SEPTEMBER 26, 1962
NEW YORK—An unusually brilliant piece of crime detection by New York police a few days ago served also to illustrate the ever-present possibility of error and injustice against which police forces everywhere must guard.
In this instance, the New York police had theorized that the perpetrator of a criminal assault on a woman in her apartment, not long ago, would return to murder her so that she could never be a possible witness against him in the future. There had been several cases previously of similar assaults followed by the murder of the victims.
By extremely clever deduction, the police decided that their man would return on a weekend night. They secreted themselves in closets and were ready when the intruder actually broke into the apartment at the expected time. The criminal was killed in the ensuing melee, but his fingerprints showed that he was in fact the psychopath who had committed the whole series of crimes.
One feels a glow of pride in this kind of police work. But buried in the midst of the newspaper accounts was a disturbing little item. It mentioned the fact that last spring a boy of 15, who had been accused of committing one of the murders, was freed after having been kept in prison for nearly six months. The boy's fingerprints did not fit, but the police had caught him coming out of the house and they succeeded in getting a sworn statement from him that he had committed the crime. The boy even re-enacted the crime for them.
Only the fact that the grand jury refused to indict the boy saved his life, and one cannot help wondering if that confession was not rather strongly suggested, together with the enactment of the crime, by the police themselves. These are strong-arm methods which, used in the South against such groups as the Freedom Riders, arouse strong criticism outside. Yet we should be equally critical when we find such methods used in the North. To have sent one innocent boy to his death would have been a crime which the later apprehension of the killer would hardly have wiped out. Our pride in the police's great achievement must therefore be somewhat muted in the hope that they will not forget their mistakes along with their success.
In the same way, we must realize that however slow the progress of school integration in the South, analogous situations exist over and over again in the Northern states. There the problem of school desegregation is closely tied to desegregation of housing, and certainly we are not doing any kind of job that we could hold out as an example to our Southern neighbors.
I believe that people in all cities can make a significant contribution by bringing the problem to the attention of the local board of education. The New York City board has made suggestions that may well be adopted in other cities. One might also consider the desirability of stimulating the establishment of a city-wide committee to mobilize public opinion.
If your community decided to undertake such a project, I would offer one word of caution. The problem of integrating Northern public schools is much more of a problem than merely mixing white and Negro children. An effective integration program must also be concerned with poor and crowded classrooms, with the calibre of teachers and the curricula of the schools. Thus it must be concerned with every aspect of the educational program and with total educational opportunities afforded to all the children of any community.
There is an excellent booklet on this subject by Will Maslow, called "De Facto Public School Segregation," and might be of value to those who are working on this problem. But the important thing for communities throughout the country to realize is that in the North we have to face the problem on two points, education and housing. The sooner our population in suburban and other areas becomes aware of this the better it will be for the total problem.