Kerner Commission: Use of ‘overforce’ criticized (1968)

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Use of ‘overforce’ criticized

Kerner Commission Report backstory, part 2: Kerner urges responsibility in meeting violence

By Otto Kerner, Chairman, National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders

Kerner Report Use of overforce criticized 1968




[Original] Editor’s Note: Judge Otto Kerner, former governor of Illinois and chairman of the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders discusses in a series of five articles the significance of the report. Judge Kerner tells for the first time the inside story of how the members arrived at their findings on racism, and gives his views on where do we go from here. Today’s second article deals with response to violence.

Kerner urges responsibility in meeting violence

You don’t use a bazooka on a 10-year-old boy walking away from a looted store with six bottles of soft drink. You don’t fire heavy weaponry in civil disorders unless you are prepared to kill or injure many innocent people. Weaponry ought to be held back as much as possible.

Armored vehicles, automatic weapons and armor-piercing machine guns are for use against an enemy, and not a lawbreaker. All of these weapons are normally associated with war and a combat zone.

These are simple principles of crowd control. Consequently, it was disturbing, as disorders developed in our cities last year, to see a movement by local police forces to purchase heavy armament. Supply companies were carrying on sales campaigns.

I am very pleased to note that this now seems to be changing. After the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was issued March 1, 1968, mayors and police chiefs began getting the message.

Where they had bought armored cars and automatic weapons, they began disposing of them. The Report emphasizes that in riot control we must use only that force that is necessary to maintain law and order.

Preserving order, of course, is the first responsibility of government. Much of the criticism of our commission Report came from people who had not read it. They said we condoned the actions of irresponsible persons in riots.

This is not a fact.

Chapter 12 sets forth the commission’s position that individuals cannot be permitted to endanger public peace and safety. We also must be careful not to sacrifice the rule of law in the name of order. The guardians of the law are also subject to the law. If you come out with a show of force, you in a sense challenge the other side to meet you. Farce begets force. There must be very strict controls on the use of weaponry, particularly in crowded conditions where many people are on hand simply because they are curious.

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After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let’s take the last civil outbreaks that occurred in Chicago — the rioting of April 5 and 6 that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

At that time, I was governor of Illinois. We had trained our National Guardsmen carefully. No one was to fire a round except on order of a superior officer, a captain of a company or battery.

As a result, the only shots that were fired by the guard were around the Cabrini housing project area at Sedgwick and Division streets, where someone was shooting from one of the high-rise buildings.

A specially-trained platoon, consisting of expert marksmen, was at the site. Under control of an officer, they first determined the area from which the shots were coming. And they were directed to shoot only at that area under order. They fired only single shots, from rifles. There was no indiscriminate firing, and fortunately no one was hurt.

In contrast, in the Detroit and Newark disorders of 1967, there had been irresponsible firing not only from rifles but from armor-piercing, .50 caliber machine guns. Guardsmen as well as policemen, were involved. Property was destroyed and innocent persons were killed or wounded in their own apartments. In most of the cases where people were shot, they were not taking part in the disturbances at all and were seeking refuge in their own homes.

Certainly you would not shoot a 10-year-old because he threw a rock. Yet the detailed studies we made of disorders in various cities showed us that in most instances a teenager would urge some younger child to throw a rock through a window. Or these children would get pushed in front to be used as cat’s paws.

After these incidents, of course, the teenagers would come in. Very few adults, basically, started any incident. These tended to start as pranks and when later events developed, the 20-year-olds and 25-year-olds got in. Most of the arrestees were under 35 and same were just kids or adolescents.

In general, how much force should a law enforcement officer use in cases of looting and arson?

This is a difficult area and there are no preconceived rules. The officer should use such force as is necessary to prevent the commission of a crime. But no law enforcement officer can take the life of someone merely committing a misdemeanor. We all know that. When do you start shooting? Everything depends upon the degree of the crime and the resistance of the person or persons committing it.

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Let us say a man has broken into a bank and stolen a sack of $1,000 bills, and is ordered to halt and does not. Then everybody would agree you shoot him — if you do not endanger the life of an innocent bystander. But suppose he has stolen only a cigar box full of quarters? What do you do then?

The answer, I believe, lies in the proper training of police officers who must make spontaneous decisions at the time these things happen.

What positive steps must we take to prevent disorders?

First, obviously, we need to overcome community “grievances” with programs at the grass-roots level, involving the local residents in the planning.

And there must be continuing contact with the community to enable the forces of the law to be alert to its feelings and attitudes. We need civil and military forces correctly trained in community relations. They must be prepared to move in as needed and they must conduct themselves with fairness and proper authority.

Most people in these communities are law-abiding. They want protection from the irresponsible.

“We are the ones whose houses are going to be broken into,” one woman in Detroit told me after the rioting there. “We want more police here.”

An authoritative movement of law enforcement groups into these communities will be welcomed by the people — if they are dealt with fairly.

But always we must be very hesitant to make a show of overforce with armored vehicles and heavy weapons.

And of course there must be very strong gun control laws. I have been a hunter myself, and I don’t believe that gun control by itself will stop killing. There are just too many guns in the hands of irresponsible persons.

But we must start. It is late now. In Detroit and Newark, where the greatest disorders took place in 1967, the gun stores and the pawn shops were the first places looted — to get weapons.

I don’t follow the argument some people put forth that there are other ways of having disorders, without guns.

Yes, it is true that a broken bottle, a knife, a tire iron, a crowbar is a dangerous weapon. Still, I never have heard of anyone being killed by a broken bottle or a knife at 200 yards.

Tomorrow: Prejudice. It’s in all our hearts. What can we do about it?

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