Written by Tussy Wallace Art by AB Khim In the United States, we have a tendency to accept the police as a natural, organic entity. Like many systems in our society, we accept their presence in our lives without question. We believe that we “need” these bureaucratic structures to function. We’re told that the police are here to “protect and serve.” If your car is stolen, then you report it to the police. If your house is robbed or your partner beats you, then you’re supposed to call the police.
However, the police force did not always exist. The birth and development of law enforcement in the U.S. can be traced to specific historical, legal and political-economic circumstances. It wasn’t until 1845 that the idea of a centralized municipal police department emerged in the Northeast. By the 1880’s, all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place.
Urbanization is one of the conditions credited for the creation of centralized, bureaucratic police departments. Authors have written about a wave of public disorder that arose when the U.S. shifted from small cities and rural communities to urban cities. Granted, public disorder was more visible and less easily controlled in urban areas, however, there is no evidence of a spike in crime. So, what public disorder perpetuated the push for police?
What constitutes public disorder depends heavily on who is defining those terms. In the 19th Century, two interests emerged that supported the development of municipal police departments. The emerging economic elite, made up of factory owners, needed a way to insure a stable and orderly work force. They also wanted to shift the cost of protecting their business to the state. Municipal police departments provided a publicly funded, organized, and violent force to maintain order.
Why did the factory owners needed to stabilize their work force? Workers were being exploited; forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages. In response, they began “rioting.” Public police departments allowed owners to control their work force and prevent strikes under the rule of law, disconnected from the payoffs of the economic elite.
In the Southern states the push for police came from a different source. The South needed to modernize the traditional Slave Patrols. Following the Civil War, slave patrols and night watches, which morphed into municipal police departments, were designed to control Black and Indigenous Peoples. For example, the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Indigenous in that frontier city. In South Carolina, the police department began as slave patrols and moved directly into an official police force.
After the Civil War, the white preoccupation with race and the question of how to maintain dominance and control was answered through municipal policing. Jim Crow laws were put into place and enforced through patrols organized by federal military, state militia and the Ku Klux Klan. These patrols morphed into local law enforcement offices. Throughout the history of municipal policing, Black and Indigenous Peoples were arrested in far greater numbers than whites, and for the slightest infraction. Northern and Southern cities relied on their police force to control people of color and impoverished populations. Immigrant populations grew, increasing the environment of fear. The Red Scare prompted the indirect militarization of the police. The Basic Field Manual during this time taught police to fire INTO crowds of protesters, to end the Communist “reign of terror.” They were instructed in the use of chemical warfare, artillery, machine guns, grenades, tanks and planes against U.S. citizens. Instead of allowing our soldiers to serve as cops, we turned our cops into soldiers.
After the Civil Rights Era and the fall of Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration became a thriving business; the United States has the highest prison population in the world. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the U.S. That’s one of every 35 adults. The fact is that crime rates have risen and fallen independently of our growing incarceration rates. Incarceration rates rise independent of crime, but not of criminal-justice policy.
It’s important to understand the connection between the racist and classist history of the police and current policy such as Stop and Frisk, Racial Profiling, Three Strikes Laws or Mandatory Sentences and White Supremacy. These are merely new mechanisms adapted to continue punishing the poor and people of color. Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly six to ten times the rates of whites. One in three black men will experience prison, while only six percent of white men will. The poor also continue to be disproportionately represented behind bars. In 2014, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration. The system erases those caught in it. Employment and poverty statistics traditionally omit the incarcerated from their numbers.
From the mid-1970’s until the mid-1980’s, the incarceration rate in this country doubled. In the next ten years, it doubled again. It kept rising until we reached our current incarceration rate of 2.2 million. This causes hardship for those incarcerated, but the effects are larger than that. More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent. That breaks down to 1 in 28 children. If we look at those numbers through a racial justice lens, that is 1 in 10 Black children and 1 in 57 white children. That stark inequality is undeniable.
The families left behind suffer. In addition to the stigma, there is huge financial strain. With the incarceration, the family loses someone who can contribute to the household wage earning. Then the fees and court-related costs begin. The average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees was $13,607. For those already struggling in this capitalist system, many are forced to choose between supporting an incarcerated loved one or meet their family’s basic needs. Incarceration is expensive with phone and visitation related costs.
For the 4.5 million people on probation or parole, housing and employment are hard to secure. Many of those people simply fall through the cracks after they’re released. It is estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of all parolees in Los Angeles and San Francisco are homeless. Those lower-income and struggling families are the primary resource for housing, employment, and health needs of their formerly incarcerated loved ones, filling the gaps left by vanishing reentry services. Incarceration damages family relationships and stability by separating people from their support systems, disrupting continuity of families, and causing lifelong mental and physical health and economic trauma that impede families from thriving.
The police across the United States are still working with white supremacists. In June of 2017, Portland police requested a white supremacists assist in making arrest. Charlottesville was in August of 2017 and the police stood by while white supremacist fascists charged and beat counter protesters, before a white supremacist terrorist drove his car into a crowd of people, killing one young woman. In February 2018, Sacramento police were caught collaborating with white supremacists. In Washington DC, police have been caught wearing white power shirts. Police officers stood side by side with mercenaries, attacking water protectors at Standing Rock with high pressured water hoses in freezing winter temperatures. The number of police officers caught making racist, inflammatory posts and pictures on social media are rising. It’s not new … it’s just being exposed.
There’s more to the story than racist and classist profiling, mass incarceration rates, impact on family and white supremacy. Police are extremely violent. Police officers killed 1,129 people last year. More people died from police violence in 2017 than the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in action around the world. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many, many others dominated headlines, inspired nationwide protests and brought on a pro-law-enforcement backlash that helped elect President Trump. Now the issue has all but vanished from the national political conversation as the political press corps and social media networks have covered Trump and his clowns above all else. Police don’t just go after those they suspected of crime. Domestic violence is at 41% in the law-enforcement community. While all partner abuse is unacceptable, it is especially problematic when domestic abusers are literally the people that battered and abused women are supposed to call for help.
To top all that; the police are ineffective. Less than 5% of all calls dispatched to the police result in officers stopping a crime or arresting a suspect. It isn’t just an issue of timing. The police fail to solve 3 out of 4 crimes after they’ve been reported.
The best “clearance rates” for crime is murder, about 60% of the murder cases are cleared. We can thank technology for that rate, while other violent offenses and property crimes hover at significantly lower clearance rates. Burglary is only resolved 13% of the time. Rape cases are resolved approximately 30% of the time. To make those numbers worse, police cook the books on clearance rates. One of the methods that they use is known as administratively clearing an offender, and it’s one of many euphemisms used to describe the widespread and often dubious practices used by police forces in response to increasing demands that they statistically quantify the work that they do.
It is time for us to stop accepting the need for police presence. We must understand that “Protect and Serve” does not mean the citizens of the United States but the powerful, rich elite. It is their interests which are protected. It is their interests that are served. We must liberate this country from the tyranny of these hired thugs.