About

This is the course website for a Writing 101 course at Duke University, entitled Street Justice: History of Policing, taught by Dr. Peter C. Pihos. The content of the site is for educational purposes only.

Introduction to the Course

Over the last few years, activists have seized on high-profile police killings, in particular the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, and many others, to put policing at the center of American political debate. The dynamics of this contemporary moment echo the centrality of challenges to urban policing to earlier social justice movements. Indeed, today’s movement resembles nothing so much as the intense upheaval of the late 1960s; then, Black Power and New Left activists, joined with civil libertarians, to challenge a wide range of police practices and argue for a complete transformation of police institutions. Focusing on primarily on this critical moment and its aftermath, Street Justice will provide historical perspective on today’s events.

The course will begin by critically examining some classic work on the history and sociology of policing, as well as long-term trends in violent crime. We will used our readings to interrogate common ideas about the nature of policing — what do police do, why do they do it, who controls what they do. We will also look at the counter-intuitive history of crime, in order to ask what has been unique about crime of the past four decades (in historic perspective), as well as examining the institutional and historic factors shape the particular trajectory of American violence. Student writing will focus on examining the arguments made by various scholars and seeking to synthesize them in order to gain a deeper perspective on the history of U.S. crime and policing up until the 1970s.

The second section of the course will examine the decisive moment of historical flux in the 1960s and 1970s in which police practices came under dramatic and widespread challenge, and police institutions regrouped. This moment, characterized by dramatic urban rebellions triggered most often by police violence, saw long-standing critiques of police institutions voiced by African-Americans ripen and open the way for a potential transformation of policing. At the same time, police officers fought back, articulating a new role for themselves as defenders of order against chaos. Students will investigate how these epochal conflicts resolved: examining experiments in new forms of policing that took place during the 1970s, as well as the turn to repression through aggressive policing of gangs and drugs. Student writing projects will describe and asses a particular program or strategy from this era, seeking to understand what aspect of the police crisis it responded to and what vision for policing it represented.

The final section of the course will return to the more familiar terrain of the #BlackLivesMatter movements and the contemporary efforts at police reform driven by their critique of policing. Students will write a final essay that puts these movements and reform efforts in historic perspective. In what way are these movements rearticulating the claims made by activists 40 years ago? How are they responding to dynamic changes in the American racial order and in the nature of policing? How have institutional actors–including the federal government–changed their policy prescriptions to reform local police institutions? Finally, what is to be done to build more just and equitable urban institutions to protect the personal safety of all people?