One argument for policing holds that while police may not solve much violent crime, their very presence helps ensure safety. In a survey of research, the National Institute of Justice concludes that “hot spot policing” was “associated with reductions in violent crime relative to control areas.” What is “hot spot policing”? According to the survey, it includes “order maintenance and drug enforcement crackdowns, increased gun searches and seizures and zero tolerance policing.” This isn’t just a list of policing tactics; it’s a list of prerequisites for the present moment. For “order maintenance,” Eric Garner was suffocated on a New York sidewalk. For “drug enforcement crackdowns,” Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home. For “gun search and seizure,” the Black neighborhoods of New York endured Stop and Frisk. For “zero tolerance policing,” George Floyd was choked on a Minneapolis street.
It would be at least honest if we said that enduring arbitrary harassing, beating, tasing, and strangulation by the state was the price of being “associated with reduction in violent crime relative to control areas.” That we don’t say this, and that we only imply it for certain classes of people, exposes the assumptions built into American policing. It’s those assumptions that, on the one hand, allow Henry Earl to be arrested more than a thousand times, and on the other offer a sporting chance for anyone who’d like to try their hand at murder or rape. Policing accomplishes this dubious feat by imposing costs on innocent people who happen to live in proximity to crime, and others who simply happen to resemble in skin color those we think of as criminal. This is a system begging for reform, and the best way to reform an institution as compromised as American policing is by abolishing it.
It is impossible to imagine American policing without the institution foundational to America itself—enslavement. Indeed, from colonial times up through the Civil War, the largest police force in the country wasn’t primarily found in the early towns or the bustling metropolises, but in the slave societies of the South, where to be a white man was to be deputized. Enslavement, where the enslaver is both the maker and enforcer of law, was the first experience of policing for Black people. But through the invention of slave patrols, militias charged with enforcing the law against the enslaved, the policing powers were expanded. “All white persons were permitted and in some regards required to exercise a police power over slaves,” the white supremacist historian U.B. Phillips noted. In many states, white people were not only allowed but required to whip, capture, and jail enslaved people they encountered. They had a mandate to “prevent all caballings amongst negros [sic], by dispersing of them when drumming or playing,” meaning they could punish any enslaved people for simply interacting with each other. The patrollers operated, as one of their number put it, “without warrant and at my own discretion.” The shadows of American policing are here—in the prisons, we find the absolute mastery once enjoyed by the planter class; in the wide discrepancy granted the slave patrol, one sees the echoes of broken windows policing; and the bodies of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery reflect the extension of police powers far beyond official police.
Slave patrols were born of the propertied interests of white people seeking to maximally exploit Black labor, an endeavor that did not fade with emancipation. In many ways, it was reinforced. Planters may no longer have owned their labor force, but that didn’t stop them from seeking out means of preventing the formerly enslaved from freely selling their labor. Policing was key to this effort, which saw control lost through slavery regained through a panoply of laws that threatened arrest for everything from not having an annual work contract to “malicious mischief” and criminalized “persons who led idle or disorderly lives.” Depending on the state, the arresting officers could consist of urban police, militias drawn from former Confederate soldiers, or merely any white man. While there was a brief reprieve during Reconstruction, after federal troops departed the South in 1877, white Southerners employed policing to ensure a permanent and pliable source of labor. When Blacks tried to go north for jobs during the Great Migration, “the South resorted to coercion and interception worthy of the Soviet Union,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns. “In Brookhaven, Mississippi, authorities stopped a train with 50 colored migrants on it and sidetracked it for three days. In Albany, Georgia, the police tore up tickets of colored passengers as they stood, waiting to board, dashing their hopes of escape. A minister in South Carolina, having seen his parishioners off, was arrested at the station on the charge of helping colored people get out.”
It is tempting to think the Northern police departments unsullied by white supremacy. The assumption would be wrong. Throughout the entirety of Jim Crow, Northern police often parroted their Southern counterparts. “From the moment the emigrants set foot in the North and West,” writes Wilkerson, “they were blamed for the troubles of the cities they fled to.” Indeed, police departments took the cue and regarded Blacks much as the broader society had—as outcasts and threats. In 1917, in East St. Louis, Illinois, white workers angered by Blacks brought in to replace them during a strike rioted and “fired shots into colored homes,” writes Wilkerson. “The police, charged with quelling the riot, in some cases joined in, as did some in the state militia.” In 1943, during the Detroit race riot, “Police openly sympathized with the white rioters,” writes historian Thomas J. Sugrue; “17 blacks were shot to death by the police, no whites were.” Ten years later, as Black families tried to integrate Chicago’s Trumbull Park Homes, they were granted minimal protection from the police who sympathized with the whites who terrorized the families. Still, the greatest indicator of the role law enforcement in the North played in suppressing their Black populations lay in the prison population. Even in an era of relatively low incarceration, the rate in the Northern cities stood at seven to one—exactly the same as today.
That the police were not concerned with neutrality nor “law enforcement” was always clear to Black people. In 1967, after a series of riots, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to report on the riot’s origins and recommend a series of reforms. Read today, the report is bracing for a haunting quality—its timelessness. Just like the countless commissions that have followed it, the Kerner Commission found a police department with too many responsibilities, filling in for the defunding and decline of societal institutions. Just as today, the Kerner Commission found Black communities complaining of “stop and frisk” tactics. And then, as now, voices of authority blamed police violence on the inherent pathologies of the Black population instead of the learned brutality of the police. Among the commission’s recommendations: an intolerance for police brutality, “a clear and enforced policy…of law enforcement in ghetto areas as is the same as in other communities,” and eliminating a focus on smaller crimes such as “gambling or loitering” in favor of crimes that threaten “life and property.” After the report was published, it became a best seller, but Johnson quickly scuttled it, and the era of “law and order” commenced.
It is common to note, as the Kerner report does, that Black communities frequently complain of crime right alongside police brutality. This is not surprising. Black communities are on every level less safe than white communities. And yet it is curious the ease with which police, who never fail to note this safety gap, abandon these vulnerable neighborhoods. Calls for accountability are often met with indignance and threats to desert those most affected by crime. The practice of officers, at the slightest sign of public critique, calling in sick en masse and refusing to do their jobs has long been called “blue flu.”
At times, retaliation is even uglier. After becoming the New York City’s first Black mayor in 1990, David Dinkins angered the union by calling for police reform. The response was open defiance of the law. Police officers derided Dinkins as a “janitor” and a crack addict, drank openly, blocked traffic, and assaulted journalists. A photographer seeking the protection of a lieutenant after being assaulted by an officer was essentially told to flee. “I can’t protect you up here,” the lieutenant said. In 2011, after the NYPD was investigated for corruption, officers again rallied at the courthouse, blocking the cameras of journalists, mocking poor people by chanting “EBT” at people attempting to collect their benefits. In 2014, in the midst of a conflict with Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYPD largely stopped policing, at the behest of the union.