Some Reasons Why Police Exist

Here are two articles and a podcast to explain the background of policing. I found them interesting.

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.
Policing was not the only social institution enmeshed in slavery. Slavery was fully institutionalized in the American economic and legal order with laws being enacted at both the state and national divisions of government.
Connecticut, New York and other colonies enacted laws to criminalize and control slaves. Congress also passed fugitive Slave Laws, laws allowing the detention and return of escaped slaves, in 1793 and 1850. As Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006:186) remark, “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.”
In no small part because of the tradition of slavery, Blacks have long been targets of abuse. The use of patrols to capture runaway slaves was one of the precursors of formal police forces, especially in the South. This disastrous legacy persisted as an element of the police role even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In some cases, police harassment simply meant people of African descent were more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police, while at the other extreme, they have suffered beatings, and even murder, at the hands of White police.

The development of policing in the United States closely followed the development of policing in England. In the early colonies policing took two forms. It was both informal and communal, which is referred to as the "Watch," or private-for-profit policing, which is called "The Big Stick” (Spitzer, 1979).

The watch system was composed of community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn of impending danger.

In the Southern states the development of American policing followed a different path. The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the "Slave Patrol" (Platt 1982).

The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704 (Reichel 1992). Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.

Part II

Maintaining a stable and disciplined work force for the developing system of factory production and ensuring a safe and tranquil community for the conduct of commerce required an organized system of social control. The developing profit-based system of production antagonized social tensions in the community. Inequality was increasing rapidly; the exploitation of workers through long hours, dangerous working conditions, and low pay was endemic; and the dominance of local governments by economic elites was creating political unrest. The only effective political strategy available to exploited workers was what economic elites referred to as "rioting," which was actually a primitive form of what would become union strikes against employers (Silver 1967).
Defining social control as crime control was accomplished by raising the specter of the "dangerous classes." The suggestion was that public drunkenness, crime, hooliganism, political protests and worker "riots" were the products of a biologically inferior, morally intemperate, unskilled and uneducated underclass.
Early American police departments shared two primary characteristics: they were notoriously corrupt and flagrantly brutal.
Police drank while on patrol, they protected their patron's vice operations, and they were quick to use peremptory force. Walker goes so far as to call municipal police "delegated vigilantes," entrusted with the power to use overwhelming force against the "dangerous classes" as a means of deterring criminality.

Part III

In the post-Civil War era, municipal police departments increasingly turned their attention to strike-breaking. By the late 19th century union organizing and labor unrest was widespread in the United States.
Police strike-breaking took two distinct forms. The first was the most obvious, the forced dispersal of demonstrating workers, usually through the use of extreme violence (Harring 1981). The second was more subtle. In order to prevent the organization of workers in the first place, municipal police made staggering numbers of "public order" arrests. In fact, Harring concludes that 80% of all arrests were of workers for "public order" crimes (Harring 1983).
Because the police were primarily engaged in enforcing public order laws against gambling and drunkenness, surveilling immigrants and freed slaves, and harassing labor organizers, public opinion favored restrictions on the use of force. But the value of armed, paramilitary presence, authorized to use, indeed deadly force, served the interests of local economic elites who had wanted organized police departments in the first place. The presence of a paramilitary force, occupying the streets, was regarded as essential because such "organizations intervened between the propertied elites and propertyless masses who were regarded as politically dangerous as a class" (Bordua and Reiss 1967).

State police agencies emerged for many of the same reasons.

Part IV What police originally did, what they policed, what they didn’t, and what they supervised.

The advent of Prohibition (1919-1933) only made the situation worse.
One of the earliest of these investigative commissions was the Lenox Committee, formed in 1894 to investigate police corruption related to gambling and prostitution and to investigate charges of police extortion.

Part V

On a national basis, President Hoover appointed the Wickersham Commission in 1929 to examine what was perceived as a rising crime rate and police ineffectiveness in dealing with crime. It is no accident that in looking at those issues, the Wickersham Commission also became the first official governmental body to investigate organized crime.

Commissions, while shedding light on the extent of corruption and serving to inform the public have little lasting impact on police practices. As external organizations they report, recommend and dissolve. The police department continues on as a bureaucratic entity resistant to both outside influence and reform.

By the 1950s, police professionalism was being widely touted as better way to improve police effectiveness and reform policing as an institution. O.W. Wilson set the standard for the professionalism movement when he published his book Police Administration, which quickly became a blueprint for professionalizing policing. Wilson argued for greater centralization of the police function, with an emphasis on military-style organization and discipline.

Part VI

By the 1960s, massive social and political changes were occurring in the United States. The civil rights movement was challenging white hegemony in the South and racist social policies in the North. The use of professional police forces to suppress the Civil Rights movement, often by brute force did irreparable damage to American policing. From 1964 to 1968 riots, usually sparked by police brutality or oppression, rocked the major cities in the United States. Police handling of large demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s was also controversial. In the 1967-1968 school years there were 292 mass demonstrations on 163 college campuses across the country.
The police and criminal justice system response was twofold. First in 1968, as part of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, large sums of federal money were made available for rather cosmetic police-community relations programs, which were mostly media focused attempts to improve the police image. By the 1980s many police departments had begun to consider a new strategy, community policing. Community policing emphasized close working relations with the community, police responsiveness to the community, and common efforts to alleviate a wide variety of community problems, many of which were social in nature. Community policing is the latest iteration in efforts to (1) improve relations between the police and the community; (2) decentralize the police; and, (3) in response to the overwhelming body of scholarly literature which finds that the police have virtually no impact on crime, no matter their emphasis or role, provide a means to make citizens feel more comfortable about what has been a seemingly insoluable American dilemma.
From the beginning American policing has been intimately tied not to the problem of crime, but to exigencies and demands of the American political-economy. From the anti-immigrant bashing of early police forces, to the strike breaking of the later 1800s, to the massive corruption of the early 20th century, through professionalism, Taylorization and now attempts at amelioration through community policing, the role of the police in the United States has been defined by economics and politics, not crime or crime control.

It’s all a very interesting read and I recommend reading the whole thing and not just what I chose to quote.