The Origins of U.S. Police Forces: How Do We Change the Focus Today?

From Day One, some Americans could move more freely than others. They were meant to be part of the solution to Colonial America’s biggest problem, labor. Unlike Great Britain, which had a large peasant class that could be forced to work for subsistence wages, there weren’t enough cheap bodies in America to do the grunt work. If you were looking to make your fortune in rice or tobacco, you had to size up to industrial scale, and you needed bodies, a labor force that could be made to work for terms no less brutal than those inflicted on the peasants of Europe.

Native Americans weren’t the solution, not after disease, war, and murderous forms of forced labor reduced their number by half. Indentured servants were imported, but in numbers too few to fill the void, and they had a habit of running off: the wide frontier beckoned, all that empty space for sass-mouths and malcontents to vanish into. So it became Africans. Jamestown received its first cargo of enslaved humans in 1619, a dozen years after the colony’s founding: “20 and odd Negroes,” according to records, the first installment on the estimated 455,000 who would eventually land in North America.

Control of this new labor force would be key; mutiny was the great fear. By the early 1700s, a comprehensive system of racially directed law enforcement was well on its way to being fully developed. This was, in fact, the first systematic form of policing in the land that would become the United States. The northeast colonies relied on the informal “night-watch” system of volunteer policing and on private security to protect commercial property.

In the southern colonies, policing’s origins were rooted in the slave economy and the radically racialized social order that invented “whiteness” as the ultimate boundary. “Whites,” no matter how poor or low, could not be held in slavery. “Blacks” could be enslaved by anyone—whites, free blacks, and people of mixed race. The distinction—and the economic order that created it—was maintained by a legally sanctioned system of surveillance, intimidation, and brute force whose purpose was the control of blacks. Slave patrols, or paddyrollers, were the chief enforcers of this system; groups of armed, mounted whites who rode at night among the plantations and settlements of their assigned “beats”—the word originated with the patrols—seeking out runaway slaves, unsanctioned gatherings, weapons, contraband, and generally any sign of potential revolt.

Slave patrols usually consisted of three to six white men on horseback equipped with guns, rope, and whips. “A mounted man presents an awesome figure, and the power and majesty of a group of men on horseback, at night, could terrify slaves into submission,” writes Sally Hadden in her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Among other duties, paddyrollers enforced the pass system, which required all slaves absent from their master’s property to have a pass, or “ticket,” signed by the master indicating permission for travel. Any slave encountered without a pass was subject to detention and beating on the spot, although possession of a valid pass was a guarantee against beating.

Certain people, granted power, can be counted on to abuse those under their authority just because they can; one imagines moreover that gratuitous beatings relieved the tedium and fatigue of nightlong patrols and served to reinforce the notion of who was boss. The paddyrollers’ authority extended to patrolling plantation grounds and entering slave quarters, where the presence of books, writing paper, weapons, liquor, luxury items, or more than the usual store of provisions was cause for beating. “Gatherings”—weddings, funerals, church services—were grounds for beating,

Mingling with whites, especially poor whites, or any “loose, disorderly or suspected person”: beating. Back talk: beating. Dressing tidily: beating. Singing certain hymns: beating. Even best behavior could earn a lick.

The system continued largely intact after Emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy. Legally sanctioned slave patrols were replaced by night-riding vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan, whose white robes, flaming torches, and queer pseudo-ghost talk were intended for maximum terrorizing effect. Lynching and shooting took place alongside the more traditional punishments of beating and whipping; blacks’ economic value as slaves had evaporated, and with it the constraints on lethal force that had offered some measure of protection under the old system.

White supremacy continued as the dominant reality for the next hundred years, a social and psychological reality maintained by terror, surveillance, and the letter of the law. Its power was such that even the New Deal—the most profound reordering of American society since the Civil War—left white supremacy intact. Twenty-six lynchings were recorded in Southern states in 1933. An anti-lynching bill was defeated in Congress in 1935. Southern blacks’ awareness of antebellum history was acute, naturally enough given that they were living it. “Even seventy years after freedom came,” Hadden writes, “one former bondsman declared he still had his badge and pass to show the patrol, so that no one could molest him.”

We might suppose the pass system is long gone, but there it is in stop-and-frisk, in racial profiling, in the reflexive fear and violence of our own time. Trayvon Martin, 17 years old, walking down the street just minding his own, killed by a self-anointed, night-riding, so-called neighborhood watchman. Sandra Bland, died in a Texas jail after being pulled over for failure to signal a lane change. Walter Scott, stopped by police in North Charleston for an allegedly broken taillight, shot to death with eight bullets in his back. Philando Castile, popular school cafeteria supervisor, shot dead in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, during a traffic stop for, allegedly, a broken taillight; records reveal that he’d been pulled over no fewer than 52 times by local police in the preceding 14 years and owed over $6,000 in outstanding fines. That $6,000 in fines opens the window onto another ugly echo of times past, the use of law enforcement to extract profit from black and brown people. The latest victims of police violence include George Floyd, whose death ignited protests across the U.S. AND internationally, clearly, loudly and peacefully declaring  ‘enough is enough’.

It may be that the American brain is wired for certain cues, or maybe it’s just the nature of systems of control, systems that grant or withhold sanction to move about, to work, to vote, to be secure in your home and body, to be free of suspicion absent evidence to the contrary. Slave patrols and passes, the Klan, Jim Crow—these are historical incarnations of a social order that held people of color to less-than status, the necessary corollary to white supremacy.

The great divide in America has always been the color of skin, the presumptive and usually final criterion. Whiteness is law, legitimacy, citizenship, the benefit of the doubt. Not-white is doubt. Not-white has to prove, not just once but over and over: 52 traffic stops. Can a white person even imagine? For 52 times Philando Castile had to stop and show his papers, keep his cool, say yes sir, no sir. Had to check the fury that surely rose in him with every stop, every new harassment and humiliation. This remarkable sense of self-control should be called superhuman.

White supremacy by default—a failure to see beyond whiteness as the presumptive norm, as the neutral and natural order of things. This is, ultimately, a failure of empathy, which is to say a failure of moral imagination.  There is, in fact, a phenomenon of perpetuation of racial entitlement in America, and it’s been written about by, among others, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mark Twain, Jean Toomer, Alice Walker, Claudia Rankine, Ralph Ellison, Tiphanie Yanique, August Wilson, and many more.

“We are our history,” James Baldwin wrote. “If we pretend otherwise, to put it very brutally, we literally are criminals.”


“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a “nigger” in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. The question that you’ve got to ask yourself, the white population of this country has got to ask itself… If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.”

 How do we change the focus of policing policies and practices today for better tomorrows? You tell me-we are all in this together. My first thought is-education and conversation. And a whole lot of soul-searching. Tough questions lie ahead with even tougher decisions to be made. Enough IS enough!


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