Several days ago, nine of Minneapolis’s thirteen city council members appeared at a community assembly at Powderhorn Park, several blocks south of the downtown riverfront. They had already convened in a formal session the previous day to outlaw the kinds of police chokeholds that Officer Derek Chauvin used two weeks ago to take the life of George Floyd, just minutes from the park itself. The city council members, however, announced a broader plan few were truly expecting.
"We will be taking intermediate steps toward ending the MPD through the budget process and other policy and budget decisions over the coming weeks and months," council member Andrea Jenkins and council president Lisa Bender told the neighborhood. The move, if completed along the lines that Jenkins and Bender proposed, would become the first time in US history that a municipal policing institution has been disintegrated for non-budgetary reasons.
The Minneapolis Police Department has a history of brutality and unequal treatment toward non-white citizens. Between 2000 and 2015, over a third of those killed by MPD were people of color. In 2003 and 2004, 59% of all youth in Hennepin County juvenile detention centers were Black males. The Department itself reported that it uses force against Black people at a rate seven times higher than against white people. But institutional police racism is a broadly historical phenomenon, and Minneapolis police is only exceptional in the sense that it may soon no longer exist.
Indeed, as criminologists, historians, and African American studies scholars have asserted in recent days, as protests seeking change in criminal justice sweep the country, police racism is a phenomenon that predates the United States itself.
Night’s Watches and Slave Patrols
The first policing institutions in colonial America were “night’s watches,” made up of local volunteers, unpaid but often rewarded with a release from military conscription or lessened criminal sentences of their own. In the North, watches served the primary purpose of warning communities of impending danger; they were not designed or equipped to diagnose and root out crime in their municipalities. Night’s watch members were often drunk or asleep on the job, and the efficacy of the volunteers was routinely called into question. Teams of paid constables oversaw night’s watches--and this is where contemporary structural implications come into play.
Constables, hired locally, and sheriffs, appointed by the colonial governor, carried extremely varied tasks. Constables were not only administrators of the makeshift police forces--they were also responsible for surveying land, ensuring the accuracy of weights and measurements and, most importantly, aiding in the submission of unruly enslaved African-Americans and Native Americans. If police are being asked to carry out too many tasks today, as many on the left argue, this pattern may begin as early as here.
Southern states, however, organized their first law enforcement institutions in the form of white slave patrols. The first patrols were organized in Carolina in 1704, and according to Dr. Gary Potter of Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, served three functions:
(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves;
(2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and,
(3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.
These slave patrols ultimately turned into the earliest municipal police institutions in America’s Southern states. Like patrols, early police were meant not to prevent and respond to crime per se; their primary goal was limiting “disorder,” a looser concept whose definition and application was determined by political and mercantile authorities. As Steven Spitzer and Andrew T. Scull laid out in a 1977 paper on the origins of capitalist influences on policing, policing functioned as “a contractual arrangement negotiated between clients...and independent agents who were willing to supply such services in return for a fee or share of recovered goods.” With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, state governments soon had the capacity to force poor white men into participation in slave patrols. If the suppression of slave unrest would limit “disorder,” it would quickly become the priority of America’s early police.
Convict Leasing, Jim Crow, and Police Terror
The thirteenth amendment left a gaping loophole in the attempt to criminalize forced servitude. Black men could not be enslaved, except “as a punishment for crime,” and Southern police were at the forefront of “convict leasing” programs, wherein plantation owners, mine operators, and other white businessmen could pay prisons pennies on the dollar for the opportunity to exploit free Black labor. Curiously, in the antebellum period, free Black people were rarely incarcerated. By 1868, however, free men like Allen Thomas in Georgia were sentenced to “natural life” in prison for vagrancy. Postbellum vagrancy laws were the path that many southern white elites thought might lead back to labor surplus; they began to include people “who have not some visible and known means of a fair, honest and reputable livelihood,” as well as those “without a fixed abode.” Crucially, vagrancy laws made it legitimate for any white man to make vagrancy arrests, and American mass policing began to take an everyday appearance. (Remnants of convict leasing programs persist today; the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, as documented in this film from the Atlantic, continues to compel labor for as little as two pennies per hour).
As Jim Crow laws replaced the more racially explicit Black Codes in the late 19th century, the use of municipal policing as a tool for social control became more prevalent. Moreover, the democratization of policing within the white community from the slave patrol era extended itself into the early 20th century. As Comer Van Woodward wrote in The Strange Career of Jim Crow in 1968,
The Jim Crow laws put the authority of the state or city in the voice of the street car conductor, the railway brakeman, the bus driver, the theater usher, and also into the voice of the hoodlum of the public parks and playgrounds.
Sandra Bass, Associate Dean and Director at UC-Berkeley’s Public Service Center, concludes
African Americans lived in a police state in which every aspect of shared public life was proscribed. Formal police organizations under this system were responsible for upholding the formal and informal social order. The formal police in the segregated South represented the South's repressive civil order and the ideology of white supremacy overall...Police brutality was frequently employed to punish insubordination and suspected criminals, and was another means of "keeping the Negro in his place more generally". Moreover, the police often overlooked or participated in overt acts of violence against blacks who offended against the reigning order.
Police participation in and negligence of violence against Black people was, of course, not limited to the south. Eugene Williams was a 17-year-old Black boy who mistakenly drifted across an imaginary racial boundary dividing Chicago’s 29th Street beach into white and “colored” sections. Unarmed and apologetic, Williams was nevertheless stoned to death by a white onlooker. Resulting riots left 38 Chicagoans dead (23 of them Black), over 500 injured, and hundreds more homeless after indiscriminate arsons swept black neighborhoods. Two-thirds of those indicted for riot-related offences by the state attorney were Black. Adam Green, a history professor at the University of Chicago, writes
The police played a crucial role as well. During the first few hours of the violence, 2,800 officers, out of 3,500 total, were deployed along the edges of the Black Belt, forming a cordon. The police claimed they were separating the antagonists, but their strategy left few officers to patrol the rest of the city. The Tuesday morning rampage through the Loop [where uniformed white soldiers and athletic club members killed two blacks and injured others], for example, took place while only two officers were detailed to cover the entire downtown.
Policing Commissions and Inaction
The “Red Summer,” as the following weeks of national race rioting were termed by NAACP activist James Weldon Johnson, saw over 1000 black lives lost at the hands of marauding white mobs. Illinois governor convened the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, whose full text you can find here. The Commission reported, in strikingly contemporary terms, “systemic participation in mob violence by the police.” And as Khalil Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School writes, “when police officers had the choice to protect black people from white mob violence, they chose to either aid and abet white mobs or to disarm black people or to arrest them.” The Chicago Commission was among the first municipal studies on race relations, and gave rise to others. In Harlem, after race riots in 1935 cleaved New York City in half, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commissioned a similar report. Despite obstruction from New York police, the commission returned a similar condemnation of treatment of Black people in New York City, ranging from police brutality to undereducation and discrimination in hiring. Mayor LaGuardia, struck by the strong language of the report, implemented token reforms and chose to bury the document in its entirety.
Racism, political opportunism, economic dominance, and policing, as the above cited scholars have found, have been intertwined since the establishment of the first American law enforcement institutions. Racism in policing has been both official and unofficial; explicit and implicit; subtle and excruciatingly evident. Its history has led us to the patterns protesters identify within policing institutions today.
We hope that the above introduction into the origins of race and American policing was informative. We understand, though, that it’s important we provide more in-depth references for you to double-check our work and learn about the intricacies of these phenomena as they interest you. To that end, we’ve put together a reading list on the various trends you see above. Feel free to reach out to us in the comments or by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any additional suggestions to make.
On mass incarceration:
On commissions and government studies:
On convict leasing and policing through the black codes:
On the earliest origins of American police:
An empirical study of contemporary police violence:
We also recommend looking at the following two externally-compiled reading lists:
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