Thacher studies history to inform today's police reform

October 27, 2023

Although some may view reducing the harms of policing as a contemporary issue, David Thacher encourages modern reformers to consider the past in the Journal of Criminal Justice. Using original archival research, Thacher examined the use of summons (when a police officer issues an order for someone to appear in court or pay a fine without taking the person into custody) in lieu of arrests in New York from 1907-1980. 

“Although this may seem like a minor, technical part of police history, it’s actually a very important story,” Thacher said. “Before the summons, the only way the police could sanction somebody who broke the law, even for a minor offense like a traffic violation, was to arrest them. Creating this new legal tool fundamentally changed the experience of policing for millions of people.” 

While historians generally argue that reforms during that period focused narrowly on crime control, summons were utilized to “accommodate the broad array of tasks that American society increasingly expected the police to handle,” Thacher wrote. 

Thacher emphasizes that the adoption of police summons challenges the dominant understanding of 20th century police reform. It is generally believed that reform at the time was fueled by insights from scientific breakthroughs in psychology, political science, and chemistry. Conversely, summons were developed from the bottom-up, through experimentation conducted on an intensely local level with continuous monitoring efforts to determine its effectiveness. 

“This type of reform was a matter of identifying innovations that creative practitioners had already invented in the field, and then refining them and disseminating them more widely,” Thacher explained. “This is an important model for reform, partly because it does a better job than the top-down approach at tailoring changes to the local context.”

Thacher wrote that “the history of the police summons can expand our understanding of the forms that American police reform…might take in the future” because it goes against what “has dominated our image of what American police reform involves”.   

He concluded that modern police reformers should consider the history of the use of summons when developing alternatives to arrests because it provides a “distinctive image of the forms that police reform has taken in the past, as well as the forms it might potentially take in the future.”

You can read the article here: “The emergence and spread of the summons in lieu of arrest, 1907-1980” in the Journal of Criminal Justice.