Along with the peaceful marches and protests there has been violence. Provocateurs who have incited violence and looting, and then those who have taken advantage of a situation and have chosen to break windows and trash stores without regard to the individuals whose livelihoods have been equally trashed.
With the calls for defunding the police, some more radical and extreme than others, I realized how little understanding I have of the police and its history. I'm trying to balance all of what I see, and trying to remember that it's more advantageous to show the moments that are most fraught with emotion--so the police officers kneeling in solidarity as well as the cops lounging around an office allegedly while looting was occurring or the cops who pushed a 75-year-old man and then walked away even as he was bleeding from his ear. Then there are the mostly white cops who are angry because they are being lumped in with the bad cops--and I'm thinking that's what it feels like to be a person of color in the United States. But I'm also realizing that it's far too easy to slap a broad brush of accusation across all police departments and officers when that is not fair and not reasonable.
So, I decided to do some research because that's what I do. This is some of what I learned.
It wasn't until after the American Revolution that the then nascent United States had any sort of formal police department.
In 1838, the city of Boston established the first American police force, followed by New York City in 1845, Albany, NY and Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1853, Philadelphia in 1855, and Newark, NJ and Baltimore in 1857 (Harring 1983, Lundman 1980; Lynch 1984). By the 1880s all major U.S. cities had municipal police forces in place.
According to The History of Policing in the US (Potter, n.d.), the trajectory of the police departments in the South were a sort of evolution from the Slave patrols, the first of which was created in 1704. I don't think "slave patrol" needs much explanation.
Dr. Potter asserts that modern police departments were in response to disruption and disorder, and what constituted disruption and disorder was defined by the mercantile class. You can well imagine where this is going and already it does not bode well for individuals of certain colors and those of particular ethnic backgrounds.
Three compelling issues faced early American police departments: (1) should police be uniformed; (2) should they carry firearms; and (3) how much force could they use to carry out their duties.
What is clear from Dr. Potter's research is that police departments were an extension of the politicians and bureaucrats who seemed to use the police for their own agendas and didn't seem to much care if the police had their own agendas as long as there were no conflicts.
What is also evident from Dr. Potter's work is that as long as police departments were in any way connected to or somehow extended from any political office, reform was going to be difficult if not impossible. Never mind how poorly that speaks to the integrity of any politician (and that phrase "integrity of any politician" seems like an absurd joke in 2020).
In the 1950s there was a move towards police professionalism, which seems like a good idea until it wasn't. What was deemed professionalism seemed to lead to a more military model of policing, which created greater tension and rancor. In the 1960s more police departments were looking toward unionization to protect the officers from whatever was going on to try to "reform" police departments which also seemed to yield a greater number of inexplicable and contradictory regulations. At the same time, developments in forensic science were encouraging people to think of the police as "scientific crime fighters," especially those who were part of detective squads.
The 1960s and 1970s showed us the complexity of policing during the Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations. The militarization of the police and likely how they were trained to think about and combat--and I use that word deliberately--protestors and demonstrators could only lead to police action that meant civilians--also known as citizens--were going to get hurt.
Korean War was actually designated a police action by President Truman, a conflict that is technically not yet over. And when we see notable police action today, police officers are wearing riot gear which includes an impressive array of protective wear and weapons.
I appreciate the men and women who want to protect and serve also wanting to protect themselves, but I can see how such gear would lead me to be frightened of their actions should they misinterpret my actions or should they themselves find it difficult to restrain their own fears and emotions when tensions and tempers run high.
There aren't a lot of experts in the history of policing though there are plenty who have written about how to improve or reform police departments.
So then I wondered about the history of the role of the police because police or some sort of constabulary preceded the discovery and the establishment of the Colonies, what we now know as the United States. According to Jeremiah Mosteller (and yes, I know he was writing for the Charles Koch Institute and I'm well aware of the conspiracy theories and controversies surrounding the Koch brothers even as people don't take the time to learn more about them), about a third of Americans
now view their local police as serving an enforcer role instead of a protector role. Public confidence and trust in law enforcement has also decreased since the early 2000s. Public perceptions of police will only continue to erode as departments increasingly assume roles more akin to an occupying military force or tax collectors rather than supporters of peace and safety in the community.
Mosteller goes on to write:
The purpose of law enforcement in a free society is to promote public safety and uphold the rule of law so that individual liberty may flourish. Trust and accountability between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect is essential to advancing these goals. The government holds the power to exercise force in achieving its ends, but must do so in a way that protects the rights of community members and upholds the rule of law. Proper policing practices require that law enforcement build positive relationships with their community, respect civil liberties, and avoid tactics that encourage the use of excessive force against citizens.
I found this image online as part of a 2011 piece on the evolution of police riot gear. And, oddly, I think this goes back to the first three questions asked about police departments: 1) should they wear uniforms?; 2) should they carry weapons?; and 3) how much force should they use?
But I also think this has a lot to do with what we believe should be the proper role of the police, and that's where this work gets very hard.
People will view the roles and responsibilities of the police very differently depending on their neighborhoods and their experience with the police. Some will believe that neighborhoods that have more crime will need more armed police and I can appreciate a police officer wanting to wear a bullet-proof vest and carry a weapon in situations that may warrant it.
I don't know enough about all of the reasons the police are called though we know that one of the reasons so many cities and towns have a 311 number is because not everything is a 911 emergency, even if it may feel like it.
Too many have become accustomed to calling the police in any situation that people don't think about the appropriateness of a police call. To a minor accident? No, but what's minor? Is my definition of "minor" the same as the other person? I don't mean to mock, not at all, but it's almost as though we need to follow Mom's rules that if there no blood or broken bones, the accident is not a police matter.
How does that play with domestic violence calls? I don't know. I've no doubt there are degrees but I can also imagine that if someone I know is getting beaten or threatened, my instinct would be to call the police.
What about police resource officers? I was working in a high school in a fairly small community and the police resource officer seemed to be a nice guy. He made a point of not fraternizing with the staff, which made sense. There were no metal detectors at the doors and his role seemed to be more about a position that was filled than actual need. One day there were four police cars in the front of the school. My heart rate went up. When I asked if there was any reason for concern, the usual officer said there was none, that he was just giving other officers a tour of the building, which would have been believable if it weren't for the fact all of those officers were present all day. So clearly there was something that was concerning people. In fact, I heard the officer say, "If anything is going to happen, it will be this afternoon." So the additional officers were a deterrent and, apparently, an effective one.
What I don't know, of course, is who made the call to have more officers present. Was that the principal who was aware of some potential threat or was that the school resource officer?
I've worked at other schools that have had metal detectors at the door and people to sign in visitors and make sure they wear their badges, and even places where my bags have been sort of searched (if sticking a baton in a bag constitutes a "search"). The officers were clearly there as a deterrent, until they weren't but when I asked around, there hadn't been an incident of any note on campus in months if not years.
Will armed school resource officers prevent school shootings? I don't think so. Not if history is any guide. Will they reduce the likelihood of the shooter gaining entry or being able to inflict more harm on innocents? That is a question I don't think anyone can answer with any confidence although I know there are plenty who believe that armed officers and/or armed teachers will make a positive difference.
My question is almost always this: As I am not a trained professional, how would I respond in a moment of high alert with adrenaline pumping at an unimaginable rate and my fear/protection reactions off the charts? And I have no idea what I would do or what I could do. In my actual dreams, I cannot land a punch when threatened so that doesn't bode well for what I might do in real life.
Another question is this: How are police officers trained--and I mean really trained and then really retrained and recertified--to react in threat situations? Why is it that some can restrain themselves for that extra split second and others begin firing the moment they think they see a weapon? And why do they keep firing when it's clear the individual is down? That's got to be adrenaline as well as fear, and how are officers trained to learn to master that? Or are they? And if they're not, why not?
I don't think there are any easy answers, unions notwithstanding. But I do believe we need to rethink policing in the United States. We also have to realize that one size does not fit all when it comes to policing either. That what might be necessary in larger cities probably isn't as necessary in the suburbs or exurbs and probably isn't as necessary in rural communities.
Regardless I think that one thing is clear: the militarization of the police hasn't been a solution that works, so we must reconsider what policing needs to be and should be in the United States, and that should lead to changes in the way we fund our police departments.