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By Gary T. Marx and Chuck Wexler / January 14, 1986
RACIAL harassment and violence directed against minority group members continue to be a problem in the United States, as several recent incidents show. They are unbecoming to a civil society and can do great psychological harm to their victims, yet they frequently involve only misdemeanors, and sometimes not even that. Given the many pressing demands on police, it is not surprising that enforcement efforts have generally been minimal. Even with a strong will to act, it has often not been clear what police can do. However, an innovative law enforcement program in Boston may offer an example to other cities.
In 1978, with racial conflict heightened by the busing crisis and efforts to integrate all-white housing projects, the Boston Police Commissioner made the enforcement of civil rights a major department objective.
A specialized Community Disorders Unit attached directly to the Police Commissioner's office was created and given adequate resources. It was staffed by 10 detectives (one is the Police Commissioner). A management information system was established to monitor incidents and determine patterns. Effective use was made of interagency task forces involving federal and state officials.
The unit used traditional investigative techniques like interviewing and covert surveillance. But a key factor in its success was use of the civil provisions of federal and state civil rights laws to enjoin individuals from acts of violence against minorities.
The power of the injunction lies partly in its meeting some basic requirements of deterrence: swiftness and certainty of application. Once a pattern of racial harassment is documented and the evidence shown to a judge, a restraining order is issued. Perpetrators are put on legal notice that further violations will immediately result in jail. Reported racial incidents steadily declined from a yearly high of 533 at the program's inception to under 200 last year. They also declined in intensity, and the pattern of repeated assaults on particularly visible targets was broken.
We cannot be sure that these declines were due solely to the program, but clearly it had a positive impact. The word quickly spread among major perpetrators that further assaults would result in certain arrest and conviction. Some of the police department's harshest critics offered lavish praise. And the internal climate within the police department became more sensitive to the seriousness of the issue.
The creation of a specialized unit is not appropriate for all cities. Yet the problem can be more adequately dealt with when given high priority. This would be aided by the passage of laws that:
Authorize state attorneys general to seek injunctive or other equitable relief when any person interferes, or attempts to interfere, with the exercise of a protected right.
Criminalize acts such as the burning of a cross or painting racial epithets on property.
Punish as felonies, threats, and assaults based on race, religion, or national origin, as do recent laws in New York and Rhode Island.
In addition, local authorities, working with state and federal agents, could make greater use of the enforcement provision of the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act of 1964, which makes it a federal offense to coerce people from living where they want to.
Law enforcement is of course only one approach to this problem. Others include education, counseling, human relations commissions, and various community development efforts. Before 1978 Boston had these in abundance -- and racial violence. Appeals to goodwill, civic pride, and religious values were by themselves irrelevant to the young Boston males who were consistently and openly harassing minorities. However, the threat of being sent to state prison for a ``minor'' act of racial harassment was not irrelevant. Once police made it clear that racial and ethnic assaults were to be taken seriously the problem declined.
The call for stronger law enforcement response ought not to be taken lightly. Critics may question why, with resources so limited and serious crime so prevalent, police should worry about minor incidents of a racial or ethnic nature. The answer is both symbolic and strategic.
Where racial, ethnic, or religious identity is involved, names and seemingly trivial behavior that assault a person's basic dignity can wound deeply and create fear of attack. Official tolerance of minor harassment can easily lead to more serious forms of assault, as the Boston case clearly demonstrates. Youths who get away with racial epitaphs may well move on to physical violence and arson. A forceful and consistent police response to racial harassment sends a signal both to perpetrators and their potential victims.
Gary T. Marx teaches sociology and political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chuck Wexler is senior research associate at the Gordon Center for Public Policy, Brandeis University.