A Police officer is the only occupation that directly interacts with the community on a daily basis. It is necessary that their preparation and the underlying laws ensure the interaction is good.
While the practice of policing have always been in place, by watchmen, or volunteers, the modern municipal police department, as we know it today began in 1829. The London Metropolitan Police Department was established by Sir Robert Peel in England. As industrialization grew, so did immigrant population and city centers. The urban areas, with populations increasing, representing varying demographics, needed a sense of order, and the modern police was established.
Across the pond in the United States of America, the look was different. In the south, slavery as in many venues of life impacted law and order. Carolina established the first official slave patrol in 1704. Their purpose was to catch, intimidate and otherwise control Black movement. The idea of a patrol for the general White population was unnecessary. The second amendment was not controversial, and guns were available and useful in every household. A sheriff coordinated criminal and investigative work, but responded to crimes, after they happened. A patrol was not consistently in place to prevent crimes. The concept was foreign in a nation that was designed with the right to bear arms. However, like London, as American cities grew with industrialization, including new immigrant populations, the cities needed a similar system of order. Like slavery, the priority was to protect the property, interests and associates of the wealthy. That included elected and appointed officials that would fulfill their interests. In 1838 Boston established the first police department in the United States, followed by New York City in 1844, both epicenters of commerce.
Where there is no law there is no crime. Yet, there were many laws put in place, to keep people in their place. Early America, or at least its visible leadership, was anti-immigrant, anti-Black and against any opposed all that wasn’t White or Christian. There were many laws to be broken, contributing the use of the fast-growing police force. Adding to these where former Confederate soldiers, now relocating throughout America from the south. The defeat in the ‘War of the Rebellion’ established outlaw cowboys and the Ku Klux Klan, with a significant number becoming a part of local police departments. The impact on policing was severe, as they were able to exact their ideals on legislation and manipulate the law to fit a particular vision of America.
A new vehicle would emerge after the turn of the century, that would change the trajectory of policing. Horses gave way to the horseless carriage, and the automobile would become the visible representation of police officers. Now, police would cover their beat, or neighborhood. Even before police cars, officers were able observe people in their everyday lives, now they could continue with automobiles. In 1910 there were 500,000 registered automobiles. By 1920 there were 8 million cars, with nearly 60% of Americans owning at least one. The difference is that the new laws related to driving gave police more access to people’s lives. According to law scholar James Willard Hurst, by 1949 there 119 auto laws in place. Of course, there would be a need for more police, and that would mean changes for the privileged class.
The middle class were the first owners of cars. It now opened them up to a level of scrutiny originally reserved for the poor, Black, immigrant, or political foes that weren’t in line with the wealthy. The standard of a cars as a class standard would soon wane. There was equal opportunity that a ‘well off’ person would be scrutinized by the police. The middle class, however, were better able to defend themselves against police scrutiny and attention would turn back to those more visible to and vulnerable and less able to combat the law. The civil unrest in the 1960s left many communities vulnerable to the ensuing drug epidemics of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, including the war on drugs. Meanwhile many communities – far away, in suburbs and towns in America, felt incredibly safe with the police activity on crime then and now.
A police system is necessary. There can be no abolition of any police department. It is necessary to uphold order, protect the innocent from the criminal and otherwise defend the Constitution where it is relevant domestically. However, that patrol, the constant observation and dishonest crime prevention must change. A strategic assault on organized crime, for what it is, an international issue, would put violent culture in perspective, rather than celebrating the capture of foot soldiers. The laws pertaining to certain traffic violations including red-light cameras, are a gross harassment to the American people, as are speed traps. Other instances are unnecessarily dangerous to the public including, unmarked cars, plain clothes officers, stings, and no-knock raids. If these were successful, there would be much less crimes in the particular communities where many of these incidents take place. What is necessary is the increase of investigative units. This would yield a better conviction rate on violent crime, targeting dangerous criminals. A false conviction should require jail time for any criminal justice professional, and a $1m per year for the falsely convicted. Reckless reporting of crime, to police that results in harm to an innocent person, should also require some degree of responsibility from the citizen and officer. The link between the laws and police, must be clear. Unnecessary laws should be abolished, those proven to have done little and further endanger officers and the community, such as vehicle chases. New leadership needs to begin to reestablish a system that will implement laws that will lead to more simplistic, fair and just decisions.
If the police are to truly police, then a much higher expectation, knowledge and compensation should be in order. We expect that the officer to be among the most well-trained of all occupations. The police potentially deals with people of all walks of life and has signed up to interact with criminals, to ensure that everyone, regardless of title or appearance protected. That is admirable. The officer should be prepared. If the only different is gun, then we have a problem. Are they proven in some level of martials training? Do they have a professional understanding of the state law? Have they had successful training in de-escalation, or psychology? Do they know history, especially as it applies to Civil Rights laws? Are they familiar with elements of social work, as they deal with a homeless population? What age are they able to officially serve? These are just a few questions that, answered correctly would make a difference in the way our communities are perceived and operate. Compensation in this operation would be comparable to other licensed servants such as an attorney, physician, social worker, or teacher – the last two, of which also require much more for their work.
The idea is to simplify the laws that the police have to enforce. The position and the purpose of police must be for all, not just the favored class. A more just legislation and attitude of a stronger, more able police officer will result in untold good for the communities. That would make many an American thankful.
The Boston Review, How Cars Transformed Policing, June 3, 2019
Policing The Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom, Sarah Seo
The History of Policing In The United States, Gary Potter, EKU
Insider, June 2, 2020