A New York Times article published in August of 2020 notes that confidence in law enforcement is at a record low while calls for change have reached a fever pitch in the public consciousness.
Ongoing protests erupted across the United States with international actions arising in solidarity.
Videos posted on social media sites reveal what citizen-protestors see as enduring law enforcement violence and extrajudicial killings of people in Black, brown, and impoverished communities.
In some camps, people have started to dismiss bad-apple arguments that frame law enforcement abuses as individual aberrations; instead, they point to historical precedents that are embedded in the very foundations of the institution of policing.
Rather than reforms, like chokehold bans or body cameras, activists and organizers suggest that defunding--or even abolition--of the institution of policing is the only way to prevent future violence and death.
It may be hard to imagine a world without police.
But all it takes is a little historical digging to see that they haven’t been around forever, and this isn’t the first time there has been a demand for police reform of some kind.
So today we’re going to look at policing, from its colonial origins to the modern day, as well as attempts to change the institution over time.
In the early American colonies, policing was neither centralized nor standardized.
Groups of night watchmen and patrols often worked under a hodgepodge of different systems depending on their geographical locations.
Their aims were fairly similar as property owners and private companies contracted people-for-hire as protection from thieves and ne’er-do-wells.
In a bitterly ironic twist, colonial settlers were especially paranoid that nearby displaced Indigenous peoples might encroach on their settlements.
Between the 1630s and 1700, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia implemented night watch systems that mostly relied on volunteers, though some were paid.
These people would sign up for dates and times to patrol, often sent to make sure locals were not gambling or engaging in sex work-related activities.
This system was extremely inefficient, as night watch also served as punishment for some people, tempting volunteers to participate in the vices they were meant to watch.
Frequently these night watchmen spent their shifts getting drunk and falling asleep while on duty.
Southern colonies focused on protecting other forms of property.
Priorities rested on the maintenance of human chattel: enslaved Africans upholding colonial economies.
The first American slave patrols were formed in the first decade of the 18th century in the Carolinas.
These groups of 3 to 6 patrolmen often traveled on horseback, carrying whips, ropes, and guns.
Enslavement led to the enactment of slave codes that patrols enforced.
Night watches in the Northern colonies had similar duties.
Though chattel enslavement was less practiced there, these watches were still tasked with controlling enslaved populations.
Connecticut and New York even passed slave laws that served the same function.
These laws criminalized attempts at escape and rebellions of the enslaved against their enslavers.
Over the next hundred years, night watches, for-profit hires, and slave patrols worked in pursuit of similar ends by different means.
The notion of a centralized municipal police force actually originated in the UK by way of economist Patrick Colquhoun and his Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis.
Influenced by ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment, Colquhoun’s Treatise has been credited with reforming night watches into a means of maintaining social order.
Rather than just surveilling crimes, they would discipline labor.
These reforms required prioritization of moral reform for members of the ‘lower classes’ in rapidly urbanizing areas.
Members of the middle and upper classes welcomed this new development, while everyone else resisted.
Regardless of this resistance, municipal police forces started to form in the late 1820s.
These new ideas gained traction and spread internationally.
Across the pond, American cities began instituting municipal police forces, one of which was founded in Boston in 1838.
Increasing urbanization and immigration from places like Germany and Ireland meant that people perceived older methods of social control as insufficient.
That many of these immigrants were Catholic further marked them as dangerous Others.
Communities of freed Black people in Northern states were not policed or detained as frequently, except when moving outside of the boundaries of their segregated sections of the city.
Police were also asked to watch for potential threats of labor activity.
Violence between the police and striking workers--even if instigated or propagated by the police--could be framed as less a matter of private interests disciplining laborers than a force for public good curbing ‘riots’ and maintaining order.
By the 1850s, police corruption became rampant.
Like their night watch predecessors, members would often break the law like soliciting sex workers, gambling, and public drunkenness.
Being in such close proximity to these types of activities left members of the police vulnerable to bribes.
Leaders of municipal party machines would choose police captains and sergeants and even use the police to harass political opponents.
Municipalities eventually allowed police forces to carry weapons because they'd already begun to do so.
Local denizens feared the police and faced the brunt of these often-corrupt and newly-armed groups.
Meanwhile in the South, patrols continued to enforce slave codes, which required even average citizens to maintain vigilance.
Fugitive enslaved people remained the responsibility of patrolmen but deputized the average citizen.
While the US Civil War left this system of enslavement--as well as the laws and enforcers that upheld it--nominally conquered, this sympathetic relationship between official patrollers and vigilant citizens continued as the institution of policing in the Southern United States came to look more like that of the North.
In the post-Civil War era, slave codes gave way to Black codes.
These laws controlled where formerly enslaved people could go, where they could work and live, where they could travel, and even how much they could be paid.
Instead of disbanding, patrolmen shifted their focus, arresting freed Black people, including children, on minor charges as a way of incorporating them into systems of servitude, like the convict lease system.
Prisons could then lease their detainees to private companies through convict leasing, and tenant farming systems, or crop-liens, which helped keep Black, newly-minted citizens indebted to their former enslavers.
Like the slave codes, the Black codes legitimized white supremacist extrajudicial vigilantism and anti-Black violence.
They also paved the way for the Jim Crow era.
Lynch mobs and vigilante groups were common throughout the United States, often with implicit or explicit blessings from local police officers.
To learn more about this history you can watch our videos on “Why do we have private prisons?” And “The racist origins of US law.” By 1900, police work faced more reforms, not because of the racial animosity or vigilantism but because police were often repeating the behaviors of their night watch predecessors by participating in illicit activities or accepting bribes for favors.
Around this time, August Vollmer emerged as an influential figure who both advocated for progressive reforms and encouraged more systematic study of policing.
Vollmer served as a police chief in Berkeley, California and founded an early department of criminology as a professor at UC Berkeley.
He envisioned--and enacted--a new policing system that soon spread from police precincts in California throughout the United States.
Police were required to attend college.
Their work duties often involved elements of psychology, management, social work, and sociology.
But a new era of policing was on the horizon -- in 1919, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol, which created a vacuum for organized crime to fill.
In 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed the Wickersham Commission.
Its main duty was to examine problems with law enforcement.
Over the next two years, the commission produced 14 volumes on their findings.
One volume entitled, Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, documented widespread corruption while another volume, The Police, led to a bevy of reforms for law enforcement across the country, such as remapping of police precincts in order to reduce the chance of political pressure, increasing standards in order to recruit higher quality officers, reducing the duties of officers, updating technologies for ease of information-gathering, and diversification of police officers from different “races and familiar with [immigrant] language, habits, custom, and cultural background”.
Throughout the 1950s, professionalism became a priority.
Police officer and author Orlando Winfield Wilson gained widespread influence on American policing.
His book, Police Administration, in many ways served as the blueprint for reforms to improve police effectiveness and again change the institution of policing.
Professionalism became the goal, marking an effort to consolidate and centralize in order to maintain order and prevent corruption within these organizations.
Working as a police officer became a career trajectory, which was a relatively new phenomenon.
In The Police in America: An Introduction, historian Samuel Walker claims this mid-century shift towards professionalization had unintended consequences for police departments across the United States.
Bureaucratization, centralization of authority, and installation of a quasi-militaristic ranking system changed the inner workings of departments, allowing them to turn inward and become more disconnected from the public.
New stop and frisk methods further antagonized community members, often young, male, and minority, who felt the brunt of unwarranted encounters and conflict with the local police.
These communities, especially impoverished and/or minority, felt that this model encouraged police repression.
The long-standing concerns of Black citizens began to take center stage in the 1960s.
Tired of racial harassment and terror, they challenged not only laws but law enforcement in efforts to gain equal civil rights footing and to bring their struggles into the public purview.
Despite some advancements in the Civil Rights Movement, this combination of disconnect and antagonism grew through the 1970s as the benefits of public employee unionization offered new rights for police departments.
Despite the power to make more demands, local politicians were able to use municipal fiscal crises and mismanagement to create scapegoats out of police unions.
Police departments often use tactics familiar to labor organizers to help them leverage demands.
“Blue-flus,” or in other words, unofficial worker strikes disguised as uncoordinated sick days and work slow-downs, grew in number throughout the 1970s and 80s.
Instead of acquiescing, local city officials would counter these tactics with budget cuts.
Police departments were further reduced in number and went through a period of what’s known as Taylorization.
Duties became highly specialized and fragmented, causing officers to relinquish some of them to other public employees.
There were unintended consequences though: efficiency was reduced in many departments, which led to further disconnect between police departments and the public.
Today, anyone with a smartphone can now document violent--and often racialized--encounters with the police, which has reshaped notions of public vigilance and raised concerns about how the police should fit into society.
While some stakeholders across the country view the police as simply doing their job, others have begun to call for reforms or even defunding the police.
Communities and activists calling for reforms have pushed for ideas like the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign at the municipal level, which includes policies such as banning chokeholds, warning before shooting, and comprehensive incident reporting.
Others have called for implementation of required body-worn cameras for police officers.
This didn’t reach national attention until Michael Brown’s family called for police body cameras in 2014 after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Police unions question the efficacy of the cameras while civil liberties advocates question how they might affect the rights of people who have encounters with the police.
People who have been calling for defunding the police argue that shrinking police budgets could open funds for other social service programs that might better fulfill the needs of people going through mental health crises, alcohol and drug-related incidents, and maybe even issues of interpersonal violence.
Others argue that neither reforms nor defunding are enough and argue instead for abolition.
Some point to the unintended consequences that resulted from defunding the police in the 1970s and others point to the history linking the institution of policing to groups like slave patrols and their histories of racialized harassment and terror.
Proponents of this third option have also pointed to recently available FBI reports, such as White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement published in 2006 and a leaked 2015 counterterrorism policy guide.
This guide documented how white supremacist organizations have been attempting to infiltrate police departments: by having members attempt to join as recruits or encouraging relationships between these organizations’ members and individual officers.
These activists look to past and present abolition movements against slavery and against prisons for inspiration.
What the future holds for law enforcement in the United States is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps things will settle and nothing will change.
But what the history of law enforcement points to is an ever-changing institution with a troubled—and, for some, troubling—past.