The controversy over Atlanta’s Public Safety Training Center has resurrected a common claim made by critics of law enforcement, namely that American policing is a direct descendant of antebellum slave patrols. A recent article at CounterPunch magazine claims that American policing “began as ‘slave patrols’ to capture enslaved Black people escaping plantations.” Elsewhere, an open letter from alumni of Spelman College refers to police as an “institution born of slave patrols.”
This is echoed by a recent New York Times editorial asserting that “the origin of law enforcement in this country … is a history rooted in slave patrols and militias designed to protect white people’s lives and livelihoods from rebellion among enslaved Black people.” Even pro-law enforcement organizations such as the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund have bought into this claim.
However, it has no basis in actual history.
Police and Policing
To disentangle the history of American police, we must begin by distinguishing between police (noun) and policing (verb). The latter refers to any type of activity involving the enforcement of laws. Policing as an activity has roots that are as ancient as civilization itself. Early Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman societies all possessed entities that enforced their laws. In contrast, police departments refer to specific entities that engage in the activity of policing, an activity that was well-established long before modern police departments themselves were founded.
This point lets us easily dispense with the claim made by some that policing as an activity began with slave patrols. Such a claim is demonstrably false. Policing as an activity is simply the enforcement of laws — something that began to exist with the first civilizations.
A (Very) Brief History of Law Enforcement in the United States
Institutionalized law enforcement in America can be traced as far back as the 1630s with the appointment of sheriffs in counties within the Virginia colony. Colonial sheriffs were modeled after their English equivalents and functioned as the chief law enforcement official in their counties. Around the same time, the cities of Boston and New York appointed constables and watchmen to protect lives and property at night. The duties of these individuals “differed insignificantly from their English counterparts.”
While sheriffs trace their roots to medieval England and were present at the very beginning of colonial America, police departments by contrast are a relatively recent innovation in the history of law enforcement. What distinguished police departments from other forms of early American law enforcement was their professional nature. Police departments as we know them today are highly centralized and are composed of professionals who are paid to perform police duties as a career. They arose because the law enforcement needs of large cities became too great for them to rely on volunteers or individuals with minimal training, low motivation, and lack of oversight. As urbanization in American cities accelerated, so did disorder. The system of night watches that many cities had historically relied on were ill-equipped to deal with these problems.
Thus, cities created professional full-time municipal police departments that were regulated by and accountable directly to local governments. These professional agencies, which began in the 1840s, became the police departments we know today. Their immediate precursors were the night watchmen and constables they replaced.
American law enforcement developed alongside the needs of the community. The development of professional police departments in large cities in the east was one example of this development, as were the constables and night watches that preceded them. In the American West, vigilantes, regulators, and various forms of private law enforcement arose because of a lack of law and order from public officials.
In the American South, slave patrols arose in the early 1700s as a means of enforcing laws aimed at regulating slave conduct, returning lost slaves, and suppressing potential insurrection. These slave patrols were sanctioned by local governments and engaged in quasi law enforcement activities. This has led some to make the claim that modern American police descended from slave patrols. Such a claim, however, cannot survive scrutiny.
Tracing the History of Policing
To say that something “began as” or is “rooted in” another thing is to make a causal claim that one thing brought another thing into existence, whether it be directly or through a series of intermediate causes. To determine when something began to exist, we must first know its defining characteristics. We can then trace its history back to a cause or event that gave rise to those characteristics. Crucially, the mere fact that one similar thing precedes another similar thing in time is not enough to establish causal ancestry.
This point is important because while slave patrols did precede modern police departments in time, slave patrols did not create police departments as we know them, nor did slave patrols become police departments. The defining characteristic of modern policing and the departments that engage in this practice is the general enforcement of laws by full-time paid professionals who are employed by centralized urban organizations operating under municipal oversight. Modern police departments were entities that were created and structured specifically around this model.
The historical record clearly shows that professional policing originated from early English advocates of criminal justice reform, most notably Henry Fielding, Patrick Colquhoun, and Sir Robert Peel. Indeed, the first modern police departments in the United States were modeled after London’s Metropolitan Police Service. These police departments were the direct successors of the English system of night watchmen and constables.
In contrast, slave patrols originated as special militia assignments that exempted individuals from regular duties. These patrols were established for the express purpose of preventing slave insurrection and returning lost slaves to their owners. They were not under municipal oversight, nor were their members professionalized. Most slave patrollers were volunteers, and the few who were paid received compensation mostly in the form of rewards for capturing lost slaves. They did not function as general law enforcement.
There may be some individual police departments in the South with an unbroken history of starting out as slave patrols before they were modernized and reformed. This limited position is more defensible. However, the number of departments that actually fit into this category are likely to be very few (if any), and it is a far cry from the idea that modern police departments as an entire category originate from slave patrols.
Moreover, most Southern police departments were established after the abolition of slave patrols for reasons completely unrelated to the function of slave patrols, so we cannot say that these police departments originated from slave patrols. These police departments were established for the purpose of general law enforcement in response to urbanization (and not slave code enforcement), which means that their lineage is the same as other modern police departments rooted in the English tradition.
Policing and Jim Crow Laws
Some argue that even after the abolition of slave patrols, the fact that many southern police departments were active in the enforcement of Jim Crow laws supports a link to the slave patrols before them. The same response as before applies. While it is true that many southern police departments enforced Jim Crow laws, the model of policing they were founded on had nothing to do with slave patrols or Jim Crow enforcement. Policing adapted to the needs of specific communities, and the reason that some southern police departments unfortunately enforced Jim Crow laws is simply that that is what the law was in those communities. The British model, when adopted by communities in the postwar South, yielded the results it did not by design, but by circumstance. If the law is unjust, then the enforcement of those laws will obviously be unjust as well.
To reiterate, the mere fact that one similar thing precedes another similar thing in time is not enough to establish causation. Many who argue that modern policing originates from slave patrols are guilty of this mistake. To demonstrate causation, one must show that modern policing drew its distinctive practices and structure from slave patrols. But the evidence for this is lacking.