When Law and Order Works: Boston's Innovative Approach to The Problem of Racial Violence

Crime and Delinquency, vol. 32, no. 2, April 1986, pp. 205-232.  An earlier version of this article was delivered at the annual research conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, New Orleans, October 1984.

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Chuck Wexler and Gary T. Marx

Abstract: Racial and ethnic violence continues to be a major problem in the United States Boston which experienced heightened racial turmoil since its desegregation process presents an excellent case study of a police department that faced the problem in a straightforward manner. Traditional methods of classifying and investigating racial incidents were viewed as ineffective The Boston Police Department developed an innovative approach to the handling of racially motivated crime which involved implementing a department wide policy and creating a specialized police unit. This unit was highly successful in uncovering incidents that under traditional reporting methods appeared commonplace. Upon further examination these incidents taken together indicated persistent and compelling patterns of racial animus. The uncovering of these incidents, the subsequent relabeling of them into "community disorders" and the development of innovative strategies are described Policy implications and recommendations are presented Critics may question the allocation of police resources to a problem that on the surface may appear minor However racial violence viewed in the aggregate form has dramatic impact on the quality of life for the victim. A police department that recognizes the significance of this problem is making an important statement about the kind of society we are and what we as a nation stand for.

Interracial and interethnic violence continue to be a problem in the United States. There are no national data available on its extensiveness. Yet hearings, data from selected municipalities, and media accounts suggest that it may be increasing. 1

Some recent examples include a black family in Prince George's County, Maryland, visited by President Reagan after across was burned on their lawn; the attack on Philadelphia blacks who moved into a predominantly white neighborhood; seven families of Cambodian refugees who had to flee Brooklyn after continued attacks by neighborhood youth; the shooting of black joggers and Vernon Jordan; the beating to death of a Chinese-American in Detroit by two unemployed workers who reportedly thought he was Japanese; the harassment of Laotian fishermen in Texas; and the painting of swastikas on synagogues in Nassau County, New York. An Anti-Defamation League report notes a steady increase in reported episodes of anti-Semitic vandalism from 49 in 1978 to 715 in 1984.

Such violations offer a challenge to cities. They often fall into a gray area with respect to the law. They are unbecoming a civil society and can do great psychological harm to the victim, yet they frequently involve only misdemeanors, and sometimes not even that. Freedom of speech may offer a protective shield for the most vitriolic verbal abuse and slander.

A common municipal response is to look the other way in the hope that it will disappear. There is concern that active intervention could make things worse and call attention to the problem. Given the many other pressing demands on urban police, it is not surprising that law enforcement in this area (apart from the most extreme cases) has been minimal. Even with a strong will to do something, it has often not been clear what police could or should do in the face of relatively unorganized racial assaults. Most jurisdictions lack the legal and organizational resources to respond aggressively.

The obvious traditional police responses are not very helpful. Most large departments have some type of community relations program. Although those assigned to such programs maybe sensitive to the issue, they usually can do little more than appeal for good will and improved communication. They generally focus on relations between police and community, rather than conflict between communities. Their emphasis is not on law enforcement.

Most large departments also have intelligence, conspiracy, or anti-terrorist units capable of responding to organized political violence, whether of the right or the left. A few cities have units devoted almost entirely to racist groups such as the Klan and the National Socialist White People's Party, but in most cities units are not so specialized. These units make use of informants, electronic surveillance, and undercover operations. Yet much racial assault and harassment is not the work of persons belonging to ideologically oriented racist organizations. In most cases there is no organized group to infiltrate and little planning to the attacks.

Although often a bit rusty, many large departments also maintain at least a rudimentary capability to respond. to the type of racial violence found in the 1960s' civil disorders, and more recently in Miami. The quasi-military tactics involved here are in response to continuous violence on a mass scale. Yet riot control tactics have little applicability to a guerilla-warfare-like pattern involving sporadic, discontinuous attacks carried out by a few persons. Singling out persons for seemingly random attack because of skin color, ethnicity, or religion is a pattern of historical (and unfortunately) contemporary significance. 2

Boston's Response

In this case study we analyze how one city, Boston, responded to the problem, some reasons for the apparent effectiveness of its program, and some implications for other cities. The article draws from Wexler's ten years of experience in the Department.

The shortcomings of conventional approaches led Boston to create a specialized unit that sought to combine sensitivity to the victims of racial assaults with a law enforcement operational capability tailored to the problem at hand. It drew from the techniques used by community relations, specialized intelligence, and federal civil rights enforcement units. Police means and civil rights ends came together. 3 Using new tools, police took action against racial assaults and entered into. new partnerships with human rights organizations and other concerned government and community agencies.

Boston offers an example of a rare contemporary effort to cope with the problems of racial violence and harassment through an active law enforcement effort. What is more, it appears to have been relatively successful. In 1979 (the first full year for which separate statistics were collected), 533 racial incidents were reported. Yet, by 1984, the number had dropped by two-thirds to 181. The Boston Police Department, through the creation of its Community Disorders Unit (CDU), played a major role in this decline.

Boston might appear to be an unlikely setting for an innovative approach to problems of racial violence. There was prolonged violent resistance to the implementation of a federal court order to desegregate the Boston schools in 1974. A Pulitzer Prize winning photo of that period captured a well-dressed black man in front of Boston City Hall being attacked by a group of white youths carrying an American flag. Boston, with its universities, liberal traditions, and historic role as an abolitionist center and stop on the underground railway, was nationally depicted as a city symbolic of Northern racism.

Boston had a major problem with racial assault and it seemed to be getting worse. Much of it was centered around newly integrated neighborhoods or housing projects. The individual, social, and economic costs of this were enormous. In the summer of 1978, internal and external forces combined to bring about significant changes in the way the police department dealt with racially motivated crimes. What had been unacknowledged and ignored became officially visible and high priority for investigation.

Harassment of blacks living in predominantly white public housing projects became a major public issue in 1978. Local media, community leaders, and activist groups played a significant role in focusing attention on the problem. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, a consortium of attorneys from major Boston law firms, brought lawsuits against the city with the intention of protecting minority citizens from a persistent pattern of criminal assaults in public housing projects. Other civil rights groups sought to prevent the city from receiving federal Block Grants until it developed a plan to protect minority residents.

Racial assaults took many forms: racial epithets painted on the outside of homes, broken car windows, threatening phone calls, intimidation, physical attack, and even arson.

A concerned, though cautious, police commissioner asked his staff to review incidents in the most troubled housing project and to determine to what extent its pattern was reflective of a citywide problem. The commissioner sought to discover if racially motivated incidents were appreciably different from other types of crime, how victims perceived police response, and whether the department was adequately addressing the problem. The pattern and extent of racial assault and harassment revealed by the police inquiry surprised even veteran observers.

Victims of known racial incidents in housing projects were interviewed. Their accounts were similar. They faced repeated acts of racially inspired vandalism that for the most part were unreported to police. Only the most serious incidents and not even all of these were reported. In those cases in which the police had been notified, there were seldom any arrests and little, if any, investigative follow-up. Citizens related stones of officers telling victims that there was little the police could do, and in some cases advising them that they were "crazy to live here. " Reports from throughout the city revealed that threats, intimidation, coercion, and fear were apart of the daily life of many minority citizens . Yet these remained "private crimes" rarely receiving significant media or police attention.

What minority citizens and civil rights groups had been complaining about now received official documentation. The number of official reports was a fraction of the total incidents occurring. Extrapolating from reported incidents to the number discovered through police interviews, the problem appeared to be considerably more severe than authorities had realized.

A police administrator likened the handling of victims of racial violence to the way the police had traditionally treated women who had been victims of rape. In the past, police had often been insensitive to the trauma of rape victims. Embarrassing questions asked by the police and their skeptical manner often made the victim feel as though the crime was her fault. Like victims of rape, citizens who were subject to racial violence looked to the police for sympathy and help. It is easy to imagine the feelings of a new resident to a neighborhood whose windows had been broken for the third consecutive night, being told by the responding officer that it was "merely vandalism," that the police couldn't do anything, and that the party should consider moving. As with some victims of rape, there was a perception among many citizens that the police, if not always sympathetic to the assailants, at least questioned the victim's credibility. And, as with rape, insensitivity and unevenness in treatment meant that the incidence of racial violence was considerably underreported.

Even when instances of racial violence and harassment were reported, bureaucratic routine served to reduce their visibility. In hindsight, a pattern of racially motivated crime now seems obvious. Yet the police department did not realize its extent against a backdrop of over 65,000 Part One crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft, and arson). Vandalism, the category into which most racial incidents is put, is not even a Part One crime.

Police administrators respond to the large volume of offenses by prioritizing crimes for investigative follow-up. Crimes against the person, such as murder, rape, and aggravated assault, receive the highest priority; property crimes such as auto theft, burglary, and larceny receive the lowest. Vandalism traditionally receives little attention beyond the initial report. Although in the aggregate this system may be reasonable, for particular cases it may be highly undesirable. In this case, crimes of a racial nature were generally hidden by routine practices.

The inquiry requested by the police commissioner revealed a persistent and compelling pattern of racial violence. Victims felt that the police were insensitive to their plight and by their indifference sided with the attackers. The characterization of racially motivated incidents as mere "vandalism" ignored the symbolic and aggregate impact of these crimes creating ill-will among racial groups and strengthening the image of Boston as a racially troubled city. Fear and actual violence from the attacks, coupled with police inaction, had the effect of forcing many minorities to move from areas that were predominantly white, and kept still others from moving into these areas. It was clear that police response to this problem was inadequate.

The Boston Police Response

In April 1978, the police commissioner established written guidelines that were to alter dramatically the way these incidents would be handled. A special unit called the "Community Disorders Unit" was established. This unit would work directly out of the Commissioner's Office and would be responsible for overseeing all racial violence cases. By placing the unit there, the order officially recognized the handling of racial violence as a priority of the police commissioner.

The written policy made enforcement and protection of civil rights a major department objective. It states:

"It is the policy of this department to ensure that all citizens can be free of violence, threats or harassment due to their race, color, creed, or desire to live or travel in any neighborhood. When such citizens' rights are infringed upon by violence, threats or other harassment, it is the policy to make immediate arrests of those individuals who have committed such acts. Members of the police force responding to these incidents will be expected to take immediate and forceful action to identify the perpetrators, arrest them and bring them before the court. Additionally, it will be the policy of this department to seek the assistance of state and federal prosecutors in every case in which civil rights violations can be shown."

The policy specifically defined the kinds of incidents at issue:

(I) All crimes committed where there is evidence to support that the victim(s) were selected on account of race, or incidents and situations precipitated by racial motives. (2) All incidents of group activity and demonstrations where there is a potential for inciting group conflict and violence. (3) All incidents and situations where there are concerted efforts by a person or group of persons to deprive other persons of free access to any neighborhood or community within the city. 4

Operating procedures within the department were significantly changed. In the deployment of police resources, a computer-aided dispatch system automatically orders calls according to a set of "priorities." As noted, racial incidents were usually classified as vandalism and received a lower priority. The new policy stipulated that racially motivated incidents receive the highest classification, "priority one," regardless of severity. This stipulation significantly upgraded the department's response to the problem. Furthermore, in every incident believed to be racially motivated, a police supervisor was to respond to the scene and oversee the handling of the case. In addition, the district commander and the Community Disorders Unit were to be notified. The policy was intentionally very specific with respect to what was required. According to a police administrator who helped draft the order, "In this area [racial violence] it was necessary to spell out exactly what was expected of both responding officers and supervisors if one was to get even marginal compliance. You just can't allow broad discretion when it comes to racial violence in Boston." If discretion had been allowed, accountability would have been weakened.

The mere stipulating of a policy is, of course, no guarantee that it will alter behavior, particularly when it encounters a well-entrenched, low visibility informal system. New directives are disseminated almost daily in most large police departments. Such directives are often ignored unless the police chief is perceived to be serious about "this one." One indicator of how seriously a rule is taken is whether violations of it are punished . Subtle testing of the seriousness behind a new rule is common. If there is no penalty for noncompliance and no reward for compliance, then the order is likely to be ignored.

Two months after the issuance of the community disorders policy, it was largely ignored. Racial incidents continued to occur, but were generally not treated as "priority ones." Supervisors did not respond to incidents as the policy required. The Community Disorders Unit was not notified of incidents. The consistent violation of the policy was rarely met with negative sanctions.

This well-intended policy might have gone the way of many bureaucratic reforms had not a series of racial crimes occurred in July 1978 that received extensive media coverage. As with instances of police corruption, scandal served to mobilize reform. 5 When the police commissioner learned of the incidents, he called all district commanders into his office. He chastised them for not adhering to the new policy and warned that failure to comply would be dealt with severely. At the same time, he extended the mandate and authority of the Community Disorders Unit. This was a critical turning point. The unit came to betaken seriously by the police department and began to make its impact felt on the community at large.

The Community Disorders Unit expanded from four to ten full-time officers. A number of traditional and innovative strategies to deal with racially motivated crime were implemented. A management information system was established to track incidents and determine patterns.

Civil actions coupled with a coordinated law enforcement strategy have dramatically altered the course of racial violence in Boston. Statistics on racial incidents can be misleading (prior to 1978 they were not even compiled and underreporting is common), but it is nevertheless significant to observe the steady decline in racial incidents from 1978 to the present, as shown in Table 1.

The success of the Community Disorders Unit can be attributed to several key factors. Perhaps the most significant was the protection and encouragement the unit received from the agency's chief executive. The police commissioner consistently supported the unit in both administrative and professional respects. Administratively, he rewarded district commanders for adhering to the policy guidelines and held them accountable when they failed to follow procedures. From a professional or career standpoint, he rewarded officers within the unit by promoting each to the rank of detective or above. This demonstrated to both the unit and the department that such work was valued.

Table 1: Reported Incidents.

Year Number
1980 377
1981 238
1982 241
1983 178
1984 181

Out of a mixture of career interests and ideology the ethnically diverse unit responded energetically, unselfishly, and creatively to its task. Members devoted countless hours to what others might perceive as minor crimes. in some cases the most they could expect to find was a youth throwing a rock or painting racial epithets on a home, yet the officers saw that apprehension was necessary if the pattern of violence in the community was to be changed. Seasoned officers identified with the victims of racial assault and were righteously indignant at the outrages they saw daily. They believed that they could make a difference.

Another important factor in the unit's success was the use of civil provision(s) of federal civil rights laws to enjoin individuals from acts of violence against minorities. 6 After a state civil rights law was passed, it was also a source of civil injunctions. 7

Use of the civil procedure was a novel approach for local law enforcement. The evidentiary requirement was lower than that required for criminal cases. Such cases tended to be heard at a higher court level (state or federal) less reflective of local racial sentiments. This technique has a preventive quality and offers law enforcement agencies a strong means for dealing with problems of racial violence.

The power of the injunction lies partly in its meeting some basic requirements of deterrence: swiftness and certainty of application. Commission of the offense, adjudication, and sentencing are temporarily collapsed. Prison is not an empty or uncertain threat. 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 any further violations will result in their being immediately jailed. This contrasts with the local court's delays and the lenient punishment that persons arrested for racial harassment previously received and the usually empty threat of juvenile court for minors.

The CDU established and took responsibility for coordinating an interagency task force of local, state, and federal enforcement agencies that successfully identified and brought to trial a number of suspects. The task force approach was adopted because some cases fell outside local police jurisdiction and other agencies had valuable skills and resources the department lacked. Through enlightened administration and planning the interagency infighting and petty rivalries often seen in relations among law enforcement agencies were avoided. The pooling of resources from specialized agencies through a task force approach offered a powerful enforcement tool. 8

The range of incidents the unit dealt with included five strategies, which involved (1) injunctive relief, (2) intensive investigation after an incident, (3) covert surveillance before an incident, (4) victim decoys, and (5) covert tests to determine discrimination.

  1. Injunctive relief. In spite of numerous arrests of juveniles, a few black families in a predominantly white neighborhood continued to be harassed. The CDU knew who was responsible. Evidence was presented to the attorney general indicating that certain white youths were involved in a concerted effort to deprive black families of their constitutionally protected civil rights under Massachusetts law. The attorney general filed a complaint for injunctive relief in superior court and also obtained a temporary restraining order to protect the families from additional harassment. The restraining order was issued against 10 youths who had been identified as principals in these incidents. Later, a consent judgment was ordered. The judgment was the result of an agreement between the commonwealth and the defendants in which the latter were ordered to desist from "assaulting, threatening, stoning, insulting on racial grounds, intimidating, harassing, or verbally abusing by phone or otherwise black residents of Hyde Park or their guests; or stoning, firebombing or otherwise causing injury or damage to the persons or property of those residents or their guests."

  2. A youth who challenged the order by harassing a family was found in contempt and immediately sentenced to serve 60 days in jail. Racial harassment in this neighborhood was significantly reduced as a result.

  3. Intensive investigation after an incident. A series of incidents in a housing project culminated in the firebombing of a family's home. The CDU secured emergency housing for the victims. An officer was ordered to stand by the burned out apartment to prevent further damage. A task force consisting of CDU personnel, district officers, housing authority investigators, and a prosecutor carried out an extensive inquiry. Although the crime occurred at the dinner hour with adequate lighting, no residents acknowledged seeing anything. Fear of retaliation for cooperating with police was widespread. But after 9 days of persistent door-to-door interviews and re-interviews, several witnesses. were persuaded to cooperate. The task force pieced together the elements of the crime and an arrest was made. Witnesses were helped to relocate. Tensions in the project were reduced.

  5. Covert surveillance. Where a pattern of incidents was identified, CDU officers secretly watched persons and places likely to be victims of assault. For example, officers spent several weeks lying in woods during inclement weather watching the home of a threatened family who had recently moved into a troubled neighborhood. In a housing project with a severe problem of guerilla warfare-like hit and run attacks, officers used a victim's home as a "command post" and hid a police officer with a walkie-talkie inside. Other victims (and likely victims) in the neighborhood were given the telephone number of this home and were encouraged to call if they saw anything suspicious. The officer stayed in contact with back-up CDU officers who could respond within a matter of seconds to any potentially harmful act. With just a handful of police officers, the unit was able to protect an entire neighborhood and involved concerned elements of the community in the process as well.

  7. Victim decoys. After constant surveillance and investigation had failed to uncover those responsible for a pattern of attacks in another housing project, an apartment was rented and two police officer decoys pretending to be married moved in. In another example, in response to attacks on black sailors, decoy officers donned sailor's uniforms and walked in the area where the attacks were occurring. Their goal was to elicit attack, which would be followed by immediate arrest by nearby backup units.

  9. Covert tests. A Boston nightclub was alleged to require blacks to have a "VIP" card and several forms of identification to enter, whereas whites were admitted without these. The CDU learned of these allegations and placed the establishment under surveillance and questioned blacks who had been turned away. A pattern of discrimination was observed and an undercover strategy was used to document further the discriminatory practice. A group of white plainclothes officers entered the club; then, an equal number of black officers sought admission. Although both groups were dressed the same and were of the same age group, the blacks were unreasonably detained and prevented from entering. The establishment was cited for a "licensed premise violation," and the Boston Licensing Board was notified. Police officers later testified at the licensing board hearing. In an unprecedented action the Board revoked the license of the nightclub for discrimination. 9
Although the primary focus was on a forceful law enforcement response to offenders, brief mention can also be made of the unit's response to victims and potential victims. Its role here was symbolic as well as practical. As with the increased sensitivity shown to rape victims, the unit sought to let victims know that the department cared about their plight. Compassion was mixed with practical advice. As a means of both prevention and redress, the unit sought to make victims aware of their rights. For example, it attempted to educate the relevant public about the civil provisions of the state civil rights law and how to use them. In an effort to heighten victim awareness officers attended numerous community meetings describing what the CDU did and how it could be mobilized.

Broader Implications

Boston, with its rich tradition of ethnic neighborhoods and the depth of its busing controversy, is in some ways unique. Racial violence in Boston may have received greater publicity because it clashed so markedly with the city's image as a citadel of learning and liberalism. The city is certainly not alone in having problems of racial assault. The problem in Boston may have been different in degree, though probably not in kind, from that found in many other urban areas. As Asian and Hispanic urban populations increase, racial harassment is likely to become amore significant issue in many cities. There may be some lessons for other cities in the Boston experience.

A limited phone and mail survey has led us to conclude that most big cities (like Boston before 1978) show a pattern of denial and / or minimization with respect to this problem. Racism plays some role in this, but clearly not to the degree it hashistorically. 10 Benign neglect and a magical belief that if a problem is not seen it will cease to exist are also important. It is far easier in the short run not to see it, or to define it as something else such as vandalism, delinquency, or the fault of the victim. The feeling is widespread that though these incidents are unfortunate, nothing can be done about them.

As noted, our conventional concepts and traditional means of response are note geared to identifying, or taking seriously, racial assaults that stop short of serious injury or extensive property damage. When racial assaults are treated only within the context of general crime problems, they may be invisible. General patrol and investigative approaches are usually not sensitive enough to either discover, or to effectively deal with, the kinds of racial assault that plagued Boston. To be sure, the Boston program was not without its problems. It was criticized for devoting too much attention to assaults on minorities, while giving insufficient attention to minority attacks on whites. 11 There was some resentment in the department toward officers assigned to the unit. Some police administrators were upset because the unit took resources away from other programs. Conversely, some minority group advocates attacked it for not doing enough. As Table 1 suggests, the problem certainly did not disappear. Fear of racial assault for both blacks and whites remains a concern in the most troubled neighborhoods. In 1984 there were still 181 incidents known to police.

Given underreporting, the actual number may be somewhat larger. One cannot say with certainty to what extent this decline is due to the program. As tensions over busing declined, so did racial conflict. The decline in racial incidents (though much more pronounced) also went along with a general decline in street crime. It is also possible that as time passed the new policy receive less internal emphasis. While police management went on to other concerns, officers may have felt less pressure to respond as actively to reporting racial incidents as they did initially. Yet the program clearly had an impact. The constellation of factors that made the program work (a committed chief, a highly dedicated group of officers, legal resources and interagency cooperation) cannot be reproduced at will in other cities.

However, we think that other cities might learn from Boston's efforts. The racial disorders of the late 1960s spurred extensive research, but there has been almost no research on how cities are dealing with contemporary racial violence. The increased attention given racial and ethnic assault as problems appropriate for public policy is occurring against a backdrop of ignorance. We know little about national patterns and trends or variation between cities and ethnic groups. Has there been a recent increase in racial and ethnic harassment? If so, has it been equal across ethnic groups and regions? What are the main types of assault? 12 What are the characteristics of persons committing these offense? What are the policy options available to a city wishing to respond aggressively to the problem? What are the advantages, disadvantages, and requirements of various available approaches?

Given the absence of basic information about patterns of racial and ethnic assault, it may be premature to offer highly detailed policy recommendations. We do, however, feel confident with the following general recommendations: (1) National data should be annually collected and publicly reported on racial and ethnic assaults. The regular collection of such data can help identify trends and prevent problems from escalating. A Maryland law passed in 1982 could serve as a model for other states. 13

This law requires that all municipal police departments record on a special form incidents that are racially or religiously motivated. The reporting process is monitored by the Maryland State Police and a public report is issued. (2) The existence and use of Federal Civil Rights statutes in cases of racial assaults should be more widely publicized for those in law enforcement and civil rights work. For example, the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act of 1964 make it a federal offense to coerce people from living where they wish to live. (3) States should consider passing laws that do the following: (a) criminalize acts such as the burning of a cross or painting racial epithets on property. A recently passed ordinance in Washington, D.C. might serve as a model; 14 (b) make racial assaults punishable as felonies. For example in Providence, Rhode Island, the General Assembly recently amended its General Laws and added a section on "Ethnic and Religious Intimidation" that changed threats based on race, religion or national origin from a misdemeanor to a felony. 15 In 1982, New York added the following provisions to its existing Aggravated Harassment Law:

"A person is guilty of aggravated harassment in the second degree when, with intent to harass, threaten, or alarm another person he strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise subjects another person to physical contact, or attempts to threaten to do the same because of the race, color, religion or national origin of such person." 16
(c) provide both civil and criminal remedies at the state level for those whose civil rights are violated. The Mass. Civil Rights Act might serve as a model. This law authorizes the state attorney general to seek injunctive or other appropriate equitable relief "whenever any person interferes, or attempts to interfere, by threats, intimidation, or coercion" with the exercise of a protected right. The Act allows for compensatory damages for the victim and imposes stiff criminal penalties on any person who interferes "by threat or threat of force" with a protected right.

(4) Where a special unit is not necessary or affordable, there should at least be one trained person in a department with responsibility for monitoring incident reports. Where appropriate departments should make more use of tactics such as decoys and undercover operations not usually associated with racial problems of this nature.

(5) There should be a means for the exchange of information among those charged with enforcement of the relevant laws. Some of this occurs informally through civil rights groups and the Community Relations Service of the Justice Department, but more formal means should be established for sharing information on perpetrators, patterns, and tactics.


There are no easy answers, nor is there one best answer. A certain level of racial and ethnic animosity and conflict is an inevitable consequence of a dynamic heterogeneous society. Some forms of conflict may have positive elements as well. We value freedom of expression and political action, just as we value tolerance. These may pull in different directions.

The state, no matter how massive the effort, cannot eliminate all prejudice and feelings of ethnic hostility. A 1984-style "thought police" for racial and ethnic toleration is hardly appealing. The point is certainly not that one can legislate a morality of tolerance and appreciation of ethnic diversity, nor use a billy club to create interracial good will. However, as a condition for a viable pluralistic society, the state can seek to create an atmosphere where the behavioral expression of ethnic hostility is minimized and some clear boundaries are present.

Critics may question why police should worry about minor incidents of a racial and ethnic nature such as taunting remarks, threatening phone calls cross burnings, broken windows, swastika paintings, or garbage dumped on the front lawn of a new family's home. Judged from a legal standpoint, much racial harassment does not involve serious criminal violations. It is a form of disorder much like loitering teenagers, drunks, panhandlers, and prostitutes. Yet as with these forms of behavior, the harm from racially directed epithets, graffiti, broken windows, and other property destruction goes far beyond the material damage that may be done. Recent research on the fear of crime has found that it involves not only concern over serious criminal offenses such as robbery, but concern over incidents involving disorderly persons whose behavior may violate no law, or only involve minor infractions. This fear is magnified greatly for the minority group member who feels vulnerable to attack because of a perceived lack of active police concern.

In addition, as Wilson and Kelling (1982) argue, tolerance of minor abuses can create a climate in which major abuses flourish, as the perception develops in a neighborhood that "no one cares," or worse, that such behavior is condoned. Street crime is likely to be greater where disorderly behavior is ignored.

In the case of racial assault, it is simply not true that "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." Names that assault a person's basic dignity can wound deeply. Beyond that, official tolerance of verbal insult and minor harassment can easily lead to more serious forms of assault, as the Boston case clearly demonstrates. Youths who getaway with screaming racial epithets and urinating on the lawn of a family that has recently moved into a neighborhood may well move on to engaging in physical violence and arson. A direct police response to racial harassment sends a signal to both perpetrators and their potential victims.

The call for a forthright enforcement response to the kinds of racial problems considered here may sound naive, or misguided, in an age of tight budgets and doubts about government's ability and responsibility to solve many kinds of problems. It is true that a major finding of research in the last two decades has been the limited impact police have on many types of crime. Police may meet with greater success in maintaining order and informally enforcing community standards than in enforcing the criminal law. Furthermore, for certain kinds of issues such as gambling and prostitution, criminalization has had an uneven impact and has brought a variety of unintended and undesirable consequences. The decision to resort to a law enforcement response for a nontraditional problem ought not be taken lightly. There are clear dangers from over criminalization. But there are also dangers from doing nothing.

The traditional police hesitancy to make arrests in misdemeanor racial assaults is paralleled by their hesitancy to make arrests in domestic assault cases. It is interesting to note that the deterrence that appears to be associated with Boston's arrest-oriented program was also found in the Minneapolis experiment on domestic assault. In a controlled experiment in which one of three police intervention strategies was applied to domestic violence, arrest was much more likely to result in deterrence than was mediation or ordering the offender from the premises (Sherman and Berk, 1984).

Law enforcement is of course only one approach to this problem. Other approaches include family counseling, education, Humans Relations Commissions, and various community development efforts by religious groups, businesses, and foundations. Each of these has a place. Prior to 1978 Boston had these in abundance along with its continuing problem of racial violence. Perhaps Robespierre overstated the case when he remarked that "virtue without terror is powerless." Yet appeals to good will, civic pride, and religious values were by themselves irrelevant to the young Boston males who so consistently and openly harassed minorities before the advent of the program described above. The threat of being sent to state prison for a "minor" act of racial harassment was not irrelevant. This appears to be an area in which an appropriate law enforcement approach not only will work, but it may be the only thing that will work. A forceful and consistent police response to racial harassment sends a clear signal to would-be offenders of the consequences of their acts.

It is all to easy to scapegoat law enforcement agencies. Where racial and ethnic issues are involved, visible police, as the first on the scene, often serve as lightning rods for indignation that belongs elsewhere. In truth, police can do little about the fundamental inequalities and problems of our society. But they can act so as not to worsen them. In addition, beyond helping to ensure the most basic civil right freedom from attack based on one's racial or ethnic identity --a strong police concern with issues of racially patterned assault has enormous symbolic importance. It can help set a moral tone both within and outside of the police department. It says something highly important about the kind of society we are and what we as a nation stand for.

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  1. For example, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1983); Governor's Task Force on Civil Rights (1982); Anti-Defamation League (1983). See also the sources in National Institute (1985).

  3. For example, see the historical accounts in Hingham (1954) and Dyers (1960). The contemporary pattern of ethnic violence contrasts with the communal race riot as seen in Chicago in 1919 and Detroit in 1943 where groups of whites and blacks battled, as well as with the civil disorders of the 1960s that saw blacks attacking white institutions and local merchants. The current pattern, of course, has the potential to escalate into both of the above.

  5. The program sought to combine the strengths of police and human rights organizations. Police have the investigative potential, but have generally given a low priority to the problems with which this article is concerned. In contrast, for human relations commissions and related groups, dealing with such problems is a major goal, but they usually lack strong investigative and enforcement means. A fuller description may be found in Wexler (1984). Several other Northeastern departments (e.g., New York City's impressive "Bias Incident Investigation Unit" and programs in Nassau County and West Orange, New Jersey) created similar units in the late 1970s.

  7. Special Order Number 78-28, Boston Police Department, April 7, 1978.

  9. See, for example, Sherman (1978).

  11. See Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law--18 USCS sec. 242; Conspiracy to Interfere with Civil Rights---Depriving Persons of Rights or Privileges 42 USCS sec. 1985.

  13. Massachusetts Civil Rights Act--1979 Mass. Acts 801, Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 12, sec. IIH, 111, ch. 265, sec. 37 (West Supp. 1982-1983).

  15. For an example of the crucial role an interagency task force can play, see Vaughan (1984).

  17. Discrimination in the provision of public goods and services is of course different from direct physical or verbal assault. Yet when tolerated it clearly affects the quality of life. Failure to respond to it can contribute to interracial conflict (e.g., retaliation by those denied admission) and it may also encourage attacks by seeming to legitimate racism.

  19. One indication of racial patterning is to think about whether forceful municipal action would be more extensive if the preponderance of assaults of this nature were committed by minorities against the dominant group, rather than the reverse.

  21. Statistically a disproportionate number of the cases did involve whites assaulting minority group members, rather than the reverse. This reflected the patterning of Boston's racial incidents rather than the preferences of officers assigned to the unit. However, there were a number of cases in which whites feared riding through some black neighborhoods because of concern over armed robberies. Although the motivation for these crimes may have been economic, their impact was to discourage whites from traveling through these neighborhoods. For this reason CDU personnel concentrated on key locations where such crimes were occurring. The same white was rarely a multiple victim of the same offender. For the minority group member it was not unusual to face repeated victimization by the same whites. In addition such cases were group crimes, rarely being the work of a single assailant.

  23. The pattern of opportunistic violence by small groups of lower status youths that was dominant in Boston is clearly different from the more highly organized and targeted violence associated with the Klan. These both differ from the rare cases of racially motivated serial homicides. They also differ from the patterns of communal riot and civil disorder referred to in note 2. Attacks centered around housing and neighborhood issues may differ from those centered around transportation routes, schools, or factories. There is also ethnic variation in what is attacked. Thus the most common form of anti-Semitic incident involves vandalizing Jewish communal buildings. In contrast, racial incidents are more likely to involve direct personal assaults.

  25. Maryland Laws, Article 88B, sec. 9, 10. In at least one Maryland community the flow of information will likely be increased as a result of a reward program. In 1982 the Montgomery, Maryland, city council created an "Anti Hate/Violence Fund" to pay for information leading to the arrest of individuals involved in acts of racial or religious hate/violence. The law established a $50,000 fund to be used exclusively. by the police to pay citizens who provide such information. Anti-Hate Violence Fund," Montgomery County Council, Bill No. 44-82 (1982).

  27. "Anti-intimidation and Defacing of Public or Private Property, Criminal Penalty Act of 1982," Washington, D.C., City Council Act 4-287 (1982).

  29. General Laws of Rhode Island, amended Section 1, Chapter 1142, "Threats and Extortion," Section 1142-3, "Ethnic or Religious Intimidation."

  31. N.Y. Laws, Chapter 240, Section 309; Aggravated Harassment in the Second Degree (1982).

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Anti-Defamation League, 1983. Hate Groups in America. New York.

Governor's Task Force on Civil Rights, 1982. Report and Recommendations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission: Public Hearings on Racial, Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Contra Costa County. Sacramento

Hingham, J. 1954. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism. New York: Praeger.

Dyers, G. 1960.  History of Bigotry in the United States. New York: Capricorn.

National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, 1985. Prejudice and Violence: An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Material on Racial, Religious, and Ethnic Violence and Intimidation. Baltimore, MD:

Sherman, L.  1978 Scandal and Reform. New York: Wiley.

Sherman, L. and R. Berk, 1984. "Deterrent effects of arrest for domestic assault." American Sociological Review 49 (April): 261-271.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,1983. Intimidation and Violence: Racial and Religious Bigotry in America. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Vaughan, D. 1984. The Social Control of Organizations. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Wexler, S. 1984. "Policing racial violence in Boston: a case study of an innovative program." Ph.D. dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Wilson, J. and G. Kelling, 1982. "Broken windows." Atlantic Monthly (March): 29-38.

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