The Troubled Origins of American Policing


Police shootings of unarmed African-American men have stimulated discussion about a “police crisis” in the U.S. For those of us who have studied the ongoing conflict between the police and African-American men, it is not a crisis at all: it is just more of the same.

To be more specific, it is just more of the same policing that African Americans have received in this country since the mid-17th century. The only difference between the policing that Africans Americans have experienced since slavery and now is that it has been documented and recorded by cell phone cameras.

What the video recordings are documenting is that African Americans have always been the chief subjects and objects of American policing. That is, one of the most important reasons for the development of police forces in this country was to carry out the important task of policing African Americans.

This may seem like an overstatement and perhaps even an overgeneralization about the function of police in American society. But a general survey of police history in this country supports it.

Most Americans do not know that American police departments have a dual heritage. Most police academies teach new recruits that American police forces drew their inspiration and organizational model from the “London Metropolitan Police,” developed by Sir Robert Peel in Great Britain in 1829. The “bobbies,” as they are still called, were Great Britain's answer to recurrent labor strikes and urban civil disorders carried out in Great Britain's urban areas by the working classes. The bobbies were an unarmed police force (as they still are), and they were recruited from members of that nation's working classes as a way of ensuring that they did not become an elite force that oppressed the lower classes.

American police forces in Boston, New York and Philadelphia borrowed extensively from this British model. But there was a second model for American police forces that influenced police in the South as well as in the North: The slave patrols that developed first in the southern colonies and that were eventually formalized in the southern states.

The slave patrols in the southern colonies were charged with policing and controlling a massive, enslaved population that threatened the very fabric of southern society. To ensure that these slave patrols could handle such an awesome task, southern legislatures mandated that all white men had to serve in the patrols and that they had the unrestricted power to control enslaved African Americans. The slave patrol could beat, maim and even kill any enslaved person who violated the slave codes, who was caught away from his or her plantation, who resisted white authority, and who in any manner presented a threat to the established order of the South's slave society.

One of the most interesting features of the slave patrol was its awesome power over all aspects of the lives of the enslaved. There were no Fourth Amendment rights for enslaved African Americans. Members of the slave patrol could break into the cabins and homes of the enslaved, search through all of their belongings, and even confiscate their property without a warrant or warning. As the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, ruled in the 1857 Dred Scott case, “Negroes (whether enslaved or free) had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The slave patrol became the model for the policing of African Americans throughout the country. One does not have to look hard to find some of its essential tactics still being practiced by modern police officers who continue to see African-American men as lawless, criminal threats to American society.

While the Civil War may have ended slavery, it did not end the race-based and differential law enforcement that African Americans endured throughout the country. Indeed, as Douglas A. Blackmon has shown in his book, Slavery by Another Name, the criminal justice system was used even more to criminalize and abuse African-American citizens. In the South, police officers, sheriffs, and constables arrested African Americans on trumped-up charges such as vagrancy and loitering, and they would then sell them to plantation owners as if they were still slaves.

This system of convict labor and forced labor was peonage. It emerged in every state in the South and because it provided those states so much profit, it was not successfully ended until the 1940s.

In addition to enforcing a race-based criminal justice system, the police also enforced segregation laws with impunity. Moreover, the police undertook this task with such zeal in both the North and the South that African Americans always knew that they could expect little sympathy or support from police officers. Instead, they expected the police to be brutal. They expected the police to be disinterested in crimes in which they were victims.

They expected the police to be disrespectful. They also expected the police to be what they were: the powerful symbols of white supremacy and oppression. For nearly two centuries, African-American citizens demanded and agitated for the employment of African Americans as police officers as a way of trying to find a balance between the racially-biased criminal justice system that victimized them and obtaining fair and authoritative law enforcement in their communities.

To most Americans this general indictment of the police may seem a bit unfair and too harsh. But studies of the police in American cities have repeatedly shown their racist behavior in African-American communities and their ongoing defense of the racial status quo in American society. There are many cases that illustrate the failure of the police to enforce the law fairly in the nation's African-American communities. Indeed, the literature on racially-biased policing is so voluminous that an examination of it here would far exceed the available space.

But there are two benchmark studies that illustrate the ongoing race-based policing of the nation's African-American communities: Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal's 1944 study of race relations in the U.S. and the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on the civil disorders that occurred in American cities in the 1960s.

In 1944, Myrdal published An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy. Commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation to study American race relations, in this 800- page study Myrdal included a chapter on “The Police and Other Public Contacts” and the relationship of the police with African Americans. The chapter reads as if it were written today: It cites the ongoing police brutality, the mandate that the police had to enforce segregation and white supremacy, and of course, a chilling description of the “average” southern policeman:

“The average southern policeman is a promoted poor white with a legal sanction to use a weapon. His social heritage has taught him to despise Negroes, and he has had little education which could have changed him.”

Twenty-three years later, very little had changed when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission. It cited the police as the main causative factor for the civil disorders (“race riots”) that had occurred in cities such as Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Newark and Camden, New Jersey from 1964 to 1967. The Commission reported that most African Americans knew that the police were not in their communities to protect their lives, but to protect white property and to keep them in line through brutal force and unnecessary arrests. The police were the most visible representatives of white racism and the negative impact that it had on African-American communities.

While much has changed since the scathing indictments of the police by Myrdal in 1944 and the Kerner Commission in 1968, much has not.

Many big-city police department have hired more African-American police officers, and African Americans have served as police chiefs and the chief law enforcement administrators in all of the nation's major cities. But the mission of the police has remained essentially the same: to defend and maintain white supremacy.

Although police behavior has become less violent against African Americans, much still remains the same. The failed “war on drugs,” “stop and frisk,” and “broken windows” policies have once again made African Americans the victims of over policing and police abuse. Moreover, in some instances, police practices in the 21st century seem to harken back to the unrestrained policies and tactics of the antebellum slave patrol!

So what is to be done? There have been proposals such as requiring all police officers to wear body cameras and increasing the hours of sensitivity training for police officers. In a system in which police serve as the main line of defense for a system of white supremacy, such training will be negligible in improving and changing the relationship of the police with African-American men.

Instead, I propose that the nation commits itself (not just police officers) to a program of early childhood education to address white supremacy and racism. By the time most police officers go on the streets their attitudes about African Americans as “the other,” as “demons,” as “thugs,” and as the “enemy” have already been shaped by what they have learned at home, in our popular culture, and in the police training that they have received. Only a conscious effort in early childhood education to reverse the racism and white supremacy that our society continues to perpetuate will change their behavior.

Someone just needs to teach the police to see African Americans as fellow human beings and not as “demons,” “animals,” “thugs,” and “others” who deserved to be beaten, harassed, arrested, and killed just because they exist.

W. Marvin Dulaney is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is the author of Black Police in America (1996) and a forthcoming book on the African-American Police League in Chicago. He welcomes comments from readers.

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