By Lou Reiter, LLRMI Co-Director and Director of the Public Safety Internal Affairs Institute
Most police recruits come from the same group of Americans who don’t know anything about the Korean Conflict or Vietnam War and may think that World War II was a Tom Hanks’ movie. Yes, some police academies may briefly discuss Robert Peel’s ‘first professional policemen’ Bobbies that began in 1829 and ‘Peel’s Rules.’ But what about in America? Does our police history affect today’s policing and our community’s attitudes towards the police? Could a better understanding of the history of American policing give a new recruit some insight into why segments of our communities might resent or fear local police officers?
The underlying historical development of American policing was not for crime control, but for social control. Boston was the first to establish a regular police force in 1838 followed by New York in 1845. But in the southern states it was the ‘Slave Patrol’ that was first created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. After the Civil War the primary purpose of local policing in the South was controlling freed slaves and enforcing ‘Jim Crow’ laws. In the northern cities during the 19th century the main role for local police agencies was to insure a stable and orderly work force and an orderly environment conducive to the mercantile businesses. These workers were considered ‘dangerous classes’ consisting of mainly the poor, foreign immigrants and freed slaves. The police were the only ones authorized to use force to maintain this level of control. In the late 1800s the police became the strike breakers competing with the movement to organize labor and local towns developed ‘Tramp Acts’ to arrest union organizers and workers. State police such as the Pennsylvania State Police were modeled after the Philippine Constabulary seen after the Spanish American War around 1900. They were an ‘all white, native’ paramilitary force used to break strikes and control local towns usually populated with immigrants. Even the early Texas Rangers ended up working for the higher paying ranchers and suppressing local farmers. In the west it was common for someone to be an outlaw one day and town marshal the next. The early 1900s found local police departments under the control of local politicians and then organized crime in protecting prostitution, gambling and illegal liquor operations.
The numerous and frequent study commissions beginning with the Lenox Committee in 1894 in New York have all dealt with police corruption, political influence, bribery, brutality, and unequal treatment of person of color and females, both in the communities served as well as within the police agencies themselves. In the 1950s O.W. Wilson began the movement to professionalize the police in America. But this professional and military model evolved into police regression and did little to correct the racist and sexist hiring practices within police agencies. The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam protests of the 1960s again spotlighted the role of local police to support the status quo and control social norms.
Recruits should be taught that it is this history that defines in many of Americans their perspective of what a local police officer reflects. Actions of the few officers who violate Constitutional safeguards and prey on vulnerable people in our communities support these community perspectives. The continued enforcement of social control laws, such as the War on Drugs and Broken Windows efforts, most often affects mainly the minority and poor members of the community.
Achievement of upward mobility by officers of color has come about because of lawsuits and hard-fought battles with local politicians and police leaders. Female officers have been able to move out of the exclusive and confining role of jail matrons and juvenile officers to full participation in all police operations and ranks including the ‘top cop’ because they fought for that right in lawsuits. Legal actions by the U.S. Department of Justice have assisted this movement. Even after these achievements many female and officers of color still have to fight each and every day on the job and in their own communities to solidify their new positions and gain equal treatment and respect. Do we create an open environment during our police training where this can be discussed?
A reasonable syllabus of systemic law enforcement ‘warts’ can be gathered from the myriad of reports resulting after scandals, riots and urban unrest. Those national and local studies from the urban riots of the late 1960s, the plethora of local studies done after the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles such as the Christopher, Koltz and St. Clair Commissions, and the study following the Ferguson police/community incident are still relevant today. All of these studies detail common issues involving law enforcement practices and conflicts with segments of communities being policed that seem to be neglected by law enforcement as time goes on.
We need to address the ‘warts’ of public drunkenness, cash bail, vehicle equipment violation citations, imprisonment inequities and ‘nuisance crime’ enforcement. Who are the common targets of this enforcement? Is it again a conflict between ‘crime control’ and ‘social control.’ At least create a discussion with recruits during basic training so they are made aware of the ramifications of these police actions.
And how about police corruption? We don’t have to venture far to use real case studies. Just consider the LAPD Rampart gang unit, Chicago SOS group, Baltimore Gun Task Force, Miami River Cops, and Rutherford County NC narcotic unit to name a few recent ones. Using examples like these can illuminate the systemic, agency, supervisor and enabling employees who allowed these scandals to occur.
Many of the communities being policed today have segments of immigrants. Many of these people still remember the often-abusive actions by the police and military in their home countries. Police officers in these communities should be taught about the policing these immigrants may have faced in their countries to understand how some may react to what the local police do. With knowledge and understanding officers have the ability to know how their actions might be wrongly perceived.
Most police agencies have had to confront recently the actions of an officer or officers who do something stupid particularly on a social media platform. Surprisingly it has occurred in small, large, rural, urban and state level agencies. Many of these actions have common trends of white nationalism sympathies and homophobic, xenophobic and racist comments. A 2005 report from the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that there was a movement by white nationalist organizations to infiltrate local police agencies during the recruitment phase. So how have we addressed this current trend in our police training programs and asked new recruits how this may affect the agency’s community capital? The development of a social media written policy alone isn’t enough.
Some may contend that there isn’t enough time in today’s crowded basic police academy program. Understanding what drives a community’s perception is certainly as important as drill, physical fitness, defensive tactics and firearm proficiency. It becomes a matter of what the police agency or those agencies that support a regional training facility consider important.
These are not easy topics to address in any training program, let alone our generally highly structured police academy training programs. It’s not ‘sensitivity training’ like we experienced in the 1970s usually conducted by some outside entity. It can’t be delivered in neat 2-hour blocks of designated training. It requires finding that catalyst within your own agency to be the discussion leader. Someone who has been there. Someone who has fought the battle. Someone who is still proud to be a peace maker who wears a badge and recognizes that our primary bosses are the people in the communities we serve.
 “The History of Policing in the United States,” Dr. Gary Potter, Eastern Kentucky Univ., 2013