A Brief History Of Slavery And The Origins Of American Policing

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

The birth and devel­op­ment of the American police can be traced to a mul­ti­tude of his­tor­i­cal, legal and polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic con­di­tions. The insti­tu­tion of slav­ery and the con­trol of minori­ties, how­ev­er, were two of the more for­mi­da­ble his­toric fea­tures of American soci­ety shap­ing ear­ly polic­ing. Slave patrols and Night Watches, which lat­er became mod­ern police depart­ments, were both designed to con­trol the behav­iors of minori­ties. For exam­ple, New England set­tlers appoint­ed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were found­ed to pro­tect res­i­dents from Native Americans in that fron­tier city, and many south­ern police depart­ments began as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina devel­oped the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to main­tain the eco­nom­ic order and to assist the wealthy landown­ers in recov­er­ing and pun­ish­ing slaves who essen­tial­ly were con­sid­ered prop­er­ty.

Dr. Kappeler has received numer­ous awards by both aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions and gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies for his con­tri­bu­tions to crim­i­nal jus­tice.

Policing was not the only social insti­tu­tion enmeshed in slav­ery. Slavery was ful­ly insti­tu­tion­al­ized in the American eco­nom­ic and legal order with laws being enact­ed at both the state and nation­al divi­sions of gov­ern­ment. Virginia, for exam­ple, enact­ed more than 130 slave statutes between 1689 and 1865. Slavery and the abuse of peo­ple of col­or, how­ev­er, was not mere­ly a south­ern affair as many have been taught to believe. Connecticut, New York and oth­er colonies enact­ed laws to crim­i­nal­ize and con­trol slaves. Congress also passed fugi­tive Slave Laws, laws allow­ing the deten­tion and return of escaped slaves, in 1793 and 1850. As Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006:186) remark, “the lit­er­a­ture clear­ly estab­lish­es that a legal­ly sanc­tioned law enforce­ment sys­tem exist­ed in America before the Civil War for the express pur­pose of con­trol­ling the slave pop­u­la­tion and pro­tect­ing the inter­ests of slave own­ers. The sim­i­lar­i­ties between the slave patrols and mod­ern American polic­ing are too salient to dis­miss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be con­sid­ered a fore­run­ner of mod­ern American law enforce­ment.”

The lega­cy of slav­ery and racism did not end after the Civil War. In fact, it can be argued that extreme vio­lence against peo­ple of col­or became even worse with the rise of vig­i­lante groups who resist­ed Reconstruction. Because vig­i­lantes, by def­i­n­i­tion, have no exter­nal restraints, lynch mobs had a jus­ti­fied rep­u­ta­tion for hang­ing minori­ties first and ask­ing ques­tions lat­er. Because of its tra­di­tion of slav­ery, which rest­ed on the racist ratio­nal­iza­tion that Blacks were sub-human, America had a long and shame­ful his­to­ry of mis­treat­ing peo­ple of col­or, long after the end of the Civil War. Perhaps the most infa­mous American vig­i­lante group, the Ku Klux Klan start­ed in the 1860s, was noto­ri­ous for assault­ing and lynch­ing Black men for trans­gres­sions that would not be con­sid­ered crimes at all, had a White man com­mit­ted them. Lynching occurred across the entire coun­ty not just in the South. Finally, in 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which pro­hib­it­ed state actors from vio­lat­ing the Civil Rights of all cit­i­zens in part because of law enforcement’s involve­ment with the infa­mous group. This leg­is­la­tion, how­ev­er, did not stem the tide of racial or eth­nic abuse that per­sist­ed well into the 1960s.

Though hav­ing white skin did not pre­vent dis­crim­i­na­tion in America, being White undoubt­ed­ly made it eas­i­er for eth­nic minori­ties to assim­i­late into the main­stream of America. The addi­tion­al bur­den of racism has made that tran­si­tion much more dif­fi­cult for those whose skin is black, brown, red, or yel­low. In no small part because of the tra­di­tion of slav­ery, Blacks have long been tar­gets of abuse. The use of patrols to cap­ture run­away slaves was one of the pre­cur­sors of for­mal police forces, espe­cial­ly in the South. This dis­as­trous lega­cy per­sist­ed as an ele­ment of the police role even after the pas­sage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In some cas­es, police harass­ment sim­ply meant peo­ple of African descent were more like­ly to be stopped and ques­tioned by the police, while at the oth­er extreme, they have suf­fered beat­ings, and even mur­der, at the hands of White police. Questions still arise today about the dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly high num­bers of peo­ple of African descent killed, beat­en, and arrest­ed by police in major urban cities of America.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University