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Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

Justice Series: The History of Police

“All cops are bastards.” The outrage surrounding the death of George Floyd and the myriad wrongful murders of Black people in America has spurred a rise in the popularity of this statement, which has quickly spread throughout social media, drawing support from activists and criticism from moderates and conservatives alike. 

If it is difficult to understand at first, you’re not alone—I was raised to call the police whenever I needed help (a testament to my privilege as a white American to do so without concern for my life or livelihood), leading me to perceive that police are generally good. Examining the history of police, however, it becomes clear that the idea of a “good cop” is fundamentally flawed, and in the modern age, it is unequivocally true—all cops are bastards.

Policing began in the northern colonies as “night watch” crews, which served to prevent prostitution and gambling, as well as alerting communities of any danger. These crews were volunteer-based in theory, but in practice, most watchmen were forced to take the job as punishment, to avoid military conscription, or simply because their town mandated it. This system was very inefficient, and watchmen frequently slept or drank while working.

In the South, police primarily took the form of slave patrols whose main functions were to capture runaway slaves and maintain order (read: terror) over plantations to deter revolts. After the Civil War, slave patrols continued to dominate Southern states by enforcing racist Jim Crow laws and continuing to control newly freed Black people in the same ways as before the abolition of slavery: maintaining a state of terror and disciplining wage slaves on plantations. 

As states (primarily northern) urbanized in the mid-1800s, night watch crews became ineffective and eventually evolved into a relatively modern police force, with full-time employees and a centralized organizational structure. Merchants, looking to save money on protecting their property as it was shipped between ports, argued that police should be publicly funded as they served the “collective good.”

By the late 19th century, rising numbers of immigrants and rampant exploitation of workers prompted police to take the role of active suppressors rather than first responders, keeping order by criminalizing inequality. Public drunkenness, protests, strikes, and crime in general became associated with the idea of an inherently inferior lower class (primarily made up of immigrants and Black individuals), allowing police to easily identify and preventatively surveil these groups under the guise of upholding the rule of law. 

It was around this time that police became direct instruments of city bosses and political machines, who appointed sergeants and captains to bully opposition parties and their constituents. Eventually, President Herbert Hoover was forced to create the Wickersham Commission to investigate the rampant corruption within America’s police forces. Less than 100 years after the widespread adoption of police in America, the system had already become corrupted, or “bastardized”—hence the modern phrase, “all cops are bastards.”

Throughout the 20th century, not much changed with regards to how police forces operated in America. Police still targeted minorities through criminalization of poverty, and during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, police often employed crowd control techniques to suppress peaceful protests against the rampant inequality within America. Sound familiar?

What did change was the introduction of redlining in the 1930s, a tactic used by various government agencies to segregate cities by rating neighborhoods in terms of their riskiness for investment. The rating system was firstly based on “homogeneity”—i.e. how many white people lived there—and Black neighborhoods were consistently labeled as unstable and unlikely to pay back loans. In 1968, redlining was declared illegal (in direct response to the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), but the damage was done. The result of these policies was widespread, institutionalized poverty within urban Black communities around the United States that continues to this day.

In the 1980s, police began to patrol according to the “broken windows” theory, which held that the presence of “disorder” in neighborhoods (the example being a broken window) served as a gateway to more serious crimes. This policy led police to focus primarily on patrolling minority communities, which were more likely to have outward appearances of poverty due to redlining policies. 

Over-policing of these communities was exacerbated by President Nixon’s declaration and President Reagan’s escalation of a “war on drugs,” designed to increase his political power by creating a mass hysteria about the prevalence of drugs in urban areas. Nixon introduced the infamous “no-knock warrants," which allowed police to break into a victim’s house unannounced, and pushed for mandatory minimum sentencing. Both of these tactics were (and still are) unjustly used by law enforcement to target Black and Latinx communities—and indeed, this was the goal of the Nixon administration. John Ehrlichman, a key advisor to Nixon, explained that the Nixon administration, “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people...we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities [sic].”

Policing reached its modern status in 1994, with the bipartisan passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The act added funds to hire 100,000 new police officers and, importantly, amplified the “law and order” culture that had begun under Nixon. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, this culture was supplemented by xenophobia and anti-Muslim ideologies. The introduction of stop-and-frisk laws allowed police officers to conduct searches of anyone they deemed suspicious, legalizing racial profiling that disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx individuals.

This brings us to today. George Floyd. Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells. Breonna Taylor. These modern atrocities continue to reinforce what history has clearly shown us. Police do not “protect and serve” the people; instead, they have an openly antagonistic relationship with their communities. Just as they always have, police protect property and serve the majority at the expense of minority communities. 

All cops are bastards because it is their job to enforce this bastardized system. No matter how good or bad their intentions may be, by agreeing to be a police officer, individuals swear to uphold the law, without regard to how morally reprehensible or clearly unjust these laws may be. 

While we have seen (and are continuing to see) horrific abuses of power from specific police officers, the problem with policing as a system doesn’t come from the actions of the few. Rather, the problem arises from the overwhelming majority of police officers, the too-powerful police unions, and the current administration, all of whom ignore the wrongdoings of overtly “bad cops” and actively silence officers who try to expose American policing for the racist, militaristic, corrupt arm of the state that it truly is.

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