We Can’t Have Police Reform Until We Understand The History Of Policing
America’s reckoning is needed more than an executive order.
I’ve been pulled over a few times in my life. Each time, as I waited for the police officer to approach my car, I could feel my heart racing with fear. Thankfully, I’ve never experienced an inappropriate or violent police stop.
I’ve been fortunate.
However, as the parents of three, black sons, my husband and I have had to sit them down for “The Talk” — a difficult yet potentially lifesaving conversation that no parent should ever need to have with their children. On top of that, I often find myself weighted down with the kind of worry that no mother should ever have to carry.
If we are to understand America’s policing problem — why too many of our country’s black citizens see officers as foes, not friends, and why too many officers don’t see any humanity in black faces — we have to go back to the awful beginning. Back to the original role of policing in the South.
Ready? Here we go.
“The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the Slave Patrol.” — Dr. Gary Potter
Potter, an author and professor at the Eastern Kentucky University School of Justice Studies, has researched this topic extensively. He writes that the first slave patrol was formally established in 1704 in the Carolina colonies. The role of this vigilante ‘police force’ was to chase down and apprehend enslaved people who dared to ditch master’s plantation in search of freedom.
Slave patrols also carried out acts of terror as a way to discourage uprisings among the enslaved. They administered punishment (pretty sure this involved a whip) for those enslaved persons who violated the plantation rules.
After the Civil War, slave patrols evolved into law enforcement officers. Police departments around the country had become more centralized and bureaucratic. They became instruments of the elite class — those well-to-do whites who wanted to protect their economic interests and political power. Although America’s cities were growing rapidly, there is no solid evidence that links the expansion of the modern police to an increase in crime.
Rather, policing became a way to ensure “public order” and “social control.” The thing is, those two terms were defined by — you guessed it — the white elites, who were business owners and politicians. They got together and designated a “dangerous underclass,” those who didn’t look or act like them (Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, and formerly enslaved black citizens); those who were uneducated and poor; those who engaged in public drunkenness — even though many of the elites were the very same tavern owners who encouraged alcohol consumption.
By the 1900s, the so-called “dangerous class” was expanded to include everyday American workers, mostly European immigrants who were often exploited in low-paying, industrial jobs up north. As a result, they joined labor unions and participated in strikes to demand safer working conditions and higher wages. Since the police were on the side of the employers, strikers were often subject to brutal force, anti-immigrant harassment, and “public order” arrests.
Backstories to the country’s policing problem can be found nationwide. However, in order to truly understand today’s tense relationship between the police and black Americans you must fix your eyes on the South, especially during the post-slavery era. During this period, the police maintained “social control” in a variety of ways that included the sweeping enforcement of vagrancy laws.
These laws made joblessness and homelessness a crime. And who do you think was most affected by these laws? Newly, freed black citizens, of course — because who can find employment and a place to live when they’re straight outta bondage?
The police regularly carted these homeless, jobless individuals off to prison. That’s where the vagrancy laws left off and the 13th Amendment picked up. In case you didn’t know, this amendment abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” So, once in prison, these individuals essentially became enslaved once again. This still applies today.
Unfortunately, vagrancy laws were just one part of many restrictive Black Codes, legislation designed to “limit the freedom of African Americans and ensure their availability as a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished.”
With the enforcement of Black Codes, the foundation was laid for how black citizens would be policed for the next 150+ years. At the behest of local politicians, the police went on to use extreme and often deadly violence to preserve Jim Crow laws. They used a barrage of insidious tactics to thwart the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, such as spying on black activists and journalists. By the way, this is still happening.
Rigorous policing played a significant role in the oppression of black Americans, but what’s even more telling is what the police didn’t do:
They didn’t apprehend whites who carried out mob violence against blacks. They didn’t prevent whites from derailing the progress of black citizens in their fight for equality.
To that point, something interesting happened earlier this month in Texas. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, local officials removed a 12-foot, bronze statue of renowned Texas Ranger Capt. Jay Banks from Dallas Love Field Airport. This was in reaction to a just-released book, “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers,” by Doug J. Swanson.
In the book, Swanson details the role that Ranger Banks played in preventing three black students from integrating Mansfield High School in 1956. In support of the governor, Banks refused to disperse the angry mob of approximately 400 whites who showed up at the Dallas-area school to block the students. He also ordered the Texas Rangers to arrest any of the students who attempted to enroll. The following week, he took the same approach at a Texas community college.
America’s history of policing is messy.
Yet, it answers the question that Marvin Gaye asked almost 50 years ago when he sang, “What’s Going On?” It explains what our eyes cannot fathom every time we see another heart-wrenching cellphone or bodycam video. It makes clear why a white woman knows she can call the cops on an innocent black man and they will automatically take her side. It leaves no doubt as to why Colin Kaepernick kneeled.
So, what can we do?
First, we must realize that the overall justice system is not broken. It operates exactly the way it was originally intended to work.
Second, we can use this historical knowledge to educate others about systemic racism in policing. Knowing the facts will add credibility to our voices in demanding change. Finally, we can work with our local government officials to foster a dialogue between the police and our communities. President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing is a blueprint that many cities are already using.
Ranger Jay Banks ultimately became the “public face of Texas’ efforts to block integration,” says author Doug J. Swanson.
I can only hope that the public face — faces of police reform emerge from the police corps themselves — those who are ready to acknowledge the past, change in the present, and care enough to help create a future where no parent has to give their child The Talk ever again.