Police Originated From ‘Slave Catching Patrols’

Crime, Police Brutality

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It might sound like complete nonsense until you do a little bit of historical research. People often assume that community policing has always been around, that without police society itself would crumble. Few realize that the model of policing that we know today in the United States has its origins in slave patrols, and that it has not been around for very long at all.

The sort of propaganda that many of us are raised to believe about the necessity of police on the block has led us to imagine that society was built by “law and order” policing, with regular community patrols, proactively seeking to prevent crime through “policing” the community. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The very concept of community policing – the model of law enforcement responsible for what we today know as “police officers” – did not originate in ancient times, nor even during the medieval period. Instead, it was conceived by Sir Robert Peel in 1812. Even then, that’s just when Peel theorized the concept, it was not actually implemented until 1829. It was still some time before it caught on in the United States.

Peel was a twice British Prime Minister and Conservative lawmaker. In fact, the popular British equivalent of “cops” is “bobbies” – originated from his name “Robert”. Another similar slang term in Ireland is “peelers,” also from Peel.

Peel’s theorized model of “policing” communities was novel, completely new and was not adopted in the U.K. for another decade and a half, when the Metropolitan Police Service was established on September 29, 1829 in London as the first modern and professional police force in the world. Peel created the modern Conservative Party on the ruins of the old Toryism in the U.K., and he also created “cops”.

Yes, there were more ancient forms of prefects and guards, as well as soldiers, but there was nothing remotely resembling policing as we know it today, before Peel and before the implementation of “bobbies” in the U.K. towards the late 1820s.

There were even private “brotherhoods” or “hermandeades” in places like Medieval Spain, but these arose because there was no real government protection, they were not government agents policing communities, they were the communities standing guard over themselves. Take any course on criminal justice or any history course addressing this period in British history and they will all unequivocally inform you that the Metropolitan Police Service was the first professional police force in human history, and it did not emerge until 1829.

But this model did not make it’s way to the United States through the same route…

Instead, inspired by this approach, the United States first adopted the community policing model for the purposes of organizing “slave patrols.” That is, the first implementation of Peel’s “community policing” model did not happen until the days of slave revolts – Nat Turner and John Brown – when more and more human beings, kept in forced captivity and labor, took the risks to run away for the freedom of the Northern states.

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Many U.S. police departments today attempt to anachronistically cite their origins as much earlier. The U.S. Parks Police claim to have been established in 1791; the U.S. Mint Police in 1792. But these were guards, not professional police of the community. “Policing” as we have come to understand it, simply did not exist back in those days, by uniformed, employees of the State.

The Philadelphia Police Department today claims to have been established in 1751, but – again – there were no Philadelphia police patrols in the 1700s, there was something much closer to what we would today consider “detectives.” There was simply no concept of “policing” in the sense of patrolling communities. While widely documented and easily verifiable, this simple historical reality sounds so far-fetched, that many who do not know any better would write it off as a conspiracy theory. And yet, this is what is taught in every introductory criminal justice college course.

Institutions would have guards, and the community would have detectives to investigate crimes. In fact, back in the 1800s, long before Peel’s model of policing made it to the U.S. the private security firm Pinkerton outnumbered soldiers in the U.S. Army. Even then, they did not patrol communities looking for crimes in progress or crimes that might theoretically be committed in the future. This “bobbie” model was something no one had ever conceived of in the U.S. But once it was implemented in the U.K. it caught on and spread like wildfire in the U.S. South, in the form of slave patrols.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D writes the following in “A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing”:

The birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal and political-economic conditions. The institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing. Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities. For example, New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.

Kappeler notes that scholars such as Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver all support this thesis of American policing emerging from slave patrols, explaining that “the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”

What we know today in the United States as “police” can be directly traced to slave patrols. In fact, were it not for this perceived “need” of catching runaway slaves and squashing slave revolts, it is unlikely that tax-payer funded community police would have won out to massive private detective agencies and existing bodies of law enforcement that did not proactively “police” our communities.

Does this makes the case that police are here to enforce systemic and systematic racism?

(Article by M. David; for further reading: National Constables Association (1995). Constable. In W. G. Bailey (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Police Science (2nd ed., pp. 114–114). New York, NY: Garland Press; Turner, K. B. , Giacopassi , D. , & Vandiver , M. (2006) . Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17: (1), 181–195)

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