[Blackstudies-l] First police departments date back centuries to slave patrols
lima at geneseo.edu
Tue Jun 9 08:32:39 EDT 2020
Law enforcement’s history of racism
There was no place to hide, no place to truly be safe. Across the U.S.,
black Americans lived in fear of law enforcement officials armed with
weapons who monitored their behavior, attacked them on the street and in
their homes, and killed them for the slightest alleged provocation.
These organized groups of white men known as slave patrols lay at the roots
of the nation’s law enforcement excesses, historians say, helping launch
centuries of violent and racist behavior toward black Americans, as well as
a tradition of protests and uprisings against police brutality.
That history has again become the subject of national debate as millions of
Americans in recent days gathered in cities large and small to denounce
police brutality and racial bias after the death of George Floyd, a
46-year-old black man in Minneapolis, at the hands of a police officer
after allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.
In a video of the encounter, Floyd gasped for breath as police officer
Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck while three other officers looked on.
Chauvin was fired along with the officers in the video, and all four were
eventually arrested for their role in his death. Floyd’s last words were “I
can’t breathe,” recalling the death of Eric Garner, 43, who also gasped “I
can’t breathe” before he died during an arrest for selling untaxed
cigarettes in New York City in 2014.
Both deaths, as well as the deaths of other black men, women and children
across the U.S. during interactions with police officers, have inspired
protests and calls for police reform, along with the rise of the Black Lives
Matter social justice movement.
But law enforcement officials across the U.S. have a much longer history of
killing black people, says Jennifer Cobbina, a criminal justice professor
at Michigan State University.
“Too often people look at the contemporary issue, the issue that is going
on right now but not understanding that all that is happening is seeped in
400 years of legacy of injustice,” she said, adding, “These past
grievances, past harms by law enforcement, need to be addressed before even
attempting to move forward.”
Dating to the 1600s, the British colonies used a watchman 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 colonies, according to Sally Hadden, a history professor at
Western Michigan University.
Slave patrols were tasked with hunting down runaways and suppressing
rebellions amid fear of enslaved people rising up against their white
owners, who were often outnumbered. The patrol was a volunteer force
consisting of white men who surveyed and attacked black people and anyone
who tried to help them escape.
“Everything that you can think of that a police officer can do today, they
did it,” Hadden said. “The biggest thing is that they were race-focused as
opposed to the police today, who should be race-neutral in their
enforcement of law.”
Slave patrols were not designed to protect public safety in the broadest
sense but rather to protect white wealth, says Seth Soughton, a law
professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former
police officer in Tallahassee, Florida, whose research has focused on
excessive police force.
After the abolition of slavery in 1865 with the passing of the 13th
Amendment toward the end of the Civil War, slave patrols were done away
with and police departments become more common.
African Americans, however, were still heavily policed, especially in areas
that passed black codes, or laws that restricted property ownership,
employment and other behaviors.
The Ku Klux Klan and other groups terrorized black communities, carrying
out lynchings and destroying black schools. Some law enforcement and other
government officials became KKK members, especially in the South.
“The Ku Klux Klan could often count on empathy or active assistance at the
time,” Soughton said. “The best that can be said for a lot of policing at
the time is that they didn’t do anything to stop that. But often there is
far worse to say because not only did they not do anything to stop it, they
actively assisted it.”
When black Americans protested against segregation and other racist laws,
law enforcement officials were often called in. During the civil rights
era, images of police brutally suppressing peaceful activists, including
the use of dogs and fire hoses, in part helped usher in the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color,
religion and sex.
But as black Americans gained more rights, lawmakers on both sides of the
political aisle looked for ways to criminalize the black community.
In 1971, the Nixon administration launched the war on drugs, resulting in
increased arrests and harsher prison sentences largely aimed at black
people. Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman later confirmed
the effort was designed to hurt black families.
“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings,
and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” he told Harper’s
The Clinton administration’s 1994 crime bill also resulted in more black
Americans going to prison.
>From 1980 to 2015, the nation’s prison population climbed from roughly
500,000 to more than 2.2 million, with black Americans making up 34% of
inmates, according to the NAACP. Thirteen percent of Americans identify as
black, according to the U.S. Census.
According to the research group Mapping Police Violence, African Americans
are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white
In 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, was acquitted
in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old student in Sanford,
Florida. The verdict, along with the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown,
an 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Missouri, gave birth to Black Lives
Matter and protests over police brutality.
After the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, the Justice
Department curtailed programs to investigate local police departments for
racism and excessive force. But the deaths of Floyd, as well as of Breonna
Taylor, a 26-year-old African American emergency room technician in
Louisville, Kentucky, killed at her home in March by police searching for a
suspect in a drug case, sparked renewed protests over law enforcement actions
and policies. “What’s becoming very apparent is that black people aren’t
the only group in this country that is concerned about the levels of police
brutality in the United States,” said Lionel Kimble, a history professor at
Chicago State University whose research focuses on black civil rights. “The
country is going to have to take a hard look in the mirror and talk about
how we police people, in what role the police play in supporting inequality
in our society.”
Police block demonstrators attempting to push through their cordon in
Selma, Ala., during a protest for voting rights on March 13, 1965. AP FILE
Copyright © 2020 Democrat and Chronicle 6/9/2020
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