Did U.S. Policing Evolve from Slave Patrols? Well…Sort Of

How American Policing Started with Carolina Slave Catchers” and similar headlines need asterisks. There are big elements of truth in them, but also a betrayal of the nuance found in the historical scholarship on which they are based. There is also the problem of lack of context, which perhaps inappropriately electrifies meaning. American policing starting with slave patrols is a powerful idea, but does it become less so when, for example, we study what policing looked like around the globe — and in the American colonies — before slave patrols were first formed in the early 18th century?

Obviously, permanent city forces tasked with enforcing laws and maintaining order have existed around the world since ancient times. There was a police unit in Rome established by the first emperor, China had its own forms of policing long before Western influence, and so on. As human communities grew larger, more complex systems (more personnel, permanent bodies, compensation, training, weaponry) were deemed necessary to prevent crime and capture criminals.

Small bands and villages could use simpler means to address wrongdoing. In traditional societies, which were kin-based, chiefs, councils, or the entire community ran the show, one of unwritten laws and intimate mediation or justice procedures. Larger villages and towns where non-kin lived and worked together typically established groups of men to keep order; for example, “among the first public police forces established in colonial North America were the watchmen organized in Boston in 1631 and in New Amsterdam (later New York City) in 1647. Although watchmen were paid a fee in both Boston and New York, most officers in colonial America did not receive a salary but were paid by private citizens, as were their English counterparts.” There were also constables and sheriffs in the 1630s. True, American society has virtually always been a slave society, but similar groups were formed elsewhere before the African slave trade began under the Portuguese in the 16th century. There were “patrolmen, sergeants and constables” on six-month contracts in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. There were sheriffs, constables, and coroners (who investigated deaths) in England in medieval times. Before the 1500s, armed men paid (whether by individuals or government) to prevent and respond to trouble in cities had been around in the West for about 4,500 years — as well as in China, African states, and elsewhere (India, Japan, Palestine, Persia, Egypt, the Islamic caliphates, and so on).

This is not to build a straw man. One might retort: “The argument is that modern policing has its roots in slave patrols.” Or “…modern, American policing…” Indeed, that is often the way it is framed, with the “modern” institution having its “origins” in the patrolling groups that began in the first decade of the 1700s.

But the historians cited to support this argument are actually more interested in showing how slave patrols were one (historically overlooked) influence among many influences on the formation of American police departments — and had the greatest impact on those in the South. A more accurate claim would be that “modern Southern police departments have roots in slave patrols.” This can be made more accurate still, but we will return to that shortly.

Crime historian Gary Potter of Eastern Kentucky University has a popular 2013 writing that contains a paragraph on this topic, a good place to kick things off:

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. Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in[to] modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.

Here the South is differentiated from the rest of the nation — it “followed a different path.” This echoes others, such as the oft-cited Phillip Reichel, criminologist from the University of Northern Colorado. His important 1988 work argued slave patrols were a “transitional,” evolutionary step toward modern policing. For example, “Unlike the watches, constables, and sheriffs who had some nonpolicing duties, the slave patrols operated solely for the enforcement of colonial and State laws.” But that was not to say other factors beyond the South, beyond patrols, also molded the modern institution. It’s simply that “the existence of these patrols shows that important events occurred in the rural South before and concurrently with events in the urban North that are more typically cited in examples of the evolution of policing in the United States.” In his 1992 paper, “The Misplaced Emphasis on Urbanization and Police Development,” Reichel again seeks to show not that slave patrols were the sole root of U.S. policing, but that they need to be included in the discussion:

Histories of the development of American law enforcement have traditionally shown an urban‐North bias. Typically ignored are events in the colonial and ante‐bellum South where law enforcement structures developed prior to and concurrently with those in the North. The presence of rural Southern precursors to formal police organizations suggests urbanization is not a sufficient explanation for why modern police developed. The argument presented here is that police structures developed out of a desire by citizens to protect themselves and their property. Viewing the development of police in this manner avoids reference to a specific variable (e.g., urbanization) which cannot explain developments in all locations. In some places the perceived need to protect persons and property may have arisen as an aspect of urbanization, but in others that same need was in response to conditions not at all related to urbanization. 

In other words, different areas of the nation had different conditions that drove the development of an increasingly complex law enforcement system. A common denominator beyond the obvious protection of the person, Reichel argues, was protection of property, whether slaves in the South or mercantile/industrial interests in the North, unique needs Potter explores as well.

Historian Sally Hadden of Western Michigan University, cited frequently in articles as well, is likewise measured. Her seminal Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas makes clear that Southern police continued tactics of expired slave patrols (such as “the beat,” a patrol area) and their purpose, the control of black bodies. But, given that Hadden is a serious historian and that her work focuses on a few Southern states, one would be hard-pressed to find a statement that positions patrols as the progenitor of contemporary policing in the U.S. (In addition, the Klan receives as much attention, if not more, as a descendant of patrols.) Written in 2001, she is complaining, like other scholars, that “most works in the history of crime have focused their attention on New England, and left the American south virtually untouched.” She even somewhat cautions against the connections many articles make today between patrol violence and 21st century police violence (how one might affect the other, rather than both simply being effects of racism, is for an article of its own):

Many people I have talked with have jumped to the conclusion that patrolling violence of an earlier century explains why some modern-day policemen, today, have violent confrontations with African Americans. But while a legacy of hate-filled relations has made it difficult for many African Americans to trust the police, their maltreatment in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth centuries should not carry all the blame. We may seek the roots of racial fears in an earlier period, but that history does not displace our responsibility to change and improve the era in which we live. After all, the complex police and racial problems that our country continues to experience in the present day are, in many cases, the results of failings and misunderstandings in our own time. To blame the 1991 beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles on slave patrollers dead nearly two hundred years is to miss the point. My purpose in writing this text is a historical one, an inquiry into the earliest period of both Southern law enforcement and Southern race-based violence. Although the conclusions below may provide insight into the historical reasons for the pattern of racially targeted law enforcement that persists to the current day, it remains for us to cope with our inheritance from this earlier world without overlooking our present-day obligation to create a less fearful future.

It may be worthwhile now to nail down exactly what modern policing having roots in slave patrols means. First, when the patrols ended after the Confederate defeat, other policing entities took up or continued the work of white supremacist oppression. Alongside the Ku Klux Klan, law enforcement would conduct the terrors. As a writer for TIME put it, after the Civil War “many local sheriffs functioned in a way analogous to the earlier slave patrols, enforcing segregation and the disenfranchisement of freed slaves.” An article on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (!) website phrased it: “After the Civil War, Southern police departments often carried over aspects of the patrols. These included systematic surveillance, the enforcement of curfews…” Second, individuals involved in slave patrols were also involved in the other forms of policing: “In the South, the former slave patrols became the core of the new police departments.” Patrollers became policemen, as Hadden shows. Before this, there is no doubt there was crossover between slave patrol membership and the three other forms of policing in colonial America, sheriffs, constables, and watchmen. Third, patrols, as Reichel noted, had no non-policing duties, plus other differences like beats, steps toward contemporary police departments (though they weren’t always bigger; patrols had three to six men, like Boston’s early night watch). Clearly, slave patrols had a huge influence on the modern city police forces of the South that formed in the 1850s, 1860s, and later. (Before this, even the term “police” appears to have been applied to all four types of law enforcement, including patrols, though not universally — in the words of “a former slave: the police ‘were for white folks. Patteroles were for niggers.'” But after the war, Hadden writes in the final paragraph of her book, many blacks saw little difference “between the brutality of slave patrols, white Southern policemen, or the Klan.”)

Notice that the above are largely framed as post-war developments. Before the war, patrols, sheriffs, constables, and watchmen worked together, with plenty of personnel crossover, to mercilessly crush slaves. But it was mostly after the war that the “modern” police departments appeared in the South, with patrols as foundations. Here comes a potential complication. The free North was the first to form modern departments, and did so before the war: “It was not until the 1830s that the idea of a centralized municipal police department first emerged in the United States. In 1838, the city of Boston established the first American police force, followed by New York City in 1845, Albany, NY and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark, NJ and Baltimore in 1857” (New Orleans and Baltimore were in slave states, Newark in a semi-slave state). This development was due to growth (these were among the largest U.S. cities), disorder and riots, industrialization and business interests and labor conflict, and indeed “troublesome” immigrants and minorities, among other factors.

That point is raised by conservatives to suggest that if Northern cities first established the police departments we know today, how can one say slave patrols had an influence? A tempting counter might be: these states hadn’t been free for long. Slavery in New York didn’t end until 1827. While that is true, the North did not have patrols. “None of the sources I used indicated that Northern states used slave patrols,” Reichel told me in an email, after I searched in vain for evidence they did. Northern sheriffs, constables, and watchmen enforced the racial hierarchy, of course, but slave patrols were a Southern phenomenon. One can rightly argue that patrol practices in the South influenced police forces in the North, but that’s not quite the strong “root” we see when studying Southern developments.

This is why boldly emphasizing that modern departments in Southern states originated with patrols is somewhat tricky. It’s true enough. But who would doubt that Southern cities would have had police departments anyway? This goes back to where we began: policing is thousands of years old, and as cities grow and technology and societies change, more sophisticated policing systems arise. The North developed them here first, without slave patrols as foundations. Even if the slave South had never birthed patrols, its system of sheriffs, constables, and watchmen would surely not have lasted forever — eventually larger police forces would have appeared as they did in the North, as they did in Rome, as they did wherever communities exploded around the globe throughout human history. New Orleans went from 27,000 residents in 1820 to 116,000 in 1850! Then 216,000 by 1880. System changes were inevitable.

Consider that during the 18th and early 19th centuries, more focused, larger, tax-funded policing was developing outside the United States, in nations without slave patrols, nations both among and outside the Euro-American slave societies. In 1666, France began building the first modern Western police institution, with a Lieutenant General of Police paid from the treasury and overseeing 20 districts in Paris — by “1788 Paris had one police officer for every 193 inhabitants.” The French system inspired Prussia (Germany) and other governments. There was Australia (1790), Scotland (1800), Portuguese Brazil (1809), Ireland (1822), and especially England (1829), whose London Metropolitan Police Department was the major model for the United States (as well as Canada’s 1834 squad in Toronto). Outside the West, there were (and always had been, as we saw) evolving police forces: “By the eighteenth century both Imperial China and Mughal India, for example, had developed policing structures and systems that were in many ways similar to those in Europe,” before European armies smothered most of the globe. Seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century Japan, one of the few nations to stave off European imperialism and involuntary influence, was essentially a police state. A similar escapee was Korea, with its podocheong force beginning in the 15th century. As much as some fellow radicals would like the West to take full credit for the police, this ignores the historical contributions (or, if one despises that phrasing, developments) of Eastern civilizations and others elsewhere. Like the North, the South was bound to follow the rest of the world.

It also feels like phrasing that credits patrols as the origin of Southern departments ignores the other three policing types that existed concurrently (and in the North were enough to form a foundation for the first modern institutions, later copied in the South). Sheriffs, constables, and watchmen were roots as well, even if one sees patrols as the dominant one. (Wondering if the latter had replaced the three former, which would have strengthened the case of the patrols as the singular foundation of Southern law enforcement, I asked Sally Hadden. She cautioned against any “sweeping statement.” She continued: “There were sheriffs, definitely, in every [Southern] county. In cities, there were sometimes constables and watchmen, but watchmen were usually replaced by patrols — but not always.”) Though all were instruments of white supremacy, they were not all the same, and only one is now in the headlines. In their existence and distinctiveness, they all must receive at least some credit as the roots of Southern institutions — as our historians know, most happenings have many causes, not one.

“Many modern Southern police departments largely have roots in slave patrols but would have arisen regardless” is probably the most accurate conclusion. Harder to fit in a headline or on a protest sign, but the nuanced truth often is.

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