Tag Archives: police

US Police Roots Spring from Slavery

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.

Members of the NOPD search the Lakeview neighborhood for a group of suspected car burglars in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO BY MAX BECHERER

Obvious Disparate Neighborhood Policing Strategies

New Orleans       The headline may have said that Iran sent twenty missiles at two Iraqi bases where US troops and materials were stationed, but the picture in my local paper was equally disturbing.  It showed New Orleans police officers armed to the gills with machine guns, armored vests, and helmets were seen with police dogs swarming around a pink house under a bold headline claiming, “LAKEVIEW LOCKDOWN.”

Please understand that the Lakeview neighborhood is not your typical New Orleans neighborhood in a city that is two-thirds African-American.  It is not the gated and stately uptown of old money, but the largely white, solidly upper-middle class of families and professionals, safely ensconced near Lake Ponchartrain.  Flooded after the levee on the 17th street canal failed during Hurricane Katrina, Lakeview had been the neighborhood that led the recovery because its families had the financial resources, while other areas lagged behind while forced to wait for federal funds and insurance payments, often deliberately slow.

What in the world was happening?  Was Lakeview under assault? Had the Iranians come after Lakeview?  Were serial killers loose on the streets?

No, there was an attempted car break-in.  Really, a car break-in?

No, not really it turns out there were some teens testing car doors to see if they were unlocked close to 9 am in the morning.  A New Orleans plainclothes detective saw a suspicious car they were riding and “opened fire,” claiming the car had backed up towards him.  Got this?  A cop without a uniform opened fire on a suspicious car over some aspiring car burglars. The teens ran for it, and “a radio call saying an officer was in danger sent dozens of police cars speeding into Lakeview, lights flashing, to block off streets and begin a search that went on for hours.”  Despite the breathless coverage of the incident, the reporter couldn’t help allowing the sense of overkill to seep into his reporting that “The massive response to a car burglary, a crime that happens more than a dozen times a day across the city, closed several neighborhood blocks, put four schools on lockdown, left residents confined to their homes and eventually resulted in the arrest of a second suspect…”  Buried in the article was the fact that no weapons were ever found on the suspects nor was there any report of them having fired weapons.

In the Ninth Ward, equally iconic after Hurricane Katrina because of the storm damage and the recovery which is still a long way from being complete, every day the Nextdoor app neighborhood watchers and commenters are reporting car lock jiggles, break-ins, and, let’s be frank, actual car thefts.  Police wouldn’t get out of their cars or bother to stifle a yawn if they got a call reporting teens on the street, much less scramble the troops, and fire away in any of these neighborhoods.  Of course, a big reason is that many would not bother to call, since we also know that the habit of the New Orleans police firing first and investigating later would more likely lead to a body count in the majority black areas of the city.

Rarely are the racially disparate police strategies for neighborhood policing so starkly obvious.  I wish we could believe that there are lessons we are learning from this.


Please enjoy Think of Me by Neil Young.

Thanks to KABF.