“Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” – James Baldwin
We have a tendency to accept the United States police force as a natural, organic entity. Like many systems in our society, we accept their presence in our lives without question. We believe that we “need” these bureaucratic structures to function. However, the police force did not always exist. The birth and development of law enforcement in the U.S. can be traced to specific historical, legal and political-economic circumstances. It wasn’t until 1838 that the idea of a centralized municipal police department emerged in Boston. By the 1880’s, all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place.
One of the conditions credited for the creation of centralized, bureaucratic police departments is urbanization. Authors have written about a wave of public disorder that arose when the U.S. shifted to urban cities from small cities and rural communities. Granted, public disorder was more visible and less easily controlled in urban areas. However, there is no evidence of a spike in crime.
So, what public disorder perpetuated the push for police? It depends heavily on who is defining those terms. In the 19th century, two interests emerged that supported the development of municipal police departments. The emerging economic elite, made up of factory owners, needed a way to insure a stable and orderly work force. They also wanted to shift the cost of protecting their business to the state. Municipal police departments provided a publicly funded, organized, violent force to maintain order. What was happening that the factory owners needed to stabilize their work force? Workers were being exploited; they were forced to work long hours in dangerous working conditions for very low wages. In response, they began “rioting.” Public police departments allowed owners to control their work force and prevent “strike breaking” under the rule of law, disconnected from the payoffs of the economic elite.
In the Southern states the push for police came from a different source. The South needed to modernize the traditional “Slave Patrols.” Following the Civil War, slave patrols and night watches, which morphed into municipal police departments, were designed to control the behaviors of people of color. For example, New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols.
Africans fought against enslavement from the beginning. They ran away, set fire to towns and killed whites when necessary to gain their freedom. They organized and formed rebellions. To maintain dominance, white elites had to enact severe slave codes that controlled every aspect of their behavior. In order for those codes to be effective, they had to be strictly enforced by the white population. One of those mechanisms was slave patrols. Even free blacks in urban areas caused hysteria and fear and white elites needed to enact severe social controls to manipulate them into an acquiescent labor force.
After emancipation, the white preoccupation with race and the question of how to maintain control was answered through municipal policing. Jim Crow laws were put into place and enforced through patrols organized by the federal military, state militia and the Ku Klux Klan. These patrols morphed into local law enforcement offices. Throughout the history of municipal policing, people of color were arrested in far greater numbers than whites, and for the slightest infractions. Northern and Southern cities relied on their police force to control people of color and impoverished populations. As immigrant populations grew, the white environment of fear created “us versus them” dichotomies.
After the Civil Rights Era and the fall of Jim Crow, mass incarceration became a thriving business; the United States has the highest prison population in the world. The U.S. Department of Justice reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the U.S., totaling 6.8 million people. That’s 1 of every 35 adults. The fact is that crime rates have risen and fallen independently of our growing incarceration rates.
We can read the history, but we must understand the connection between policing policies like stop and frisk, racial profiling, three strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentences. These are merely new mechanisms adapted to continue punishing the poor and people of color. Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rates of whites. One in three black men will experience prison, while only 6% of white men will. The poor also continue to be disproportionately jailed. In 2014, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration.
That’s not the full story. Police officers killed 1,129 people in 2017. More people died from police violence in 2017 than the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in action around the world. Law enforcement is a racist, classist, violent gang with the legal ability to act with almost perfect immunity. To top all that; they are ineffective. Less than 5% of all calls dispatched to the police result in officers stopping a crime or arresting a suspect. It isn’t just an issue of timing. The police fail to solve 3 in 4 crimes after they’ve been reported.
It’s time to stop accepting the need for police presence. We must understand that “Protect and Serve” does not apply to the citizens of the United States, but to the powerful, rich elite. Their interests are catered to, with corruption at the foundation of these partnerships. This corruption, violent racism, and classism birthed the development of municipal police departments. Our education must compel us to liberate this country from their tyranny.
Article by Tussy Wallace, originally appeared in The Triumph.