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Police history in New Orleans leaves many still seeing ‘the killer behind the badge,’ says an article in Law and History Review
Today many African-Americans still see police as 'the killer behind the badge', according to an article in America's leading legal history journal Law and History Review, published by Cambridge Journals.
The article by Professor Jeffrey S. Adler examines race and police homicide in New Orleans between 1925-1945, exploring the cycle of fear between the police and African-Americans at this time, and arguing that 'fear conditioning' continues to fuel the cycle to this day.
The research draws on police homicide reports held by New Orleans which, along with reports from varied newspapers at the time, provide detailed accounts of police killings of civilians from the 1920s to the 1940s. Most early twentieth-century police departments failed to keep comprehensive records of police homicides, so research into this area has been scarce. The New Orleans records provide a rare window into the use of deadly force by early twentieth-century law enforcers.
New Orleans was a violent city during this period, with a 1930 homicide rate twice that of Detroit and three times that of New York City. Local police officers believed that nearly any encounter with a criminal 'or disorderly person' could turn deadly. Both white and African-American 'suspects' were killed, but local law enforcers killed African-American residents at four times the rate of white residents.
Reviewing the evidence, Professor Jeffrey S. Adler asserts four main overlapping factors for the high rate of police homicides with African-American victims in early twentieth-century New Orleans.
- First, the police saw themselves as guardians of the local racial hierarchy and perceived any challenge to their authority as a threat to social order.
- Second, police officers were encouraged by politicians, voters, and the climate of the time to rely on 'rough justice', despite being poor, untrained, and unsupervised.
- Third, the image of African-Americans was perpetuated and perceived as volatile and unpredictable, persistently described as 'running amuck'.
- Fourth, due to the routine use of excessive force and killings, many African-Americans responded to the police by fleeing, resisting arrest, or escaping custody, which all gave the police licence to shoot to kill.
Professor Jeffrey S. Adler says, "New Orleans patrolmen feared resistance and responded with violence, whereas African-American residents, in turn, feared police violence and responded by increasingly resisting 'the killer behind the badge'."
Jeffrey S. Adler (Ph.D. Harvard University, 1986) is Professor of History and Criminology and holds a joint appointment in the Department of History and in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of Florida.
Law and History Review furthers research in the fields of the social history of law and the history of legal ideas and institutions.
Notes for Editors
For further information, please contact Vicky Westmore on +44(0)1223 326194, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The full article and interviews with Jeffrey S. Adler are available; please use the contact information above to request these.
About Law and History Review
Law and History Review (LHR), internationally recognized as the leading journal in the field, examines the history of law from ancient to modern times. The journal's purpose is to further research in the fields of the social history of law and the history of legal ideas and institutions. LHR features articles, essays, commentaries by international authorities, and reviews of important books on legal history.
For more information go to: journals.cambridge.org/LHR
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