In the Name of the Law: The 1967 Shooting of Huey Newton and Law Enforcement's Permissive Environment

By Williams, Yohuru R. | Negro History Bulletin, April-June 1998 | Go to article overview

In the Name of the Law: The 1967 Shooting of Huey Newton and Law Enforcement's Permissive Environment


Williams, Yohuru R., Negro History Bulletin


In the wee hours of the morning of October 28, 1967, officer John Frey radioed the Oakland, California police dispatcher for backup. He had spotted a beige Volkswagen automobile, which he told the dispatcher matched the description of a vehicle used by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). After checking the license number, Frey pulled the car over at the corner of Seventh and Willow streets in West Oakland. Frey approached the driver's side window and spoke for a few moments with the driver, Huey P. Newton, the Minister of Defense for the Panther party. Newton was accompanied by Gene Mckinney, who sat quietly in the passenger seat. A few moments later, officer Herbert Heanes arrived on the scene. Heanes later claimed that he expected to assist in a routine traffic stop. Shortly before 6:00 a.m., however, officer Frey lay dead, officer Heanes seriously wounded, and Huey P. Newton under arrest for murder at Kaiser Hospital, where he was being treated for gunshot wounds to the leg and abdomen. Newton's companion had mysteriously disappeared.

What really happened on the morning of Saturday, October 28 would remain a mystery until the trial of Huey P. Newton, which was held in the summer of 1968. Many speculated about Newton's guilt or innocence. Even after a verdict was reached, the facts of what transpired remained sketchy. Some suggested that Huey Newton had been the victim of a conspiracy. Newton himself gave credence to such speculation when he announced at his trial that he was completely innocent of the charges against him. This essay argues that the incident was not the result of a conspiracy but the result of a permissive environment cultivated by state, local, and federal law enforcement officials who turned a blind eye toward acts of brutality against blacks and political subversives whom they deemed a threat to the status quo. While many of the pronouncements of the BPP and other black militants certainly warranted investigation, the take no prisoners attitude at all levels of government resulted in a web of violence and disinformation that totally disregarded the Constitution.

The idea of the permissive environment is a well-known concept in the study of the law. It refers to an environment conducive to circumstances that would allow crime to occur. For example, the unmaintained neighborhood lot that becomes a dumping ground or a haven for lawlessness is a permissive environment. The owner who takes no precautions, such as putting up a fence or placing lights on the property, encourages the lawlessness to continue. Despite the emphasis by scholars on the FBI, the war on black militants was waged most consistently by state and local police with the tacit approval of federal officials. Despite director J. Edgar Hoover's carefully crafted image of the FBI as the bellwether of problems on the horizon, more often than not, the FBI took its cues from local police. In most cases, local police lacked the authority to conduct investigations through wiretapping. Meanwhile, FBI agents often were undermanned or without the resources to keep up with Hoover's directives. Their partnership often was defined by mistrust and misapplication of rules that crossed the line from law enforcement to law breaking.

In spring 1969 for instance, New Haven, Connecticut, chief of police James Ahern authorized his intelligence squad to establish wiretaps on Panther homes, despite a state law prohibiting the use of electronic listening devices. The New Haven police listened without acting while a known FBI informant compelled members to torture and ultimately murder a suspected police informant. In the winter of the same year in Chicago, FBI agent Roy Mitchell passed on information to the Chicago police that was used in a predawn raid that claimed the lives of Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. After the police laid the ground work, the FBI along with the courts legitimized their actions.

The permissive environment therefore extended from the cop on the beat and the FBI agent in the field to the state and federal court system, all designed to neutralize political agitators. …

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