The history of the US police
From slave patrols to the criminalisation of Black communities, racism has been a feature of US policing for centuries.
When Derek Chauvin is sentenced on Friday for the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, the world will be watching.
Just over a year ago, police officer Chauvin killed Floyd by kneeling on his neck as he lay helpless on a concrete pavement for nine minutes and 29 seconds. In April, Chauvin was found guilty of second and third-degree murder as well as manslaughter.
Floyd’s death – along with his final words, “I can’t breathe” – sparked global protests that condemned not only the fatal acts of police brutality in the United States that disproportionately affect Black people, but also the institution of law enforcement as a whole. There were numerous pleas from various organisations, ranging from Black Lives Matter to American Civil Liberties Union, to defund the police. This action would involve reallocating funding from that department to other social services, such as those treating mental health issues and addiction or those dealing with homelessness.
But it also inspired a counterresponse in the form of the “thin blue line” and the slogan “Blue Lives Matter”. At the heart of this is an attempt to reassert a view of the police as a brave battalion of heroes protecting society from evil. But it belies the racism which has formed the basis of policing in the US since it began several centuries ago.
“This is a form of superficially colour-blind racial thinking, that supposed a normative society threatened by an abnormal population of pathological peoples, who must be socially cleansed by policing, prisons, borders and military – the ‘thin blue line’ between civilisation and chaos, to use the words of LAPD chief William Parker,” explains Cesar Rodriguez, an assistant professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University.
William Parker became chief of the LA Police Department in 1950, when the phrase “the thin blue line” was commonly used. Parker, who was a popular but controversial figure known for reforming the notoriously corrupt LAPD, is often credited with popularising the phrase by helping to produce a panel TV show in the US called The Thin Blue Line.
The show aired discussions between a chat show host and a panel of experts – Parker was frequently invited on to be one of them – about police affairs. Even for its time, the show was described as “unabashedly propagandistic” as it sought to improve the image of the police as a force for good in the mind of the public.
This resurgence of the phrase today shows the racist roots of the police remain alive and well.
Take the San Francisco Bay Area, where Rodriguez describes visiting the quarters of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Alameda County in Dublin, California and seeing how the walls “are decorated with a litany of self-aggrandising ‘cop-agenda’ – photos illustrating police playing with children and salvaging tricycles”.
Most prominent, however, at the deputy sheriff’s office are several large newspaper clippings which, Rodriguez says, show the thread of connection between settler-colonial violence and anti-leftist suppression which are historic to the region.
“In glass frames, one can read newspaper clippings describing the role of Alameda County and other sheriffs in advancing settler colonialism by capturing ‘the murderer and robber’ Tiburcio Vasquez, the last of the famous Mexican and Indian ‘half-breed marauders’ who had preyed upon pioneer settlers in Northern California [which is featured alongside advertisements announcing the exhibition of Joaquin Murrieta’s head],” says Rodriguez.
“Next to that framed clipping – and it’s one glass frame – one can read a full-page political advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, where UC Berkeley faculty members described and denounced the Alameda county sheriff’s role in the police riot against protesting community members in 1969, known as ‘Bloody Thursday’ for the shotgun blasts of birdshot and buckshot into the backs of fleeing protesters, and the indiscriminate dropping of CS gas from military helicopters onto a crowd that included pregnant women and children,” says Rodriguez.
Bloody Thursday was the day community members gathered peacefully to protest the seizure of a public park to be converted into an athletics field for Berkeley University. Police used shotguns to fire birdshot into the crowd of demonstrators, resulting in at least 58 people requiring treatment for injuries.
“What would appear to be a mark of shame is, instead, prominently displayed in the police department’s quarters for deputies and their invited guests alike,” Rodriguez adds.
From night watch to slave patrol: policing is born
Recently, there have been some efforts to rein in police brutality. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act officially passed the House earlier this year, banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases. The bill limits immunity for an officer as a defence to liability in a private civil action. It also provides more resources for state attorneys to investigate police-involved deaths including a national registry of police misconduct.
Many considered The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act a step in the right direction. But the fact remains that in some parts of the US, the police kill Black people at six times the rate they kill white people.
For this reason, many in the US believe that it is not possible to reform an institution whose very roots are racist and anti-Black: in the South, after all, the police force originated as a mechanism to capture and brutalise escaped enslaved people.
In the North, the reasons for introducing policing were different, but had similarly racist roots. The economy of the land had been changing to a more industrialised one since the 1600s, creating a need for more workers from overseas. By the time, large numbers of immigrants were settling into the US at the beginning of the 19th century, largely from Germany and Ireland, they inhabited the industrialised cities of New York and Boston. This influx led to a rise in “nativism” – the belief that native-born (white) Americans were “better” than immigrants – and discrimination.
While the reasons for establishing policing were different in the North and the South, they were both based on the “othering” of people – Black people and those who were not considered “white” at the time.
The emergence of a capitalist economy throughout the US provided the foundation for racist policing, says Rodriguez. “It’s hard to forcibly remove people off their land, work them into poverty and death, segregate them into neighbourhoods unfit for life, and persecute them if society views them as worthy equals. Capitalism requires that certain communities of the working-class face these conditions to reproduce across time and space, and racialism provides the legitimacy to do that.”
Policing, therefore, became a way “to use state violence in order to advance racial capitalism or to protect racial capitalism from resistance and autonomy”, says Rodriguez.
The population boom, juxtaposed with how poorly workers were treated, had led to a rise in public disorder from the 1600s onwards. The first public police units established in colonial North America to counter this were groups of watchmen organised in Boston in 1636 and in New York City in 1658. Those who did not volunteer were paid by private citizens. Initially, they followed the Tudor system of England, with constables, watchmen and sheriffs.
In smaller towns, constables were responsible for everything from catching stray dogs to admonishing children who did not behave. They even enforced church attendance. In larger towns, constables organised the watch, which was a group of men who patrolled towns at night. Watchmen were responsible for keeping an eye out for fires since they could destroy entire villages. They also kept a watch for “suspicious” individuals and activity. Sheriffs worked in less-populated areas than the watch and were responsible for apprehending criminals, collecting taxes and supervising elections.
In order to break solidarity between indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans in the southern states, Virginia extended the “wages of whiteness” (the higher wages paid to white American-born people than were paid to freed Black people) to Europeans and also commissioned them to capture fugitive enslaved people – thus was born the slave patrol.
Later came the development of urban slave patrols in southern cities from New Orleans to Charleston, which were tasked with monitoring the movement of enslaved Black people. “In the manner of pre-emptive counterinsurgency, these patrols prevented Black people from congregating in study groups, night-time or religious gatherings,” says Rodriguez. “With the abolition of slavery in 1865, these forces developed into professional police that supported the sharecropping system [under which farmers paid a portion of their crops to landowners as a form of rent] to suppress and exploit the newly emancipated Black working class.
“As the settler-colonial, chattel slave society that formed the US spread westward, new tributaries into modern policing developed.”
As we have seen, in the South, police units began as slave patrols in the Carolina colonies, settled by the English, in 1704. By the end of the 18th century, every slave state had a slave patrol. These patrols were broken up into groups, consisting of three to six men on horseback, carrying whips, ropes and guns. They patrolled roads and made sure enslaved people had passes to be off their plantations. They also monitored enslaved people who gathered for “illegal” worship. Slave patrols had the authority to search the living quarters of enslaved people and seize property, weapons and books (it was illegal for enslaved people to learn how to read and write).
In 1823, the Texas Rangers were created by Stephen F Austin as a sort of “call to arms” against “rife criminality” during the period he was trying to found Anglo Texas on behalf of the US. He was successful, bringing 300 families from the US to the region, and became known as the “father of Texas”.
While he framed his Texas Rangers as a peace-keeping force, in reality, says Rodriguez, their mission was to enforce the racist dispossession of Native peoples and Mexicanos of their land and livestock, as well as the Anglo land-grab of Texas itself. “This moved to using state violence to suppress movements for farmworker rights. Thus their history reveals efforts to remove negatively racialised peoples off land taken by settlers and, in turn, protect the racialised exploitation and exclusion necessary for the continued operation of racial capitalism.”
The evolution into modern policing
The first official police force in the US was founded in Boston in 1838, with cities like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans and Cincinnati following suit over the next decade. These organisations were bureaucratic, and policemen were full-time employees (as opposed to volunteers). They also received little to no training and politicians – specifically mayors – oversaw every facet of what the police were expected to do.
The abolition of slavery in 1865 saw the end of slave patrols, which would be replaced by the Ku Klux Klan as former slave owners and pro-slavery white people sought ways to control the free Black population. According to writers Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe: “The post-Civil War South faced the enormous problem of absorbing a population of former slaves while maintaining the dominance of the white caste.”
The Ku Klux Klan was created by pro-slavery Southerners looking to keep the Black population powerless. By the 1920s, Klan membership had grown to more than four million people. Lynching was their most infamous tool of terror, and between the 1800s and 1959, there were more than 5,000 lynchings in the US.
One of the first known lynchings was of 26-year-old Francis McIntosh, a Black man in St Louis, Missouri, in 1836. McIntosh had been arrested for “disturbing the police” and was accused of stabbing the arresting officers. He was lynched and burned alive. For the “crime” of reporting on the lynching via his printing press, abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy, 35, who was white, was shot and killed by a mob the following year.
Murders by lynching – and other activities of the Klan, including beatings and the burning of houses – went largely uninterrupted by the police. Indeed, in some cases, the police actively participated. In 1866, white mobs attacked groups of Black people in Memphis and New Orleans, led by white city police.
In another notorious case in 1906, a Black man named Edward Johnson was convicted of raping a white woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was sentenced to death. When his lawyer won a stay of execution from the Supreme Court. However, the local sheriff and his staff vacated the jailhouse he was being kept in, to allow a white mob to seize Johnson before hanging him from the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga and shooting him several hundred times. Johnson was cleared of the crime nearly 100 years later, but American history is littered with similar incidents.
Enforcing unjust laws
Attempts throughout history to reform the treatment of Black and minority peoples in the US have been met with resistance at every turn. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which states the “equality of all men before the law” and prohibited discrimination in public places, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883.
Black Codes – rules which dictated Black citizens’ “rights and responsibilities” – were first passed in 1865 by Mississippi and South Carolina. According to these, Black people were not allowed to rent land in cities and were barred from holding any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they paid an annual tax of between $10 and $100 ($165 to $1,650 in today’s money). Under the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson (1865-69), nearly all southern states would develop their own Black Codes. Those who violated them were subject to police arrest, beatings and forced labour on plantations as punishment.
These codes came to an end during Reconstruction in 1877 but would be replaced by the Jim Crow laws – named after a minstrel routine that mocked African Americans – which enforced racial segregation at the state and local government levels from the late 19th century until 1965.
The Jim Crow laws included literary tests and poll taxes meant to keep Black people – who were more likely to be uneducated and poor – from casting a ballot. A ban on interracial marriage and the implementation of racial segregation in public places were also vital features of Jim Crow laws. Segregation extended to public transport, schools, theatres, parks and restaurants taking the “separate but equal” decision of the US Supreme Court in Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 as precedent. While the police did not create the Black codes or Jim Crow laws, they were responsible for enforcing them.
In 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy v Ferguson in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, declaring segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. In 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which legally ended the segregation enforced by Jim Crow.
But, once again, as things were seeming to change, the establishment – using the police as its tool – found ways to resist such progress.
As Black people mobilised for equal rights, their efforts were met with extreme violence from police. These predominantly white police forces used high pressured water hoses, dogs and tear gas on Black protesters.
By the early 1960s, Black Americans had become concentrated in cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Washington, DC. This was largely the result of the Great Migration of the 1920s in which Black people from the South had moved to Northern cities where there was a need for industrial workers following World War I. Young Black activists became more involved in the Civil Rights Movement in these big cities and heavy policing – in the form of racial profiling and violent interactions – was the response.
One of the most famous instances of clashes between Black communities and the police was during the 1965 Watts riots which began after Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old African American man, was pulled over for suspected drunk driving and beaten by police during his arrest. A crowd witnessed the incident and as more people gathered, they were met with highway patrol officers armed with batons and shotguns. The uprising lasted for six days and 34 people died – 23 at the hands of LAPD officers or National Guardsmen.
The “long, hot summer” in the US followed two years later. This period refers to the nearly 160 clashes between Black people and police that took place during the summer of 1967. They stemmed from many societal ills, including racism, segregation, unemployment and poverty, which were perpetuated by discriminatory hiring practices by white-owned businesses. It led to confrontations between Black residents and predominantly white police forces in cities like Buffalo, Cincinnati and Birmingham.
Another deadly incident took place in Newark, New Jersey, after a Black taxi driver, John Smith, was beaten until he bled by officers after he allegedly passed a double-parked police car. He was arrested for alleged tailgating and driving the wrong way on the street. Following his arrest, a rumour (later proved to be wrong) started that he had died in police custody. Incensed, local residents took to the streets to protest. In response, the police called in the National Guard and about 26 people (mostly Black residents but also one white firefighter and a police detective) were killed. Additionally, 700 were injured and more than 1,000 mostly Black people were arrested. Property damage totalled $10m ($81m in today’s money).
The deployment of the National Guard is significant. A reserve force that can be commanded at the state and federal levels, the National Guard has only been deployed at the federal level 16 times since 1792 when it was first sent to disperse the Whiskey Rebellion. However, about half of those deployments were against race demonstrations – most recently, it was activated to control protests in multiple locations over the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Another infamous incident that summer took place in Detroit, Michigan, after police raided a party at an illegal drinking club. Police arrested everyone in attendance, including 82 Black people who were celebrating the return of two Black veterans from the Vietnam War. During the nine days that followed, 9,000 members of the National Guard were once again deployed by Michigan Governor George Romney, along with 800 members of the state police force. Some 7,200 people were arrested, 1,200 were injured and 43 were killed (33 of them Black). Between 1964 and 1971, more than 700 race riots took place in the US.
Rolling back progress – using the police
In 1966, activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in a bid to protect Black neighbourhoods from police brutality. They also established more than 35 social programmes to provide medical care, legal aid and free clothing and meals for poor children in mostly Black neighbourhoods. At its peak, membership of the Black Panther movement exceeded 2,000 and the organisation had chapters in 48 American states.
In reaction to the sorts of social programmes put forward by the Black Panthers and others, which expanded protections and rights previously restricted to wealthy, white men, to all peoples, the establishment pushed back and deployed what Rodriguez terms “a scorched earth policy” of neoliberalism which effectively ended those social programmes and protections.
Instead of investing in social programmes to mitigate poverty among working-class people as their wages decreased, local, state and federal government increasingly invested in the use of policing, prisons and borders to “manage the strategies of survival and issues of impoverished people – from underground economic activity in drugs and sex work, to meeting their biological needs, on to mental health and interpersonal violence”, says Rodriguez. “Thus, we went from a racial, hetero-patriarchal social welfare state, to a neoliberal social warfare state, one that uses warfare to manage impoverishment. And, given how negative racialisation places people of colour within the most vulnerable positions within the broader working-class (for example the “last to hire, first to fire” principle), we experience the most acute forms of impoverishment and state repression.
“Within this moment, the people with the most troubles and least resources are more likely to experience government programmes – police, prisons, and borders – that seek to address the survival strategies and social issues of impoverished people through punitive strategies that strip working-class people of the few resources they have [from modest incomes, work, housing, to connections with others], all while adding more troubles [fines, warrants, imprisonment, deportation and felon disenfranchisement].”
Furthermore, movements such as the Black Panthers were criminalised by law enforcement agencies. The FBI viewed the Black Panther Party as a communist enemy of the government due to its “militancy”, the message of Black nationalism and determination to end police brutality, and used its power to crack down on it hard. FBI head J Edgar Hoover declared war on the Black Panther Party and called them “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security”.
The group soon became the target of a secret FBI counterintelligence programme COINTELPRO. This culminated in 1969 with a five-hour police shoot-out at the Panthers’ Southern California headquarters and a Chicago police raid where the Black Panthers’ Illinois chapter deputy chairman, Fred Hampton, who had been identified by the FBI as a “radical threat”, was murdered on December 4.
It is believed that the FBI recruited an informer to drug Hampton and, at 4.45am, an armed police unit stormed his apartment where they shot him in the head.
Criminalising the Black community
In the 1980s and 90s, departments across the country began to commit to community policing, which placed minority officers in minority neighbourhoods. While some believed that this practice would improve relations between people of colour and law enforcement, two infamous incidents would show how wrong they were and remind the nation of how racist the justice system is.
One was The Central Park Jogger Case of 1989, in which five Black and Latino teenagers aged between 14 and 16 – Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam – were wrongfully tried and convicted of the aggravated assault and rape of a white woman, Trisha Meili. The boys had all been interrogated by police for seven hours in the absence of their parents, after which four of them made confessions on videotape. Meanwhile, four full-page adverts were taken out in New York newspapers with the phrase “Bring Back the Death Penalty, Bring Back Our Police!”, calling for the boys to be executed. The adverts were paid for by Donald Trump.
But DNA evidence found at the scene did not match any of the boys and they later said they had been coerced through threats and violence into giving their confessions. Their convictions were vacated in 2002, when the real culprit, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer who was serving time in prison, confessed to the crime and said he had acted alone. His DNA matched that found at the crime scene. The four juvenile defendants had served six to seven years each, while the 16-year-old, Korey Wise, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 13 years. He served 11 and a half years in total.
In another case in 1991, Black motorist Rodney King was nearly beaten to death by Los Angeles police during his arrest for allegedly driving while intoxicated. He was struck with batons nearly 60 times and left with skull fractures, broken bones and brain damage. Four officers – Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon – were charged with assault with a deadly weapon, excessive use of force and filing false reports.
Despite the attack being caught on camera, they were found not guilty on all counts. The incident led to the 1992 LA riots, which lasted for six days and was one of the largest civil disturbances in the US of the 20th century. Fires were lit across the city, a dozen people were killed and hundreds were injured. It also sparked a new dialogue about how police brutality affects Black people.
“What we had was aggressive paramilitary policing with a culture that was mean and cruel, racist and abusive of force in communities of colour, particularly poor communities of colour,” lawyer and civil rights activist Connie Rice told news organisation NPR back in 2017. “It was an open campaign to suppress and contain the Black community.”
The ‘colonial boomerang’ of policing
The way in which Black communities are and have been policed over the decades has frequently been informed by methods employed by US occupational forces overseas, says Rodriguez.
This is known as the “colonial boomerang” effect, “whereby cultural and material techniques of colonialism returned to suppress negatively racialised peoples within the metropole”, he explains.
“The colonial boomerang of policing continues today,” says Rodriguez, “as contemporary US military interventions inform US policing – most immediately in the Middle East and Latin America.”
For example, he explains, the US invasion and counterinsurgency practised in Iraq, which advanced neoliberal state formation and enclosure of petroleum reserves, led to the development of a new cadre of veterans returning to find work in US law enforcement agencies, which receive surplus military equipment originally used in Iraq.
“Furthermore, the storied and continued legacy of US military, political and, foremost, economic interventions in Central America [eg El Salvador] continues to circulate strategies of suppression under the guise of exchanging law enforcement strategies,” says Rodriguez.
The US direct occupation or support for regimes in other imperial interventions through history – Nicaragua (occupied by the US from 1912 to 1933); Haiti (occupied from 1915 to 1934), the Dominican Republic (1916 to 1924), Japan (1945 to 1952), South Korea (1950s) and South Vietnam (1955 to 1973) – also led to the development of surveillance and counterinsurgent techniques against resistance that, in turn, were applied in policing in the US.
The painful legacy of modern-day policing
George Floyd’s death was another reminder of how anti-Black American police forces have remained since their inception. On-duty police kill nearly 1,000 people every year, with Black Americans dying at much higher rates than white Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed at disproportionate rates.
In addition, Black folks are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of white people in the US. The very fabric of American policing thrives on the imprisonment, torture and death of minorities. Organisations and groups like the Black Panther Party and Black Lives Matter have called attention to and taken on these white supremacist systems and structures for years.
The conviction of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd is an anomaly in itself. It is extremely rare that police officers are convicted when they are charged with the death of a civilian – especially if the victim is Black. This is true in the murders of Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and countless others at the hands of law enforcement.
While Chauvin was on trial in April, that same month 20-year-old Daunte Wright was murdered by police during a traffic stop just 16km (10 miles) away from where George Floyd was killed. On April 20, the day that Chauvin was found guilty, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was fatally shot by police in Columbus, Ohio. Both of these victims were Black, only solidifying the statistical reality that minorities are – and will continue to be – targets of police violence.
“We should recognise that police and prisons criminalise the survival strategies of normal people with the least resources and the most troubles who are just trying to meet their needs while living in pathological circumstances, only to add more troubles while taking the few resources they have through punitive strategies,” says Rodriguez.
The killing of George Floyd one year ago illustrates clearly how the criminalising of Black people plays out. Floyd was one of the millions of people in the US addicted to opioids. He joined the ranks of the unemployed during the COVID-19 lockdown and contracted the coronavirus before he was killed by local police.
“He, like so many others, could have benefitted from our public tax dollars going into employment programmes to build public health and other forms of social infrastructure, substance use programmes, or even just support to remain socially distanced amidst a pandemic,” says Rodriguez. “Hence the profound proposals of reimagining our economy and government, epitomised in the movement calls to defend the police and refund the people, all to do justice in his name.”