X-Rays: A Past that Might Have Been, a Future that Could Be
Let me lay my normative cards on the table. Police are necessary for security in modern society, but they have a historical tendency to divide themselves from society, view many victims as morally deserving of their fate, and treat the assertion of any right of equal dignity as a security threat. In the late 20th century police experts divided between those who looked to judicially imposed external norms, and those who looked to an internal process of craft elaboration. In fact, both were probably necessary for either to have had a chance of succeeding. But the “war on crime”, and the massive transformation of governance it produced, has led to a security paradox. The police have enough power to resist accountability in most respects, but not enough knowledge to effectively deal with violence, community disorder, and now terrorism.
In the hope of going beyond critique and diagnosis to identifying the resources from which a remedy might be fashioned we must have recourse to history. The success of a particular movement or project often has the effect of burying all memory of possible options that existed in the problematizations of the recent past (Foucault has made this into a key methodological imperative). Without bowdlerizing the past, we need to remain open to imagining possibilities for reconstructing our modern public institutions that have been lost.
In 1970, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department hired two African American college graduates from the city’s segregated northwest side. These officers were quickly promoted to detectives and along with a few selected white detectives, were selected by Chief Robert Johnson, Fort Lauderdale Police to form the core of a special task force with the goals of reducing the increasingly violent drug trade in the city and avoiding a major racial conflagration of the sort that had swept major cities in the North. Knicked-named the “X-Rays” because of their reputation for “sharp vision,” these detectives specialized in deep knowledge of their local communities. What is especially striking to me about the tactics of the X-Rays is that they form alternatives to two of the major practices of investigation influenced by the war on drugs and which have contributed to miscarriages of justice, i.e., the use of informants and interrogation. The war on drugs has promoted the recruitment of professional informants who often have powerful monetary or legal incentives to lie. In contrast, the X-Rays cultivated informants more along the model of anthropological informants, local figures in a position to observe what is going on in a community that have a relationship of trust and friendship with the detectives. The war on drugs has also made available a large pool of suspects who form a ready supply of suspects in other cases and encouraged practices of deceptive interrogation aimed pressuring the most dysfunctional of these suspects to cooperate in convicting themselves. In contrast, the X-Rays sought to obtain confessions by winning the trust of suspects and confronting them with the results of their prior investigations.<>For me the X-Ray’s represent a model of the craft tradition in a positive confrontation with problems of equality and inclusion posed by the civil rights movements in the 1960s. In future postings I’ll tell more of the story of the X-Rays and especially Detective Douglas Evans of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department (ret.). Evans had a remarkable career, ableit one shortened by anger at a law enforcement apparatus that overall placed minimal priority on the security of people from Evan's own neighborhood of northwest Fort Lauderdale. Dougs most famous case involved Eddie Lee Mosely. One of the most aggressive serial killers of recent history, Moseley raped and murdered dozens of people in northwest Fort Lauderdale from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s. Two other men were sent to prison, one to death row, for Moseley's crimes. These miscarriages of justice exemplify the high risk investigatory strategies that contemporary police have come to rely on. Doug Evans solved the crimes using his deep local knowledge of his community and his willingness to interview dozens of witnesses, but Mosely was released through the indifference of state officials and his later crimes were pinned on men more attractive to prosecute. Doug's role in the case is profiled in this excerpt from the Frontline (PBS) documentary, Requiem for Frank Lee Smith (2002)
Doug Evans and the X-Ray's were sadly not the modal police officers, let alone Southern police officers of the 1970s, but they offer a precedent for a reflexive craft policing approach that might serve as a model of a different kind of post-war on drugs policing strategy one aimed at preventing violence in specific communities from all kinds of sources (including both terrorism and reactive hate crimes) by vigorous local investigation coupled with self conscious efforts to guard against racial stereo atyping and its analogs.
Labels: Miscarriages of Justice