Written by David Banner | Art by Phil Cohen
The videotaped executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police earlier this year reignited ashes of outrage and inspired more protests among Black people nationwide. In addition to these killings, the acquittals of the Baltimore City police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, shooting of caretaker Charles Kinsey by a North Miami police officer are seen as slaps in the face to a community seeking justice.
To some, the frequent murders and abuse of Blacks at the hands of cops without impunity is clear and irrefutable evidence of a broken American justice system. To others, the lack of convictions of police indicates that the system is working just as it was created to. As proof, advocates of the latter view point to the history and development of policing in America, particularly in the Deep South.
Slave Patrols & Police
Conventional histories point out that U.S. police departments derived from various volunteer watch groups that sprang up in northern cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago during the mid-19th century. While this is no doubt the more popular version of police history, the infrequently discussed development of policing in the South has a more sinister history that is described by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter as, “deeply intertwined with the violence of racial oppression.”
As is widely known (but less commonly discussed), the first police departments in the South evolved from the slave patrols (“paddyrollers” or “paterollers,” later “patrollers”) that began in South Carolina during the 1700s. Seen by some as the first publicly funded police departments in America, the slave patrols had three primary functions:
- Chasing, apprehending, and returning escaped slaves to their owners
- Providing “organized terror” to deter slave revolts
- Maintaining a form of discipline over slaves who violated plantation rules
Typically, this “discipline” was maintained by “organized terror” exacted in the most ruthless, violent, and brutal ways imaginable. Seeking continued control of the newly-freed slaves in the Post-Civil War period, the slave patrols quickly adapted by evolving into the various police departments of the American South.