The Invention of Police

July 14, 2020

I just read another illuminating and learned article by Jill Lepore, entitled, "The Invention of Police."  I urge everyone to read it.  The essay was published in this week's New Yorker.  Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard University. She is an incredibly prolific and provocative scholar whose books are readable, even exciting. In this essay, Ms. Lepore asks a basic question, "What are the origins of policing in the U.S.?" She demonstrates how policing from the beginning was intertwined with slavery, union busting, controlling new immigrants, and dominating indigenous peoples. The first police were slave patrols out to catch runaway slaves. Police forces were often organized privately by corporations to intimidate and threaten union organizers. From the very beginning in the 19th century police were armed, unlike the police in Great Britain. Over the course of a century or more, police became more heavily armed. The purpose of police then was to dominate those who many considered were "social outcasts." People of color, African-Americans, Latinx, Chinese, East European immigrants were the ones who had to be controlled. These people were often perceived as a threat, as dangerous, and as having innate proclivities for crime.  

The time has to come to change this narrative. People of color and immigrants are not the enemy. We now have the opportunity to change the narrative by holding police officers, prosecutors, and correctional officers accountable for misconduct: for use of excessive force, for brutalizing people in their custody, for lying under oath, and destroying or hiding evidence. Police and correctional officers need to see their mission as being public servants. They are commissioned to serve the public and to protect public not to terrorize the public.  

 


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