The increasing number of incidents in which police kill civilians, especially young black men, whether justified or not, has raised in my mind the precarious state of relations that exists between the police forces and black communities in our country.
While it’s tempting to blame these incidents on institutional racism and individual bigotry—which, by the way, do play a significant role—even a brief study of policing in the United States yields a far more disturbing answer.
As with many other governmental institutions, law enforcement in the new United States was based upon the English model, thus the presence of sheriffs as chief local law in many places. Initially in the colonies, maintenance of order was the responsibility of Justices of the Peace, but as towns grew, so did the need to maintain law and order. Until 1833 this was done by watches, or groups of community volunteers, who responded to or warned of danger. As more people crowded into towns that grew into great cities, anti-social behavior and criminal activity also grew. In 1833, Philadelphia, PA organized the first 24-hour per day, independent police force. New York City followed in 1844 with two forces, one with day duty, and a night watch. By 1880, most of America’s major cities had an independent police force.
These early forces were led by men appointed by the politicians in power, and answered to them—and to the moneyed mercantile interests behind the politicians. Their mandate was to maintain public order and respond to disorder; of course, what this meant depended upon who defined ‘disorder.’ What they were not organized to do was protect the people of the communities. Instead, there job was to stem labor unrest and maintain order in the immigrant, working class, and free black communities so that the mercantile interests would be able to make profit without hindrance. This was, you must remember, a time of great labor unrest brought on by exploitation by bosses and terrible working conditions in mines and factories. In the south, the direction of the police was even more ominous. In the antebellum south, slave patrols were organized to 1) catch runaway slaves, 2) suppress potential slave revolts, and 3) intimidate the slave work force to keep it docile and working. After the Civil War, police forces in the south were used to keep free blacks ‘in their place,’ and enforce Jim Crow laws.
Since 1855, the Supreme Court, for instance, has ruled that the police have no duty to protect individuals, that they only have a duty to enforce the law in general. In some jurisdictions, police are also entitled to protect private (read commercial) rights.
As you might imagine, the early police forces were hotbeds of corruption, and were noted for their harsh and often violent treatment of members of the community—not just the black community either. White immigrant workers were often the target of harsh police crackdowns. The police forces were housed in barracks on the outskirts of cities, for instance, to keep them from mingling with and becoming sympathetic to the populations, which they were there to control, not protect.
In response to police brutality there have been many moves to reform America’s police institutions. What has often been the result of these reform moves, though, is further separation of the police from communities—especially minority communities.
Distrust and fear of the police has only deepened since the 1950s when militarization of the police began. The introduction of uniforms, military ranks, chains of command, and deadlier weapons, only serves to further alienate police forces from the communities they claim to ‘serve.’ Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, with the Department of Defense providing combat arms and equipment to local cops, it has gotten even worse. No one can forget the image of cops in Ferguson, MO, riding armored vehicles and armed and armored like combat troops in Afghanistan, facing off against unarmed demonstrators.
Regarding the police and minority communities, looking at the demographics of America’s local police organizations gives further cause for worry. The following statistics are a couple of years old, but the situation hasn’t changed significantly, so they tell a chilling story:
Approximate number of police officers in the US – more than 800,000 (in 2008) for nearly 400 officers per 100,000 population.
Average salary - $60K/Yr (New Jersey - $89K, Mississippi - $33K)
Police officers killed per year (2008) – Between 70 and 80
People killed by police per year (2008) – 600
Public confidence in police – 54% (less than the military, but more than Congress)
Key demographics of our police officers?
Race: White – 80% Black – 16% Hispanic – 13% Asian – 2%
Education: High School – 20% Some College – 44% College grads – 36%
When all this is taken into account, the conclusion is that it would be a miracle if relations between police organizations and the black community were amicable. The fact is, if you analyze the history of policing in the United States, it is a wonder that the police are welcome in any working class community.
The question before us, then, is what can be done about it? I’ll be the first to confess that I do not know. Efforts at community policing are a step in the right direction. But, they must be reinforced with evidence that the police truly are sworn to serve and protect and not subjugate and punish—not there to ensure that the workers are kept in their place so that the mercantile interests (the 1%) can have a stable, orderly work force and tax-supported protection of their interests, enabling them to get ever richer. The militarization of our streets must end. And then, the process of healing can begin.
I am not naïve. I know there are lots of violent criminals out there. I know that there are far too many guns on the streets, in closets, gun cabinets, and under beds. I know that the job of a police officer is dangerous, and often thankless and under-compensated. I know that there are decent, dedicated police officers out there who put their lives on the line daily on behalf of the rest of us. What we need to do, though, is root out the rotten apples, so the good cops can do their jobs.
I don’t know how long this would take. I do know it won’t be overnight. It’s been in the making for over 200 years—since the first police force was organized—so, it might take that long, or longer, to fix the problem. So what? It needs to happen, and it’s not a problem that can be solved by one side. It will take both—the police and the community—working together.
What say we get started today?