The Myth of Liberal Policing

For liberals, police reform is always a question of helping police sustain their legitimacy, despite their illegitimate roots

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There has been a great deal of hand wringing about the effect of a Trump White House on the movement for police reform. Many had hoped that a Democratic administration would continue to use the Justice Department to press for reforms such as body cameras, community policing, officer diversity, and implicit bias and use of force training. These reforms represent the hallmarks of a liberal program to reestablishing legitimate policing.

Liberals think the police rightly have a monopoly on using force in the interests of the state, which they believe represents society’s general will. To retain this monopoly, the police must maintain their public legitimacy by acting in a way the public respects and within the rule of law, what is often referred to as procedural justice. For liberals, police reform is always a question of helping police sustain that legitimacy. The alternative would be to allow predators to run amok in society.

In her book The First Civil Right, political scientist Naomi Murakawa points out that it is this liberal misconception of the nature of policing that has led to the inadequate police reforms of the past and present. Reformers have focused on improving the “professionalism” of police in an effort to reduce bias and unlawful behavior rather than questioning the justness of what police are asked to do. Why are the police waging a War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Disorder, and War on Terror? Are they really the best, most just way for the state to address these issues? As part of their uncritical understanding of state power, liberals tend to ignore or downplay these questions as well as the profound legacy and continued active production of state-backed racial exploitation and domination. Rather than admit the central role of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and over-policing in producing wealth for white people and denying basic life opportunities for black people, they prefer to focus on a few remedial programs backed up by a robust and “legitimate” criminal justice system to transform black attitudes so that they are better able to compete in the labor market. As a result, black people always start from a diminished position that makes them both more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system and be treated more harshly by it.

The reality is that the police have always been at the root of a system for managing and producing inequality. This is accomplished by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people in ways that benefit those already in positions of economic and political power. Police have always functioned as a force for controlling those on the losing end of these economic and political arrangements, quelling social upheavals that could no longer be managed by existing private, communal, and informal processes. This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the 18th century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of an industrial working class. This created what Allan Silver called a “policed society,” in which state power was significantly expanded to face down the demands for justice from those subject to these systems of domination and exploitation. As Kristian Williams points out, “the police represent the point of contact between the coercive apparatus of the state and the lives of its citizens.”

Most liberal and conservative academics try to counter this argument by pointing to the image of the politically neutral professionalism of the London Metropolitan Police, which are often held up as the original police. Created in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel (from whom the “Bobbies” get their name), this new force was more effective than the informal and unprofessional “watch” or the excessively violent and often hated militia and army. But even this “noble endeavor” had at its core the mission not of fighting crime but of managing disorder and protecting the propertied classes from the rabble. Peel developed his ideas while managing the British colonial occupation of Ireland, where he struggled to foster new forms of social control that would allow for its continued political and economic domination in the face of growing uprisings. For years, such “outrages” had been managed by the local militia and, if necessary, the British Army. However, British colonial expansion and the Napoleonic Wars dramatically reduced the availability of these forces just as resistance to British occupation increased. Peel was forced to develop a lower cost and more legitimate form of policing. The initial attempt was the Peace Preservation Force, which was made up of professionals who attempted to manage crowds through a more proactive and preventive approach, embedding themselves in rebellious localities to identify troublemakers and neutralize them through threats and arrests.

Out of this experience, Peel created the London Metropolitan Police to replace the city’s existing system of semi-formal night watches backed up by local militia and a few private thief catchers. The main functions of the new police were to protect those with property from those without, and to quell riots. They also played a central role in putting down strikes and other organized actions by workers, despite their claims of political neutrality.

The London model was then imported to the U.S. beginning in Boston in 1838 and continuing through the northern cities over the next few decades. Massive immigration and rapid industrialization created an even more socially and politically chaotic environment than in the U.K.: New York was exploding with new immigrants who were being chewed up by a rapid and immiserating industrialization. Rioting was widespread during this period, occurring on a monthly basis for many years. After the 1828 Christmas riot, when 4,000 workers marched on the wealthy districts, newspapers began calling for a major expansion and professionalization of the night watch, which eventually led to the formation of the police.

In some cases, early police forces were created specifically for purposes of suppressing workers’ movements. Pennsylvania was home to some of the most militant unionism, resulting in numerous strikes and violent confrontations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local police were sometimes sympathetic toward the workers who were often the bulk of local constituents, so mine and factory owners turned to the state to provide them with armed forces to control strikes and intimidate organizers. The state’s initial response was to authorize a completely privatized police force called the Coal and Iron Police. Local employers had only to pay a commission fee of $1 dollar each to deputize anyone of their choosing to be an officer of the law working directly for the employer, often under the supervision of Pinkertons or other private security forces. These police were typically used as strike breakers and were often implicated as agents provocateurs, fomenting violence as a way of justifying their continued paychecks.

The Coal and Iron Police committed numerous atrocities, including the Latimer Massacre of 1897, in which they killed 19 unarmed miners and wounded 32 others. The final straw was the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, in which miners and employers waged a pitched battle that lasted five months and created national coal shortages. In the aftermath, political leaders and employers decided that a new, more legitimate-seeming system of labor management was needed, to be paid for out of the public coffers. The result was the creation of the Pennsylvania State Police in 1905.

This was the first state police force, and it represented an important shift of power away from local communities. The state police unambiguously favored the interests of large employers, who had significantly more influence over state-level politicians. While putatively under civilian political control, the reality was that they remained a major force in putting down strikes, though often with less violence and with greater legal and political authority. The consequences, however, were largely the same, as they participated in strike-breaking and the killing of miners, such as in the Westmoreland County Coal Strike of 1910–11. Their frequent attacks lead Slovak miners to give them the nickname Pennsylvania Cossacks.

The Pennsylvania State Police were modeled in part on the U.S. occupation police in the Philippines, where the U.S. faced a large local resistance. According to Alfred McCoy’s Policing Empire, the Philippine Constabulary became a testing ground for new police techniques and technologies, developing close ties to local communities to monitor subversive activities and wiring the country for rapid communication of emerging intelligence. When demonstrations emerged, the police, through a huge network of informants, were able to anticipate them and place spies and agents provocateurs to sow dissension and allow leaders and other agitators to be quickly arrested and neutralized.

The U.S. also had its own domestic version of colonial policing in the Texas Rangers. Initially a loose band of irregulars, the Rangers were hired to protect the interests of newly arriving white colonists, first under the Mexican government, then under an independent Republic of Texas, and finally as part of the State of Texas. Their main work was to hunt down native populations accused of attacking white settlers, as well as investigating crimes like cattle rustling. Mike Cox’s history, The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900, describes this as nothing short of an extermination campaign.

The Rangers also frequently acted as vigilantes on behalf of white settlers in disputes with the long-standing Spanish and Mexican populations, serving as a major force for white colonial expansion. Local whites had only to make vague accusations to receive help from the Rangers. In some cases, whites would raid cattle from Mexican ranches and then when Mexican vaqueros tried to take them back, the Rangers would be called in to retrieve the whites’ “stolen property.” Any Mexicans or Native Americans who resisted Ranger authority were subjected to killings, beatings, arrest, and intimidation. This includes the horrific 1918 massacre at Porvenir, in which Rangers killed 15 unarmed locals and drove the remaining community into Mexico for fear of further violence. The massacres by the Rangers against Mexicans led to a series of state legislative hearings in 1919 about extrajudicial killings and racially motivated brutality on behalf of white ranchers, but those hearings resulted in no formal changes. The graphic records of abuse were sealed for the next 50 years to avoid staining the Rangers’ “heroic” record.

Slavery was another major force that shaped early American policing. Well before the London Metropolitan Police were formed, cities like New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston had full-time paid police that wore uniforms, were accountable to local civilian officials, and were connected to a broader criminal justice system. These early police forces were not derived from the informal watch system as in the Northeast but instead from slave patrols. They had the power to ride onto private property to insure that slaves were not harboring weapons or fugitives, conducting meetings, or learning to read or write. They also played a major role in preventing slaves from escaping to the North through regular patrols on rural roads.

While most slave patrols were rural and nonprofessional, the urban patrols became professional as early as the Charleston City Guard and Watch of 1783. By 1831, the Charleston police had a hundred paid city guards, 60 state guards, and foot and mounted patrols that were on duty 24 hours a day. In Charleston and other major cities of the South, slaves often worked away from their owner’s property as part of the region’s growing industrialization. Professional police were deemed essential for managing this mobile urban slave population. The result, according to Richard Wade in his Slavery in the Cities, was “a persistent struggle to minimize Negro fraternizing and, more especially, to prevent the growth of an organized colored community.” This was done through the constant monitoring and inspecting of the black population. The heavily armed police had to regularly inspect the passes of employed slaves and the papers of free Blacks. Police waged a constant battle to close down underground meeting places in the form of bars, study groups, and religious gatherings.

In rural areas, the transition from slave patrols to police was slower, but the basic functional connection was just as strong. In most southern towns the main form of law enforcement was the slave patrol that, in addition to controlling slaves, was also involved in “breaking up nighttime gatherings, hauling in suspicious characters, trying to prevent mischief before it happened, and or capturing the law breakers after the fact.” But despite this occasional enforcement action against whites, the primary focus and purpose remained to manage the slave population.

At the end of slavery, the slave patrol system was abolished and small towns and rural areas had to develop new more professional forms of policing that dealt with newly freed blacks. The main concern of this period was not so much preventing rebellion as forcing newly freed blacks into subservient economic and political roles. New laws outlawing vagrancy were used extensively to force black people to accept employment, mostly in the new sharecropping system. New poll taxes and other voter-suppression efforts were enforced by local police to ensure white control of the political system.

Anyone on the roads without proof of employment was quickly subjected to police action. Local police were the essential front door to the twin evils of convict leasing and prison farms. Local sheriffs made wholesale arrests of free Blacks on flimsy to nonexistent evidence and then drove them into a criminal justice system that subjected them to cruel and inhuman punishments that often resulted in death. These same sheriffs and judges also received kickbacks and fees for carrying out this work, and in some cases, they generated lists of fit and hard-working black people to be incarcerated on behalf of employers who would then lease them out to perform forced labor. In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon chronicles the appalling conditions that black people were subjected to in mines and lumber camps, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands and windfall profits for southern industrialists. By the Jim Crow era, policing had become a central tool for maintaining racial inequality throughout the South, supplemented by ad hoc vigilantes such as the Ku Klux Klan, which often worked closely with and was populated by local police.

Any efforts at police reform that fail to take this history into account run the risk of further empowering police by building their public legitimacy without questioning their basic mission. Superficial reforms in training, enhanced diversity, and body cameras don’t address the ways in which ongoing wars against crime, disorder, and drugs serve to reproduce class and race inequalities. Instead, they provide the police with more resources and give them political cover to continue their discriminatory actions. Movements for police accountability and reform must look not to “reform” police, but to reduce their scope and power; at the same time, they should also be working toward restorative justice practices as well as jobs, education and health care for our youth.