Justice  /  Argument

What the Kerner Report Got Wrong about Policing

The Kerner report neglected that police were not simply careless with black lives; they deliberately sought to punish black lives.
Policemen with nightsticks dragging Black man down the street.
AFP/Getty Images

In Detroit, police officers had permission to cover their nametags and other identifying features, allowing them to retaliate at will. Officers reportedly called rioters “savages.” One was heard saying, “Those black sons-of-bitches, I’m going to get me a couple of them before this is over.” In a notorious incident at the Algiers Motel, police and private security forces responded to suspected sniper fire by executing three teenage boys and torturing nine other black men and women. The only officer tried for the crimes was acquitted.

Retaliatory police violence during the riots differed only in pitch—but not in kind—from the commonplace, everyday violence that police forces carried out against urban black communities. Though the 1967 riots certainly emerged in part from underlying poverty and segregation, as the Kerner report argued, they were most especially enacted by young African Americans who used collective violence to protest patterns of police brutality in their communities.

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By calling for more restrained anti-riot measures, the Kerner report may well have saved lives in 1968 and beyond. For example, the commission emphatically rejected lethal use of force against looters (which was favored by 60 percent of white Americans). The report devoted a chapter to the breakdown of the criminal justice system during the riots, which saw hundreds of unnecessary arrests, with many of the arrested held in undisclosed locations, without charge and with no way to contact relatives or lawyers. The Kerner report also discredited misconceptions about widespread sniper fire, finding most reported instances were actually indiscriminate shooting by the police and National Guard. It correctly identified “police incidents” as the most common cause of the riots. It criticized overpolicing of black neighborhoods through stop-and-frisk and other aggressive methods. It detailed how police were untrained for riot control and unprepared for the difficult roles assigned to them, which resulted in overreaction and lack of fire discipline. 

The report was absolutely correct when it said it was unfair to single out police for simply enforcing society’s will and that police reform could only succeed in the context of a broader assault against inequality. Yet by calling police “symbols” of “white power, white racism, and white repression,” the report downplayed the significant ways in which police were not merely symbols of a fatal problem but its agents. The report adopted a “he said, she said” approach that portrayed police brutality simply as African Americans’ “belief” or “perception.” Criticism of “overreaction” and lack of police “restraint” in the report obscured the reality of intentional police destruction of African American property and lives.