So considering that, it is obvious that we can only look at the cultures that directly influenced our system of policing to find the most obvious origins to modern American law enforcement. That takes us back to after the rise of Great Britain, sometime during the 12th and 13th centuries. As the English began to gain territory and the population grew, the realization came to the throne of Great Britain that for overall control to be maintained, then some of that control must be delegated down among the territories. They were first divided to represent family groupings and when those groups could not be established easily, they relied on population numbers to determine the parameters. Thus the term “tithing” was coined, which was meant to represent ten people. They also used a term like “ten tithing” which meant one hundred people. Eventually these families or village groupings came to be known as shires, and for a time the shires were asked to try to police themselves by whatever means necessary.
Every shire had a different way to try to control its citizens, but without consistency among the methods, the outcome was less than desirable. Simply put, the shires were not successful in policing themselves. Eventually the royal representative, or Earl, would have to appoint a person in each shire to do the law enforcement work, a person referred to as a shire reeve, or later, sheriff. The sheriff had many duties aside from enforcing the laws of the land, but only two of those duties serve distinct relevance here. The sheriff had the ability to form militias if needed to protect the territory. At the time, that was a new concept to people and was hard for them to accept that level of control, especially when it came to possibly getting drafted into service. The other duty the sheriff had was to collect taxes from the people, and give that money up to the royal leadership. Eventually that duty became the priority of the sheriff because he usually was paid a percentage of the taxes he collected, so that job took precedence above the other responsibilities. In fact, the problem got so bad that changes were eventually required because the sheriff began to neglect his other duties, because he was too busy collecting taxes.
At the end of the 13th century, another arm of law enforcement was needed for a very specific purpose. Until that time, the sheriff and constables had only operated during the day. Since many crimes and catastrophes occurred at night, so the position of night watch was born. What is significant about the night watch is that it is an early version of a modern law enforcement patrol. Their duties could be generalized as simply looking for signs of trouble or danger while the other citizens slept. For instance, the night watch was tasked with watching for fires that would often break out, or even watch for attacks from enemies. Of course, the night watch was intended to watch for crime, such as robberies or assault, and in those instances, they either tried to apprehend the perpetrator themselves, or call for aid from the constables. The job itself was often a required positon that everyone had to serve once, which of course didn’t pay a salary. There were also high levels of danger, so it was no surprise when the night watch was accused of neglecting their duties because instead, they were often found asleep or drunk.
Like many aspects of life in those times, globalization introduced the law enforcement system to other places in the world, which had not really happened before. The system established in Great Britain was put in place in almost every territory that that country gained throughout the age of exploration, and when Great Britain established the colonies in the “new world” of America, the colonists there adopted the system as well. Even after the Revolutionary War when America gained its independence, the colonists continued to use the system handed down from overseas. After the war, Great Britain continued to use the system until the 1830’s when Robert Peel successfully convinced the British parliament to adopt a metropolitan police system. In that regard, the British were successful at realizing the need for a consolidation of duties and powers in a modern policing system before the Americans. Unfortunately in America, the evolution of law enforcement evolved a little slower do to various concerns that ultimately could be considered some of the worst aspects of American history.
When those tactics didn’t work, the legislators would then try a system that relied on currency to enforce their values and laws. They would institute fines for lawbreakers, and then would reward the citizens that turned the lawbreakers in. This lead to obvious contention between people, especially when the lawbreaker and the citizen knew each other or were related. If those ideas didn’t work to prevent people from breaking the laws, the colonies would have to rely on a proven example of law enforcement, the one that they had adopted from Great Britain.
By the time the colonies had gained their independence from Great Britain the office of sheriff had been modified slightly to fit the needs of the fledgling country and the states that fell under its protections. For starters, the governor of the territory would appoint the position, and the sheriff in turn was tasked with handling the enforcement of the law, which coincidentally also meant watching over the elections and the polls, which were a needed part of the new democratic system.
Therefore, while the sheriff was to publicly handle crime prevention, he was usually in a good position to be tempted by corruption. They were often found guilty of accepting bribes and in many cases when bribery wasn’t the crime, direct embezzlement or extortion was. In regards to those elections the sheriff oversaw, they were often accused of tampering with those elections in order to keep the governor who appointed them in power.
Below the sheriff’s position, the constable was still considered a position of authority, though their duties had been altered as well. For one, they were more concerned with carrying out civic tasks such as gathering the townsfolk for meetings, or collecting taxes. They were also tasked with overseeing the night watch too. One major flaw with the constable position was that they were often paid on a task priority basis, so they too concerned themselves with better paying tasks. Such as tax collection. While their duties were civic in nature, they were also there to assist the sheriff with law enforcement if the need were to arise.
Another problem that is perhaps implicit from the fact that America gained its independence from rebellious means is perhaps the concern that the authority of the sheriff and the constables was often challenged. These challenges often turned violent, and on occasion, the law enforcement officer lost his life. In a few cases the court would actually side with the law breaker against the sheriff or constable. The philosophy at the time was that if a person could actually prevent the sheriff from making the arrest, then it was their right to do so. It would seem that colonial America took the idea of personal sovereignty very seriously, but that sentiment was abandoned after the onset of the 1800’s.
The 19th century is easily the most divisive in U.S. history, with differences spanning economical, industrial and religious sectors, and law enforcement was no exception. Law enforcement agencies in the United States have always been willing to adopt proven tactics from other forces if the need arises. While that may seem inconsequential, it is actually quite relevant considering the affects that easier communication brought to the expanding country, and the uniformity of policing tactics that were developed. The same idea was applied to laws and regulations as well. For example, if New York found that making a certain act a crime was beneficial to the city and at the same time a tactic could be created to enforce the new law, then the police in New York could share it with police in Baltimore, who would then apply the changes as needed. New York City is a fitting example of the evolution of American law enforcement in the Northern states. Unlike the South, the North could allow it’s police to evolve along various guidelines other than slavery. As a result, the industrial leaders in New York could use the police as a way of controlling economical, industrial, financial and political establishments.
It should be no surprise that another issue that has always been behind the New York Police Department is the issue of police brutality. The first reports of brutality from the department started showing up just one year after its inception, in 1846. Brutality from law enforcement was certainly nothing new, but the difference that New York saw was the power of the press and the exposure of that brutality to the masses. That led to a type of civil awakening that at the very least brought the violence to the ears of the public. That in turn escalated into more violence directed toward the officers, and they had to develop more aggressive tactics.
As a show of force and intimidation, the New York Police Department began using a new tool in 1953. The club, a strong sturdy piece of wood hard enough to crack skulls, and as such the police were instructed to use it on anyone that represented a criminal element, which they did to fullest extent they were allowed to do so. This led to most tangible escalation of police brutality so far because the NYPD were able to deploy a large amount of injury and violence quickly and that gave them an edge against the public. While the police at the time were called to disperse riots, labor disputes and other civil gatherings, they often did so with an escalation of violence and those cases went largely unreported. A closer analysis of the actual reported cases of brutality in New York from 1850 to 1900 paints an interesting picture indeed, especially after then end of the Civil War.
In the 50-year period leading up to the turn of the 20th century, the newspapers in New York give a good idea of the statistics of police violence during that time. The first noticeable fact for me was that the two highest crimes that warranted violence from the police were public intoxication, and disorderly conduct. Both of these crimes didn’t necessarily involve violent intent by the perpetrator, yet they accounted for more than 75% of all the cases reported that involved police violence toward the public. Another astonishing fact was that up until 1900, over 80% were European immigrants to America were of either Anglo, Irish, or German decent and these were the ones catching most of the ire from the police. Considering the large focus of the NYPD on African Americans since, it is almost surreal to consider that they only accounted for less than 4% of violent encounters with the NYPD before the 20th century. To be fair in the keeping of perspective, the African American population in the north was pretty small at the time. That changed after the end of the Civil War when the African American population surged in most of the Northern states due to a mass exodus from a very, still slavery minded, South.
It’s important to remember that among all the negative issues the New York Police Department has also had periods of great reform, brought about by leaders interested in getting rid of the tarnishes to the NYPD. The problem is, either social events or backward thinking leaders always have a way of dragging the department back down with them. They always seem to end up finding themselves as the strong arm of the ruling elite, and by proxy, the wealthy as well. More of the history of the NYPD will be explored later, but when considering the policing of the rest of the country, the police in New York is always a great guideline for the status quo. Simply put, they set many of the standards used in modern law enforcement. So when considering how racial bias has affected law enforcement, one can look at the last few decades in which New York has fallen back into old habits. With policies like the “stop and frisk” initiative and broken windows policing, the department has given itself the ability to promote that racial bias. The death of many African American citizens as a result, like the Eric Garner case for example, serves as proof that history repeats itself. However, even if the New York Police Department is considered the originator of many police tactics and policies, the idea of racism in law enforcement belongs to another group of departments, in a different part of the country, dating back to long before the inception of the NYPD.
The law enforcement entities in the American south evolved over of a distinctly different path then their northern counterparts, but like the NYPD, one can trace their origins quite easily. In the late 1600’s, many people in the south were growing more concerned with controlling their slave populations and preventing them from getting rights or freedoms. Many white slave owners were worried that the people they controlled outnumbered them 10 to 1, and that at any time they could try to lobby for reform of the laws or even worse, revolt by force. To combat this, legislation was created in an effort to exert the control that the slave owners thought they needed. For instance, a curfew would be instituted, forcing the subjugated people into their homes at a certain time, or they would be prevented from gathering in large groups at any time. This was to prevent any type of dissemination of ideas. Another law that would be implemented, was aimed at limiting travel between the plantations by the slaves that had already proven trustworthy in the eyes of the slave owners. These laws were framed in a way that the slave owners could claim to be protecting their assets, but in reality they served only to destroy the moral of the people they were imposed on.
This practice of slave patrols lasted well into the 1800’s and became a common sight in the American south. As the plantations and the slave populations grew, the white plantation owners got increasingly paranoid that eventually they would try to revolt and gain their freedom. As a result, they would instruct the slave patrols to change their tactics to prevent revolt as opposed to just take away freedoms and possessions. This led to even more violence in their practices and methods. As the years passed on, threat from outside forces began to dwindle and by the 1820’s many places were abandoning their need for militias and as a result they had to control their subjugated populations using different methods. Many places disbanded their slave patrols entirely and relied on the general population of white people to police the slaves. They literally would put the control in the hands of any white person happened to witness a supposed crime by a slave and they would be responsible for anything that needed to be done. What eventually happened was the same people that participated in the slave patrols would assume many of the duties they held before, but in a civilian capacity. This of course further added to the variety and severity of the violence that would occur, which was already exceedingly common in rural areas.
What is most important to remember about the rise in police departments and formal law enforcement in the American south is that the very people that were on the slave patrols a few decades before were the same ones that helped create those very same law enforcement entities. They helped supply the initial training standards, and they also help supply the ideals that would enforce the segregated frame of mind that would come to haunt those police forces for generations to come. While it may seem problematic to say that some of those police forces still hold those prejudices, one only has to analyze the many records that exist to see that their negative involvement with the communities they serve has been disproportionately aimed at African Americans and other people of color. It’s not even a close comparison. That’s why it should be no surprise that from its inception, the southern based Ku Klux Klan, and other white based hate groups have always had its members close to the law enforcement community, and many like them still persist within the community today. Just consider the publicized existence of the Lynwood Vikings, a hate group type subculture that was founded in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department in the 1980’s in the most ethnically diverse portions of the city. While members have always been quick to try to deny any white supremacist allegations, there has always been suspicious correlations present when considering members of the group versus the complaints that follow them from neighborhoods they work in and the people of color that live there. While it shouldn’t really be a surprise that something like this can happen so far from the southern police departments, I chose the Department in Lynwood to illustrate the fact that the concept of police involvement with hate groups is a nationwide problem and it happens to be one that persists even today. It’s such a problem, the F.B.I. officially started to investigate the problem in 2006, but by then, they were only pointing out things that the African American community had been telling them for years. That racism and law enforcement has always gone hand in hand, and that the people of color in America have been suffering for it ever since.
As children, we are taught to not only show unconditional respect for the police, and we are expected to trust them as a protectors of the innocent. It can certainly be considered as a form of conditioning, especially when you observe how children are taught to perceive the police as someone you can ask if you need help from the moment they start to watch television. “If you are lost, if you need help, just find a policeman!” Then as we grow, we are told through school assemblies and programs like D.A.R.E. that the police are the focal points of morality in all the situations that we will encounter in our adolescent years. While that may be true on many levels, the promotion of the ideology also serves a dual role by not exposing us to any facts to the contrary during our developmental years. This conditioning is so strong, that even as adults many people reject and even fight against the true history of the law enforcement of this country without even giving the reality a chance.
That reality is, that from its inception, people that have participated in law enforcement in America always have been and always will be, subject to the temptation of corruption for either the promotion of personal well-being, ideological differences, or wealth acquisition. In colonial times and before, law enforcement practices were stifled by the practice of conscripting the participants, who were often found later dealing with substance abuse, or just plain asleep. The ones that moved beyond that were often found to be using their position for financial gain by tax gouging or political gain by ballot box tampering. Then, to what can be both considered interesting and depressing, the American police system managed to evolve along two different paths, yet the similarities between the two managed to bring both sides to the exact same conclusion. The American North officially started forming departments and devoting enough resources to that cause, only so the police would move quickly at the whim of those in power, not questioning vast law changes or unfair declarations. They were just followed orders. In addition, they have always been quick to use excessive force, with reports coming in the very same year they were founded, and many of those reports show a directed concentration of that force on people in specific ethnic or ideological groups. By the 1900’s, in midst of the northern migration of freed African Americans did they turn their focus on all black people and then other people of color.
The American South, simply put, has evolved its law enforcement from slave patrols, who made it a practice to oppress the African American people in slavery wherever they went. Those patrols evolved in ideology and practice into what eventually became the law enforcement bodies that are charged with keeping the peace in the American South today. At the same time, the police would work in close proximity to publicly known hate groups to maintain the level of abuse that was common before the Civil War. Eventually, as the Northern states and the Southern states began to reintegrate, the various differences between all the different departments slowly disappeared to the point where racism and classism have managed to come to be an equal motivational force for police departments all over this country. Ever since, we have been treated to a myriad of police actions that seem to be more stunning than the last as they come to light, but in the end they always seem to go back to the same core concepts bred during colonial and slavery periods of this country. The concepts I have shared here have also led to other instances that I will explore further in a later articles, but the purpose of this one was to point out the base that the law enforcement in America is questionable to say the least.
In closing a piece like this, I always find myself wanting to propose a solution. Seeing that this piece has quickly become a historical research article, it seems clear that no solution needs to be found. The foundation of the American law enforcement system has layers of corruption, brutality and racism and these acts were often committed on behalf of the people in power. If the laws and rules are made to benefit the few people with all the wealth and power, and the police enforce the laws with a club and a bullet without considering the moral consequences, one can plainly see how the power of the police will be used in the future, especially if nothing changes. The actions of the police that I don’t outline here, but will in the future, will show that they have committed atrocities since that could only have come from the very corrupt foundation that I have laid out here, and at the same time can only be possible in conjunction with a criminal justice system that has been corrupted and broken beyond repair. That criminal justice system, which I purposely neglected to mention before, is the other half of the equation that allows the corruption from the police force to thrive and is equally responsible for the ways things are. While that may be a story for another time, that simple fact has to made here. The modern police departments, like their predecessors, have an equal chance to protect and serve as they do to pursue corrupt ideals, and sometimes that line only exists within the rest of the criminal justice system. If a police department, or the officers in it, aren’t held accountable for their negative conduct, and that behavior continues for as long been shown to, then it’s easy to understand why police or other law enforcement personnel continue doing what they are doing with little fear of reprecussions. If we are to scratch the surface of the police state, it becomes clear that the history of the law enforcement in America is only the beginning of how big the problem actually is. If we genuinely want to find a solution, we have to look beyond that history to the other facets that have grown as a result, and analyze how they too contribute to what the situation has become.
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Johnson, M. S. (2003). Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
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Williams, K. (2004). Our Enemies in Blue. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press.