Policing Race and Racing Police: The Origin of US Police in Slave Patrols.

AuthorBrucato, Ben

When I teach the history of US policing, I begin our survey by holding up one of the most widely used textbooks on policing, The Police in America by Samuel Walker and Charles M. Katz (2018, 33), first published in 1981 and currently in its ninth edition. I turn to a chapter of the textbook titled "The History of the American Police" and read the first sentence from a section on "The First Modern American Police": "Modern police forces were established in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s." I then quote from a facing page, in a section under the heading "Law Enforcement in Colonial America," which reads:

Policing in the southeastern states where slavery existed had a distinctive institution: the slave patrol. Because the white majority was so concerned about slave revolts (of which there were many), and runaway slaves, they created this new form of law enforcement. The slave patrols, in fact, were the first modern police forces in the United States. The Charleston, South Carolina slave patrol, for example, had about 100 officers in 1837 and was far larger than any northern city police force at that time. (Walker & Katz 2018, 32)

The point, which the reader has likely already figured, is to show that on facing pages in an authoritative source, the history of US police is told in such a way that invites confusion. Perhaps as perplexing is that this chapter opens with the phrase, "The day the first American police officer went out on patrol in 183 8," while failing to acknowledge that the Charleston slave patrols referenced in the passage above were founded in 1704 (Walker 6c Katz 2018, 29).

The Police in America is among the two-thirds of American policing textbooks that have any mention at all of slave patrols, all of which provide scant coverage (Turner et al. 2006). K.B. Turner and colleagues (2006) noted in an article in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education that introductory criminal justice and police textbooks lack comprehensive attention to the importance of slavery in the founding and development of criminal justice in the United States. An earlier edition of The Police in America is among their sample. They cite an earlier article from the same journal by Samuel Walker and Molly Brown (1995) on the neglect of racial and ethnic minorities in introductory criminal justice textbooks. If that is not ironic enough, consider that Walker and K.B. Turner have coauthored joint historical research on race and policing. Though he served as a professor of criminology and criminal justice and the majority of his work fits best in those fields, Walker earned his degree in history, and most of his published monographs are on the history of American criminal justice institutions. In his 1980 book, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice, he provides greater detail and similarly claims that slave patrols were precursors to the police.

That only one paragraph in a 41-page chapter on US police history mentions slave patrols would hardly give pause to most in the field, or to those who attend to police history in any area. Perfunctory references to slave patrols abound in such histories, often seemingly to deflect criticism for inattentiveness to race. Slave patrols, once footnotes at most, have been moved into the main texts; yet, one can search at great length and rarely find where the patrols form the basis for any meaningful analysis of policing. Instead, the patrols are relegated to adjuncts in the history of police, their presence treated as an early experiment in policing or serving as a resolution to problems peculiar to slavery in the antebellum South. The slave patrols were necessary both to the formation of the American proletariat and to the creation of a new concept of race. To account for this, and to accommodate the history of slave patrols, properly placing them at the origin of US police would require a wholesale rejection of the orthodox history of US police.

Rejecting Eurocentric Orthodoxy in the History and Theory of US Police

An orthodox history of police is institutionalized, not just in the disciplines of criminology and criminal justice, but in all domains where police history appears. This orthodoxy has its origin story: in the beginning (1829), Sir Robert Peel created the London Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). The origin of US police begins with the importation of the MPS model to northern US cities, beginning with Boston in 1838, where that model was recreated and spread through isomorphic influence. A favorable result of the orthodox history is that it highlights a break from protopolice institutions (e.g., the constabulary and night watch), as a modern police force, autonomous from the judiciary, was founded to respond to the exigencies of cities with increasingly large, dense, and diverse populations of workers competing over jobs and occupations. On the other hand, the orthodoxy is fed by competing causal explanations, involving rising crime rates, public disorder, mob violence, or a combination thereof to depict the creation and development of police as a natural and practical development, barely mentioning the role of the state nor the ideological dimensions of police (see, e.g., Lundman 1980,Monkkonen 1981; cf. Klockars 1980). At worst, these histories eschew causal explanation entirely, instead serving as celebratory stories lauding police, who purportedly restored order to cities whose security was threatened by persistent disorder. At best, this orthodox history is told as a story of class control, where police were created to manage the dangerous classes; yet the best version of this approach is not good enough.

In his attempt to develop a critical theory of police power, Mark Neocleous (2000, 2021) criticizes the facile history of British police that begins with the MPS and its purported mission to fight crime. He instead finds the origin of police in the very structure of the modern state and in ideas about good order that were conceived during the collapse of feudalism. Rather than controlling a working class that preexisted it, police were fundamental to the formation of the working class. Building on his earlier Administering Civil Society (1996), he explains that police were central to ongoing processes of primitive accumulation, creating a working class out of newly masterless men who were forced to sell their labor to survive as feudalism gave way to industrial capitalism. The use of vagrancy laws to legitimate the policing of this class of poverty serves as an illustration of the ways state violence was intimately involved in the formation and control of the industrial proletariat.

Administering Civil Society posits a Marxist theory of state that asserts a sharp separation of state and civil society, with political administration functioning as a mediating form between them. His is deliberately a so-called weak theory, offering theoretical guidelines and orientations, rather than overdetermined causal mechanisms intended to "explain all the institutional and operational features of a state in a given conjuncture" (Jessop cited in Neocleous 1996, xxi). In developing this theory of state, he remains grounded in a nineteenth century British context, explaining the role of the state in the creation of the working class in England, with the caveat that the particular national contours of these processes are certain to shape the analysis. This in turn implies that the theory may require modification in other national contexts.

In his arguments concerning police power, Neocleous (2000, 2021) imports the concept of political administration and assigns to police the mediating role between state and civil society. Though his is a Marxist theory of state, Neocleous also accepts the general Weberian principle that states are defined by their means, in particular their successful claim of a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive violence (see Weber 1946). Given that Neocleous's goal is different from Weber's, the latter concerned with providing a universal definition that would apply to all states in all times, Neocleous is instead devoted to explaining the ends of the state via police. Specifically, police provide the articulation of state violence in the creation of social order, and in a modern European context, this order is industrial capitalism. Expanding beyond--but nonetheless remaining chiefly focused on--England, Neocleous also addresses the development of the police concept in France. Whether discussing social philosophers or court cases, legislative acts or economic matters, the text remains almost entirely planted in Western Europe. Neocleous rejects the origin story that begins with the MPS; nonetheless, Peel and the MPS are cornerstones in his history of police. Policing in the United States is barely mentioned, the slave patrols are absent entirely, and the relationship between race and policing is only mentioned in passing when explaining racial prejudice in the use of police discretion (Neocleous 2000, 101; 2021, 197). In this way, Neocleous's argument is reminiscent of an earlier Marxist critique of police, The Iron Fist and The Velvet Glove (1975), which Sandra Bass (2001, 158) rightly criticizes because "the authors subsume the issue of race under that of class, arguing that police brutality against racial minorities reflects the broader goal of capitalist repression of the working class." As Markus Dirk Dubber (2005) explains, policing in the United States was already developed before the importation of the police concept from Europe in the late eighteenth century, where they combined long-standing governmental techniques from English law with uniquely US innovations and adaptations, most significantly from the regulation of slaves. As such, Neocleous's critical theory of police cannot be imported to the United States by merely overlaying a racial analysis. Instead, core components of the theory require amendment.


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