Commentary Historic America

Police Departments do not Have a 400-Year History of Anti-Black Racism

  • Modern police and police departments didn’t exist in the American colonies or the United States from 1619 to (at the earliest) 1838, a span of approximately 219 years.
  • Modern uniformed police departments were first established in Northern cities in free states and were based on British policing models, not Southern slave patrols.
  • Modern policing has nothing in common with slave patrols; their purpose, methods, and the legal rights and protections for the people involved are completely different.

Over the past few weeks, activists and pundits have made unbelievably inaccurate and outrageous historical claims about law enforcement in the United States. These assertions aren’t new, but they have entered the mainstream in a way we haven’t seen before. Fact-checking be damned. For instance, in an article not labeled as an opinion piece, USA Today writer Wenei Philimon claimed “Police departments have a 400-year history of racism”. This blanket assertion is supported with so little evidence or specificity, it wouldn’t receive a passing grade in a high school history class. 

“Dating back to the 1600s, the U.S., then a British colony, used a watchmen system, where citizens of towns and cities would patrol their communities to prevent burglaries, arson and maintain order. As the slave population increased in the U.S., slave patrols were formed in South Carolina and expanded to other Southern states, according to Sally Hadden, a history professor at Western Michigan University who researches slave patrols,” Philimon, a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism, writes.

Already, the inaccuracies are glaring. The colonies that would become the United States were not entirely British in the 1600s, but were originally formed by several European countries. France, Sweden, Netherlands, and Spain all made claims on this territory (New Netherland, including what would become New York City, didn’t fall completely under British control until 1674). Each colony was governed by its own laws and methods of maintaining order.

But even if we take this writer’s version of events at face value, what does preventing burglaries, arson and maintaining order have to do with racism, anyway? Never mind. Philimon glosses over the first 100 years of her 400-year timeline and goes directly to slave patrols.

“Slave patrols lay at the roots of the nation’s law enforcement excesses, historians say [Philimon only cites one historian who says this], helping launch centuries of violent and racist behavior toward black Americans,” she claims. This pernicious myth has been repeated in several academic books and articles and even at the National Law Enforcement Museum, although there is no direct link between slave patrols and modern police forces, especially (and most obviously) in the North.

Slave patrols were first formed in South Carolina in 1704. They consisted, for the most part, of unpaid militia that patrolled the countryside looking for runaway slaves and breaking up unauthorized slave meetings. Their purpose was to prevent slave uprisings. Slave patrols became a formal part of society in Southern, slave holding states right up until the Civil War, however, they ceased to exist in states that outlawed slavery.

Pennsylvania (including the largest city in the US at the time, Philadelphia) outlawed slavery in 1780. By 1789, five of the original thirteen states had outlawed slavery. By 1800, there were eight free states and nine slave states. Even if you stretch the definition of “police” to include slave patrols, that only applied to half the country’s population living in a specific geographic region.

“‘Everything that you can think of that a police officer can do today, they did it,’ [Sally] Hadden says.” Except that’s not true. A slave was the property of his or her owner. The slave patrol had a limited authority to punish runaway slaves, but primarily returned those slaves to their owners for punishment. Slaves had no legal rights or Constitutional protections.

It’s ridiculous to compare that to our modern criminal justice system, which while certainly flawed, recognizes everyone’s individual rights in theory if not in practice. There were no Miranda warnings for escaped slaves, no warrants or probable cause required, no legal recourse in event of misconduct. Police can be held accountable for planting evidence, racial profiling, excessive force, false imprisonment, and other civil rights violations. 

In her own article, Philimon cites a law professor who says “Slave patrols were not designed to protect public safety in the broadest sense but rather to protect white wealth.” In this case, “white wealth” meaning property in the form of chattel slaves. So, in other words, slave patrols were not “police” or law enforcement at all as we understand it today.

The biggest problem with this assertion is that modern policing and police departments, as we recognize them, didn’t exist until the mid-1800s, and they certainly didn’t evolve out of slave patrols. Because the United States predominantly  operated under English Common Law prior to the mid-to-late nineteenth century, sheriffs and organized militia under posse comitatus enforced the laws. In cities, watch groups and citizen volunteers patrolled the streets. The word “police officer” was first recorded in the 1790s.

Modern uniformed police forces were organized in Boston in 1838, New York in 1844, Albany, New York and Chicago in 1851, and Philadelphia in 1854. Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a state police in 1905. What do all these places have in common? They were all in free states and had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery or slave patrols. Actually, these police forces were modeled after the British system established in 1829, which again, had nothing to do with slavery. even tackled the assertion that modern police departments evolved from slave patrols and concluded: “it is important to note that ‘the police’ do not consist of a homogenous block of the American population… It would be a mistake to assume that police in 2016 are the same as police in the 1870s, and to conclude that the profile of law enforcement in the United States — and around the world — has not changed throughout its existence.”

From the end of the Civil War, Philimon fast-forwards to the KKK and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, and here’s where this argument holds more weight. It’s true that some sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, and police officers were secretly members of the KKK and helped break up civil rights protests and many enforced Jim Crow laws and segregation. And this is where Philimon and others make their best case.

If you want to claim law enforcement in the United States has a racist history, opposition to the Civil Rights Movement is probably the best example. When police are enforcing racist laws or using their authority to oppress minorities, it is appropriate and accurate to describe them as racist. When it comes to enforcing Jim Crow laws in the South, it is appropriate and accurate to describe law enforcement as upholding white supremacy.

But is it accurate to describe all police officers and all law enforcement everywhere in the United States as racist or enforcing white supremacy during this time period? In 1900, 87.9 percent of the US population was white. 89.5 percent in 1950. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, law enforcement had nothing to do with race. In states like Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Utah, etc., and rural areas in nearly every Northern state, a police officer was unlikely to even encounter a black person. Police brutality, misconduct, wrongful convictions, and injustice still occurred in these communities.

It’s possible to talk about the history of racism in the United States and local or state police departments without resorting to unsupportable assertions or wildly inaccurate claims, but anytime you make a sweeping generalization, particularly regarding the past, it’s almost always going to be wrong unless supported by a lot of evidence. You can’t assert that “police departments have a 400 year history of racism” without a wilful misreading of history and an incredibly elastic definition of “police” that includes activity that bares no resemblance to modern policing. Especially not when your timeline includes over 200 years in which police and police departments didn’t even exist.

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