The history of American policing is too often stereotyped as a natural outgrowth of one thing: southern slave patrols.
Clyburn is not alone in this belief. A June 2019 headline from The Conversation reads, “The racist roots of American policing: From slave patrols to traffic stops.” And this just scratches the surface.
While these claims are not entirely incorrect, they are seriously disingenuous — and essentially incentivize people to argue and pursue historic inquiry in bad faith.
Such a sentiment, which undoubtedly idles in the minds of others, willfully ignores — or more charitably, forgets — the degree to which American politics, policing and society has been historically defined by sectionalism. Among America’s northern, southern and western regions, different political and social dynamics affected the conditions around which centralized policing developed.
Moreover, to purposefully reduce policing down to racism and slave patrols rids the public discourse of any attempt to fruitfully reflect upon how society and policing have developed alongside each other under an increasingly large government bureaucracy.
Roots of Modern Policing
The rudimentary ideas of policing — law enforcement, crime prevention and criminal apprehension — are not new.
According to Dr. Gary Potter’s “The History of Policing in the United States,” policing during the Colonial era closely resembled the practices of law enforcement in England, which consisted mostly of informal communal watch systems and private, for-profit methods.
The system of regular night-watches was the earliest example of anything remotely resembling modern policing. Throughout the Colonial era, these “town watches” consisted of a collection of community members and volunteers whose primary purpose was to forewarn the town or city of looming risks and hazards. But as city population rates boomed throughout the early 19th century, this method proved highly ineffective.
Confronted with sprawling urbanization and the heightened importance of maintaining mercantile interests, “the emerging commercial elites needed a mechanism to [ensure] a stable and orderly work force, a stable and orderly environment for the conduct of business, and the maintenance of what they referred to as the ‘collective good,’” Potter wrote.
Where antiquated night-watch systems could no longer properly maintain social stability and order, municipal police departments developed as a requisite to address a heightened concern for the “collective good.”
Boston established the first major police department in 1838. Thereafter, every major U.S. city would establish a centralized police force by the 1880s, according to Potter.
These departments functioned as publicly funded bureaucratic systems which adhered to a fixed set of rules and procedures. Breaking from the tradition of employing volunteers, modern departments staffed full-time employees which, over the course of the 20th century, would transform into a more professional institution.
To ensure the system would serve the overall collective interest, police departments were answerable to a central governing body that legitimized their use of force by giving it legal authority — linking policing to the political pressures of the day.
In America’s South
Policing in the American South took on a different evolutionary form, specifically, from the slave patrol.
These informal patrols chased down and captured runaway slaves, provided an armed defense to inhibit slave revolts and sustained non-governmental coercion to maintain the social order of the South.
The first patrols emerged in the Carolina colonies in 1704 and operated through the mid-19th century. Over the course of this period, municipal police departments and slave patrols mutually shared authority throughout the South.
With Reconstruction, the South’s traditional social order was destroyed, slavery was abolished and northern military forces occupied the South until around 1877.
In the wake of the war, municipal departments and private groups often worked together to install formal and informal laws and codes designed to deny freed slaves — who often worked alongside poor white farmers as agricultural laborers — of their fundamental rights and liberties.
Up until the mid-20th century, policing was used as an enforcement mechanism to uphold racial discrimination laws and forcefully break up protests during the Civil Rights Movement.
Corruption and Politics
In both the North and South, early American policing procedures were often “notoriously corrupt” due to their connection and subordination to local politicians. Officers routinely accepted payoffs and strictly enforced a certain set of political prerogatives, binding law enforcement as an indispensable apparatus of political machines.
Under this set of circumstances, policing shifted from its traditional function as a “reactive enterprise” to a preventative force, giving law enforcement more control and authority over day-to-day interactions among private citizens.
In addition, municipal departments throughout the country took an active role in “strike-breaking” in the midst of the Gilded Age, as municipal police departments often enforced anti-labor laws at the will and interests of local political bosses.
“It is incorrect to say the late 19th and early 20th century police were corrupt,” Potter wrote. “[T]hey were in fact, primary instruments for the creation of corruption in the first place.”
Prohibition only made matters worse. The notion of outlawing alcohol, coupled with the societal norm of drinking, created a breeding ground for lawlessness and government corruption. Between the enactment of the 18th amendment in 1919 and the 21st Amendment in 1933, crime transformed into a “more open, more organized, and more blatant” enterprise.
By the end of Prohibition, Potter said, police and government corruption was “almost total.”
Professionalization and Reform
President Herbert Hoover created the Wickersham Commission in 1929 to remedy the rise in organized crime and governmental corruption. But more fruitful efforts to reform policing came from within municipal departments.
Over the course of the 20th century, police departments would install internal commissioners to establish rules and procedures to guide police behavior, in addition to implementing new recruitment and training programs.
These reforms structurally distanced municipal police departments away from the politicians and promoted “an internal clear chain-of-command,” Potter wrote.
O.W. Wilson, an American police officer in the mid-1900s, later paved the way for police professionalization in his book “Police Administration,” which argued in favor of police centralization and a greater emphasis on crime control. Despite Wilson’s vision, however, efforts to professionalize law enforcement fermented some rancor between police and communities.
By the 1960s, police departments went through a series of changes under “Taylorization” — a concept named after American work-study engineer F.W. Taylor — which reduced their forces, changed their patrolling methods and “increased the division of labor” within departments, Potter wrote.
Pushing into the ‘80s and ‘90s, municipal police began to implement “community policing” methods that put more emphasis on improving inter-community relations, decentralizing departments and introducing more scholarly engagement.
The Folly of Ignoring Detail
In the North, policing took on a much different image than it did in America’s South and West. And this distinction matters — the details must acknowledge nuance and fruitful exploration; for a house built on an unstable foundation cannot withstand the forces of a powerful storm.
Outside of the South, other social and political dynamics happened to greatly impact the evolution of modern policing.
In the West, for example, there was no centralized policing authority. Instead, a system in which one was expected to secure and defend their own rights in the absence of any centralized governmental authority was installed.
Private security forces such as the infamous Pinkerton detective agency often helped procure order and facilitate peaceful exchanges of goods and services throughout the Western frontier.
Despite no centralized authority to enforce law and order, most installments in the Western frontier protected property rights and civil order by using private security agencies that helped install a system of conflict resolution, according to the Mises Institute.
In these cases, private agencies, as well as everyday people, found that resolving disputes via violence and force was less pragmatic and less cost-effective than through arbitration and a system of courts.
Without knowing this, one might confidently say that policing in Boston, Denver and New Orleans developed together under similar practices and circumstances.
Moreover, such claims are not only made in bad-faith, but with the purpose of invoking a historical authority to drive a particular ideological worldview. This is a perfect example of intellectual dishonesty.
How can it be possible that today’s police serve the same purpose, function and duties as those who worked over a century and a half ago? Political partisans will nonetheless confirm that their fallacious arguments are true with the claim that history is on their side.
But in nearly every case, “the history” is much more complex, convoluted and propagandized than most of us believe. The American political mind must not accept pure sophisms as fruitful historical analysis. Any attempt to further propagandize the past will diminish the nation’s chances of constructing necessary reform.
There is a point at which the nation could reflect on the merits of certain arguments that criticize structures and rules which enable the current dysfunction within the system.
Potter described the history of policing as “tied not to the problem of crime, but to exigencies and demands of the American political-economy.”
“Anti-immigrant bashing of early police forces, to the strike breaking of the later 1800s, to the massive corruption of the early 20th century, through professionalism, Taylorization and now attempts at amelioration through community policing, the role of the police in the United States has been defined by economic and politics, not crime or crime control.”
Slave patrols happened to be intertwined with policing in the South — policing, in itself, does not equate to slave patrols.
More appropriately, policing has been used as the enforcement mechanism of the state. For example, if the state enacted a mask mandate by which every American must abide, then the police would be tasked with enforcing that law and preventing people from breaking it.
A fruitful conversation about policing should address all of the areas in which law enforcement abuses its authority or abrades the rights and liberties of people. But nothing will come out of propagandizing history to paint a picture that is not entirely correct.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.