05 December 2019

[Ryan Ralston] - US v. THEM (Minus Loyalty)

“The historian, in his analysis and description, is no longer a partisan. He has no stake in the outcome. He can now embrace the whole of the event, see it from all sides.” – Bernard Bailyn

The foundations of policing in America closely mirrored practices carried over from England, with early colonies adopting an “overwatch,” safeguarding property at night. Its purpose was not to deter crime but warn of danger. The watch was comprised mainly of volunteers. The “volunteers” were not directed by policy. Those standing watch, minus loyalty, oftentimes abandoned their post. 

The 1830's and 40's saw the idea of a centralized municipal police force take hold. In 1833 Philadelphia created the first day watch. New York City followed suit in 1844. Supporting the watch were “professional” law enforcement officers - constables - who were paid by fees (or fines from) the arrest warrants they served. 

In 1838, Boston formed the first official American police force, followed in 1845 by New York City. By the late 1880's most major cities had municipal police forces; all sharing like characteristics: (a) they were publicly supported (paid by taxes collected); (b) comprised of full-time city employees; (c) established by policy and procedure; (d) held accountable to a central governmental entity, typically an elected mayor. Most of these features are still in practice with modern police forces today. 

In the South, American policing followed a dissimilar path from their big city counterparts, having its roots in “slavery patrol.” The first formal slave patrol was founded in the early 1700's. These patrols served three primary purposes: (a) arrest runaway slaves (recover lost property); (b) minimize slave revolt; (c) maintain good order and discipline within slave ranks. 

By the end of the Civil War these patrols developed into municipal police forces, imposing Jim Crow segregation laws. 


American police forces began as a response to purported disorder, not as a deterrent to crime. Economic interests had a greater impact on what constituted public order, and by the 19th century, those interests were being defined by elected officials. Politicians needed a system to ensure a safe work environment (for economic growth), protecting commercial interest for the collective good. 

One method used, especially in the South, was dividing citizenry into social classes based on Judeo-Christian sin. If one was labeled a “drunkard” this lower classification of citizen caused the individual to be perceived by the public as “dangerous” to accepted social norms. And who better to protect you and yours from the dangerous drunk than the mayor and his newly minted police force. 

The police force provided an organization who was legally authorized to use force (even lethal force) to maintain social order (as defined by government). It also provided the general public with the perception that this order was maintained under the rule of law (regardless of the fact the law was likely unconstitutional or down-right discriminatory). 

The segregation of citizenry based on categorization and one’s propensity to violate the law created an emphasis on the government’s need to control its citizens (utilizing force or the threat of force). Unfortunately, this centralized ideology remains prevalent in all aspects of law enforcement and the American criminal justice system today. 

The notion that policing should be directed toward those labeled "dangerous" by government, rather than focusing on solutions to government created social and economic issues, has directly contributed to society’s demand for more incarceration and probation for “dangerous” offenders. Neither are innovative solutions, nor do they make our communities safer. 

The answer is not more government intrusion in our lives. Nor is it throw tax payer money at the problem until it goes away. Both are tantamount to putting a band aid on a cancerous tumor and simply “hoping for the best.”

By 1967, with the creation of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, America’s police forces underwent an overhaul. At the time, the commission’s final report was described as "the most comprehensive evaluation of crime and crime control in the United States.” In conjunction with a series of landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions instituting recommended changes in policing with respect to constitutional law and civil rights, a new set of standards was adopted. 

Police forces responded, and by doing so, received large sums of federal monies (millions of dollars through grants) for community policing and outreach efforts. Most of these programs centered on identifying and addressing the cause of social issues in communities designated as dangerous by local government and police forces. The emphasis was on building relationships between police forces and their communities. This served three distinct points: (a) improve relations; (b) humanize those who wear the badge; and, (c) establish open lines of communication between police forces and community in effort to determine why previous utilized police force tactics failed to have a positive effect on deterring crime. 

As expected, these implemented changes had an encouraging impact on those individuals and their communities once labeled dangerous. Open lines of communication safeguarded trust, with officers and police forces now held accountable for their actions. As a result, crime rates dropped. 

By 1986, federal funds earmarked for local community policing programs, despite demonstrated tangible benefits, were being redirected to fight America’s war on drugs. Four years prior, President Ronald Reagan declared illicit drugs and drug cartels a threat to U.S. national security. Even though President Richard Nixon popularized the term “war on drugs” in 1971, it was Reagan’s direct-action approach, using American police forces, to execute his plan. In order to make this happen, now heavily reliant on federal funding for sustainment, local police forces abandoned trust and working relationships within their communities and converted to paramilitary-style operations. This wave of militarization reflected in the foundation of SWAT teams and street-level narcotics units, all destined to repeat the documented failures of police force history when lines of communication are severed. (See: Disbanded Atlanta PD RED DOG Unit - Run Every Drug Dealer out of Georgia). 

Local police forces, having made the decision to serve mammon and not man, ushered in the “us vs. them” mentality. A philosophy still prevalent in the criminal justice system to date. 

Twenty-four regressive years later, in the 2010's, after several documented cases of civil rights violations and murders committed by police forces against dangerous citizens, following the release of a President’s Commission Report, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union said the ideas in the report "will significantly improve the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. For us to see meaningful change, local authorities must first implement data collection systems to improve transparency, use of force policies that emphasize de-escalation, eradicate all forms of biased policing, and improve community engagement and oversight to provide accountability." 

On a national level, police force leaders responded with a report - Use of Force: Taking Policing to a Higher Standard. The report and included guidelines called for police forces to use higher standards for use of force than those set by existing case law. "This is a defining moment for us in policing," said retired commissioner Charles Ramsey of the Philadelphia PD. 

On a local level, there remains much work to be done. Community outreach programs are nonexistent. Juvenile incarceration rates are at an all-time high. Street gangs have free reign of our neighborhoods and schools. The budget for the public defenders office is being cut. County officials decline partnership with city officials, and both blame the other for lack of progress. The sheriff refuses communication with chiefs of police and vice versa. The district attorney’s office requires its prosecutors to use sentencing guidelines that are over a decade old. Only one political candidate out of ten (for judge, sheriff, and district attorney) is speaking about criminal justice reform and the tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted annually prosecuting “dangerous” victimless crimes. Our crime rate remains (consistently) at 1.3 times greater than the national average. 

And yet, the attitude of our criminal justice system leaders and elected officials remains: Surround yourself with enough like-minded people and you’ll never be wrong again.

- Ryan Ralston, TPC Correspondent & Contributing Writer