US Police Roots Spring from Slavery

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans     We would all love to simply believe that the police are there, and have always been there, as the slogan goes, “to serve and protect.”  Jill Lepore, the noted Harvard historian and frequent New Yorker indefatigable and invaluable contributor, in a recent piece in that magazine detailed in brief the history of American policing, and it was not a pretty story.  She starts with the transfer from Britain to the US of the police as the “king’s force,” but finds that once on American soil, the roots are all wrapped around the poisoned tree of slavery.

It began with a something akin to a neighborhood watch in Boston in 1631, New York in 1658, and Philadelphia in 1705, where rich men hired poor and elderly men to take their turns.  These watches and incipient militias were married with slave patrols whose purpose was the brutal and rigid enforcement of slave codes in the states that began with those passed in Virginia in 1680, which make it “lawful …to kill said negroe or slave so lying out and resisting” being recaptured or breaching the code.  Slave patrols began in South Carolina in 1702, Virginia in 1726, North Carolina 1753, and so on.  “New Orleans was distinctive in having la police: armed City Guards, who wore military-style uniforms and received wages, an urban slave patrol,” as Lepore terms it.

Lepore also cites the role of slavery in police history that underscores the claims of Boston creating the first modern urban police force in 1838, citing instead that it was a reaction to a call in 1829 by a Black abolitionist David Walker for violent rebellion, provoking mob attacks on abolitionists and fear in many cities and states.  North Carolina created something they called a “police” force, but meant slave patrol in response to Walker’s call.

The story doesn’t get better.  In the unorganized territories, US Marshals, where they existed, only enforced federal laws, opening the door for vigilante committees to handle local matters often violently through lynching and tar and feathering.  After the Civil War, the US Army was the police force in the West, engaging in more than 1000 combat operations against Native peoples.  Modern police tactics instituted by August Vollmer in 1909 as chief of police in Berkeley, California, imitated military experience in the West and in actions in US colonies.  Vollmer-era police enforced Jim Crow laws passed since Reconstruction, the new editions of old slave codes, all of which criminalized being Black.

It goes on and on.

We need police.  We need their service and protection.  Our members in lower income and minority communities actually want more police, not less, and don’t pretend that a neighborhood watch is protection.  Nonetheless the systemic infection of racism, dating to slavery and slave patrols and moved forward through Jim Crow, wars against crime, and other rationalized and politicized campaigns against minorities and immigrants, has to be leeched out in order to create a policing system that in fact is fair and equitable, protecting all, and targeting none.