IF SOMETHING sounds familiar about the statement of the Civil Rights Commission on the link between polic brutality and urban riots, it's because the Kerner Commission reported much the same thing more than a decade ago. "Deep hostility between police and ghetto communities [was] a primary cause" of the riots that swept the country in the mid-1960s, the Kerner Commission reported. Now the Civil Rights Commission says that an actual or perceived "pattern of discriminatory and unjustified use of force" has triggered tension and unrest in recent years in cities as different as Birmingham, Denver, Philadelphia and, as recently again as yesterday, Miami.
If the commission is right -- and it appears to be -- the lessons available from the disastrous riots in Watts, Harlem and Washington have not yet been learned. Thus, many of the recommendations of the commission are restatements of what was urged in 1968: the selection and training of local police officers must be improved; law-enforcement agencies should reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the people they police; and local officials must provide and enforce clear, consistent policies on what the police can and cannot do.
But there is something new in this Civil Rights Commission statement. It calls for a substantially increased involvement by the federal government in what were once considered to be purely local matters. Some laws need to be changed and some additions federal personnel made available, it says, to protect the federal civil rights of persons who are abused by local law enforcement officers.
While all of these proposals are likely to be opposed by those who fear a greater federal role in local affairs, some of them are clearly needed. It makes no sense, for example, for the federal government to be able to prosecute certain crimes if the victim is an American citizen, but not identical crimes committed against aliens. That, however, has been the law for a century. Similarly, the old Reconstruction era statutes permit the federal government to prosecute conspiracies to deprive a citizen of civil rights, but not the individual acts of one officer.
The distressing aspect of such recommendations is not that they increase the reach of the federal government, but that they are still necessary. The federal government cannot turn away from its responsibility to protect the basic rights of everyone who lives in this country.