Editorial: On the History of Policing in the United States

Photo source https://time.com/4779112/police-history-origins/

By Ian Conte, Copy Editor

The summer of protest sparked by the brutal police murder of 46-year-old Black man George Floyd has raised the call for a radical restructuring of the police to fever pitch. While many feel that the conversation about policing in the US is beginning to shift, the story of state-sanctioned violence against black and working-class communities is nothing new.

Policing began in North America shortly after European colonists first settled its shores in the 16th and 17th centuries. These White settlers often clashed with the Native Americans whose land they were encroaching upon. To keep the Natives in line, the European colonists formed small militias to terrorize and attack Natives and keep their own settlements safe.

With the arrival of African slaves at the Jamestown colony in 1619, policing expanded to keeping Black people under the heel of the rich White Europeans who treated them as property. New militias formed as slave patrols – catching and brutally punishing runaway slaves before returning them to their masters.

As more Europeans immigrated to the North American colonies, the divide between rich and poor grew wider. In an interview for NPR, Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika of Rutgers University said that rich slave owners and businessmen began hiring militias to control “any inconvenient population, especially labor.”

Dr. Kumanyika found that the institution of the police evolved not only from these militias to keep people of color in line, but also to enact “violence against strikers and [the practice of] union breaking.” He believes that the police revolve around “labor control,” and maintaining the rich white status quo.

Following the end of the Civil War and emancipation of slaves, slave patrols evolved into vigilante groups which operated outside the law. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) cemented themselves into the framework of the Reconstruction-Era society, terrorizing and murdering Black people for transgressions that would have gone ignored if they were White. White supremacist militias roamed freely in the South, and quickly infiltrated high positions in government and local law enforcement.

While the KKK and its affiliates within government terrorized black communities, police departments continued their focus on keeping workers of all races and ethnicities in line. The industrial revolution led to increasing class struggle nationwide, and the rich needed to suppress strikers and union members to continue their ruthless exploitation of the working class.

In the early 20th century, Berkley Police Chief August Vollmer came into the national spotlight after making a nationwide tour of US police departments. Vollmer sought to revolutionize policing and encourage other departments to follow the changes he made to his own department. Among these changes were motorized police patrols, marksmanship training, a radio police dispatch, a call box network, and a centralized police records system.

According to the American Journal of Sociology, these changes drew heavily from the tactics and organizational structure of the imperial US Military, which had been “developed to conquer and rule foreign populations.” 

Vollmer grew his reputation as “the father of modern policing” by heading the US’s first Criminal Justice program at the University of California, Berkley. Vollmer’s courses taught that there were “racial types,” and that things such as heredity and “racial degeneration” made people more likely to become criminals.

Vollmer’s teachings on policing reached beyond the US. In 1921, he was elected president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. His word quickly became de facto and contributed heavily to the militarization of modern police across the globe.

Law enforcement agencies followed in Vollmer’s footsteps, and amassed increasing power over the course of the 2oth century. With this newfound imperial power, and its history of racial and class violence, the institution of policing became what it is today: a bloated, overfunded, unrestricted monstrosity that protects and serves only the hyper-rich, white status quo.

So, what is the solution to this nightmare? Dr. Kumanyika thinks that regardless of the specifics between abolishing and defunding policing, the key is to not allow more money to be given to the police. “We don’t need more money to go into armored tanks, to rubber bullets and all of those kind of things. We need money in social programs that actually reduce harm.”

Clearly, the actions of police today have a long and complex history in our country. The police as an institution serve only the oligarchs who control our society, and exercise violence against the people to keep those oligarchs in power. The police are overfunded, and are given the authority to handle issues that they simply are not trained for.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The police are no exception.