Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Invention of the Police: Why American policing got so big so fast

leave a comment »

Jill Lepore’s excellent article on the history of policing in the US was published in the New Yorker in July 2020. It begins:

To police is to maintain law and order, but the word derives from polis—the Greek for “city,” or “polity”—by way of politia, the Latin for “citizenship,” and it entered English from the Middle French police, which meant not constables but government. “The police,” as a civil force charged with deterring crime, came to the United States from England and is generally associated with monarchy—“keeping the king’s peace”—which makes it surprising that, in the antimonarchical United States, it got so big, so fast. The reason is, mainly, slavery.

“Abolish the police,” as a rallying cry, dates to 1988 (the year that N.W.A. recorded “Fuck tha Police”), but, long before anyone called for its abolition, someone had to invent the police: the ancient Greek polis had to become the modern police. “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence,” Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Human Condition.” In the polis, men argued and debated, as equals, under a rule of law. Outside the polis, in households, men dominated women, children, servants, and slaves, under a rule of force. This division of government sailed down the river of time like a raft, getting battered, but also bigger, collecting sticks and mud. Kings asserted a rule of force over their subjects on the idea that their kingdom was their household. In 1769, William Blackstone, in his “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” argued that the king, as “pater-familias of the nation,” directs “the public police,” exercising the means by which “the individuals of the state, like members of a well-governed family, are bound to conform their general behavior to the rules of propriety, good neighbourhood, and good manners; and to be decent, industrious, and inoffensive in their respective stations.” The police are the king’s men.

History begins with etymology, but it doesn’t end there. The polis is not the police. The American Revolution toppled the power of the king over his people—in America, “the law is king,” Thomas Paine wrote—but not the power of a man over his family. The power of the police has its origins in that kind of power. Under the rule of law, people are equals; under the rule of police, as the legal theorist Markus Dubber has written, we are not. We are more like the women, children, servants, and slaves in a household in ancient Greece, the people who were not allowed to be a part of the polis. But for centuries, through struggles for independence, emancipation, enfranchisement, and equal rights, we’ve been fighting to enter the polis. One way to think about “Abolish the police,” then, is as an argument that, now that all of us have finally clawed our way into the polis, the police are obsolete.

But are they? The crisis in policing is the culmination of a thousand other failures—failures of education, social services, public health, gun regulation, criminal justice, and economic development. Police have a lot in common with firefighters, E.M.T.s, and paramedics: they’re there to help, often at great sacrifice, and by placing themselves in harm’s way. To say that this doesn’t always work out, however, does not begin to cover the size of the problem. The killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, cannot be wished away as an outlier. In each of the past five years, police in the United States have killed roughly a thousand people. (During each of those same years, about a hundred police officers were killed in the line of duty.) One study suggests that, among American men between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four, the number who were treated in emergency rooms as a result of injuries inflicted by police and security guards was almost as great as the number who, as pedestrians, were injured by motor vehicles. Urban police forces are nearly always whiter than the communities they patrol. The victims of police brutality are disproportionately Black teen-age boys: children. To say that many good and admirable people are police officers, dedicated and brave public servants, which is, of course, true, is to fail to address both the nature and the scale of the crisis and the legacy of centuries of racial injustice. The best people, with the best of intentions, doing their utmost, cannot fix this system from within.

There are nearly seven hundred thousand police officers in the United States, about two for every thousand people, a rate that is lower than the European average. The difference is guns. Police in Finland fired six bullets in all of 2013; in an encounter on a single day in the year 2015, in Pasco, Washington, three policemen fired seventeen bullets when they shot and killed an unarmed thirty-five-year-old orchard worker from Mexico. Five years ago, when the Guardian counted police killings, it reported that, “in the first 24 days of 2015, police in the US fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales, combined, over the past 24 years.” American police are armed to the teeth, with more than seven billion dollars’ worth of surplus military equipment off-loaded by the Pentagon to eight thousand law-enforcement agencies since 1997. At the same time, they face the most heavily armed civilian population in the world: one in three Americans owns a gun, typically more than one. Gun violence undermines civilian life and debases everyone. A study found that, given the ravages of stress, white male police officers in Buffalo have a life expectancy twenty-two years shorter than that of the average American male. The debate about policing also has to do with all the money that’s spent paying heavily armed agents of the state to do things that they aren’t trained to do and that other institutions would do better. History haunts this debate like a bullet-riddled ghost.

That history begins in England, in the thirteenth century, when maintaining the king’s peace became the duty of an officer of the court called a constable, aided by his watchmen: every male adult could be called on to take a turn walking a ward at night and, if trouble came, to raise a hue and cry. This practice lasted for centuries. (A version endures: George Zimmerman, when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, in 2012, was serving on his neighborhood watch.) The watch didn’t work especially well in England—“The average constable is an ignoramus who knows little or nothing of the law,” Blackstone wrote—and it didn’t work especially well in England’s colonies. Rich men paid poor men to take their turns on the watch, which meant that most watchmen were either very elderly or very poor, and very exhausted from working all day. Boston established a watch in 1631. New York tried paying watchmen in 1658. In Philadelphia, in 1705, the governor expressed the view that the militia could make the city safer than the watch, but militias weren’t supposed to police the king’s subjects; they were supposed to serve the common defense—waging wars against the French, fighting Native peoples who were trying to hold on to their lands, or suppressing slave rebellions.

The government of slavery was not a rule of law. It was a rule of police. In 1661, the English colony of Barbados passed its first slave law; revised in 1688, it decreed that “Negroes and other Slaves” were “wholly unqualified to be governed by the Laws . . . of our Nations,” and devised, instead, a special set of rules “for the good Regulating and Ordering of them.” Virginia adopted similar measures, known as slave codes, in 1680:

It shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defence or offence, nor to goe or depart from of his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistris or overseer, and such permission not to be granted but upon perticuler and necessary occasions; and every negroe or slave soe offending not haveing a certificate as aforesaid shalbe sent to the next constable, who is hereby enjoyned and required to give the said negroe twenty lashes on his bare back well layd on, and soe sent home to his said master, mistris or overseer . . . that if any negroe or other slave shall absent himself from his masters service and lye hid and lurking in obscure places, comitting injuries to the inhabitants, and shall resist any person or persons that shalby any lawfull authority be imployed to apprehend and take the said negroe, that then in case of such resistance, it shalbe lawfull for such person or persons to kill the said negroe or slave soe lying out and resisting.

In eighteenth-century New York, a person held as a slave could not gather in a group of more than three; could not ride a horse; could not hold a funeral at night; could not be out an hour after sunset without a lantern; and could not sell “Indian corn, peaches, or any other fruit” in any street or market in the city. Stop and frisk, stop and whip, shoot to kill.

Then there were the slave patrols. Armed Spanish bands called hermandades had hunted runaways in Cuba beginning in the fifteen-thirties, a practice that was adopted by the English in Barbados a century later. It had a lot in common with England’s posse comitatus, a band of stout men that a county sheriff could summon to chase down an escaped criminal. South Carolina, founded by slaveowners from Barbados, authorized its first slave patrol in 1702; Virginia followed in 1726, North Carolina in 1753. Slave patrols married the watch to the militia: serving on patrol was required of all able-bodied men (often, the patrol was mustered from the militia), and patrollers used the hue and cry to call for anyone within hearing distance to join the chase. Neither the watch nor the militia nor the patrols were “police,” who were French, and considered despotic. In North America, the French city of New Orleans was distinctive in having la police: armed City Guards, who wore military-style uniforms and received wages, an urban slave patrol.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson created a chair in “law and police” at the College of William & Mary. The meaning of the word began to change. In 1789, Jeremy Bentham, noting that “police” had recently entered the English language, in something like its modern sense, made this distinction: police keep the peace; justice punishes disorder. (“No justice, no peace!” Black Lives Matter protesters cry in the streets.) Then, in 1797, a London magistrate named Patrick Colquhoun published “A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis.” He, too, distinguished peace kept in the streets from justice administered by the courts: police were responsible for the regulation and correction of behavior and “the prevention and detection of crimes.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2021 at 1:45 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.