Summer Thunder Part 1: The History of Policing in America
Published June 9, 2021

Summer Thunder Part 1: The History of Policing in America

“Out of the stillness of the shutdown, the voices of protest have roared like summer thunder. An overwhelming majority of Americans, of both parties, support major reforms in American policing.” –Jill Lepore

by Susan E. Stutz

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Illustration of black man with hands up in front of a brick wall with the shadows of five police officers cast over him

Source Lewiston Sun Journal

In following this blog, you know that we have written many articles on the issue of America's institutionalized racism and the never-ending consequences faced by Black and Brown communities. When we say that this country was built on the backs of enslaved peoples, it is not just a phrase—it is truth. And, this truth includes the establishment and evolution of law enforcement in America.

“The American Revolution toppled the power of the king over his people...but not the power of man over his family. The power of the police has its origins in that kind of power. Under the rule of law, people are [in theory but not in reality] equals; under the rule of police...we are not. We are more like the women, children, servants, and slaves in a household...people who were not allowed to be a part of the polis.” –Thomas Paine

America’s first law enforcement group was “the watch” established in Boston in 1631. Fashioned on the monarchical watchmen of England who were charged with keeping the king's peace, the watch consisted of men who patrolled a specific area at night and raised a cry for help to other watchmen if trouble occurred. Modeled on the hermandades (armed Spanish bands who hunted down runaways in the early 1500s in Cuba), the first slave patrol was authorized in South Carolina in 1702. Its’ function was exactly as the name suggests—they enforced slave codes and hunted down escaping slaves while using a battle cry to rally more hunters to their chase. Over time, the watchmen and slave patrols merged, ultimately becoming our modern day police force, marrying the night watchmen of old England—those charged with ensuring the King’s peace—with the militia (a private citizen based type of compulsory military made up of men who also served in the watch).

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson created a department chair in “law and police” at the College of William and Mary. It was then that the definition of the word “police” began its transformation to our understanding of its meaning today. The first police department was established in New York in 1844 with Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts following suit in the 1850s. This is also where the militarization of law enforcement has its beginnings; contemporary military leaders joined the police and in doing so, used their military structure and training as a blueprint for policing.

While the watchmen and slave patrols would ultimately morph into what we recognize as law enforcement agencies, the beginning of American modern policing actually began in the early 20th century with the Berkeley, California police department which was led by August Vollmer, who is credited with reshaping the American police into an American military. Vollmer explained his reasoning for a para-military style law enforcement, “For years, ever since Spanish-American War days, I’ve studied military tactics and used them to good effect in rounding up crooks,” he later explained. “After all we’re conducting a war, a war against the enemies of society.” Who were those enemies? Mobsters, bootleggers, socialist agitators, strikers, union organizers, immigrants, and Black people.” Vollmer’s policing model was adopted coast to coast along with his belief that an officer in the military should and did occupy the same place in the public’s mind as a police captain or lieutenant. Especially in the South, law enforcement agencies of this era were primarily tasked with enforcing Jim Crow laws which aimed to keep emancipated slaves under the thumb of white America. As if slavery, slave codes, and Jim Crow laws did not do enough to criminalize Blackness, Vollmer’s policing style hammered yet another nail into the cross upon which Black men and women have been relentlessly crucified.

Today there are 18,000 federal, state, county, and local law enforcement agencies in the US with an active-duty officer population in excess of 700,000—roughly 1 officer for every 474 people. These numbers far exceed our European counterparts and the difference lies with America’s obsession with firepower. In the mid-1800’s the Colt Firearms Company began manufacturing the Pocket Police Model which was then issued to fledgling law enforcement agencies and officers. American police carried weapons because America’s private citizens carried weapons (all able-bodied male colonists were required to be a part of the militia). This mingling of fire power would have disastrous consequences. With weapons in the hands of so many, it is not surprising that over the years, indigenous people, slaves, and other individuals labeled as non-white such as the Chinese, Italian, and Irish, fell prey to vigilantes, mobs, and yes, law enforcement officers, who hunted them down and executed them for one reason or another. Seen as the “other” the reasoning for killing them mattered very little.

In 1965, at the behest of President Johnson, Congress passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act as part of the President’s war on crime. The Act provided $30,000,000 ($223,000,000 in today’s money) for things like bulletproof vests, helicopters, tanks, rifles, and other military grade weaponry that were then disseminated to law enforcement agencies across the country. Much of what was shipped out had previously been used in the Vietnam War. As with the law enforcement of old, law enforcement agencies used this equipment primarily against Black people and their communities. And, because Black people were arrested, charged, and convicted more than white people, the belief in their inherent criminality was—and continues to be—reified. But, Johnson was not finished.

In 1968, Johnson created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. The purpose of this organization was to disburse federal funding to crime-control projects. Even money earmarked for social programs such as health, welfare, housing, and education was rerouted to law enforcement agencies. For decades, this country has been defunding social service programs in favor of military-style police departments. Our education system, community support agencies, and our neighborhoods have suffered greatly from this reallocation of funds. Many states now spend more money on law enforcement than they do on public education. Coupled with President Johnson’s actions, Reagan’s war on drugs, and the NRA’s 1980 foray into political endorsement, problems of modern day policing have grown exponentially.

As we know—we see it on the news almost daily—death at the hands of law enforcement has been an ever growing problem with thousands being felled by bullets shot from police-issued weapons. For example, in January of 2015, American law enforcement officers fatally shot more people than all of English and Welsh police did over the previous 24 years. Let that sink in. In the span of roughly three weeks in early 2015, more Americans died at the hands of law enforcement—the very people we believe to be charged with our protection—than those who died at the hands of England and Wales’ law enforcement agencies in more than 2 decades. On average, law enforcement officers fatally wound 1,000 people annually. The number of men between the ages of 15 and 34 who have been treated in America's emergency departments for injuries sustained at the hands of police officers is almost the same as the total number of pedestrians (of all ages) treated in those same emergency rooms as a result of injuries from car accidents.

In March 2015, then Attorney General Eric Holder delivered his remarks regarding the DOJ investigation into the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I remember being overwhelmed by America’s top-cop calling out the Ferguson Police Department, saying aloud all of the things they had done wrong and how the systemic racism of that law enforcement agency “created an intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault and under siege by those charged to serve and protect them.” After reading the report, one would think that genuine change may come as a result. I know that I hoped such a report would never be needed again but that hope is a privilege that comes from being white. People of color know that one report does not undo centuries of brutalization—they live with that harsh reality every single day.

And, six years later, society has come only a small distance from where we were in recognizing the impact of racism. And, that is because Black and Brown people continue to die for no more reason than a $20 bill and a pack of cigarettes and an erroneous belief in their inherent criminality on the part of law enforcement and white America.

We find ourselves taking to the streets on a far more regular basis and saying out loud that Black and Brown people are not “the other,” they are PEOPLE. Like you. Like me. It is time to put the lie behind us and face the mistakes of centuries in the making.

Thank you to Chris T.

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