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The History of Policing is an Argument Against Reform

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I have a new piece up at Public Books as part of their “Crisis Cities” series, laying out why the history of policing in the United States is not compatible with reformist arguments. (I didn’t pick the title; the title for this blog post is what I had suggested and is much more aligned with what the piece is. C’est la vie.)

There is a broad misconception among most of the American public, including among police themselves, that the reason police departments exist is to promote general well-being and public safety. If that were true, then reforming police would mean simply bringing them into better alignment with their fundamental purpose.

The inconvenient truth of police history in the United States, however, is that police departments were not designed to keep a generic public safe. Rather, they were meant to serve the needs of capital and to uphold racial and ethnic hierarchies. To put it differently, police were designed with power and control in mind, not generalized public safety.

Consider again the example of Chicago. Like most cities, it didn’t have a police department prior to the mid-1800s. When the city finally established one, in 1853, it was because some Chicago business owners demanded it and agreed to help fund it.2 They didn’t do this because Chicago was a cesspool of criminal behavior, and they certainly weren’t pursuing an abstract interest in protecting the general population. Rather, the CPD was organized to control the supposedly undesirable behavior of immigrant groups (Irish and German affinities for drinking being among the gravest concerns of these early police boosters). Shortly thereafter, it was widely used to repress workers and break strikes as the local labor movement grew more assertive. The major point of policing, in other words, was to control immigrant groups and the working class.

As a result, the people who were policed hated the CPD. Throughout the second half of the 1800s, one violent conflict after another erupted between the department and city residents, all of them precipitated or exacerbated by police violence against immigrants and the working class: the Lager Beer Riot of 1855; the Great Railroad Strike of 1877; the Haymarket Affair of 1886. Time after time, citizens (most of whom were European immigrants who today would simply be seen as “white”) faced police repression and rebelled against it. Perhaps ironically, it was in these moments of violence that people in positions of power—who had remained somewhat skeptical of the police in its formative years—came to appreciate the CPD and understand its utility. They saw people who needed to be controlled and a police force that was becoming fairly good at controlling them, largely through violence. By the early 20th century, the department was firmly established as a central (albeit dysfunctional) presence in Chicago’s urban fabric.

Chicago had its own particularities in terms of the early functions of the police, but it reflected the essential fact of what police were designed to do. As historian Sally Hadden’s research on the antebellum South shows, the first proto-police were slave patrols, which were authorized to surveil African American populations and arrest those who committed the “crime” of trying to steal themselves to freedom. The overlap between slave patrols and the police was significant. Meanwhile, Kelly Lytle Hernández has noted in City of Inmates that in the early years of the Los Angeles Police Department, the police were heavily preoccupied with controlling that city’s large number of transient workers and thus disproportionately performed the function of arresting people for victimless offenses like homelessness.

You don’t have to squint much to see the binding thread running through these assorted departmental-genesis stories. Police were expected to protect the capital of wealthy elites, whether that meant arresting the human property of Southern slaveholders or rounding up radical labor organizers and crushing worker militancy. And they were supposed to surveil and control populations who were marginalized by virtue of their positions on the laddered hierarchies of class, race, and ethnicity. At the end of the day, a generic interest in promoting public safety did not rank high on their reasons for existing.

This history poses a fundamental challenge for anyone advocating police reform, because it forces the question of what such advocates hope to reform police into. If the reformers’ vision is one of restoration—of bringing police back into alignment with a mission from which they’ve strayed—they misunderstand the foundational premise of US policing. Indeed, if one of the primary problems with policing in 2020 is that those who bear its greatest burdens are Black, Latinx, Native, immigrant, and poor communities, a fair argument can be made that, in fact, the system operates more or less as designed. American police have always targeted specific groups for surveillance, control, and punishment, even as those targeted have varied and shifted over time. (The CPD’s early focus on European immigrants, for instance, gave way to a heavily discriminatory focus on African Americans when Black Southerners began moving there en masse in the early and mid-20th century.) What would reform look like if the institution itself is the problem?

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