David Brown, Robert McGuire

Police Brutality

VTR Date: January 29, 1980

Guests: Brown, David; McGuire, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: David Brown, with Robert McGuire
Title: “Police Brutality”
VTR: 3/4/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Sometime back, a letter to the editor appeared in The New York Times, and many people disagreed with it rather passionately. But it would be folly not to realize that it struck a responsive chord for many others here in New York and wherever crime in the streets has struck terror in our hearts, fear for our loved ones and ourselves. What the letter proclaimed, in part, and let me read it to you: “As much as I regret the conclusion, I am beginning to believe that perhaps some degree of police brutality may be necessary to reestablish fear of and respect for the law. Crime is virtually nonexistent in Japan. The way this is accomplished is fairly simple. There is no rehabilitation of criminals. Once they are found guilty, they are put away in prisons which are reputedly very tough by our standards. There is no counseling or psychological testing. Recently I made a film in Antigua”, said the author. “In Antigua, there is virtually no crime. Once found guilty, the criminal’s life is finished. His families and friends disown him. He is ostracized. If he survives imprisonment, he has few places to go when he gets out. The result is there is no criminal class in Antigua because the punishment is so excessive that nobody undertakes to violate the law. Perhaps it is time we started erring on the side of repression instead of permitting hoodlums to terrify our city. Today, the average policeman needs a lawyer to protect him whenever he makes an arrest. No candidate for local, state, or national office will get my vote”, says the author of this letter, “Unless he takes an unequivocal position on law enforcement. That may mean bringing back police brutality: the slogan of those who insist on giving the offender the benefit of the doubt instead of the victim. A few miscarriages of justice may be a small price to pay for cleaning up the streets of our city”. Well, you can imagine how angry that letter to the editor got a great many fair-minded Americans. And at the same time, how many people who had themselves been victimized by crime and criminals cheered on its author.

And so I invited two people to THE OPEN MIND today to discuss this touchy subject. Many others could have joined us, of course, so extreme are feelings on the matter. But I invited the man who wrote this provocative letter, David Brown, editor, lecturer, journalist, and movie-maker extraordinary; and the head of the largest municipal police force in the world, Robert J. McGuire, Police Commissioner of the City of New York, as one journalist labeled him: “New York’s youngest top cop since Teddy Roosevelt”.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining me today. And I think it only fair that I begin by asking the Police Commissioner how he reacts to David Brown’s letter.

MCGUIRE: Well, I read it when Mr. Brown wrote it, and I sympathize with some of the feelings that were expressed both implicitly and explicitly, an incredible feeling of frustration, a feeling that we’d lost the battle, if not the war, to the criminals, and that our streets were no longer safe for our citizens. I disagreed – and I’m not sure he truly means what he said; we’ll have to listen to him – with some of the language, namely, “police brutality”. I don‘t think to engage in illegal conduct in order to bring safety and security to the streets is the way to do it. I don’t think it’s necessary. I do think, and I agree with him, that we’ve got to turn things around. I don’t think that, at he present time, government is protecting its citizens; and I’m not quite sure what we’re in business for if we’re not doing an adequate job of that. And that’s true in New York, that’s true in every large city in the United States. And I think that there is a way to do it consistent with the law and with legal process. You can always have order and security in a fascist dictatorship, for example, but you pay a price. And I don’t think David Brown wants to go back to that. That’s my own view. We’ll have to listen to him and see.

HEFFNER: Mr. Brown?

BROWN: Well, Commissioner, Dr. Heffner, I wrote that letter some time ago, and I’ve reviewed my thinking. It’s necessary in this medium to indicate that the words “police brutality” appeared between quotes when this letter was published in The New York Times and when I wrote it. And those quotes are very important. That is, the perception of what police officers do in the performance of their duties, as I understand it, is frequently criticized by those who are soft on law enforcement. I think that the Commissioner McGuire and the Police Department of the City of New York still deserve the accolades, not only of New York’s finest, but of the world’s finest. And I, in the course of my work, travel to many countries. What is so heartening is that the public itself, which traditionally and historically never wanted to be involved in the City of New York, now is increasingly taking a role, I think the Commissioner would agree, in supporting police officers in the performance of their duty, as they have done recently in two subway incidents where they have literally surrounded the suspect or, in some cases, actually collared the suspect and held him for the police officer.

As to the Commissioner’s point, did I want to go to a fascistic type of repression? Of course not. And you’re very perceptive in saying that this letter does reflect the frustration of the average citizen. What it reflects is frustration, not so much on the level of law enforcement, but on the judicial level. And the Commissioner, of course, is a lawyer, and has had a distinguished career in the law. And I would like to ask him why is it that so many of us read time after time that a suspect who even gives a confession or who even is convicted, is so often permitted back on the streets? I read in The New York Times only recently that juries give police officers very little credibility, where they used to believe a police officer frequently. They don’t want to convict anyone. It’s difficult for me to understand that. And yet I have to say that I haven’t served on a jury in many years, and it’s a good reason – I’m sure that somebody will get me for this – to go back on the juries, because why is it, speaking as a lawyer, that so often suspects and convicted criminals are back on the streets, or sometimes never even are incarcerated?

MCGUIRE: Well, you’ve got several questions in your statement, all of them are very legitimate questions. Perhaps the most important one is, why, when somebody commits violent, antisocial conduct or behavior on the street, namely, rapes a woman or mugs a person, does he not end up in jail with a serious sanction? And there are a lot of reasons for it. Some resource reasons, some what has happened to the criminal justice system. The end result is, I believe, that there is no credible sanction today. Statistically, if you commit a felony-type of violent crime in the City of New York today, statistically, you will not be apprehended, you will not be successfully prosecuted, and if you are apprehended and successfully prosecuted, you will not get a significant sentence in a state institution. So that the perception and the reality on the street is that you have two, three or four shots at this before anybody’s going to treat it seriously.

HEFFNER: And you’re suggesting that it’s a correct perception?

MCGUIRE: Oh, no. Oh, it’s absolutely grounded in reality. I think it’s turning around a bit. I think the focus has now shifted. I don’t meet any, quote, liberals on crime anymore. People are…

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

MCGUIRE: I don’t find people talking about coddling criminals or rehabilitation or psychological therapy. I find that most people are totally frustrated. They don’t believe that rehabilitative programs work. They don’t seem to work. They don’t understand the root causes of crime, especially violent crime. The thing that I’ve seen that really disturbs me most of all as a human being in the last 25 years is the random, senseless nature of violent crime, especially murder, today. It used to be that you could understand the armed bank robber. He was going to shoot his way out. And you understood the rationale. You didn’t sympathize with it, but you understood it. But today we have kids who have .357 Magnums. They walk up to a woman, they take her pocketbook, they walk away, and as an afterthought they come back and they kill her. They’re not worried about identification. They’re not worried about anything. They don’t treat her life, or their own, for that matter, as anything serious.

BROWN: But aren’t you saying, Commissioner, what I endeavored to say in The New York Times? Taking the term “police brutality” in its broadest sense, perhaps I should have said something that encompassed more than the police. The fact is that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and we are – if I correctly understand you – we are soft on criminals in this country – I don’t say this city or this state necessarily – but generally, taking the FBI statistics. And aren’t you saying also, without putting words I your moth, that if the punishment were severe, as I advocate, if there were no rehabilitation, if there were no counseling, maybe there wouldn’t be enough jails to house all of our criminals, but wouldn’t there be any discernible diminution in the number of crimes of violence committed, in your opinion?

MCGUIRE: Yes. I agree with what you’re saying, although I disagree with the emphasis.

BROWN: Yeah.

MCGUIRE: I don’t think there is tremendous emphasis on resources right now in the prison systems of this state or any other state addressed to rehabilitation or therapy or educational programs. What you have is a lack of available facilities. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000, 21,000 available jail cells. They are filled all the time. We have a criminal population in New York City which far exceeds that number. If the truth be known, obviously every large city does. The cops are making staggering numbers of felony arrests. Discount out any number you want for bad quality arrests or motions to suppress being granted or cases that aren’t really serious but are charged as felonies and they’re going to be reduced to misdemeanors. You still have more arrests for serious crime committed each year that then could fill your cells. So you have to recognize that if you truly mean this, you as a society really mean that if you engage in violent, antisocial behavior, the system will work to put you away for a long period of time, which I happen to believe is the only way to address it. At the tail end of it, I think you’ve got to look at root causes of crime ultimately. You’ve got to look at education and job opportunities and poverty and the other things that apparently have some impact, although I’m not persuaded that poverty causes crime. I mean, we have poverty around the world, but we don’t have this kind of violent crime. But I think you have to talk about vastly increasing the resources to incarcerate people, so that there is a credible message out – which is not out now – that we’re going to send you away for a long period of time if you hit somebody on the had or kill somebody.

HEFFNER: Commissioner, you talk about putting somebody away for a long period of time. Does that imply that it is perpetual, long, lifetime imprisonment for instance that you would suggest for capital crimes? Or do you believe in capital punishment?

MCGUIRE: Well, I have ambivalent…I must say I’m turning around on capital punishment, because I have looked at the widows of 14 police officers in two years. I believed when I became police commissioner that capital punishment probably served as a credible deterrent in the narrow area of the murder of a police officer, a correction officer, somebody involved in the safeguarding of prisoners, because the life prisoner had absolutely nothing to lose if he killed a law enforcement officer trying to escape or whatever. But I’m not so sure that society doesn’t have a right to vent its outrage and its frustration and its anger. My problem with the death penalty is that it never happens for eight, ten, or twelve years after the commission of a crime. I don’t remember what Gary Gilmore did. And I think that you have to have certain punishment, but you have to have swift punishment. People should know that if they do this, they will pay in this fashion. I think we have to go to more definite sentences. The indeterminate sentence hasn’t worked. For the same kind of crime, you get 18 months, or you get 15 years, or you get probation and five years. The same two criminals doing the same thing. I think there has to be a sense of credibility. This is a defined period of punishment or period of imprisonment for this kind of antisocial behavior. There’s no sense of that today.

HEFFNER: There is no more clearly defined punishment though than capital punishment. And I wonder, in the turning, where are you now?

MCGUIRE: I could not validly argue against capital punishment, given the amount of violence on the streets of the city today. I think that, if nothing else, it gets out a message to people, probably a harder message than anything else, that we will no longer tolerate your taking a human life, and that that human life is sacred, and you will forfeit your life if you take somebody else’s life.

BROWN: I see “police brutality”, in quotes, as merely a palliative and a first step, and by that I hasten to add, Commissioner, that I don’t mean somebody just beating people on the head. But I mean what the suspect often refers to bas police brutality in pleading his case. I believe that the root cause is respect for human dignity and life. Where, in the countries to which I referred in the letter to The New York Times, in Japan in particular, and in the Island Republic of Antigua, it is a disgrace, it is a total disgrace to commit a crime. It’s not expected that you can repair your life. That’s very harsh, but it seems to work. And we don’t have that here.

MCGUIRE: Those are very homogeneous societies.

BROWN: That’s quite true.

MCGUIRE: I mean, Japan has a history of nonviolence, a history of very close living in an island republic with extremely close family ties and the disgrace of peer pressure if one engages in antisocial behavior. We have the Wild West spirit, as you know.


MCGUIRE: We have the right to bear arms. We have a gun lobby that’s more powerful than anything in this country: “Everybody should carry a gun”.

BROWN: Isn’t it peer pressure that creates a criminal class, starting with juvenile delinquency?

MCGUIRE: Yes, David, but let me ask you something. Do you think that it would serve any purpose if the media printed the names of all the people convicted – forget about arrested – convicted of mugging people in this city every day? Would it matter except make them a hero in their community? That’s peer pressure.

BROWN: Exactly.

MCGUIRE: For example, when you go to small towns in our country, you find that the police blotter is reprinted, in toto, as you know, in the daily newspaper.


MCGUIRE: Somebody convicted of intox driving, somebody convicted of shooting his neighbor’s dog or fighting with the neighbor. That’s all designed, really, it’s part of the social fabric designed to ensure consistent social conduct by people in a close community.

BROWN: Right.

MCGUIRE: You don‘t have that in an anonymous, large city.

BROWN: Taking your point – and I’ll be provocative in making a further recommendation – despite all of the priorities for public money, and in view of the shortage of prison accommodations, I think that we would be, it would be very well suited to our purposes of the State of New York provided funds for a significant increase in the housing of criminals, so that the word would get out that this is priority number one, and that they were going to be put away. Because until that message gets out, as you have said, the mere statistics of arrests indicate that you can’t handle all the convictions, the backlog and everything else.

MCGUIRE: It creates its own dynamic for the judges not sentencing as hard as they might otherwise sentence, or being able to not sentence because they feel that the justification because there’s no available jail cell. It creates a dynamic for early release of people who have been incarcerated for a, what you and I might think was a five-year term, and the person serves 15 or 18 months and is then released. Now, that’s just a deception to the public. If the public thinks that somebody is getting a five to 15-year term, and they’re out much before that, which is why there is a recommendation, a Governor’s Committee on Sentencing, chaired by Bob Morgenthau, the Manhattan D.A., and they have recommended definite sentences, within certain guidelines. If a judge deviates from the guidelines, he has to file a written opinion indicating there are special circumstances. But if you do this, you get that. If you do this, you get that. Everybody knows what it is.

HEFFNER: And you’re suggesting one of the reasons that hasn’t happened thus far is that we don’t have the facilities?

MCGUIRE: Well, that is clearly the…

BROWN: It’s a limiting factor.

MCGUIRE: We have a limit…We have a funnel effect in the criminal justice system. We have large numbers of cases being funneled into a system that cannot handle them, such that the exercise often becomes statistical dispositions. As long as you clear your calendar. We very seldom talk about the quality of justice. We very seldom talk about the victim’s rights. Has that person been vindicated? Has the person who hurt that person gone to jail for a significant period of time? It can’t. The system cannot presently handle it. And I think David is right. You have to not only get a message out, but engage in a reality of vastly expanding the facilities such that you can handle…

HEFFNER: Well, now, I understand that. And I understand that you gentlemen agree upon the necessity for vastly expanded criminal housing. Nevertheless, there’s something in what you both have said that I want to come back to. David, you say, of course, your words were in quotation marks here, the notion of police brutality, they were indeed. Nevertheless, you say there’s no rehabilitation of criminals, also in quotation marks.

BROWN: I put that in quotes. Yes.

HEFFNER: Right, also in quotation marks. But I think the meaning is the other side of the coin. None of this mollycoddling.

BROWN: Coddling. Exactly.

HEFFNER: Right. And, do you really want to stick with that notion that rehabilitation…When you say it is not expected that you can repair your life, are you suggesting that vengeance is mine?

BROWN: Well, you have to be a victim. There are no liberal victims, I might add. And you have to be a victim to understand. Obviously, you have to make the punishment fit the crime. You’re not going to do this for a relatively minor first offense. But when you get into felony charges of violence, where you’re threatening or taking life, one wonders about the repair. And there’s one other thing, apart from, you might say, regarding increasing the criminal facilities, that seems terribly unproductive. One way to cut that down, the Police Department of the City of New York, under Mayor Koch and the Commissioner, have build enormous goodwill and sympathy with the people of the City of New York recently in the fact of these police killings. The mayor, by his attendance, and yourself, as a matter of fact, would not be generally be known that the commission actually could not make this broadcast at one time because of that very episode taking place then, which regrettably is taking place again. So I think that we in the media must make a concerted effort to build the credibility of police officers in the public consciousness by reporting constructively and truthfully about the work of the City of New York. Because if I am correct, notwithstanding everything we are saying there, this city is far from the most crime-invested city in the United States. Believe it or not, it’s below Phoenix, Arizona, in municipalities.

MCGUIRE: We’re about fifteenth in the country in terms of crimes.

BROWN: But we’re the Big Apple, and everybody hears about crime.

MCGUIRE: We get all the media attention. And everybody in Chicago and L.A. knows what happens here. We do not know what happens in Chicago and L.A.

HEFFNER: Commissioner, what do you think about rehabilitation? I detected a note before, and I didn’t know whether it meant that you were concerned that we didn’t have, that we don’t really have rehabilitation programs that could be effective if that were possible, or that you really have come to the conclusion that we might just as well forget about that.

MCGUIRE: I am not an expert in penology, and I am not a social scientist. I make no pretense to knowing about those things except as a layman. And I speak like a citizen. I have not seen rehabilitation work. I am not convinced that the necessary resources in a confined area have ever been put into it where you pick your people. It’s clear to me some people – and I believe in Christian salvation – but I believe that some people seem to be beyond repair, that they are engaged in violent criminal conduct when they’re 10, 11, and 12. They seem to have no informed conscience, no sense of the value of a human life, and no sense of ethics. And I don’t know how you get it. I don’t know how somebody teaches you that if it’s not developed in the children at an early age. I have been advised by people in the prison system that educational programs and other kinds of programs don’t work. The prisoners don’t show up. If they show up, it’s to get out of something else or to sleep. And that is very disturbing.

HEFFNER: Then why don’t we…

MCGUIRE: But let me just say there hasn’t been a lot of money. And I would disagree to this extent: I don’t think it’s a picnic in New York State prisons. Attica, Sing-Sing, Auburn, Clinton. They’re not country clubs. Some of the federal prisons, the minimum-security prisons, have your tennis courts and your no-fences. That’s not true with the prison system in New York State. Either way, it seems to me, we don’t, it doesn’t work. We don’t turn out a rehabilitated citizen. The rehabilitation effort doesn’t seem to work, on the one hand. The lack of a rehabilitation effort doesn’t seem to work in the sense of bringing out a decent, law-abiding citizen. There is an argument to, in effect, warehouse people until they hit an age when they begin to turn around themselves. That does seem to happen to people. There is a certain age when, for example, you don’t see old drug addicts on the street. There’s a sense that they either die or they fade off into some kind of respectability.

HEFFNER: How do you account for the fact, though, that for 25 years, almost 25 years, on THE OPEN MIND, we’ve been discussing this subject? Society still had not indicated a willingness to fish or cut bait. Society has still not indicated a willingness to support the police, as David Brown, you suggest. Society has still not indicated a willingness to build the prisons and provide that kind of certain punishment. Are we, is this a death wish on our own part?

MCGUIRE: I don’t thin it’s a death wish; I think it is a measure of the complexity of the issue, one, with a kind of refusal to face up to making a hard decision in terms of a categorical decision.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “hard decision”?

MCGUIRE: No possible rehabilitation. That’s very difficult for a free democracy to say about its own citizens. And I think there’s a sense of guilt about the fact that a lot of the people who engage in violent crime come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And there are kind of racial overtones to any kind of hard talk in this area. And I think that people tend to shy away from the cataclysmic kind of approach. They kind of put the people away and then hope that something will happen to habilitate or redeem them. That doesn’t work.

BROWN: It’s part of what makes this country both great, and the despair of our own citizens in society. It’s our compassion and our forgiveness. Perhaps they are virtues that may well be nurtured. But our point – I think the Commissioner and I speak with one voice, if I may say – is that we had better see to it that we are not destroyed by our own compassion in this respect. It is true in the United States of America people are not only free but they’re forgiven. And in other countries, any other countries, possibly at the cost – and I say it, I’m surprised you haven’t picked up my “Miscarriage of Justice” quote, also in quotes, I hope – that you, someone can knock at your door at three o’clock in the morning and say “What did you mean when you said the following about our president in a restaurant?” You don’t have that in the United States of America, because we believe that everybody has certain rights, and we’re quite…It’s part of our weakness. I think we have to strike a balance. And that’s my, that’s the meaning of, in quotes, “police brutality”. It is not a precise, but a sort of indicative phrase.

HEFFNER: David, are you backing away at all?

BROWN: Not at all.

HEFFNER: You said you had time to think about what you had written then.

BROWN: No, I find it, as you reread the letter, I found that, if anything, I feel more strongly in view of what has happened to the people of the City of New York and the Police Department of the City of New York in recent weeks when violence, if the statistics you’ve issued recently are indicative, which of course they are, have reached an all-time record, have they not?


BROWN: Crimes of violence in the city are now at an all-time…

MCGUIRE: Homicides are up dramatically. Killings of police officers are up. And that’s true around the country. But it’s also true in New York City.

HEFFNER: And your own feeling is that certain punishment would be one of the things…

MCGUIRE: Serious and certain and swift punishment would be one way of addressing this problem. I would also like to see a mandatory sentence for guns. We have now on the streets of our city between one and two million handguns. People, whenever they get into a domestic dispute or a fight in a bar, there’s a gun available. It used to be you’d punch somebody or you’d hit somebody with the chair; you now kill somebody. And we find that half the homicides in the City of New York last year were these kinds of dispute-oriented homicides as distinguished from in the commission of a crime. We find that one-half of those were committed by guns, handguns.

HEFFNER: And yet our presidential candidates have to cozy up to those who would oppose limitations.

MCGUIRE: I love my country. And I think it was an absolute disgrace what the candidates for the presidency did in New Hampshire last week. I was disgraced that they would talk about the fact that they shot bird with a shotgun when they were 10 and 11 years old, and they were born and grew up with a gun. That’s some measure of one’s civilized behavior. John Anderson was the only one, and I’m not political at all, but I believe that the silent majority, especially in large cities, should stand very tall and hard on the issue that there’s no need for a gun, that the only reason to have a gun is if you’re going to use it. And if you use it you’re probably going to kill somebody or hurt somebody.

BROWN: And the mayor has been very courageous in that respect.

HEFFNER: Ten seconds, five seconds. David, do you support that notion of limitation on guns? Private guns?


HEFFNER: Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining me today, David Brown, Police Commissioner McGuire. Thank you, really. It’s obviously a subject we’re going to come back to time and time again.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.