“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
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
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).
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.
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
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