The Five Points district of lower Manhattan, painted by George Catlin in 1827. New York’s first free Black settlement, it became a mixed-race slum, home to Blacks and Irish alike, and a focal point for the stormy collective life of the new working class. Cops were invented to gain control over neighborhoods and populations like this.

The Five Points district of lower Manhattan, painted by George Catlin in 1827. New York’s first free Black settlement, Five Points was also a destination for Irish immigrants and a focal point for the stormy collective life of the new working class. Cops were invented to gain control over neighborhoods and populations like this.

In England and the United States, the police were invented within the space of just a few decades — roughly from 1825 to 1855.

The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime. The most common way for authorities to solve a crime, before and since the invention of police, has been for someone to tell them who did it.

Besides, crime has to do with the acts of individuals, and the ruling elites who invented the police were responding to challenges posed by collective action. To put it in a nutshell: The authorities created the police in response to large, defiant crowds. That’s

— strikes in England,
— riots in the Northern US,
— and the threat of slave insurrections in the South.

So the police are a response to crowds, not to crime.

I will be focusing a lot on who these crowds were, how they became such a challenge. We’ll see that one difficulty for the rulers, besides the growth of social polarization in the cities, was the breakdown of old methods of personal supervision of the working population. In these decades, the state stepped in to fill the social breach.

We’ll see that, in the North, the invention of the police was just one part of a state effort to manage and shape the workforce on a day-to-day basis. Governments also expanded their systems of poor relief in order to regulate the labor market, and they developed the system of public education to regulate workers’ minds. I will connect those points to police work later on, but mostly I’ll be focusing on how the police developed in London, New York, Charleston (South Carolina), and Philadelphia.

* * * * *

To get a sense of what’s special about modern police, it will help to talk about the situation when capitalism was just beginning. Specifically, let’s consider the market towns of the late medieval period, about 1,000 years ago.

The dominant class of the time wasn’t in the towns. The feudal landholders were based in the countryside. They didn’t have cops. They could pull together armed forces to terrorize the serfs — who were semi-slaves — or they could fight against other nobles. But these forces were not professional or full-time.

The population of the towns was mostly serfs who had bought their freedom, or simply escaped from their masters. They were known as bourgeois, which means town-dweller. The bourgeoisie pioneered economic relations that later became known as capitalism.

For the purposes of our discussion, let’s say that a capitalist is somebody who uses money to make more money. At the beginning, the dominant capitalists were merchants. A merchant takes money to buy goods in order to sell them for more money. There are also capitalists who deal only with money — bankers — who lend out a certain amount in order to get more back.

You could also be a craftsman who buys materials and makes something like shoes in order to sell them for more money. In the guild system, a master craftsman would work alongside and supervise journeymen and apprentices. The masters were profiting from their work, so there was exploitation going on, but the journeymen and apprentices had reasonable hopes of becoming masters themselves eventually. So class relations in the towns were quite fluid, especially in comparison to the relation between noble and serf. Besides, the guilds operated in ways that put some limits on exploitation, so it was the merchants who really accumulated capital at that time.

In France, in the 11th and 12th centuries, these towns became known as communes. They incorporated into communes under various conditions, sometimes with the permission of a feudal lord­, but in general they were seen as self-governing entities or even city-states.

But they didn’t have cops. They had their own courts — and small armed forces made up of the townsmen themselves. These forces generally had nothing to do with bringing people up on charges. If you got robbed or assaulted, or were cheated in a business deal, then you, the citizen, would press the charges.

One example of this do-it-yourself justice, a method that lasted for centuries, was known as the hue and cry. If you were in a marketplace and you saw somebody stealing, you were supposed to yell and scream, saying “Stop, thief!” and chase after the thief. The rest of the deal was that anybody who saw you do this was supposed to add to the hue and cry and also run after the thief.

The towns didn’t need cops because they had a high degree of social equality, which gave people a sense of mutual obligation. Over the years, class conflicts did intensify within the towns, but even so, the towns held together — through a common antagonism to the power of the nobles and through continued bonds of mutual obligation.

For hundreds of years, the French carried an idealized memory of these early commune towns — as self-governing communities of equals. So it’s no surprise that in 1871, when workers took over Paris, they named it the Commune. But that’s jumping a little farther forward than we should just yet.

­* * * * *

Capitalism underwent major changes as it grew up inside feudal society. First of all, the size of capital holdings grew. Remember, that’s the point — to make smaller piles of money into bigger piles of money. The size of holdings began to grow astronomically during the conquest of the Americas, as gold and silver were looted from the New World and Africans were kidnapped to work on plantations.

More and more things were produced for sale on the market. The losers in market competition began to lose their independence as producers and had to take wage jobs. But in places like England, the biggest force driving people to look for wage work was the state-endorsed movement to drive peasants off the land.

The towns grew as peasants became refugees from the countryside, while inequality grew within the cities. The capitalist bourgeoisie became a social layer that was more distinct from workers than it used to be. The market was having a corrosive effect on solidarity of craft guilds — something I’ll take up in more detail when I talk about New York. Workshops got bigger than ever, as a single English boss would be in command of maybe dozens of workers. I’m talking about the mid-1700s here, the period right before real factory industrialization began.

There still weren’t cops, but the richer classes began to resort to more and more violence to suppress the poor population. Sometimes the army was ordered to shoot into rebellious crowds, and sometimes the constables would arrest the leaders and hang them. So class struggle was beginning to heat up, but things really began to change when the Industrial Revolution took off in England.

* * * * *

At the same time, the French were going through a political and social revolution of their own, beginning in 1789. The response of the British ruling class was to panic over the possibility that English workers would follow the French lead. They outlawed trade unions and meetings of more than 50 people.

Nevertheless, English workers put together bigger and bigger demonstrations and strikes from about 1792 to 1820. The ruling class response was to send in the army. But there are really only two things the army could do, and they’re both bad. They could refuse to shoot, and the crowd would get away with whatever it came to do. Or they could shoot into the crowd and produce working-class martyrs.

This is exactly what happened in Manchester in 1819. Soldiers were sent charging into a crowd of 80,000, injuring hundreds of people and killing 11. Instead of subduing the crowd, this action, known as the Peterloo Massacre, provoked a wave of strikes and protests.

Even the time-honored tactic of hanging the movement’s leaders began to backfire. An execution would exert an intimidating effect on a crowd of 100, but crowds now ranged up to 50,000 supporters of the condemned man, and the executions just made them want to fight. The growth of British cities, and the growth of social polarization within them—that is, two quantitative changes — had begun to produce qualitatively new outbreaks of struggle.

The ruling class needed new institutions to get this under control. One of them was the London police, founded in 1829, just 10 years after Peterloo. The new police force was designed specifically to inflict nonlethal violence upon crowds to break them up while deliberately trying to avoid creating martyrs. Now, any force that’s organized to deliver violence on a routine basis is going to kill some people. But for every police murder, there are hundreds or thousands of acts of police violence that are nonlethal — calculated and calibrated to produce intimidation while avoiding an angry collective response.

When the London police were not concentrated into squads for crowd control, they were dispersed out into the city to police the daily life of the poor and working class. That sums up the distinctive dual function of modern police: There is the dispersed form of surveillance and intimidation that’s done the name of fighting crime; and then there’s the concentrated form of activity to take on strikes, riots, and major demonstrations.

That’s what they were invented for — to deal with crowds — but what we see most of the time is the presence of the cop on the beat. Before I talk about the evolution of police in New York, I want to explore the connection between these two modes of police work.


I’ll begin with the more general topic of class struggle over the use of outdoor space. This is a very consequential issue for workers and the poor. The outdoors is important to workers

— for work
— for leisure and entertainment
— for living space, if you don’t have a home
… and for politics.

First, about work. While successful merchants could control indoor spaces, those without so many means had to set themselves up as vendors on the street. The established merchants saw them as competitors and got the police to remove them.

Street vendors are also effective purveyors of stolen goods because they’re mobile and anonymous. It wasn’t just pickpockets and burglars who made use of street vendors this way. The servants and slaves of the middle class also stole from their masters and passed the goods on to the local vendors. (By the way, New York City had slavery until 1827.) The leakage of wealth out of the city’s comfortable homes is another reason that the middle class demanded action against street vendors.

The street was also simply where workers would spend their free time — because their homes were not comfortable. The street was a place where they could get friendship and free entertainment, and, depending on the place and time, they might engage in dissident religion or politics. British Marxist historian EP Thompson summed all this up when he wrote that 19th century English police were

impartial, attempting to sweep off the streets with an equable hand street traders, beggars, prostitutes, street-entertainers, pickets, children playing football and freethinking and socialist speakers alike. The pretext very often was that a complaint of interruption of trade had been received from a shopkeeper.

On both sides of the Atlantic, most arrests were related to victimless crimes, or crimes against the public order. Another Marxist historian Sidney Harring noted: “The criminologist’s definition of ‘public order crimes’ comes perilously close to the historian’s description of ‘working-class leisure-time activity.’”

Outdoor life was — and is — especially important to working-class politics. Established politicians and corporate managers can meet indoors and make decisions that have big consequences because these people are in command of bureaucracies and workforces. But when working people meet and make decisions about how to change things, it usually doesn’t count for much unless they can gather some supporters out on the street, whether it’s for a strike or a demonstration. The street is the proving ground for much of working-class politics, and the ruling class is fully aware of that. That’s why they put the police on the street as a counter-force whenever the working class shows its strength.

Now we can look at the connections between the two major forms of police activity — routine patrols and crowd control. The day-to-day life of patrolling gets police accustomed to using violence and the threat of violence. This gets them ready to pull off the large-scale acts of repression that are necessary when workers and the oppressed rise up in larger groups. It’s not just a question of getting practice with weapons and tactics. Routine patrol work is crucial to creating a mindset among police that their violence is for the greater good.

The day-to-day work also allows commanders to discover which cops are most comfortable inflicting pain — and then to assign them to the front lines when it comes to a crackdown. At the same time, the “good cop” you may meet on the beat provides crucial public-relations cover for the brutal work that needs to be done by the “bad cops.” Routine work can also become useful in periods of political upheaval because the police have already spent time in the neighborhoods trying to identify the leaders and the radicals.

* * * * *

Now we can jump back into the historical narrative and talk about New York City.

I’ll begin with a couple of points about the traditions of crowds before the revolution. During the colonial period, people got rowdy sometimes, but it was often formalized in ways that the colonial elite would approve or at least tolerate. There were various celebrations that fell in the category of “misrule,” in which social positions were reversed and the lower orders could pretend that they were on the top. This was a way for the subordinate classes to blow off steam by satirizing their masters — a way that acknowledged the right of the elite to be in charge on every other day of the year. This tradition of symbolic misrule was especially prominent around Christmas and New Year’s. Even slaves would be allowed to participate.

There was also a yearly celebration of Pope Day, in which members of the Protestant majority would parade around with effigies, including one of the Pope — until they burned them all at the end. A little sectarian provocation, “all in good fun,” all approved by the city fathers. At that point, Pope Day didn’t usually lead to violence against actual Catholics because there were only a few hundred in New York and not a single Catholic church before the revolution.

These crowd traditions were loud and even riotous, but they tended to reinforce the connection between the lower orders and the elite, not to break that connection.

The lower orders were also bound to the elite by constant personal supervision. This applied to slaves and house servants, of course, but apprentices and journeyman craftsmen also lived in the same house with the master. So there were not a lot of these subordinate people roaming around the streets at all hours.

This situation left sailors and day laborers as unsupervised, potentially disruptive elements. Already by 1638, as historian Selden Bacon notes, the elite of New Amsterdam (the Dutch colony that later became New York) had seen a need to head off the disorder that could originate from the waterfront:

The first ordinances to be found of a police nature have to do with the vessels in the harbor, restricting the visiting of the inhabitants, forbidding sailors to remain on shore in the night, ordering the ships’ captains to enforce these rules. The purpose of this was to insure against smuggling as much as to keep rowdy sailors from the streets at night. All workers were commanded to go to and from their work at fixed hours and the master carpenters and overseers of workman were commanded to enforce this. (Vol. 1, 16.)

This, of course, is an example of policing without a police agency. New Amsterdam’s elite was commanding employers to supervise waterfront workers during off-work hours, much as masters would oversee their slaves, servants and apprentices. The colonial authorities could see that unattached, free wage laborers — even in fairly small numbers — could disrupt the norms of this patrician society. Their response was to make these laborers less free by trying to “attach” them to their bosses.

Under circumstances like these, where most people in the colony were already supervised during the day, there was no need for regular police force. There was a night watch, which looked out for fires, tried to guard against vandalism and arrested any Black person who couldn’t prove that s/he was free. The watch was not professional in any way. All of them had day jobs and rotated into watch duty temporarily, so they didn’t patrol regular beats — and everybody hated doing it. The rich bought their way out of it by paying for substitutes.

During the day, a small number of constables were on duty, but they didn’t patrol. They were agents of the court who executed writs like summonses and arrest warrants. They did not do detective work. In the 1700s and well into the 1800s, the system relied almost entirely on civilian informants who were promised a portion of any fine that the offender might have to pay.

* * * * *

The revolutionary period changed a few things about the role of crowds and the relation between classes. In the 1760s, beginning with the agitation against the Stamp Act, the elite of merchants and property-holders endorsed new forms of popular mobilization. These were new loud demonstrations and riots that borrowed from existing traditions, obviously in the use of effigies. Instead of burning the Pope, they’d burn the governor, or King George.

I don’t have time to go into detail about what they did, but it’s important to note the class composition of these crowds. Members of the elite might be there themselves, but the body of these crowds was the skilled workers, collectively known as the mechanics. That means that a master would be out in the crowd with his journeymen and apprentices. People of higher social rank tended to view the master craftsmen as their lieutenants for mobilizing the rest of the mechanics.

As the conflict with Britain intensified, the mechanics became more radicalized and organized themselves independently from the colonial elite. There was friction between the mechanics and the elite, but never a complete breach.

And, naturally, when the British were defeated and the elite set up their own government, they had had enough of all this street agitation. There continued to be rebellions and riots in the new independent United States, but they were taking new shapes — partly because economic development was breaking up the unity of the mechanics themselves.

* * * * *

I’ll turn now to those developments that followed the revolution — changes that produced a new working class out of a conflicted hodgepodge of social elements.

Let’s start with the skilled workers. Even before the revolution, the division between masters and journeymen had sharpened. To understand this, we should look more closely at the lingering influence of the guild system; formal guilds did not exist in United States, but some of their traditions lived on among skilled workers.

The old guilds had essentially been cartels, unions of workers who had a monopoly on a particular skill that allowed them to manage the market. They could set customary prices for their goods and even decide beforehand how big the market was going to be.

The managed market allowed for some customary stability of relations among workers of the same trade. A master acquired an apprentice as an indentured servant from his parents in return for a promise of teaching him a skill and giving him room and board for seven years. Apprentices graduated to become journeymen, but often continued to work for the same master as long as there is no slot for them to become masters themselves. Journeymen received customary wages with long-term contracts. This meant that pay would keep coming in despite seasonal variations in the amount of work. Even without the formal structure of guilds, much of this customary set of relations was still in place in the pre-revolutionary period.

From about 1750 to 1850, however, this corporative structure within the skilled trades was falling apart because the external relation — the tradesmen’s control of the market — was also beginning to break down. Trade that came from other cities or from overseas would undermine the masters’ ability to set prices, so workshops were thrown into competition with each other in a way that’s familiar today.

Competition drove the masters to become more like entrepreneurs, seeking out labor-saving innovation and treating their workers more like disposable wage workers. Enterprises became larger and more impersonal — more like factories, with dozens of employees.

In the first decades of the 19th century, employees were not only losing their long-term contracts, but they also were losing their place to live in the masters’ households. The apprentices found this to be a liberating experience, as young men got out from under the authority of their parents and their masters. Free to come and go as they pleased, they could meet young women and create their own social life among their peers. Working women were employed mostly in household service of various types unless they were prostitutes.

Outdoor life became transformed as these young people mingled with the other parts of the population that comprised the developing working class.

The mingling wasn’t always peaceful. Irish Catholic immigration expanded after 1800. By 1829, there were about 25,000 Catholics in the city — one person out of eight. The Irish were segregated by neighborhood, often living alongside Blacks, who themselves were now about 5 percent of the population. In 1799, Protestants burned an effigy of St. Patrick, and the Irish fought back. These battles recurred over the next few years, and it was clear to the Irish that the constables and the watch were taking sides against them.

So, before there were even modern police forces, the lawmen were doing racial profiling. The city’s elite took note of the Irish lack of respect for the watch — their open combativeness — and responded by expanding the watch and making its patrols more targeted. This went along with increasing police attention to Africans, who lived in the same areas and often had the same attitude toward the authorities.

Underlying the sectarian and racial divisions were economic competition, since Irish workers were generally less skilled and drew lower wages than craft workers. At the same time, masters were trying to de-skill the jobs in the workshops. In this way, Anglo apprentices became part of a real labor market as they lost their long-term contracts. When this happened, they found themselves just a rung above Irish immigrants on the wage scale. Black workers, who performed domestic service or worked as general laborers, were a further rung or two down the wage scale from the Irish.

At the same time, the older unskilled part of the wage-working class, centered around the docks and building construction, was expanding because trade and construction both expanded after the Revolution.

Overall, population expanded rapidly. New York was 60,000 in 1800, but it doubled in size by 1820. In 1830, New York had more than 200,000 people — and 312,000 by 1840.

* * * * *

That’s a rough profile of the New York’s new working class.

In these decades, all sections of the class went into collective action on their own behalf. It’s quite a complicated story, because of the number of actions and the fragmentation of the class. But we could start with a generalization that the most common form of struggle was also the most elementary — the riot.

Now some specifics. From 1801 to 1832, Black New Yorkers rioted four times to prevent former slaves from being sent back to their out-of-town masters. These efforts generally failed, the watch responded violently, and the participants received unusually harsh sentences. White abolitionists joined in the condemnations of these riots. So these riots illustrate popular self-activity despite elite disapproval — not to mention racial disparity in the application of the law.

There was also white harassment of Black churches and theaters, sometimes rising to the level of riots. Poor immigrants were involved, but sometimes rich whites and the constables themselves took part. One anti-Black riot raged for three days in 1826, damaging Black houses and churches — along with houses and churches of white abolitionist ministers.

But there wasn’t just conflict between Black and white workers. In 1802, white and Black sailors struck for higher wages. As with most strikes during this period, the method was something that historian Eric Hobsbawm called “collective bargaining by riot.” In this case, strikers disabled the ships that were hiring at the lower wages. Dockworkers also united across racial and sectarian lines for militant strikes in 1825 and 1828.

Job actions by skilled workers like journeymen didn’t usually need to resort to such physical coercion, because they possessed a monopoly on the relevant skills. Journeymen nevertheless became more militant in these years. Strikes in the skilled trades happened in 3 waves, starting in 1809, 1822 and 1829. Each wave was more militant and coercive than the previous — as they targeted other skilled workers who broke solidarity. In 1829, the journeymen led a movement to limit the workday to 10 hours and created the Workingmen’s Party. The party collapsed in the same year, but it led to the founding the General Trade Union in 1833.

While workers grew more conscious of themselves as a class, they also began to engage in more and more “run-of-the-mill” riots wherever crowds gathered, in taverns or in theaters or in the street. Such riots may have had no clear economic or political objective, but they were still instances of collective self-assertion by the working class—or by ethnic and racial fractions of the class. In the opening decades of the century, there was one of these riots about four times a year, but in the period from 1825 to 1830, New Yorkers rioted at a rate of once per month.

One of these riots in particular alarmed the elite. At New Year’s of 1828, a noisy crowd of about 4,000 young Anglo workers brought out their drums and noisemakers and headed toward Broadway where the rich lived. They “procured an enormous Pennsylvania [covered] waggon” and pulled it with “a large rope several rods in length [1 rod = 16.5 feet],” according to an anonymous report in the Evening Post. On the way, they busted up an African church and beat the church members. The watch arrested several of the rioters, but the crowd rescued them and sent the watch running.

The crowd drew in more revellers and turned toward the commercial district, where they busted up some stores. At the Battery, they broke windows in some of the city’s richest homes. Then they headed back up Broadway, where the rich were having their own celebration at the City Hotel.

The street became in a short time blocked up with an impenetrable crowd, and the hackney coaches conveying home the ladies and gentlemen, were obstructed and not suffered to pass. The inconvenience became so great, that a strong party of watchman was collected with a view of taking into custody the leaders, and dispersing the rest.

The leaders of the crowd called a five-minute truce. This allowed the watch to think about the fight that they were about to get into. By that time, the crowd was cutting up the long wagon rope and arming the front ranks with “pieces of about three feet in length.” When the five minutes were up, the watch stepped aside, “and the multitude passed noisily and triumphantly up Broadway.”

This spectacle of working-class defiance took place in full view of the families that ran New York City. Newspapers called for a major expansion of the watch. The 1828 riot — and a year of major riots in 1834 — accelerated a set of incremental reforms that finally led to the creation the New York City Police Department in 1845.

The reforms of 1845 enlarged the police force, professionalized them, and centralized them with a more military chain of command. The watch was expanded to 24 hours, and policemen were forbidden from taking a second job. The pay was increased, and police no longer received a portion of the fines that were extracted from offenders.

This meant the cops were no longer going out on patrol looking for how they were going to make a living, a process that could lead to a strange selection of prosecutions. Eliminating the fee system gave commanders greater freedom to set policy and priorities — and thus made the department more responsive to the shifting needs of the economic elite.

That’s how the New York police got started.


The story of police in the South is a bit different, as you might expect.

One of the world’s first modern-type police forces developed in Charleston, South Carolina, in the years before the New York force became fully professional. The precursor of the Charleston’s police force was not a set of urban watchmen but slave patrols that operated in the countryside. As one historian put it, “throughout all of the [Southern] states [before the Civil War], roving armed police patrols scoured the countryside day and night, intimidating, terrorizing, and brutalizing slaves into submission and meekness.”

These were generally volunteer forces of white citizens (often reluctant volunteers) who provided their own weapons. Over time, the slavemasters adapted the rural system to city life. Charleston’s population did not explode like New York’s. In 1820, there were still only about 25,000 people — but more than half of them were African American.

Charleston was a commercial center, beginning in colonial times as South Carolina’s main site for the export of indigo and rice. The city was also a major port for the arrival of Africans for sale — either directly from Africa or from Caribbean slave colonies.

After Congress banned the import of slaves in 1808, Charleston picked up as a major trans-shipment and sales center for slaves bound from Virginia and the Carolinas to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. These three states of the “Deep South” needed a steady influx of enslaved workers to keep up with the 19th-century demand for cotton. The textile mills in Britain and New England were driving the Industrial Revolution, and the slave labor of the Deep South was an integral part of the boom.

Charleston did not lie on the main axis of this boom, which was anchored by burgeoning cities such as New Orleans and Birmingham, England. Nevertheless, Charleston’s city life — both economic and social — was linked to the development of capitalist economic relations in other port cities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Many of South Carolina’s large plantation owners kept a home in Charleston, so the state’s major slavemasters also dominated the politics of the state’s major city. Like the ruling classes of other Atlantic commercial cities, Charleston’s elite needed a workforce that could expand, contract and adapt according to the ups and downs of the market. Slavery, however, is a rigid way to organize workers, since slaves need to be fed and clothed whether or not there’s work for them to do; in slack times, slaves just become an expense for the master.

For this reason, the masters in Charleston and other slave cities began — even in colonial times — to put slaves to work in wage jobs. Some slaves were owned directly by factory owners, especially in the South’s most industrial city, Richmond. Most of Charleston’s slaves, however, were owned by white town-dwellers who used some of them for personal service and “hired out” the rest to wage-paying employers. A couple of Charleston rice mills owned the slaves they used, but they also hired out their slaves to others when the mills weren’t pushed to full capacity.

At first the masters found the jobs for their slaves and took all of the wages for themselves. But many masters soon found it most convenient to let their slaves find their own jobs while collecting a flat fee from the slave for the time spent away from the master. A master could take in an annual return of 10 to 15 percent of a slave’s purchase price by hiring him or her out.

This new set of arrangements fundamentally altered the relation between slaves and their masters, not to mention the relations among the slaves themselves. Slaves got out from under the direct supervision of their masters for long stretches of time, and many slaves could make cash for themselves above and beyond the fees they paid their masters. Black Charlestonians began to refer to the fees as “freedom dues.”

Many African Americans could even afford to “live out” — finding housing outside their masters’ households. Slaves could marry and cohabit independently. Some skilled slave artisans even began hiring wage workers themselves. This included some women, who worked as seamstresses and dominated the city’s garment trade. Most slaves engaged in wage work were men, however, who worked in several skilled trades, short-term unskilled labor, and the transport of goods. Women, who formed the majority of Black Charlestonians, worked mostly as household slaves.

By the first decades of the 19th century, Charleston had a predominantly Black suburb known as “Charleston Neck,” populated mostly by slaves alongside some free people of color. Charleston is built on the southward-pointing tip of a peninsula between two rivers, and residents referred to the unincorporated northern part of the peninsula as “The Neck.” In 1850, and almost certainly before, more than one-quarter of Charleston’s Blacks lived in housing without white supervision: They were either free or were slaves who “lived out.” Outside the city’s jurisdiction, bar owners in the Neck ignored various laws and served a multiracial clientele.

The South’s white population, both in town and country, lived in constant fear of slave insurrection. In the countryside, however, Blacks were under constant surveillance, and there were few opportunities within the grueling work regime for slaves to develop wide social connections. But in Charleston, as whites frequently remarked with annoyance or alarm, Blacks established a collective life of their own. In 1818, more than 4,000 free Blacks and slaves seceded from the city’s mixed-race Methodist churches and built a chapter of the new African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston Neck.


Because conditions in the urban South were dramatically freer than on the plantations, the state had to step in to do the job of repression that the slavemasters had usually taken care of themselves. 

The Charleston Guard and Watch developed by trial and error into a recognizably modern city-run police force by the 1820s, performing both nightly harassment of the Black population and staying on call for rapid mobilization to control crowds. Blacks, even free Blacks, caught out after curfew without an acceptable excuse were subject to overnight arrest by the Guard and up to 39 lashes after a magistrate looked at the case in the morning. This practice went back to colonial days and mirrored the methods of the rural slave patrols. The first major difference, even early on, was that the Guard was a paid force rather than a group of conscripted citizens.

The City Guard also did daylight duty on holidays and Sundays, when it policed the weekly markets, which were operated in large part by Black slave women. Black crowds, especially on market day, could be quite raucous, as historian Bernard Powers notes: One white citizen wrote in the 1840s that he was “constantly annoyed, especially on Sundays, with most unruly and profane mobs; setting all law at defiance, and, if dispersed from one vicinity, re-collecting, with increased numbers, at another.”

City authorities saw the AME church as a troubling expression of Black autonomy. In the church’s first year, 1818, the City Guard raided the church and arrested 140 members, citing a seldom-used law that prohibited the gathering of seven or more Black men outside the presence of whites. In both free and slave states, the AME church quickly became an important center for Black discussion of abolition, even though congregations were far from united on what steps to take toward freedom.

David Walker, a member of the AME in Boston and the author, in 1829, of the militant Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, was probably a member of the Charleston AME in the early 1820s. Many of Walker’s views, including scriptural arguments for the rights of slaves to rise up and take their freedom, correspond to the views attributed to Denmark Vesey, a Charleston free Black carpenter who was accused of planning a massive insurrection in 1822.

The threat of revolt put Charleston’s whites into a panic. The city elite, led by the Intendant (the mayor), ordered the torture of suspected conspirators, who then produced confessions that implicated several others. Within weeks, a second set of tortured suspects implicated dozens more. Guilty or not — capable historians disagree over whether there was any plot at all — Vesey and 34 other Black men were hanged, and 27 were exiled.

Vesey and other accused conspirators had been class leaders in the AME church. After their execution, a mob of white citizens burned the church down. Members of the congregation continued to meet in secret right through the Civil War. (After emancipation in 1865, Denmark Vesey’s son, also a carpenter, designed the first new AME church building.)

In the midst of the 1822 panic, white citizens accused the City Guard of laxity and called for professionalization and enlargement of the force. The Guard went onto 24-hour duty and was centralized under the direct command of the intendant. As the panic subsided, legislators repealed these two measures within a few months, although they did approve the enlargement of the force.

What’s more, the state of South Carolina responded to the Vesey affair by building a garrison and arsenal in Charleston at its border with Charleston Neck. This building, devoted to the repression of the Black population, became known as The Citadel — and by 1842, housed the military academy that still bears that name. The troops of the Citadel were available to operate in Charleston, but along with a state militia known as the “Neck Rangers,” they also were to keep order in the Neck.

In the mid-1820s, whites blamed a series of fires on Black arson, and the council responded by restoring a small daytime force, while also providing six horses to speed up communication and mobilization. Charleston thus set out 24-hour police patrols three years before the foundation of London’s police in 1829.

By the mid-1830s, legislators restored the measure that they first passed in panic in 1822 — centralization of city government (and of the Guard) under a full-time mayor. Following the 1836 reforms, the city fielded a Guard force of 118, including 94 privates and four musicians. The nightly watch numbered one guard for every 263 city residents, far ahead of Boston’s coverage (one officer per 815 residents) and New York’s (one per 771).

The elite achieved further centralization by annexing Charleston Neck in 1849, thus putting it under the jurisdiction of the City Guard. Previous to that, the Rangers and Citadel troops who policed the Neck represented a middle ground between rural slave patrols and modern police. Putting the Neck under the jurisdiction of the Guard set the stage for completely replacing the last citizen militia-men with uniformed patrols of paid city employees.

Even before the 1820s, the Southern force was more militarized than police in the North. The Guards operated within a military hierarchy of several ranks, and unlike the first Northern police, they carried guns — with bayonets. In the first decades of the century, New York’s night watch did not go out on constant patrol, but Charleston’s did, typically in squads of five or more. Throughout the pre– Civil War years, visitors to the city frequently wrote about the Guard’s uniquely intimidating presence.

The specific history of police forces varied from one American city to another, but they all tended to converge on similar institutional solutions. The nature of the police comes from the nature of the “problem”: an urban working population that has developed some economic autonomy as wage workers and artisans and has thus been able to create a self-assertive, collective life of its own. The Southern experience also reinforces the point that was already clear in the North: Anti-Black racism was built into American police work from the very first day.

* * * * *

Toward the end, I’ll say a few words about Philadelphia, but before that, I’m going to draw out some themes that apply to all of these cases.

First of all, we need to put policing in the context of a bigger ruling-class project of managing and shaping the working class. I said at the beginning that the emergence of workers’ revolt coincided with a breakdown of old methods of constant personal supervision of the workforce. The state stepped in to provide supervision. The cops were part of that effort, but in the North, the state also expanded its programs of poor relief and public schooling.

Police work was integrated with the system of poor relief, as constables worked on registration of the poor and their placement in workhouses. That’s even before the police were professionalized—the constables were sorting out the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor.” If people were unemployed and unable to work, constables would direct them toward charity from churches or the city itself. But if folks were able to work, they were judged to be “idlers” and sent off to the horrors of the workhouse.

The system for poor relief made a crucial contribution to the creation of the market for wage labor. The key function of the relief system was to make unemployment so unpleasant and humiliating that people were willing to take ordinary jobs at very low wages just to avoid unemployment. By punishing the poorest people, capitalism creates a low baseline for the wage scale and pulls the whole scale downward.

The police no longer play such a direct role in selecting people for relief, but they do deliver a good deal of the punishment. As we know, lots of police work has to do with making life unpleasant for unemployed people on the street.

The rise of modern policing also coincides with the rise of public education. Public schools accustom children to the discipline of the capitalist workplace; children are separated from their families to perform a series of tasks alongside others, under the direction of an authority figure, according to a schedule ruled by a clock. The school reform movement of the 1830s and 40s also aimed to shape the students’ moral character. The effect of this was supposed to be that students would willingly submit to authority, that they would be able to work hard, exercise self­-control, and delay gratification.

In fact, the concepts of good citizenship that came out of school reform movement were perfectly aligned with the concepts of criminology that were being invented to categorize people on the street. The police were to focus not just on crime but on criminal types—a method of profiling backed up by supposedly scientific credentials. The “juvenile delinquent,” for example, is a concept that is common to schooling and policing—and has helped to link the two activities in practice.

This ideology of good citizenship was supposed to have a big effect inside the heads of students, encouraging them to think that the problems in society come from the actions of “bad guys.” A key objective of schooling, according to reformer Horace Mann, should be to implant a certain kind of conscience in the students—so that they discipline their own behavior and begin to police themselves. In Mann’s words, the objective was for children to “think of duty rather than of the policeman.”

Needless to say, an analytic scheme for dividing society between good guys and bad guys is perfect for identifying scapegoats, especially racial ones. Such a moralistic scheme was (and is) also a direct competitor to a class-conscious worldview, which identifies society’s basic antagonism as the conflict between exploiters and exploited. Police activity thus goes beyond simple repression—it “teaches” an ideology of good and bad citizenship that dovetails with the lessons of the classroom and the workhouse.

The overall point here is that the invention of the police was part of a broader expansion of state activity to gain control over the day-to-day behavior of the working class. Schooling, poor relief and police work all aimed to shape workers to become useful to—and loyal to—the capitalist class.

* * * * *

The next general point is about something we all know, and that’s this:

There is the law … and then there’s what cops do.

First, a few words about the law: Despite what you may have learned in civics class, the law is not the framework in which society operates. The law is a product of the way society operates, but it doesn’t tell you how things really work. The law is also not a framework for the way that society should operate, even though some people hold out that hope.

The law is really just one tool among others, in the hands of those who are empowered to use it, to affect the course of events. Corporations are empowered to use this tool because they can hire expensive lawyers. Politicians, prosecutors and the police are also empowered to use the law.

Now, specifically about cops and the law. The law has many more provisions than they actually use, so their enforcement is always selective. That means that they are always profiling what part of the population to target and choosing which kinds of behavior they want to change. It also means that cops have a permanent opportunity for corruption. If they have discretion over who gets picked up for a crime, they can demand a reward for not picking somebody up.

Another way to see the gap between the law and what cops do is to examine the common idea that punishment begins after conviction in a court. The thing is, anybody who’s dealt with the cops will tell you that punishment begins the moment they lay hands on you. They can arrest you and put you in jail without ever filing charges. That’s punishment, and they know it. That’s not to mention the physical abuse you might get, or the ways they can mess with you even if they don’t arrest you.

So the cops order people around every day without a court order, and they punish people every day without a court judgment. Obviously, then, some of the key social functions of the police are not written into the law. They’re part of police culture that cops learn from each other with encouragement and direction from their commanders.

This brings us back to a theme that I started with at the very beginning. The law deals with crimes, and individuals are charged with crimes. But the police were really invented to deal with what workers and the poor had become in their collective expressions: Cops deal with crowds, neighborhoods, targeted parts of the population—all collective entities.

They may use the law as they do this, but their broad directives come to them as policy from their commanders or from their own instincts as experienced cops. The policy directives frequently have a collective nature—say, to gain control of an unruly neighborhood. They decide to do that, and then they figure out what laws to use.

That’s the meaning of “zero tolerance” policies, “broken windows” policies—policies that, in the past, might have been frankly termed “uppity n—-r” policies. The aim is to intimidate and assert control over a mass of people by acting on a few. Such tactics have been built into police work from the very beginning. The law is a tool to use on individuals, but the real goal is to control the behavior of the larger mass.

* * * * *

I’ll use my last few minutes to talk about some alternatives.

One of them is a justice system that existed in the United States before the rise of the police. It’s well documented for Philadelphia, so that’s the place I’ll discuss. Colonial Philadelphia developed a system called the minor courts in which most criminal prosecutions took place. The mayor and the aldermen served as the judges—the magistrates. Poor people would save up money so they could pay a fee to the magistrate to hear a case.

Then, as now, most crime was committed by poor people against poor people. In these courts, the victim of assault, theft, or defamation would act as prosecutor. A constable might get involved in order to bring in the accused, but that’s not the same thing as a cop making an arrest. The whole action was driven by the victim’s desires, not the state’s objectives. The accused could also counter-sue.

There were no lawyers involved on either side, so the only expense was the fee to the magistrate. The system wasn’t perfect, because the judge might be corrupt, and the life of the poor didn’t stop being miserable when they won a case. But the system was quite popular and continued operating for some time even after a system of modern police and state prosecutors developed in parallel.

The rise of the police, which came along with the rise of the prosecutors, meant that the state was putting its thumb on the scales of justice. In court, you might hope to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Before you get to court, though, you have to pass through the hands of the cops and prosecutors who certainly don’t treat you like you’re innocent. They have a chance to pressure you or torture you into a confession—or nowadays a confession in the form of a plea bargain—before you ever get to court.

However unfair the system came to be as it was dominated by cops and prosecutors, the minor courts had shown Philadelphians that an alternative was possible that looked a lot more like dispute resolution among equals.

That’s the key—we can make an alternative available again if we abolish the unequal social relations that that police were invented to defend. When the workers of Paris took over the city for two months in 1871, they established a government under the old name of the Commune. The beginnings of social equality in Paris undercut the need for repression and allowed the Communards to experiment with abolishing the police as a separate state force, apart from the citizenry. People would elect their own officers of public safety, accountable to the electors and subject to immediate recall.

This never became a settled routine because the city was under siege from day one, but the Communards had the right idea. In order to overcome a regime of police repression, the crucial work was to live up to the name of the Commune—that is, to build a self-governing community of equals. That’s still pretty much what we need to do.

* * * * *

This is an edited text of a talk I gave in Chicago in late June 2012 at the annual Socialism conference. Audio of the talk is available at wearemany.org, but the text here corrects some mistakes I made back then, and I made a substantial revision to the section on Charleston after I visited there in March 2016.

Special thanks to South Carolinians Mary Battle, Alphonso Brown, Nic Butler, Sara Daise, Curtis Franks, Harlan Greene and Christine Mitchell for enlightening discussions of this history.

* * * * *

Some sources.

On law and order in the European Middle Ages:

Tigar, Michael. Law and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.

On the working class and the police in England:

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage, 1966.

Farrell, Audrey. Crime, Class and Corruption. Bookmarks, 1995.

For some history in the US and insight into the functions of the police:

Williams, Kristian. Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. Revised Edition. South End Press, 2007.

Silberman, Charles E. Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice. First Edition. New York: Vintage, 1980.

The key source on the evolution of the police in the major cities of the US:

Bacon, Selden Daskam. The Early Development of American Municipal Police: A Study of the Evolution of Formal Controls in a Changing Society. Two volumes. University Microfilms, 1939.

Specific sources on New York and Philadelphia:

“New Year’s Amusements,” New York Evening Post, January 2, 1828.

Gilje, Paul A. The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834. The University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Steinberg, Allen. The Transformation of Criminal Justice: Philadelphia, 1800-1880. 1st edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Specific sources on the South:

Chapman, Anne W. “Inadequacies of the 1848 Charleston Census,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 81, No. 1 (January 1980), 24-34.

Hinks, Peter P. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Powers, Bernard E. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1885. University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Schweninger, Loren. “Slave independence and enterprise in South Carolina, 1780–1865,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 93, No. 2 (April 1992), 101–125.

Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820–1860. Oxford University Press, 1964.

On the early years of public schooling in the US:

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling In Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. Reprint. Haymarket Books, 2011.

178 thoughts on “Origins of the police

  1. You mention Irish immigrants in New York City but leave out the fact that many of them joined police forces across the country as a way of achieving upward mobility. Bugs Bunny’s Irish accent when he dresses up like a cop in those old Looney Tunes cartoons wasn’t done for the hell of it- there was historical precedent. You did mention that they were marginalized like free blacks in NYC, and obviously they didn’t take that too well.

    A major reason for the rise of Irish-Americans in this country is the fact that they had to out-racist the white Protestant powers that be, and they achieved that mainly by becoming police officers. I think that also plays into the racist practices of police departments across the country.

    • Rather than focusing on the reasons why Irish men took jobs as cops — which would certainly provide more security than being, say, a casual laborer — it’s probably more enlightening to focus on *why they were given the opportunity* to become police. The earliest recruitment of the Irish to police forces coincided with the development of machine politics in Boston and New York. Police were appointed by ward bosses, so the job was a form of patronage. Police returned the favor by stuffing ballot boxes and performing other such political tasks. Kristian Williams (referenced above) says some interesting stuff about cops and the city machines.

      In the North, Irish neighborhoods were far more significant than Black neighborhoods by the 1830s & 40s, so the task of policing Black folk can’t really account for the flood of Irishmen into police jobs. The important thing was to set up the Irish to police the Irish. The aim was to establish legitimacy for the cops within an ethnic population that hated them. Irish cops were thus created, in part, to stem a spirit of Irish rebellion, much as African American cops were hired following the Black rebellions of the 1960s.

      None of this is to deny the racism of Irish police (or police in general) against African Americans. Since they occupied the two lowest rungs in the occupational scale, these two groups were pitted against each other in the labor market. This economic fact allowed the city elites to promote within-group solidarity (partly through patronage) and to foster between-group antagonism. The hope was to head off multiracial solidarity against the boss class itself — such as workers had shown in on the docks in New York.

      • In the first volume of *The Invention of the White Race*, Theodore Allen has an extended discussion of how Irish immigrants escaping persecution and oppression by the British became supporters of racial oppression in the US. He doesn’t discuss the example of Irish police, but his account is well worth reading.

  2. Could you expand on your view regarding other areas of police work that have developed over time. Investigating serious and organised crimes (wether state elites or police may have been involved or not) combatting gangs and criminal organisations, investigating homicides and serial murders, enforcing environmental laws, disaster relief, victim identification, money laundering etc. I would be in agreement in that these are also reflections of ills emanating from historical and current inequalities. On the other hand, and one needs to look beyond crowd control, “the police” as it has evolved in varying ways across the world relfects organisations that fulfil certain functions beyond those of oppressing class divisions and public uses of space. Furthermore beyond their representation as the most concrete contact point between the state and citizen police organisations are also professional organisations populated by people with their own identities and professional values etc. This reflects somewhat of a schizophrenic relationship people have with the police/the state and the role they play in “citizen’s” lives. How does one go about building a police free society without these specialised areas in the division of labour? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts as I found this a very interesting read.

    • That’s a lot to comment on. I focused some of the earliest, and I think, still fundamental features of modern police: they are a centralized force of armed, professional, multipurpose “first responders,” trained in the use of coercive violence, who patrol the streets around the clock and occasionally mass together to control crowds. Their central function is to preserve order in a society that is inherently unequal and unfair.

      Other tasks have been attached to the law-and-order functions of the police because of their capabilities for communications, quick response, etc. These abilities — and not any specific *police* function — account for any worthwhile contribution to disaster relief that they might make. The experience of Occupy Sandy, however, has shown that it’s possible for civilians to do effective disaster relief without the participation of anybody who specializes in committing violence. It’s not hard to imagine setting up emergency services that make use of centralized information, major logistic abilities, materiel, etc. that are squandered for humane purposes most of the time because they’re in the hands of police and the military.

      Detective work was rudimentary at the start, and, as you note, has expanded and diversified since the mid-19th century. A good deal of it could be dispensed with in a society that has abolished the profit system and established substantial social equality. From your list, this would dispense with the need to deal with gangs, organized crime and money laundering. No doubt homicide and serial murder would diminish to become small problems, even if they don’t disappear entirely, in a society that’s designed to meet human need instead of maximizing profit. We may need people who would specialize in investigating “what went wrong” in these and similar cases, but I don’t see why these “detectives” of the future would be attached to anything like a police department, let alone a prison system. Seems more likely that they’d be attached to social services whose main purpose is to prevent these things from going wrong in the first place.

      A reorganized society and a new division of labor could engender new professional values to “protect and serve” that aren’t shrouded in a fog of deception and self-deception as they are today.

      • I’m mostly in agreement with what you say but I’m wondering if you’re being a bit over-optimistic in suggesting that organized/gang crime would disappear with the profit motive (if the possibility of the latter occuring was not optimistic enough in itself). Put another way, in any complex society where economic activity exists that can be controlled by force, does not a potential conflict arise over the organisation and/or centralisation of that force? Rather, then, than a Weberian state with monopoly on violence are you imagining a communal exercise of force to prevent gangs from interfering with social, distributive justice?

      • See Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster for specific examples of the way local people know how to respond to disaster and then the army and/or police are brought in and muck things up.

  3. I find your use of the word “Cop” to be somewhat derogatory and dehumanizing. Could you try and use a more professional and less inflammatory word when you reference police officers? We should not be disrespecting fellow workers that have their own struggles. It is not us vs them. It is the system that must change. “Cops” are just cogs in the wheel – like most of us that choose to work in the public or private sector – we should not be scapegoating other workers.

    • Cops are not just cogs in the wheel they are the means by which the parasitic class inflict violence upon the working class. They are reactionary and counter revolutionary. Apparently you did not grasp the crucial nodes of this great article.

  4. “cops” is a category. turning people into categories is basically the problem. most cops are just working and middle class people that have been led to believe that the job is heroic. you can work to abolish a system without dehumanizing anyone.

    move past vulgar Marxism. you are a full-on product of the system that you hate, part and parcel, the same as the cops. we have all been structurated since birth to be part of that system, down to our ways of being in the world and our ways of imagining new ones. if you keep using the tools of the enemy then you will keep using them long after the enemy falls.

      • Nice counterargument, ggg. “You used ‘Manichean language’, therefore your argument is invalid”

        everitas, I’m with you 100%. This marx-flavored analysis has some good parts, but is bogged down by the ol’ dialectic.

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  9. You know what a place without police looks like? Somalia. Police serve a pretty basic function and that’s to be the face of the rule of law.

    You need to have some sort of face to the law or people just assume it’s not there. Sort of a stretch, but one of the reasons the invasion of Afghanistan failed was because there weren’t enough uniforms for people to see that there is some sort of rule of law.

    Without police there wouldn’t be order straight up. And not just in poor disenfranchised areas. Their actual original purpose is not to put people down in the streets, or act as some sort of ss or storm troopers. Are they militarized? of course. Do a few of them not deserve to be police? Absolutely. but I think this article is finding reasons for the police that are either secondary or non-existent. If you think the only reason police exist are to keep minorities down you’re wrong and probably stupid.

    • Not as wrong as someone who didn’t address any historical facts or a single point from the article with anything other than an infantile “you’re stupid and wrong”, to be honest.

    • First off, concerning your claim that I believe, “the only reason police exist are to keep minorities down.” The working class is not a minority. That was my central point: The police were invented to manage and control urban working populations that had developed a mass, collective life of their own during the Industrial Revolution. The police have put down certain minorities with special ferocity. One of those minorities — African Americans — has been a consistent target from the start. This kind of discrimination has had the effect of intensifying the differences in lived experience inside the working class, and has thus weakened the whole class by helping to divide it.

      This is not to say that the police are the only source of division within the working class, but one must acknowledge that police action has been crucial to maintaining the Black population as a distinct, oppressed caste. This status has often put them in the front ranks of working-class rebellion, because they have been the first to rise up. They are also, of course, the first to be put down.

      • At another level of abstraction, the capitalist state has been less successful in assimilating into the system certain strata of the working class, including the Black population, using political, ideological and material means. So it resorts more to strategies of pacification and physical removal through brute police repression and imprisonment. Marcuse commented on this in One-Dimensional Man:
        “[U]underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; …Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game. When they get together and go out into the streets, without arms, without protection, in order to ask for the most primitive civil rights, they know that they face dogs, stones, and bombs, jail, concentration camps, even death…”

    • As for your claim that the “actual original purpose [of the police] is not to put people down in the streets,” I think that two lines of evidence do point decisively to this conclusion. One is the sequence of events that led up to the rapid elite drive to centralize, expand, arm, professionalize, etc. the police. Another is what those elite voices said about their own motivation.

      There is no question that the policing of southern cities arose from the fear (and the reality) of slave insurrection. As Bacon (p602) put it: “Although ordered to prevent misdemeanors, apprehend felons, aid in case of fire, watch public buildings, and act as agents of law and order in general, the function of the guard most heavily emphasized was that concerning the policing of slaves.”

      As an example of the elite panic over slave insurrection, consider what one Charlestonian wrote after an attempted uprising in 1822: “[We must never forget that] our NEGROES are truly the Jacobins of the country; that they are the anarchists and the domestic enemy; the common enemy of civilized society, and the barbarians who would, IF THEY COULD, become the DESTROYERS of our race.” (William Freehling, *Prelude to Civil War*, p 59)

      New York’s police, as I suggested above, are a result of trial and error, and elite debate, in a period of intensified riots and strikes. About Boston, Michael Hindus writes:

      “In the early national period, Boston experienced a type of rioting and endemic to northern cities, characterized by political, racial, religious, and ethnic clashes. Boston responded — as did other cities — by establishing a professional police force. The specific impetus for this move was the Broad Street riots of 1837, a Yankee-Irish battle that involved almost a fifth of the city’s adult population.” (*Prison and Plantation*, p37)

      In 1844, a series of riots in Philadelphia overwhelmed the city’s small security force. In the absence of police, the militia was called in, killed 14, and wounded 50, including a number of bystanders. This touched off years of debate in the press and in the legislature over whether to impose military rule in such cases or to establish a large, full-time, lightly armed police force instead. The police option won out:

      “The police were distributed among the suburbs and the four city police districts.… their major responsibilities were to arrest idle, suspicious, or disorderly persons and to respond to the marshall’s call to put down riots anywhere within the county.” (Steinberg, 148-49)

      This is precisely the dual function I described for the police of (1) dispersed patrols, often engaged in petty harassment, which occasionally come together as (2) massed squadrons to police mass events.

      • I should note that I picked up this formulation of police operations—routine dispersal for patrol that yields to joint action for emergencies—from Kristian Williams (p76). After quoting Allan Silver to the same effect, Kristian writes:

        “The police organization allowed the state to establish a constant presence in a wide geographic area and exercise routinized control by the use of patrols and other surveillance. Through the same organization, the state retained the ability to concentrate its power in the event of a riot or other emergency, without having to resort to the use of troops or the maintenance of a military presence.”

        For a succinct version of Kristian’s own account of police origins, which differs from mine in some important ways, go to: http://monthlyreview.org/2003/12/01/the-demand-for-order-and-the-birth-of-modern-policing/#fn30.

    • Police and law enforcement aren’t necessarily synonymous–there are many kinds of law enforcement forces. Sheriffs and constables, for example, are typically democratically elected offices, and ultimately accountable to the people they serve. Police are appointed by the ruling government body, and only accountable to that body with little meaningful accountability to the people. The incentives for each are correspondingly different.

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  11. Coming from a very different political & ideological perspective (drop the collectivist labeling, and it’s practically a voluntaryist manifesto), I just wanted to say thank you. This is very important work.

    I was also curious as to what you thought about the historical significance of the Ottoman janissaries (who served as police and firefighters during peacetime), relative to other precursors of modern police.

  12. For a different perspective, might I suggest reading “A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis” by Patrick Colquhoun, 1797 and “A Treatise on the Functions and Duties of a Constable” by the same author, 1803? Colquhoun is recognized as the founder of the first preventative police force in England, the Thames River Police, in 1798. An initial trial as a private police force was a success, saving roughly £122,000 in stolen cargo and rescuing several lives, and it became a public police agency with the passage of the Marine Police Bill on July 28, 1800. It’s… unusual… that it receives no mention whatsoever in the Origins of Police article above.

    • [This is supposed to be my second comment, but it seems to be appearing up top.]

      That said, I’m sure it would would be worthwhile to look into the record of the Thames River Police.

      “Preventive policing,” as I understand it, is the concept behind dispatching dispersed patrols with wide powers to make discretionary (that is, warrantless) arrests. Under conditions where large stores of high-value goods are concentrated, such as docks and warehouses, preventive policing might be effective in actually preventing crime. This especially if there’s a perimeter of private property or other restricted space where individuals can be summarily arrested for trespass.

      Under other conditions, preventive patrols are virtually useless at preventing crime. Silberman (p279):

      “[I]t is rare for police to come upon a crime in progress. According to [a Yale professor who studied patrols in several cities], less than 1 percent of time spent on routine preventive patrol yields a criminal incident that is worthy of attention. [A task force of the 1967 Crime Commission] estimated that a Los Angeles patrolman could expect to detect a burglary once every three months, and a robbery once every fourteen years.”

      When it comes to the efficacy of marked patrol cars in preventing crime, it’s basically zero. A famous study in Kansas City in 1972-1973 found that there was no correlation between the density of patrols and the incidence of crime, even when patrols were doubled or tripled. They also had no effect on citizens’ fear of crime. (Silberman 290-92)

    • [Third comment.]

      Also a question. Did these police save those lives by fishing people out of the river? Your use of the term “rescuing” suggests that. If that’s the case, then their life-saving role was unrelated to their police function (unless, of course, it was criminals who threw these folks in the river!). There’s a word for that job: “lifeguard.”

  13. [First comment]

    You’re right. I left a lot of history out of this piece, including many of the organizational experiments that led up to the citywide professional forces of the 19th century. It was a process of trial and error that took place over several decades. I’ve been most concerned with presenting the class role that the police played from the very first — and thus throwing light on what “problems” these experiments were supposed to solve. Colquhoun was no exception in this regard. In *Police of the Metropolis*, he made it very clear which side of the class line he stood on:

    “Poverty…is the most necessary and indispensable ingredient of society.… It is the lot of man…it is the source of wealth since without poverty there would be no labour and without labour there would be no riches, no comfort and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth.” (quoted in Farrell, p48)

    Aside from explaining why most must be poor so that a few can be rich, Colquhoun was very concerned with the subversive things that those poor workers might do in their leisure time. Beatrice Webb wrote in *English Local Government* that Colquhoun

    “enumerated fifteen forms of misconduct, any which any one of which should be sufficient to cause a landlord to lose his licence [to operate a pub]. These included permitting combinations of workmen [i.e., labor unions], meetings of societies or political clubs for ‘seditious or traitorous designs’; holding out allurements by ‘idle and sedentary games’; allowing ‘idle amusements’ such as boxing and cockfighting.” (Farrell, p139)

    • That quote is actually not from Police of the Metropolis. It is from “A Treatise on Indigence”, though it is indeed by the same author. The quote has also been modified a bit, it’s actually “a most necessary and indispensable ingredient of society” not “the most necessary”, and some other bits which provide context have been removed. You might be interested in reading the full passage:

      “Poverty is that state and condition in society where the individual has no Surplus labour in store, and, consequently, no property but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry in the various occupations of life; or in other words, it is the state of every one who must labour for subsistence.
      Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the lot of man—it is the source of wealth, since without poverty there would be no labour, and without labour there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth—inasmuch as without a large proportion of poverty surplus labour could never be rendered productive in procuring either the conveniences or luxuries of life.
      Indigence therefore, and not poverty, is the evil. It is that condition in society which implies want, misery, and distress. It is the state of any one who is destitute of the means of subsistence, and is unable to labour to procure it to the extent nature requires. The natural source of subsistence is the labour of the individual; while that remains with him he is denominated poor: when it fails in whole or in part he becomes indigent.”

      • Thanks. I’d rather get things like that right than get them wrong. Unfortunately the corrected passage has the same thrust as the faulty quotation that I transcribed.

        In fact, there is a missing premise in his logic. Poverty, by itself, would not impel people to work unless poverty caused suffering. It is the prospect of suffering that impels people to work for somebody else who skims off the surplus product. So the real thrust is that suffering is “most necessary” for “nations and communities [to] exist in a state of civilization.” So it’s not just OK that poverty causes suffering, it’s mandatory. In other words, we (those who skim the surplus) must *make* the poor suffer if we’re going to be rich.

        This is the logic that many English gentlemen employed to oppose poor relief entirely — not to mention the logic that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich employed to “end welfare as we know it.” It’s not wholly coincidental that the same president passed a harsh crime-and-death-penalty act and fired more than 100,000 federal employees while hiring 100,000 cops. It was a period of elite-inspired panic that scapegoated the poor, immigrants, and “criminal predators,” all of whom, in this panicked vision, had dark-colored skin.

  14. This is very good. I plan to share it with several groups I work with (the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition NYC, the People’s Power Assembly and Occu-Evolve groups currently organizing street actions here in NYC, etc.). At some point I may also present this to POP in Newark. I am hoping in particular to use it to promote a change in our basic demands away from reform and towards abolition [of the NYPD]. I look forward to the updated version in International Socialist Review. Please feel free to reply here (or in private) to this.

  15. I don’t think that we should stop fighting for reforms. I favor combining a “maximum program” of abolition with a “minimum program” of reforms. If nothing else, actions for reform can pull together people who can get the experience to lead broader resistance to the system. Let’s remember that the current nationwide agitation about the police has been inspired by people in Ferguson who put forward a “reform demand”: Prosecute Darren Wilson for murder.

    If you’ve worked with police reform organizations, I’m sure you know better than I do which reforms make sense to pursue first in your locality. But off the top of my head, I can think of a few that could apply in lots of places. For one thing, we need to reverse the drive for more and deadlier armaments. This means demilitarizing the police (including the practice of giving federal armaments to police departments as a reward for performance in the “drug war”). It also includes taking deadly weapons out of the hands of cops wherever we can. If the transit police here in Oakland had been disarmed, Oscar Grant would be alive today.

    We should demilitarize the “first response” to disasters. Consider the heavy role of repressive forces, including Blackwater, in the response to Hurricane Katrina, or the federally-sponsored joint training — under the auspices of Homeland Security — of armed forces with firefighters and paramedics in programs like Urban Shield. I don’t want to be under military lockdown when our next big earthquake hits, but I’m afraid that they’ll be treating Oakland like they treated Boston after the Marathon bombing. Except that we’ll have tens of thousands homeless because our housing stock is rickety.

    We need to stop the drug war, policies like stop-and-frisk, and the “broken windows” or “quality of life” policies of looking for petty infractions (such as selling single cigarettes without a permit). In general, we need to restrict the discretion of police to harass and arrest.

    We should demand drastic cuts in police budgets in order to finance city jobs that redress urban inequality and actually improve the quality of life.

    It also seems worth demanding that police reside in the neighborhoods — or at least in the cities — where they work. Ninety-one percent of Oakland cops live outside the city. This is not just a drain of funds out of a place with high poverty into richer suburbs. For centuries, administrators themselves have recognized that locally-based law enforcers are more reluctant to commit violence than officers from out of town.

    Short of abolishing the police, we can demand the creation of independent, elected police review boards that have the power to fire police for misconduct. The effectiveness of this kind of measure, as with many others, would depend on the strength and organization of a broader movement to police the police. Without this movement, critics of the police would be unlikely to win the elections to the review boards.

    If I’m right that police exist because our society is built on social inequality, abolition needs to be a goal we point to (and advertise!) as we develop organizations and movements with a broader vision of social transformation. As in the case of past social movements, this kind of vision is a collective product of forces that educate themselves through common action. Sometimes that can start with organizing to win justice after a single police murder; more important than a list of demands is figuring out which one can inspire people to jump into struggle.

    • Very interesting article and responses. The very important point that you raise last is how does one inspire people to make peaceful informed struggle that will lead to change and also how to organise to make those changes and decide where it’s most useful to make them.

  16. I think the automobile is a way of private capital making profit. Public transport does not make so much money for large scale investors. Hence the USA car manufacturers very carefully destroying railways in early 20th century. Also, the car is a private space where as buses and railways are public space, ripe for interaction of the working classes

  17. Reblogged this on The Jade(d) Warrior and commented:
    While albeit misdiagnosing causes and cures (they can’t help it, their social theory is based on inverted class analysis), even the commies recognize that tax-funded police services are a sham: “The rise of the police, which came along with the rise of the prosecutors, meant that the state was putting its thumb on the scales of justice…
    That’s the key—we can make an alternative available again…abolishing the police as a separate state force, apart from the citizenry.”

  18. I encourage you to improve the documentation of sources. All good stuff but it may not be taken seriously until each statement can be backed up and documented. I hope you have the time. The subject deserves it. Thank you for this.

  19. Convincing case that professional police arose to control crowds and populations, not to control crime. That seems like a pretty negative result from outdoor crowds as mechanism for political struggle. What are the best examples of mitigating this result and/or what should be done to do so?

    Off the top of my head: nonviolent resistance, legitimization through political struggle crowds also doing other stuff (disaster relief, as mentioned, perhaps mirroring police legitimizing themselves by doing or appearing to do things other than crowd/population control), and pursuit of all mechanisms that do not involve outdoor crowds. But I’m probably missing a bunch, and don’t know anything about relative effectiveness of any of these relative to each other or of taking negative result of demand for police to control crowds as worth what crowds achieve.

    • Britain is made up of 4 countries England Scotland Ireland and Wales . Please don’t just refer to Enland when talking about constitutional changes . Wales had Laws long before Enland but as they did in all parts of the Workd the subjugated people for wealth and power. Wales being the closest to England will be the last to gain freedom so please when speaking about Britain don’t just call it England

      • Since Kieran brings up Northern Ireland (the part of the island that is actually part of the UK), it’s seems worth mentioning that Robert Peel set up the Royal Ulster Constabulary to police the northern Irish in 1814, 15 years before he founded the London Metro Police.

        The armed subjugation of Ireland was one reason that Irish immigrants had no love for the people of English descent who policed them in the US.

  20. If you’re willing to define “police” with a suitable degree of abstraction, you will find police in every class society as far back as ancient Egypt. In case you think that nobody does anything as ridiculous is this, you should consult the Britannica article that maradona10 cites above.

    Are you talking about constables and sheriffs in England? the armed retainers of the feudal lords? the conquering army of the Norman kings? the Roman legions? All of these were qualitatively different institutions. I tried to lay out some of the differences between constables and cops in the text above. My point is that new developments in class relations — and new forms of struggle from below — have driven the rulers in each period to develop repressive institutions that are adapted to the new social relations.

    One of the distinctive things about the *capitalist* state is the separation of the state’s functioning from the process of direct economic exploitation. Under feudalism, the key armed repressive force was the feudal lords themselves. A capitalist state rules in a way that serves the interest of the capitalist class, but this class has relinquished the right of physical coercion of the people that it exploits. In the workplace, bosses may rule like a tyrants, but they don’t commonly inflict violence to do so. And outside the workplace, the capitalists don’t rule at all.

    As a result, the class of wage workers, especially those concentrated in cities, was able to develop a collective life of its own outside of work — at the same time that the enlargement of workplaces themselves allowed the workers an opportunity to exert their collective strength at the point of production. The capitalists were not equipped to deal with this collective strength inside the workplace or outside, so the capitalist state stepped in by creating institutions like the modern police.

    So: New class relations, new repressive institutions. In some cases, it’s possible to trace the way that the new institutions, such as the police, coexisted with and then superseded old institutions such as the constabulary. That can only happen if the new and the old are not the same thing. If you define “police” so abstractly that both institutions are the same, you will blind yourself to the real processes of social development. People who do this kind of thing also tend to blind themselves to the possibility of further social development — in this case, the possibility of a future society that can do without police.

  21. Pingback: عن أصول الشرطة ودورها في حماية الرأسماليّة (٣/٢) | ما العمل؟

  22. Why do you capitalize black (with only one exception: “There was also white harassment of black churches), but not white (the only exception when white is the first word of sentence)?

    • It’s historical. When African Americans (then known as Negroes) started to demand that they be called Black, it was capitalized (just as “Negro” is). I continue the same usage as a gesture of respect toward people who want to determine how they are addressed. It’s not really different from using “Muhammad Ali” instead of “Cassius Clay,” or using a transgender person’s preferred personal pronoun. If I referred to “black churches,” it was a mistake of my voice-recognition software.

  23. Pingback: Origins of the police | salatigacircle

  24. Pingback: David Whitehouse – Originile poliției | Logica economică

  25. Pingback: ¿Servir y proteger a quién? Conoce los orígenes y verdaderas funciones de la policía | MedioAlternativo.TV

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