In this section of my dissertation, I discuss the origins of modern policing in the United States. Policing in the U.S. emerged at first to control the movement and behavior of slaves. From the enforcement of slave codes to black codes to Jim Crow laws, policing in the U.S. is closely tied to the maintenance of racial stratification and inequality.
U.S. historians tend to agree that around the mid-1800s is the period when police forces throughout the States came to resemble the systems of policing in place today. This telling of the history, however, leaves out “an entire branch of the American police family tree”: City Guards in the Deep South (Williams 2007:35-36). As early as the 1780s, paramilitary municipal police forces were put in place primarily to control the slave populations in Southern cities (which often had black slave populations that exceeded the white population) (Rousey 1996; Williams 2007). These City Guards were “armed, uniformed, and salaried; they patrolled at night but kept a reserve force for daytime emergencies. In most respects, they resembled modern American police departments to the same degree as did the London Metropolitan Police of 1829” (Williams 2007:36). So, while modern forms of policing did not appear in the Northern states until the mid-1800s, modern policing emerged much earlier in the Southern states.
The difference in the timing of the emergence of modern policing between Northern and Southern states is most strongly influenced by slavery, the preservation of which necessitated white control over the black population (Hindus 1980; Williams 2007). Control over the black slave population was legislated through slave codes which restricted the movement and activities of slaves, including prohibiting the gathering of slaves in groups of more than four or five without whites present (especially religious gatherings) and forbidding slaves from learning to read or write (Websdale 2001; Williams 2007). Slave codes also enabled (and in some cases, required) enforcement by the entire white population (Websdale 2001; Williams 2007). “In such a racially stratified society, with few legal rights afforded to the black man, every white person, by virtue of his skin, had sufficient authority over blacks” (Hindus 1980:37-38). During the development of these codes (the mid-to-late 1600s, early 1700s), white supremacy empowered the average white citizen to act in lieu of an established police force and it wasn’t until the early-to-mid 1700s that formal slave patrols became a regular fixture in many Southern cities (Williams 2007). The transition between private enforcement and the regulation of the enforcement of slave codes through either the militia or the courts was slow as,
Each colony tried to cope with the unreliable nature of private enforcement, first by applying rewards and penalties, and later by appointing particular individuals to take on the duty. Volunteerism was eventually replaced with community-sanctioned authority in the form of slave patrols. (Williams 2007: 41).
Although slave patrols emerged in the rural plantations, the provided a model for urban patrols. “The growing numbers of black people in the cities were of obvious concern to the white population” and the control of black people—slaves and free—became just as much of a priority in the cities as it was in rural U.S. (Williams 2007:41). City guards went through a similar transition from private to public regulation of black codes, which, like slave codes, restricted the movement and activities of the black population. Black codes included curfews for slaves and free alike, pass systems requiring blacks to carry papers indicated they were free, and bans from the use of public spaces, such as parks (Williams 2007). Some codes were spelled out very specifically the ways in which blacks should interact with whites (e.g., a black person should step aside if a white person walks toward her/him, black men are prohibited from using a cane in the style of a Southern gentleman, et cetera) (Websdale 2001). Other codes were less specific, allowing for the punishment of “disorderly behavior.” The closely related “vagrancy codes” were often extended to lower class whites and whites who associated with blacks or advocated on their behalf (White 2008; Williams 2007).
Slavery was made illegal in the U.S. with the North’s victory of the Civil War and the adoption of the Thirteen Amendment (ratified in 1865), yet many black codes remained in place and new laws to regulate blacks were created (Alexander 2010). Eventually black codes were overturned and in the period following the emancipation of slaves, known as the Reconstruction Era, a slew of legislation was passed which strengthened the rights of blacks. In addition to the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery, these laws included the first Civil Rights Act (1866), which extended full citizenship to emancipated slaves; the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868), which affirmed the citizenship of all individuals born or naturalized in the U.S.; the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870), which granted men the right to vote, regardless of race; and the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (aka the Ku Klux Klan Act) made it illegal to conspire to deny citizens of their equal protection under the law, including interference with voting or the violent denial of one’s civil rights (Alexander 2010; Websdale 2001). While these civil rights gains provided a serious challenge to white supremacy, they were largely symbolic for a number of reasons:
Notably absent from the Fifteenth Amendment, for example, was language prohibiting the states from imposing educational, residential, or other qualifications for voting, thus leaving the door open to the states to impose poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices to prevent blacks from voting. Other laws revealed themselves as more an assertion of principle than direct federal intervention into Southern affairs, because enforcement required African Americans to take their cases to federal courts a costly and time-consuming procedure that was a practical impossibility for the vast majority of those who had claims. Most blacks were too poor to sue to enforce their civil rights, and no organization like the NAACP yet existed to spread the risks and costs of litigation. Moreover, the threat of violence often deterred blacks from pressing legitimate claims making the “civil rights” of former slaves largely illusory—existing on paper but rarely to be found in real life. (Alexander 2010:29-30)
In addition to barriers to the enforcement of laws discussed above and the violent resistance by whites to legal protections for blacks, legal challenges were mounted against civil rights legislation (e.g., the 1883 overturning of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had outlawed discrimination against blacks in public facilities) (Alexander 2010; Websdale 2001). Two years before the Supreme Count nullified the Civil Rights Act of 1875 on grounds that it was unconstitutional, Tennessee passed the South’s first Jim Crow law, which mandated the segregation of railroad cars by race (Websdale 2001). Such laws were supported by the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where justices of the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to support the segregation of rail cars, allowing for accommodations to be “separate but equal.” The separate-but-equal doctrine remained unchallenged until 1954 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that separate was, in fact, unequal in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Still, Jim Crow and vagrancy laws provided the basis for the state-sanctioned harassment and punishment (including brutality that ranged from beatings to death by lynching) of the black population in the decades between emancipation and throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
Just as Southern legislatures had passed black codes in response to the early steps of Reconstruction, in the years immediately following Brown v. Board, five Southern legislatures passed nearly 50 new Jim Crow laws. … The Ku Klux Klan reasserted itself as a powerful terrorist organization, committing castrations, killings, and the bombing of black homes and churches. NAACP leaders were beaten, pistol-whipped, and shot. (Alexander 2010:37).
From slave codes to Jim Crow, blackness had become conflated with criminality (Hindus 1980). The linkage of blacks to criminality helped maintain a system of slavery despite abolition. The Thirteenth Amendment allowed for one exception to the abolition of slavery—slavery was legally allowable as a punishment for crime. Convicts were in essence slaves of the state (Alexander 2010). The U.S.’s first prison boom occurred during the Redemption Era (1877-1896) (Alexander 2010). This era is characterized as a period of declining federal intervention in the Southern states and when “the political forces that backed the Confederacy and the traditional racial hierarchies of slavery reassumed control without restoring the formal mechanism of slavery” (Websdale 2001). During this time, the convict population grew at ten times the rate of the general population and prisoners “became younger and blacker, and the length of their sentences soared” (Oshinsky 1996:32).
The policing of African Americans in the era of Jim Crow and vagrancy laws was shaped by the bleed over and cooperation between police and the Ku Klux Klan (Williams 2007). Williams argues that the actions of vigilantes and the police during Reconstruction are often indistinguishable and, moreover, connected. Examples (cited in Williams 2007) include:
• In 1866 a group of black veterans in Memphis kept police officers from arresting two of their friends. In retaliation, the police led white mobs through the city’s streets beating blacks they came upon and torching the homes, schools, and churches of the black population. The rampage lasted four days and resulted in the deaths of 48 people (46 of whom were black) and the burning of 91 houses, 12 schools, and four churches (Berry 1994).
• Police in New Orleans led an attack against a convention of Union loyalists in 1866. A fight broke out between the group of approximately 100 black convention delegates and the 1,000-1,500 whites after, by most accounts, a white policeman fired at the group. The group of delegates returned fire and quickly made their way into the convention building where they were followed by the mass of whites who broke down doors, fired at the crowd, and clubbed the black delegates. There were at least 38 (mostly black) casualties. Despite the fact that a Congressional committee determined that the attack had been planned by a group of police comprised mainly of Confederate veterans, no one was prosecuted for the carnage (Rousey 1996).
• In 1868 the sheriff of Camilla, Georgia deputized the entire white population to prevent a political procession of blacks. A military investigation of the sheriff found the he made no effort to control the deputized whites and “was party to the wanton and unnecessary destruction of life which subsequently ensued” (Hennessey 1978:129).
Even the last known lynching in the Northern part of the United States (the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930) involved the cooperation of police. This lynching occurred when a mob of white people broke into the jail with sledgehammers, dragged the men out, beat them, and then hung them. The men were accused of robbing and murdering a white man and raping his white girlfriend, but had only been arrested the previous night and had not stood trial. A friend of the men was also arrested but spared from the lynching (Cameron 1993).
Legal authorities who did try to enforce laws meant to protect the civil rights of blacks and stand up to those who terrorized the black population became targets of terror themselves and were only successful in areas where the Klan was politically weak (Trelease 1971).
When Klan-type violence occurred, arrests were unusual, prosecutions rare, and convictions almost unknown. The attitudes (and sometimes involvement) of officers and sheriffs certainly impeded the enforcement of the law, but this was only one of the many obstacles standing in the way of convictions. Prosecutors were unwilling to press such cases, and magistrates were often glad to dismiss them. Klansmen frequently dominated juries—including grand juries and coroner’s juries. Witnesses and victims … were intimidated and refused to testify while Klan members were eager to swear false alibis on one another’s behalf (Williams 2007:80, citing Trelease 1971).
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York and London: The New Press.
Berry, Mary Frances. 1994. Black Resistance, White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America. New York: The Penguin Press.
Cameron, James. 1993. A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.
Hennessey, Melinda Meek. 1978. To Live and Die in Dixie: Reconstruction Race Riots in the South. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Kent State University, Kent, OH.
Hindus, Michael. 1980. Prison and Plantation: Crime, Justice, and Authority in Massachusetts and South Carolina, 1768-1878. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Oshinsky, David M. 1996. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press Paperbacks.
Rousey, Dennis C. 1996. Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805-1889. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Trelease, Allen W. 1971. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row.
Websdale, Neil. 2001. Policing the Poor: From Slave Plantation to Public Housing. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
White, Pete. “Safer Cities Unplugged.” Pp. 71-75 in The CR10 Publications Collective (eds.) Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Williams, Kristian. 2007. Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.