stood together, moderates and militants united in their insistence on civilian review of police conduct. By the time Lindsay declared for mayor, in the spring of 1965, black demands for oversight had a hard, angry edge. A modest request, long denied, had become an accusatory ritual—and the fact that this ritual was blacks’ first priority spoke volumes about the city’s racial climate.

From the beginning, then, civilian review was a grudge-laden issue—a real concern, to be sure, but also the vehicle for black anger. At the same time, there was ample warning, even before Lindsay took office, that the proposal might not sit well with lots of middle-class whites. Their doubts were apparent as early as the 1965 mayoral campaign, when Lindsay’s conservative opponent, William F. Buckley, vilified civilian review from one end of the city to the other.

Buckley’s credentials on race issues were more than a little suspect. An opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a puckish liberal-baiter, he was unafraid to play on prejudice if it seemed likely to win him attention or votes. Still, his arguments against civilian review went beyond pandering. Crime was rising, he said, much of it committed by blacks; but poor blacks were also bearing the brunt of the violence, and they welcomed a tough police presence. It was demagogues who had made an issue of alleged police brutality—a phony charge, he maintained, certain to make life even less safe in the ghetto—and it was being used by militants to whip up racial resentment. At the very least, this presentation seemed convincing to middle-class whites, who had no idea of the different lens through which most blacks viewed cops. Whites in the outer boroughs looked at the issue through their own prism—and, as they saw things, the clear, pressing problem was rising crime.

For Buckley himself, the issue went further still. What bothered him most was the character of the militants’ arguments, which he saw as dishonest and racially manipulative. Again and again on the campaign trail, he tore into the claim, put forward by James Baldwin and others, that black crime was in fact a form of social protest, something to be understood if not justified.

Incensed and icily mocking, Buckley told followers not to be cowed by this racial rhetoric. Do not think, he insisted, “that Negro crime is any less criminal.” His tone could be off-putting, but his arguments were prophetic. Already in 1965, he foresaw how ghetto crime would become tinged by racial politics, how victimization would be used to explain and ignore black violence. His followers, too, were a mixed bag. Already, it was hard to tell the outright bigots from the frightened, confused people wondering how to think about race and crime. The one certainty was the gulf between black and white. The ghetto and the boroughs looked at the same phenomenon, but when they tried to describe it, they found they were talking past each other.

Lindsay either missed this polarization or believed he could simply avoid it. He made some initial efforts to bridge the gap, rejecting militant black demands for an all-civilian review panel: one, that is, like the board Dinkins has created. Though meant to ease white objections, Lindsay’s mixed panel immediately drew fire from all sides. Instead of trying harder to achieve a consensus, the mayor simply barreled ahead, imposing his own view. Confident and righteous, he believed he could ignore bigots and militants. Eventually, he reasoned, civilian review itself would undermine them. Proof positive that the city meant to treat minorities “fairly, equally and courteously,” it would unite well-meaning whites and grateful, moderate blacks, leaving extremists on both sides without a following. Like much of Lindsay’s politics, this was an appealingly idealistic assessment. The trouble was that he could not revise it, even when it proved to be dead wrong.

The opposition persisted, at the ghetto grassroots and in the boroughs. From opposite ends of the city’s political universe, Police Commissioner Vincent Broderick and CORE militant Roy Innis called the mayor’s proposal “a cruel hoax.” “I suspect there will be demonstrations,” Innis remarked archly, hardly bothering to disguise the implied threat. (Ironically enough, in coming decades Innis would embrace arguments much like Buckley’s, urging other black spokesmen to come down harder on ghetto crime.) The PBA promised its own massive street protests. Still, Lindsay ignored the opposition, reasoning that it would pass once the cops “went through the motions” of trying to block the board.

The mayor moved by executive order to create a review board. Ethnically diverse, limited in power, it was designed to ensure that accused officers be accorded full due process. Publicist David Garth was brought in to package the idea—to help make clear to the public how decent and reasonable it was. Neither the hard sell nor the legal safeguards had much impact. New Yorkers left and right perceived the issue as a test of loyalty—less about police than for the ghetto or the boroughs—and both sides prepared for an all-out political battle.

The Daily News, then still the voice of the white boroughs, kicked off the resistance effort, calling the board “the property of bleeding hearts and cop-haters.” PBA activist Patrolman John Cassese declared it illegal and announced that the PBA would spend its entire treasury—the then-huge sum of $1.5 million—to kill the idea. Insisting that the mayor had acted without due authority in creating the board, the PBA began collecting signatures to put the issue to a vote. Conservative groups rallied to the policemen’s side: the Conservative Party, local American Legion posts, grassroots small-business and homeowner groups, but also more extreme organizations, including the John Birch Society, the American Renaissance Party, and the American Nazi Party. By July, the PBA and the Conservative Party together had collected more than 91,000 signatures for a referendum on whether to eliminate the board—more than three times as many as they needed to put it on the ballot.

The conservative opposition drew on a potent mix of feelings: caution in the face of change, bureaucratic self-interest, and, from some quarters, undisguised racial resentment. Many cops, preoccupied with power and prerogatives, simply could not brook the interference from outside. Others felt that Lindsay was using their department carelessly to make a gesture to angry blacks. Still others were genuinely worried that the extra scrutiny would tie their hands in risky situations, endangering them and the people they were trying to help. This argument did not necessarily have a racial edge; indeed, one poll conducted in the months before the election suggested that blacks were more concerned than whites about good police protection. Still, “crime” and “law and order” were crystal-clear code words, and the obviously biased cast of many of the board’s opponents only hardened support for it in the black community, further widening the gulf between uptown and downtown.

Friends of the board did not, at first, appreciate what they were up against. Progressives dismissed the board’s opponents as cranks. Indeed, Lindsay was thrilled when the John Birch Society came out against the panel. He did not bother to refute the Birchers’ arguments, but simply denounced the organization as a “highly organized, militant, right-wing group.” Campaigning around town in the weeks before the referendum, he drew attention to the openly racist literature of the neo-Nazis who opposed the board.

The mayor was not entirely wrong. Then as today, the opposition did include some virulent racists. But already in 1966 the charge of bigotry had a McCarthyite edge to it: Once you labeled someone “racist,” you no longer had to argue with him. Justified or not, Lindsay’s dismissal of the PBA’s claims rankled the many ordinary citizens who were not sure where they stood on the issue and badly wanted to hear some substantive debate. As for those who opposed the board for what they felt were valid reasons—fear of crime, loyalty to the police, or even simple ignorance of the black experience—they bitterly resented being called racists. Many who might have been open to argument were annoyed by the mayor’s contemptuous attitude, and their initial opposition became more entrenched. Instead of explaining his reasoning, or helping whites see things from a black perspective, Lindsay only increased the polarization of black and white.

As the summer wore on, board advocates saw that they had miscalculated, but instead of shifting strategy they only became more combative. One morning in July, two leading PBA spokesmen had breakfast at Gracie Mansion with Mayor Lindsay. “I told them,” Lindsay reported later, “that if anything happened in New York—if there was a blowup—they would be responsible.” Abandoning all hope of winning over uncertain white voters, the mayor tried to bully them with threats of looming race riots, helping in effect to legitimize violent disorders. Nothing could have been more likely to alienate middle-class whites. Unlike Manhattan liberals, not even the most tolerant among them believed that looting or arson was an acceptable response to ghetto frustration. As for the board’s convinced opponents, they could not have been less impressed. By now, both sides were talking past each other and both were playing shamelessly on white racial fears—whether of crime or of riots hardly mattered. By the end of the summer, the campaign conceived as a way to encourage trust was stirring up mostly paranoia and prejudice.

The battle grew still more bitter as the city headed into fall. The clearer the racial subtext, the angrier both sides grew. Lindsay was often heckled as he made his way around town. “Why do you always kowtow to the coloreds?” yelled one woman in Flatbush. Traditionally liberal members of an Upper West Side synagogue badgered mayoral aide Woody Klein, demanding to know why his boss was always taking sides with blacks. Uptown, too, people saw the issue more and more starkly. “The arguments against the board are shorn of their sophistry in Harlem,” said black State Senator Basil Paterson. “We in the ghettos have heard it before . . . ’If you’re black, get back.’” With the referendum pitting one side against the other, misunderstanding had hardened into fear and hatred. By now, both saw the campaign as a simple case of “us” versus “them.” The police question, as presented, seemed to prove their tribal instincts right.

The only surprising thing about the vote was the margin: 63 to 36 percent in favor of abolishing the panel. Only Manhattan voted for it; all the other boroughs were overwhelmingly opposed. Roman Catholic voters, many but hardly all of whom were related to policemen, came out five to one in opposition to the board. Jewish New Yorkers joined them by a margin of 55 to 40 percent. (Pollsters noted a marked class division in the Jewish vote, with highly educated professionals supporting the panel and poorer, working-class Jews opposing it.) Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods were for the board, as expected, but the turnout there was dismally low. “They just hadn’t registered,” said Garth, still disappointed many years later. The overall outcome was all the more dramatic given New York’s long liberal history: This was the first time in decades that city voters had rejected a progressive cause, turning their backs on civil rights and shrugging off a black demand.

It was not until some years later that interpreters began to examine the racial undercurrents stirred up by the campaign. One team of social scientists, working at Harvard in 1969, tried to correlate the vote with a survey of attitudes taken in a middle-class white neighborhood in Brooklyn. Edward Rogowsky, Louis Gold, and David Abbott found, as they expected, that “on balance, race was the most significant factor” in the way people had voted. Yet unlike those partisans who felt that anyone who opposed the panel was a bigot, these pollsters found that Brooklynites—even those who had gone against the board—held strikingly ambivalent attitudes about color. Three-quarters of the Brooklyn respondents said they would not mind a middle-class black family in their neighborhood; 85 percent believed that “Negroes learn as well as whites.” These were startling numbers, even allowing for people’s reluctance to reveal their prejudices to strangers. The rejection of the review board had not, the Harvard team found, been a signal that most white New Yorkers were inherently “racist.”

What it did signal was a complex set of misunderstandings—which, with some leadership, the city might have bridged. In 1966, most whites had no idea what blacks suffered at the hands of policemen. Neither blacks nor whites understood what the other side was talking about: Whites simply could not comprehend blacks’ fear and resentment of blue uniforms, and blacks could not understand why whites did not “get it” or care. Beyond that, by 1966, many whites were truly frightened by the city’s growing crime rate. For all the code words, they did not have to be racists to vote against a measure that seemed likely to put them at greater risk.

More important, though, the Harvard pollsters found that middle-class whites were scared by the anger that was surfacing in the black movement. More than two-thirds of the Brooklyn whites felt the movement was turning in a “generally violent” direction; they were chilled by the protests for protest’s sake and by the seemingly bottomless bitterness. Whether or not they liked blacks, and many probably did not, what they feared and resented was the angry pressure, an apparently explosive pressure that no one in the government seemed willing or able to resist. The campaign for police review had only heightened these fears. Blacks had mounted an irate challenge, and instead of trying to mediate it, the city establishment had baldly taken their side. What the episode seemed to prove, for many whites, was that there was no longer a referee—that in order to protect themselves, they would have to rely on tribal loyalty.

The review board vote showed just how easy it was for race relations to spin off track. Well short of bigotry, it was still easier for blacks and whites to misread than to hear each other, easier to overreact than to listen and respond. By 1966, it was already becoming common for whites to blame angry black activists and to cite their excesses as a rationale for resisting change, especially if they wanted to resist in any case. To those who were deeply racist as well as to many who were not, acrimonious color-coded demands had given whites an excuse to act their worst: to hunker down, to block reform, and to vote as selfishly as they liked.

Could Lindsay and his supporters have convinced them otherwise? Could he have proven that racial politics were not a competition, or eased the fearful jockeying that divides all rival tribes? Maybe not. But as it was, city hall did not even try—and instead played right into both black and white insecurities. Both liberals and conservatives were to blame for the shrill, fear-mongering campaign, but Lindsay and his backers should have known better. In the end, it was their cause that suffered most. To convince the city to try change, they needed to go more slowly, reassuring frightened whites and appealing to their decency. They should have learned how to talk to the boroughs—not to blame them but to bring them along. As it was, Lindsay rubbed these people exactly the wrong way. Instead of earning their trust, sparking their generosity and fairness, he triggered their fears and intense resentment.

Worst of all, he made it seem that the city was going to choose between them and the ghetto—that blacks would get favors while cops (and perhaps other white civil servants) got fired. The Harvard social scientists who polled in Brooklyn reported that what troubled many voters most was that they felt they were being asked “to create special procedural guarantees for blacks and Puerto Ricans.” Even many who wanted to vote liberally, the pollsters said, had balked at that. In 1966, most whites had not yet moved beyond the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They would remove the barriers to black advancement; they would, by their lights, level the playing field. But beyond that they simply were not prepared to go-even if they looked like the worst of racists.

The city would never be the same again. The bruising campaign had encouraged both right and left to trade in blatant racial appeals, fueling the politics of blame and fearful color-coded resentment. From now on, few New Yorkers would be embarrassed to make race an issue, to vote their fears or their prejudices. Each side was now convinced that the other was its natural enemy, and both would react defensively to any future exchange. Lindsay and those who came after him would have a harder time passing substantive programs—for schools, housing, job creation, acculturation, and the like—originally expected to follow in the wake of police reform. What was meant to be a cost-free gesture would end up requiring many thousands of dollars when the city next tried to negotiate with the mistrustful police union: Furious at city hall, determined to do as well for themselves as the ghetto did, cops would drive a much harder bargain on both wages and work rules.

The black community, too, was further alienated by the campaign, pushed to still harder bargaining and greater militancy. From the ghetto’s point of view, the city had sent an unmistakable message. By more than two to one, the backlash vote had triumphed over the liberals; the widespread bias that blacks suspected had been revealed for all to see. The city had said, as Paterson put it, “If you’re black, get back.” That was all blacks needed to hear to confirm their fears and fuel their anger. Like whites who used Black Power as an excuse to act their worst, many angry blacks felt their bitterness vindicated by the hostile message they heard from whites.

So, turn for turn, each side fed on the other’s mistrust and resentment. Each act of rejection engendered another, and each bad experience paved the way for worse. Instead of bringing blacks and whites closer, the campaign exposed how far apart they were and in the end only made the chasm wider. The liberal establishment that forced the vote could not be blamed for its good intentions or even for its ignorance of the fear and anger that divided one side from the other. What is harder to understand is why so few of these white idealists were able to recognize their mistake—to see the fight they had encouraged and back off before it got worse, guiding the city toward compromise instead of a bitter standoff. More than 25 years later it is still a troubling question, as the city totters again on the brink of the same chasm.

The compromise civilian-review bill engineered in October by City Council Speaker Peter Vallone should help somewhat to case the polarization of the city. Still, like Lindsay before him, Mayor Dinkins has a long way to go in explaining police matters to black and white New Yorkers, defusing the racial mistrust that the issue brings out. Can Dinkins now win back the confidence of the Police Department? Can he convince cops—and voters—that as much as any candidate he backs the battle against crime? Can he now backtrack and persuade black and Hispanic neighborhoods that in fact cops are on their side and are trying to help? Does he expect this episode to enhance respect for the legal system among already angry and mistrustful ghetto residents? Does he expect cops on the beat to give the job their all, particularly in neighborhoods where they feel resented? Today as in 1966, the fight over civilian review has made it that much harder to bridge the gap between the police and the ghetto. The board itself is unlikely to do much to repair relations, and the looming mayoral election can hardly help. As Lindsay found, once unleashed, the spiral of racial anger is all but impossible to control; it will be all Dinkins can do to try to contain it now.

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