The History Of Policing And Race In The U.S. Are Deeply Intertwined

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, policing


MARTIN: So could we just begin in the very early days of policing? Where did the kind of metropolitan police force as we know today first begin in this country, and why?

BLAIN: So generally speaking, we point to the period of the 1830s with the creation of the police force in the city of Boston. And this particular police force, we identify it as the first because it was publicly funded and supported. But if we even look a bit earlier, we could, for example, point to a group like the Charleston City Watch and Guard, which was formed in the 1790s. And this was created primarily to control the movement of the slave population at the time.

We generally don't go back that far just because within the context of modern policing, we're thinking about police forces that are fully funded, that are full-time. And through that lens, we generally point to the 1830s. And by the 1890s, every major city in the United States had a police force.

MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, about the origin of some of these forces being rooted in the slave patrols of the South. How did that work?

BLAIN: So I mentioned earlier the Charleston City Watch and Guard. And that provides one of the earliest examples of how this works because this was a period of slavery. And also, in the city of Charleston, as we know, the majority of the people living there at the time were black people. So the minority white population - they were very terrified about the possibility of slave uprisings and revolts, so they wanted to make sure that there was some sort of group ready to control, to make sure that people were being closely monitored, especially when they were working outside of the purview or the control of the enslaver.

So those slave patrols then began to police, and particularly focusing on the control of black people. As we move past the period of slavery and we get into the period of Reconstruction and even the period of Jim Crow, we then go into the creation of these groups that are functioning much like the slave patrols. And now, rather than upholding slavery, their job is to make sure that the black codes are being reinforced, which are the laws and policies similarly meant to control the lives and movement of black people.


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