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January 11, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

How You Start is How You Finish? The Slave Patrol and Jim Crow Origins of Policing

by Connie Hassett-Walker

Before the summer of 2020 #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations nationwide following the death in May of George Floyd from a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck; before the 2015 Baltimore, Maryland, protests after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody; and before the Ferguson, Missouri, protests after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer (and the lack of indictment of the officer who shot Brown); there were the Los Angeles riots of 1992 after the acquittal of police officers for beating up Rodney King. Before the 1992 Los Angeles riots came the 1965 Watts Riots (also in Los Angeles) after an African American driver and his stepbrother were pulled over by the police. The Watts Riots occurred in August 1965, days after the Voting Rights Act was signed, months after the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights march occurred, and a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Civil Rights Act banned segregation in public spaces, as well as employment discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, or religion. Building on this, the Voting Rights Act targeted legal barriers that states and municipalities had erected (e.g., poll taxes, literacy tests) to prevent African American men from voting in the wake of the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. Perhaps it was the possibility that ending discrimination against African Americans might be possible that caused frustration that was previously tamped down to finally became unbearable. Centuries of suppressed anger—over systemic racism, housing discrimination, Black/white income disparities, poverty, police harassment—finally boiled over in 1965 in Watts, a Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. African Americans took to the street to say, “enough is enough.” Yet, tenuous police/Black community relations arguably haven’t improved that much during the past 50 years. The protests, and mistrust, continue to this day (see, for example, the 2016 documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement).

How did we get here? There are two narratives of how U.S. policing developed. Both are true. 

Policing in southern slave-holding states followed a different trajectory—one that has roots in slave patrols.

Policing in southern slave-holding states followed a different trajectory—one that has roots in slave patrols.


The more commonly known history—the one most college students will hear about in an Introduction to Criminal Justice course—is that American policing can trace its roots back to English policing. It’s true that centralized municipal police departments in America began to form in the early nineteenth century (Potter, 2013), beginning in Boston and subsequently established in New York City; Albany, New York; Chicago; Philadelphia; Newark, New Jersey; and Baltimore. As written by Professor Gary Potter (2013) of Eastern Kentucky University, by the late nineteenth century, all major American cities had a police force. This is the history that doesn’t make us feel bad.

While this narrative is correct, it only tells part of the story (Turner et al., 2006). Policing in southern slave-holding states followed a different trajectory—one that has roots in slave patrols of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and police enforcement of Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. As per Professor Michael Robinson (2017) of the University of Georgia, the first deaths in America of Black men at the hands of law enforcement “can be traced back as early as 1619 when the first slave ship, a Dutch Man-of-War vessel landed in Point Comfort, Virginia.”

When a relationship begins like this, can citizen mistrust of police ever fully be overcome? Has policing as an institution evolved far enough away from its origins to warrant Black communities’ trust?

This article isn’t the first public discussion of the history of racism in policing. Indeed, racism in policing is officially acknowledged by the National Law Enforcement Museum. More famously, comedian Dave Chappelle did a bit about it at the Brooklyn club, the Knitting Factory, back in 2015. A piece about the issue, published by the author in 2019 in the scholarly magazine The Conversation, got a lot of traction after the death of George Floyd. As of this writing, over 240,000 people have read that article. The reactions to The Conversation article have varied from positive to negative. Some readers agreed or wrote that it confirmed what they already suspected. Others disagreed (“It’s [police/citizen relations] not much better for white people”) or tried to minimize feelings of guilt (“black Americans played a significant role in the slave trade! So there is lots of blame to go around”). A few annoyed readers took the time to send an email rather than simply posting a comment in the comment section. One email received simply said, “Your a moron.” (The author resisted the urge to reply that if the emailer wished to call the author a moron, then the emailer should use proper grammar.)

Why should there be hostility to simply reminding people of the history of events that already happened? After all, we—Americans—did this. Isn’t owning one’s actions the right thing to do, even if it makes us feel bad for a while? The ugly past should be revisited because there is still a problem with police/community relations with respect to African Americans.

How You Start: Slave Codes and Slave Patrols

Originating in Virginia and Maryland, the American slave codes defined slaves from Africa as property rather than as people (Robinson 2017); that is, without rights. American slave codes were rooted in the slave codes of Barbados. According to Dr. Robinson (2017), the British established the Barbadian Slave Codes (laws) “to justify the practice of slavery and legalize the planters’ inhumane treatment of their enslaved Africans.” American policing in the South would begin as an institution—slave patrols—responsible for enforcing those laws (Turner et al., 2006), as slave uprisings were a threat to the social order and a chronic fear of plantation owners.

The first slave patrols were founded in the southern United States, the Carolina colony specifically (Reichel, 1992), in the early 1700s. By the end of the century, every slave state had slave patrols. According to Dr. Potter (2013), slave patrols accomplished several goals: apprehending escaped slaves and returning them to their owners; unleashing terror to deter potential slave revolts; and disciplining slaves outside of the law for breaking plantation rules. Described by Turner et al. (2006), slave patrols were a “government-sponsored force [of about 10 people] that was well organized and paid to patrol specific areas to prevent crimes and insurrection by slaves against the white community” in the antebellum South. Without warrant or permission, slave patrols could enter the home of anyone—Black or white—suspected of sheltering escaped slaves. (In modern times, this would be a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment and constitute an illegal search.) After the Civil War ended, the slave patrols developed into southern police departments. Part of the early police’s post–Civil War duties was to monitor the behavior of newly freed slaves, many of whom, if not given their own land, ended up working on plantations owned by whites and to enforce segregation policies as per the era’s new Black Codes and Jim Crow laws.

The first Black Codes were passed in 1865, shortly after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery. The codes were laws that specified how, when, and where freed slaves could work and how much they would be paid. Essentially, the Black Codes maintained the de facto structure of slavery without formally calling it “slavery.” Other Black Codes restricted Blacks’ right to vote, dictated how and where they could travel, and where they could live. Because many ex-Confederate soldiers had transitioned to working in policing or elsewhere in the justice system (e.g., as judges), the justice system, including law enforcement, perpetuated the oppression of African Americans.

In the 1880s, new forms of Black Codes known as Jim Crow laws were enacted across southern states. In effect until 1965, these new laws prohibited Blacks and whites from sharing public spaces, such as schools, libraries, bathrooms, and restaurants. The hardships of life for African Americans in the Jim Crow South (Mississippi, specifically) are the focus of a recent book by Jim Sturkey, Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White. Perhaps the most infamous image from this era is the separate but “equal” water fountain for white versus colored individuals, taken in 1950 by Elliot Erwitt in North Carolina (see here). Blacks who broke the law or violated norms during the Jim Crow period were often met with brutality at the hands of the police (Robinson, 2017).

Fast forward to the 1960s and the formal end of the Jim Crow era. The Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act came during a decade of much social and political upheaval. Opposition to the Vietnam War and other protest movements—for civil rights, women’s rights, victims’ rights, prisoners’ rights—signaled that America had entered a new era of challenges to the status quo. In July 1964, civil rights activist Malcolm X would denounce what he called New York police’s “outright scare tactics” in responding to racial tensions in the city. During this time of upheaval, the police acted as enforcers of the status quo. It was no longer about quashing slave uprisings. Indeed, citizen protests and police response to those protests were not just happening in the former slave states but throughout the country. According to Dr. Victor Kappeler (2014) of Eastern Kentucky University, the police were now tasked with responding to anyone who pushed back against the existing social, political, and economic structure of America—which seemed to disadvantage the poor and people of color. During the summers of the late 1960s, race riots broke out in cities across the country, particularly in 1967 and after the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The police responded at times harshly to the riots using dogs, fire hoses, and tear gas.

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that policing isn’t alone in the criminal justice system in having an issue with institutional racism and discrimination. Other parts of the system—including courts and corrections—are also affected. Two words: wrongful conviction. Ava DuVernay’s excellent Netflix miniseries When They See Us portrays the heartbreaking ordeal of the men—Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam—known as the Central Park Five. Decades earlier came the wrongful conviction of teenagers known as the Scottsboro Boys. They were also falsely accused of raping two white women. These are not isolated incidents.

How We Finish?

For the record, the point of this article is not to assert that individual police officers are racist. The author has friends, family, and students in law enforcement who are good, ethical people and who view their primary job as to protect and serve the public. When speaking with police officer friends and family members in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the word that came up most often was “disgusting” (how Floyd died). The point is that the overall institution had a terrible start in some (not all) aspects, for which there has never been a reckoning. Perhaps if policing—and the justice system more broadly—had done a better job of reconciling with its racist past, there wouldn’t be calls currently to defund the police.

There have been some improvements. There is greater awareness of the need to have a more diverse police force. There is also more understanding among police of the importance of handling citizens with care; and that brutality—particularly lethal force—against citizens can lead to citizen mistrust of police and community outrage. There are calls for police to wear body cameras to monitor police behavior so as to reduce police abuse of their power by increasing transparency of police behavior. (Studies [e.g., Hedberg et al., 2017] on the effectiveness of body-worn cameras show mixed results. See, for example.) Groups like Blacks in Law Enforcement of America and 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care (“100 Blacks”) now exist and have a voice as well as a social media presence. Police departments nationwide are more diverse, including the hiring of more Blacks, Hispanics, and women, although there is room for improvement. In the past 10 years, the rise of technology, like smartphones, and social media platforms, like YouTube and Facebook, have empowered citizens to capture real-time video of police encounters. The author is cautiously optimistic that the institution of policing is evolving away from the racially oppressive part of its roots.

Yet, issues remain, such as racial profiling (Meehan & Ponder, 2002). In New York City, police stop-and-frisk practices have been the subject of a recent federal lawsuit that found them to be unconstitutional in that they unfairly target Blacks and Hispanics. A new study by Stanford University researchers of 100 million traffic stops nationwide found evidence of racial profiling by officers in stopping drivers (Pierson et al., 2020). The researchers found that Black and Hispanic drivers were stopped and searched more frequently than were white drivers, but this drops after sunset when the driver’s race is harder to spot from a police car.

How far we have come, how far we have yet to go.

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Dr. Connie Hassett Walker

Assistant Professor, Justice Studies and Sociology Department, Norwich University

Dr. Connie Hassett-Walker is an assistant professor in the Justice Studies and Sociology Department at Norwich University. She is the author of Black Middle Class Delinquents (2009, LFB Scholarly Publishing).