- 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.