Guest post by Trey Goff
I’m fairly certain that everyone, regardless of political affiliation, can agree that there is a problem with policing institutions in America. Every single day, I read of yet another dead American at the hands of the police. I, like many of my fellow Americans, feel a sense of fear and not safety when I pass a police officer on the street. Am I violating some absurdly specific law? Have I done anything to warrant his attention?
However, it hasn’t always been this way. What happened?
To understand both what’s wrong with law enforcement today and how to fix it, we need to examine the history and evolution of police forces in the United States. Everything I am going to say in the next few paragraphs comes directly from a scholarly article written by Dr. Gary Potter of Eastern Kentucky University.
Before the establishment of the first municipal police department in 1838, law enforcement was a very laissez-faire enterprise in America. It began with night watchmen. These men would be posted at various locations around any given city to stop any crime they may see taking place. These men were supervised by a constable, who organised their activities. However, this was not a very effective system. Although the night-watch position was supposed to be voluntary, it was often forced upon miscreants as a kind of communal punishment. Night watchmen were often inebriated while on duty. As Dr. Potter states,
Augmenting the watch system was a system of constables, official law-enforcement officers, usually paid by the fee system for warrants they served. Constables had a variety of non-law enforcement functions to perform as well, including serving as land surveyors and verifying the accuracy of weights and measures.
It is important to note that law enforcement officers were paid by the fees from the warrants they served. This creates an important incentive system: law enforcement officers are incentivised to catch criminals because this is the source of their paycheck. However, they did not have the authority to simply apprehend anyone they may think is committing a crime. They could only arrest someone who had an active warrant out for his arrest, which has to be procured from a judge.
Note that this makes this system of law enforcement highly reactionary: officers only became involved after a crime has been (allegedly) committed. This means that before enforcement can proceed a citizen alleging a wrong would have to provide sufficient evidence to show a constable that he or she has been robbed, beaten, etc. The constable then had to take this sufficient evidence before a judge in order to obtain the arrest warrant. This means two crucial things:
- one could only be arrested for committing a crime that had an actual victim, and
- one could only be detained after the (alleged) crime had already occurred.
This ensures due process, that everyone is considered innocent until proven guilty, and that the principles of individual rights and personal liberty are well protected from the enforcement arm of the state.
However, this all changed in 1838, when Boston became the first city in America to establish a full-time municipal police force. By the 1880s, all major American cities had municipal police forces. Dr. Potter explains what these departments have in common:
These “modern police” organisations shared similar characteristics:
(1) they were publicly supported and bureaucratic in form;
(2) police officers were full-time employees, not community volunteers or case-by-case fee retainers;
(3) departments had permanent and fixed rules and procedures, and employment as a police officers was continuous;
(4) police departments were accountable to a central governmental authority (Lundman 1980).
However, law enforcement followed a different path in the South. Dr. Potter explains this as well:
In the Southern states the development of American policing followed a different path. The genesis of the modern police organisation in the South is the “Slave Patrol” (Platt 1982). The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704 (Reichel 1992). Slave patrols had three primary functions:
(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves;
(2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and,
(3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.
Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organisations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now labourers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.
Clearly, law enforcement in the South at least did not arise from any sort of honourable “desire to protect the populace.” These facts beg the question: why 1838? Why were the mid-1800’s a breeding ground for the creation of municipal police forces? Although a massive crime wave would seem to be the only logical explanation, this is not the case. There was no pandemic threat of overwhelming crime. Dr. Potter’s answer displays the authoritarian roots of the modern police state:
More than crime, modern police forces in the United States emerged as a response to “disorder.” What constitutes social and public order depends largely on who is defining those terms, and in the cities of 19th century America they were defined by the mercantile interests, who through taxes and political influence supported the development of bureaucratic policing institutions. These economic interests had a greater interest in social control than crime control. Private and for-profit policing [shackled with the leash of the courts and due process – Ed.] was too disorganised and too crime-specific in form to fulfill these needs. The emerging commercial elites needed a mechanism to ensure a stable and orderly work force, a stable and orderly environment for the conduct of business, and the maintenance of what they referred to as the “collective good” (Spitzer and Scull 1977). These mercantile interests also wanted to divest themselves of the cost of protecting their own enterprises, transferring those costs from the private sector to the state.
Thus, the truth arises: modern police forces are a result of extremely effective cronyism and the authoritarian desires of the political elites. They created the modern police force out of a concerted effort to coerce the masses to ascribe to what the political elites of the time believe is the greatest “collective good” -- flying in the face of the principles of personal liberty and voluntary cooperation America was founded upon. Furthermore, what gives the wealthy few the right to assume the dictation of the lives of millions of sovereign individuals? The injustice in the origins of modern police are striking. However, the problems only get worse. Dr. Potter expounds upon the latent inequality at work in the early days of police work:
The only effective political strategy available to exploited workers was what economic elites referred to as “rioting,” which was actually a primitive form of what would become union strikes against employers (Silver 1967). The modern police force not only provided an organised, centralised body of men (and they were all male) legally authorised to use force to maintain order, it also provided the illusion that this order was being maintained under the rule of law, not at the whim of those with economic power.
Defining social control as crime control was accomplished by raising the spectre of the “dangerous classes.” The suggestion was that public drunkenness, crime, hooliganism, political protests and worker “riots” were all the products of a biologically inferior, morally intemperate, unskilled and uneducated underclass. The consumption of alcohol was widely seen as the major cause of crime and public disorder [and still is! – Ed.]…
This underclass was easily identifiable because it consisted primarily of the poor, foreign immigrants and free blacks (Lundman 1980: 29). This isolation of the “dangerous classes” as the embodiment of the crime problem created a focus in crime control that persists to today, the idea that policing should be directed toward “bad” individuals, rather than social and economic conditions that are criminogenic in their social outcomes.
In addition, the creation of the modern police force in the United States also immutably altered the definition of the police function. Policing had always been a reactive enterprise, occurring only in response to a specific criminal act. Centralised and bureaucratic police departments, focusing on the alleged crime-producing qualities of the “dangerous classes” began to emphasise preventative crime control. The presence of police, authorised to use force, could stop crime before it started by subjecting everyone to surveillance and observation. The concept of the police patrol as a preventative control mechanism routinised the insertion of police into the normal daily events of everyone’s life, a previously unknown and highly feared concept in both England and the United States (Parks 1976). [Emphasis mine.]
As Dr. Potter makes clear, modern policing methods were born out of rampant racism and a desire to suppress American citizen’s constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceably assemble. I need not expound upon the plethora of gross injustices intrinsic to this immoral system of law enforcement. The police were created as a brutal enforcement tool of the political elite. Can you imagine the horror with which Thomas Jefferson or John Adams would view this revelation?
Despite its foundational racism and inequality, this form of policing still persists in America today. There have been many attempts at reform, but few have had any lasting impact. Dr. Potter explains these reform attempts in great detail, but for brevity’s sake I will leave them with him. Dr. Potter does, however, point out an important fact: the overwhelming body of scholarly literature finds that the police have virtually no impact on crime. I’ll say that again: all of the liberties you have lost to the cause of “public safety” and “reduced crime” have had no impact whatsoever on crime.
Now, let’s fast forward to today: what kind of impact do the police still have on our society?
- SWAT teams conduct approximately 80,000 no-knock raids per year.
- Even though America only consists of 5% of the world population, we have almost 25% of the world’s prison population.
- We have 725 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, which is the highest ratio in the world. (The world average is 145 per 100,000 citizens.) Nearly 2.2 million Americans are behind bars.
- The racial disparities within our system are even more appalling. Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population. 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.
- Civil forfeiture laws allow police officers to take all of your physical belongs under any “reasonable suspicion” of any criminal activity. You then have to sue the police and prove your innocence to get your belongings back. You will be lucky to receive 75% of everything they took from you, if you are able to win the lawsuit.
Clearly, a massive change is needed in the way we, as a culture, enforce property rights and punish aggressors. Only through a proper understanding of the history of policing institutions can we suggest meaningful and ethical remedies to the sickness that currently plagues criminal justice in the United States of America.
Trey Goff is a double major in political science and economics at Mississippi State University, a fitness enthusiast, hater of oppression, and lover of all things liberty.