The People and the Police: An Almost Forgotten Project of Police Reform in Washington, D.C.
In the wake of the devastating riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) envisioned a large-scale pilot project called the Pilot District Project, aimed at revitalizing and rebuilding police-community relations in D.C. Designed by Dr. Robert Shellow, the pilot project would be tested at a D.C. precinct chosen for the purpose, overseen by an elected Citizens Board, answerable to the mayor’s office and the general public. The OEO commissioned a documentary film (CG 8225) to document the project and additional training videos for police, with the hope of using them to replicate the project in other major U.S. cities. Such was the confidence in the newness of the pilot project and its seemingly unprecedented, inclusive approach to police-community relations that the OEO spent almost $2,000,000 on it in a three-year period (1968-71).
CG 8225, or The People and the Police is a fascinating historical document of a moment of real potential in reforming police and encouraging community oversight in racially fraught urban spaces. It is also an intimate glimpse into the failures, limitations, and bureaucratic red-tape that often bogs such projects down, but are, at the same time, very particular to the race relations in the U.S. From the start, the film juxtaposes rationalized bureaucratic ‘intentions’ towards reform and the distrust by which marginalized populations perceive such efforts. The project got off on the wrong foot almost immediately, with the black representatives on the advisory committee objecting to being mere rubberstamps on a project that had been already planned and envisioned by white city government, with no direct citizen control. Local residents in turn were suspicious of the ‘experiment’ (which Shellow himself called the pilot) that would treat black people as ‘guinea pigs’.
Protests over the absence of any real community control over the project forced Shellow’s resignation in 1970 and a young Marion Barry was elected to the position of chairman. Under Barry, there were some successes, yet the pilot project was short-lived; when the OEO saw the final film, they were so discouraged by the lack of a positive message in it that they immediately shelved it. The film remained unseen by the public until September 8, 2016 when the National Archives screened it for a general audience. The marginal, almost forgotten, afterlife of the pilot project marks contemporary police histories of community engagement projects – for instance, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has a number of programs aimed at local high-school youth, which might be linked to those pioneered by the Pilot District Project, yet there is no mention of the project in any of the contextual literature on MPD project websites.
In my class Policing in the Contemporary World at Georgetown in D.C., I use key exchanges or scenes in the film as a provocation for my mostly white, upper-class, non-local students. For many of them, it does not immediately make sense that an experimental project aimed at ‘improving’ police-community relations should not be embraced by black residents who are most affected by both police violence and local crime. I highlight in the following moments of impasse, suspicion, and failure what I want them to consider both seriously and from the perspective of black residents, rather than their own interpretation of the exchanges.
Exchange 1: Charles Cassell, D.C. based architect and activist, gives his reasons for resigning from the first Citizen’s Board in 1968:
We in the black community see the police as enemies and I remind everybody here that I may very well be shot as I walk out of that door if I happen to anger some white policeman. I’m very much aware of that and every black person is and therefore we want to control those individuals, especially since the central police force is not even capable of recruiting the capable black men in this black city and has to go out to places like Odd, West Virginia and find individuals who have very questionable backgrounds. I, Charles Cassell can no longer serve on a committee which cannot possibly make changes if it functions only in an advisory capacity. I see a constant recurrence of the conflict between the police and the community until the community finally has some measure of control over the police, and that means to make decisions. (11:40)
Exchange 2: Dr. Shellow reflects to the documentary film makers at the time of his resignation:
I hope that my resignation will make it possible to have a clean election. I’m a white man, and I’ve learned through my upbringing to have derogatory attitudes about blacks, and it’s in me, it’s deep in me. Just as it is in many of my fellow whites. Just as distrust and perhaps hatred of whites is so deeply engrained in many blacks. It’s a sickness, racism is a sickness, it’s a chronic illness, it’s like malaria, or diabetes. You never shake it. You never can get rid of it throughout your life. But you gotta have an antidote for it. You have to have some kind of control for it. (36.01)
Exchange 3: At a public meeting to vote on which precinct should be chosen for the project:
Woman: Why is all these black communities got these pilot programs [sic], we’re tired of being guinea pigs. (13.57)
Young man: When I think about the pilot police [sic], [I think] ‘white folks is conning again’.
Exchange 4: The Junior Cadets initiative received great praise from the community, but funding was uncertain. The cadets are asked to share their thoughts on what the end of funding might mean for them (44.53):
Young man #1: We’ve got all the necessary criteria for this being a meaningful project and a successful program. So I don’t see no way possible that it could really end.
Young man #2: To me it was a test thing, to see what we were capable of doing…I wanna look forward to it, but it’s just like everything else, you know…
Young man #3: A lot of us have been into things like hustling or doing other type of, you know, illegal activists to exist. And this job right here is taking us away from that (others nodding) so we don’t have to (inaudible). So I think if they took this program away, they would also be putting crime back on the street.
Exchange 5: The final scene of the film shows Marion Barry walking with a young boy, perhaps 6 or 7 years old down the street. He asks the boy, ‘What do you think of the police?’ (1.01.43)
Young boy: They ain’t nothing but pigs, man. They pick me up just ’cause I wasn’t in school, shit like that. So I say, ‘Man, what you all gonna do with me?’ They say, ‘I’m gonna take you to the pig pen.’
I ask them to consider these scenes not as evidence by which we might evaluate the ‘truth’ or assign blame for racial inequalities in U.S. policing, but to do a close reading to make them ‘intelligible’ (Fassin 2013: 11). How can we trace, in these scenes and in similar contemporary moments, the structural and historical dynamics that mark policy initiatives like the Pilot District Project? How are community and institutional memories of violence or disorder passed on, or not? Would knowledge of previous efforts, what worked and what didn’t, help to design empathetic and effective policy programs today? How might the knowledge of multiple, cumulatively debilitating legacies – slavery, segregation, unethical experimentation, and today, gentrification and neoliberal retreat from welfare – from a local, community perspective rather than from that of the academic or think tanks alone aid better policy planning, but also bring us closer to appreciating community and individual memory and experience? Moving back and forth in time and context, we juxtapose events of state neglect, police violence, and black vulnerability to ask: Knowing what you know now about the history of reform efforts between black communities and the police, are you better positioned to appreciate the contemporary significance of #Black Lives Matter?
The People and the Police (CG 8225): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlTRDq-CsZo
Fassin, Didier. (2013). Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing. Polity Press.Amrita Ibrahim is an anthropologist whose research lies at the intersection of media, surveillance, and policing. She is currently re-imagining her doctoral fieldwork on crime news and publicity in India as a book project, which explores how journalism forges and operates as its own modality of public policing while also mimicking and transforming those of other normative social institutions, such as kinship and the law. She is currently Adjunct Lecturer at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where she teaches courses on media, social justice, police, and protest for the Department of Anthropology and the Culture and Politics Program. Follow @rasiklok