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The Origin and Evolution of Policing in America

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The history of law enforcement in America dates back to colonial times, with each colony having its own system for maintaining order. Policing as a concept arrived in America from England and it was associated with monarchy, as there was a force in charge of “keeping the king’s peace.” 

However, it wasn’t until the 1840s that the first professional police department was established. Before then, cities and towns relied on watch men that served as neighborhood watches. 

Slave Patrols in the South 

In the South, policing was established as slave patrol. It began in the colonies of Carolina in 1704. As the name implies, the main job of these patrols was to chase down and hunt escaped slaves. They terrorized slave communities and worked to prevent riots. 

Slave patrols have their roots in armed Spanish bands called hermandades. These bands hunted runaway slaves in Cuba beginning in the 1530s. This practice was adopted by the English in Barbados decades later. 

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New Orleans, a French city at the time, had paid armed guards who wore military-style uniforms and were named la police. 

By the mid 1800s, Boston, New York, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, and New Orleans established official police departments. 

The early American police were modeled after the London Metropolitan Police, which was established in 1829. But unlike their British counterparts, early American police officers were armed with guns, initially their own guns. 

That’s because the general American population was also armed for various reasons.  

During the 19th century, police departments in America evolved to meet the needs of a rapidly growing and industrializing country. In cities, police officers were tasked with maintaining order and preventing crime, while also dealing with issues related to massive immigration from Europe. 

In the South, the slave patrol was disbanded by the Civil War but it evolved to become the KKK. Vigilante groups also grew across the country, even in parts that were not states yet. These vigilante groups killed indigenous people, Black people, Mexican-Americans, and Chinese immigrants. 

As the country continued to grow and change, so did the role of the police. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, police departments were faced with the challenges of urbanization and organized crime. 

Modern American Policing 

Modern American policing began in 1909 in Berkeley, California. The chief of police in Berkeley, August Vollmer, evolved his police force to resemble a military force. He once said, “For years, ever since Spanish-American War days, I’ve studied military tactics and used them to good effect in rounding up crooks. After all, we’re conducting a war, a war against the enemies of society.” Indeed, military-like weapons and tactics were brought to the Berkeley police department. This approach to policing spread across the country, especially because police departments were often led by veterans. 

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In the South, this approach coupled with Jim Crow laws meant the Black population was constantly harassed and abused by law enforcement. The harassment by law enforcement, however, was not exclusive to the South. Police were using the same tactics to patrol and intimidate Black communities in the north, arresting Black people disproportionately. 

The 20th century brought with it a number of major events that would shape the future of law enforcement in America. The Prohibition Era (1920-1933) saw the rise of organized crime and the growth of police corruption. In response, the FBI was established in 1908 to enforce federal law and combat organized crime.

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by social and political upheaval, including the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests. This led to increased tensions between the police and communities of color, and resulted in a number of high-profile incidents of police brutality. Who can forget images of police dogs hounding down peaceful protestors? 

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In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on crime,” and the federal government supplied local police with military-grade weapons. During the Watts uprisings, police killed 31 people and arrested more than 4,000. Over the decades, the number of Black people in prisons grew exponentially.

Studies, like the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment, conducted in 1974, found that patrolling police cars in neighborhoods did not help reduce crime.  In response to these studies, some police departments turned to community policing. Community policing, which emphasized partnerships between the police and the community, was seen as a way to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they served. Minority officers were placed in minority neighborhoods. 

The Growth of Community Policing 

The community policing approach became so popular that by the early 2000s, two-thirds of police departments in the US implemented community policing. But tensions between law enforcement and Black communities across the country did not die down. By the 1980s, the frustration of the community was being voiced loudly through a fairly new but wildly popular music genre: hip hop. 

In recent years, the police in America have been the focus of increased scrutiny and criticism. High-profile incidents of police brutality and the use of excessive force have led to protests and calls for reform. The Black Lives Matter movement, which was formed in 2013 in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, has been at the forefront of the push for police reform.

Abolish the Police Movement 

Although the call to abolish the police dates back to the early 1980s, the renewed focus on it by activists has been a hot button issue in recent national elections. 

According to the “Mapping Police Violence” project, in 2022, 1,176 people were killed by the police in the United States. Black people are 2.9x more likely to be killed by police than white people in the U.S. Native American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and Hispanic people all have higher chances of being killed by the police than white people. 

A study by Rutgers University looked into how law enforcement training and violence in the US compares to other developed nations. According to the data, the US fatal police shootings rate in 2019 was 5x higher than Australia’s and 22x higher than France’s. The study suggests the amount of police training and fatal police violence outcomes are closely related. 

The police in France attend school for 10 months, while training is 8 months in Belgium. In comparison, the US average training length for police officers is around 5 months. But not all longer training is good training. In countries like Brazil and Venezuela, the police receive extended training, but police violence rates there are extraordinarily high. 

There are several factors contributing to the high police related fatalities in America, one of those being gun culture. About half of the world’s civilian-held firearms are located in the US. Just imagine that! America makes up only 5% of the world’s population! 

Looking at the data, it is easy to conclude race is also a factor in how likely a person is to have a violent and even fatal encounter with the police in America. As we have seen in the case of Tyre Nichols, even having Black police officers, in a majority Black city, with a Black Police chief can’t cure police brutality. Just like it’s a combination of multiple factors that leads to high police related fatality rates, the solution will likely have to be a combination of multiple reforms.