Thumbnail Sketches: Uses and Misuses of the Police

Some of the uses to which our governments historically have put police agencies degraded the legitimacy of the police in the minds and hearts of many segments of US society.  Police have been thrust into the middle of many social problems and controversies and, with little guidance, expected to take action.  Once a problem is defined as a “police matter” the rest of society’s institutions seem to fade from the scene.

Here are some thumbnails on some misuses and controversies.  We feel their influences, to greater and lesser degrees, today.

• Slave patrols
Beginning as early as 1704 in South Carolina, slave owners organized small formal units (six or so men) to “police” African slaves and slave communities. They enforced the rigid travel restrictions and other laws and procedures of the institution. Thus, the first experience of African and African-American individuals and communities and police in the US was a force that kept them enslaved through both enforcement of laws and the carrying out of inhumane summary punishments, including maiming and death.

• Rise of cities
Our first democratic policing institutions were created starting in the mid-1840’s (NYC’s first attempt) when a variety of practices inherited from the colonial era proved inadequate to the complex challenges of growing cities. Immigration, especially German and Irish, swelled the populations and created diversity that overwhelmed the old watch organizations. In their earliest years a large proportion of the mission was keeping these immigrant communities in check. In Boston, for example, the prisoner transport vehicles were dubbed “paddy wagons” because of who was being arrested, not the police driving the wagons. (In fact, the Boston Police Department excluded Irish Catholic members for the first 20-25 or so years of its existence.) Our urban forefathers were overwhelmed and frightened by the tides of immigrants, especially the starving, poverty-stricken alien Irish Catholics. So they organized professional police departments to protect the established order. Thus, the first experiences with police for European immigrants in cities such as Boston, NY, Philadelphia and Cincinnati were with departments created to keep them in check rather than protect them

• “Neo-Slavery”
1870-1940. After the abandonment of Reconstruction governments in the Deep South wrote new laws to be instruments of human rights abuses Southern state governments turned the law’s agents — sheriffs, judges, police and prosecutors — into criminals.
“One part of neoslavery, “convict leasing,” was the sentencing of prisoners to hard labor or to fine them outrageously, and [then] they were leased out to commercial interests such as farms, coal mines, turpentine production plants, lumber and railroad camps. This was the means by which the white South forced millions of other African-Americans to go along with de facto slavery that took on the form of sharecropping, abusive farm tenancy, land renting and labor contracts.
 After the Civil War, all of the Southern states passed a series of laws, which were designed primarily to criminalize black life. For example, vagrancy statues made it a crime for any person to be unable to prove at any given moment that he was employed. Also, in every Southern state it was against the law for African-Americans to sell their crops after dark. The purpose was specifically to ensure that as a sharecropper you could only sell your crops to the landowner.”
Congress in 1865 declared slavery unconstitutional, but only in 1941 was a statute enacted to make slavery a federal crime.
At the same time, Northern cities passed their first vagrancy statutes after the Civil War, for example Boston introduced its law in 1865. These affected life for freed Blacks as well as white immigrants such as the Irish.

View this video clip from “Slavery by Another Name,” 2:49 copy this address into your browser:

• Labor disputes
The period 1870-1910 saw widespread labor unrest and union activism across the US. The armories we see in many communities date from this time and signify the threat felt by the captains of government and industry of the period. Also at this time, states create state police departments as better-trained, elite police who were drawn from across the state and were not subject to the tug of loyalties in maintaining public order in the midst of the unrest. This was the rationale, for example, for creating the Pennsylvania State Police in 1905.

In Massachusetts in 1912 in the Lawrence textile workers’ “Bread and Roses” strike and in 1919 in the Boston Police Strike we saw state militia (and volunteer Harvard undergrads) armed and equipped to put down the strikes.

• Prohibition
One of the great travesties foisted on modern, municipal policing, 1920-1933. The 18th Amendment and its companion Volstead Act banned alcohol but created no means to enforce the ban. The law enjoyed little legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Federal agencies, such as they were, did little. The country’s bid to reduce alcohol consumption was tossed in the laps of local police. The failed and foolish attempt to regulate alcohol abuse by prohibiting its manufacture and sale created an underground (in the legal sense only) industry that reaped incalculable millions in illegal profits, spawned vast criminal works and corrupted every corruptible member of the police departments who were stuck with enforcing the prohibition. The experience was corrosive for police legitimacy. The reverberations of policing’s disastrous encounter with Prohibition can still be heard and felt today.

See Ken Burns’s series on PBS, “Prohibition.

The “’60’s” and the “Thin Blue Line: Civil Rights, urban riots, Vietnam War protests, “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs”

A handful of massive social-economic forces shaped what we call the “’60”s.

“The increasing polarization of society into opposing factions made it hard for the calm voice of reason to be heard above the shouting.  Those on the political right issued a call for law and order – which those on the left interpreted as a euphemism for a heavy-handed police crackdown on minorities and students.  Those on the political left protested against police brutality, suggesting the police had be come the Gestapo…escalating criminal and political violence continued into the early 1970’s, underscoring the need for police to find new ways to heal old wounds.”

Community Policing, Robert Trojanowicz and Bonnie Bucqueroux

They shaped how the ‘60’s still influence police doctrine today.  Some of the forces were:

  • The Civil Rights Movement

The long-suppressed completion of Reconstruction, with Black church leaders leading a non-violent grassroots movement for basic rights for Blacks in the South.

Non-violent demonstrations met an often violent police response.  The response included murders of civil rights volunteers by law enforcement officers, violent suppression of protests and allowing racist attacks on Black citizens.

  • The explosions in riots in segregated African-American neighborhoods in cities across the North. 

A series of riots started in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965 and spiked in the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. in April 1968.  Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated two months later.

These “ghettoes” were created by northern US cities’ public and private “redlining” policies in response to a mass in-migration throughout the 20th century but especially after WWII by African Americans seeking opportunity in northern industry.  Several of the largest riots started as a result of motor vehicle stops of black motorists by white police personnel.

View this Newsreel footage of Newark, 1967   copy this address into your browser:

  • American college and university campuses erupted in anti-war protests in every region of the country. 

Students were shot and killed by local and state police during protests at Jackson State in MS and by National Guardsmen during protests at Kent State in OH.  At the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, one of the signature events of the “’60’s” included skirmishing in the streets between militant student protestors and police.  Mayor Richard J. Daley was famous for garbling his words.  In what seemed to many to be a Freudian slip, he told reporters after the battle, “Gentlemen, the policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

  • The terms “Generation Gap” and “Credibility Gap” were coined in this period. 

The Generation Gap described the divide between “Greatest Generation” adults and their Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964) children.  The children seemed to their elders be threatening the country’s foundation.

Credibility Gap referred to a new mistrust of government motives and stated aims, among both Baby Boomers and across the population, based on exposures of government lies in the prosecution of the Vietnam War.  The Credibility Gap since has become a mainstay of American culture, to the detriment of police efforts to maintain legitimacy in the 21st century.

  • The emergence of “crime” and unlawful drug use as we know them today. 

In Boston, for example, reported crime increased 1500% between 1955 and 1965.  In the 1990’s many cities celebrated crime decreases that only returned to the levels that were experienced as frightening in the 1960’s.

In response to these developments police found themselves rushed into the breach.  In this era we see the emergence of the metaphors that would come to be used by public and police alike to define the police role and police strategy.  Police are “a thin blue line” between order and chaos, opined the legendary LAPD Chief Big Bill Parker.  Presidents declared a War on Crime and a War on Drugs that conceived as police not as peacekeepers or protectors but as “warriors.”  Communities were transformed into battlefields of these wars.

The experience of the Boston Police in 1968 is illustrative. 

Small-scale rioting in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, into which Blacks had been redlined since the 1950’s, prompted a response that showed how unprepared society was to respond and how unprepared they left the police whom society sent in to quell the rioting.

The Department called the recruits out of the Academy and hauled them to Roxbury.  Here we had an almost exclusively white, and almost exclusively Irish-American and male recruit class sent into Black Roxbury.  The recruits were rough and ready neighborhood kids, including most with military experience, who had had little interaction with different ethnicities, growing up in segregated city neighborhoods and segregated City schools.  To equip them to operate in this clash of social forces, the Department issued hard hats borrowed from the Edison Co. and axe handles.

Give a young man eager to prove his manliness an axe handle and a helmet and what message do you think he will get about what is expected of him?

And that’s what they got.  Nationally, the Kerner Commission in 1968 issued a report indicating that Black communities did not much like the police.  No one was surprised.

Have these perceptions lingered? 

From a USA Today/Gallup Poll. Aug. 4-7, 2011.

“We’d like to know how widespread you believe the problem of racism is against blacks among police officers in this country. Would you say it is very common, fairly common, fairly rare, or very rare?”

VeryCommon FairlyCommon Fairly Rare Very Rare
% % % %
ALL 16 36 31 13
Whites 11 36 35 14
Blacks 46 40 7 5


Other rights movements emerged in the 1970’s, e.g. women and gays, police response followed the same narrative arc.  Police were the first to respond, did both good and damaging things, and all concerned are still working it out.

In 1968 the President’s Commission on Crime conceived of 9-1-1 as a means of enabling police to respond more quickly to calls for service.  Prior to the late 1960’s only 10% of Americans knew a seven-digit number to call in an emergency.  With the advent of 9-1-1, over 90 percent knew whom to call.  This technical revolution had two edges. On the one hand, 9-1-1 is one of the greatest services ever created by government.  Dial three digits and one or more highly-trained and authorized municipal officers will be at your side, to help with whatever concerns you. On the other hand, passivity and hurrying became strategic fundamentals. Because people are often in paralytic fear, the police can never get there fast enough.

Social policies create unintended consequences for the police. Some examples:

  • Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill

Starting the 1970’s state government joined the trend of de-institutionalizing the mentally ill.  Decades of poor treatment and abuses inside the walls of large mental hospitals spurred this trend.  Though humane in intent, states never developed the network of community-based treatment programs that was promised s the replacement for the prison-like 19th century hospitals.  (For example, horror movies have been filmed on the abandoned Medfield State Hospital campus).  This has been especially tough for the substance-addicted mentally ill, who have landed on our streets and homeless shelters.  In lieu of an actual community-based initiative, police become the largest cohort of first-line mental health workers in the Commonwealth of Mass. Managing the homeless, substance-abusing mentally ill is a significant part of the mission of most police departments. Police have come under continual criticism for their efforts to fulfill this mission.

  • Large-scale public housing developments

In most communities that have actually built public housing, the developments have been concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods and developed as densely-populated “brick jungles.”  (In Boston for example, 50% of the city’s public housing is in the one police district, B-2 covering Roxbury and parts of the South End).  Over the generations, society has warehoused the people with the greatest concentrations of problems in substandard, crowed communities.  Densely-packed communities create more tension and violence.  This has made these communities disproportionately reliant on police intervention

  • Defacto residential segregation

Most northern cities practiced red-lining and other lending practices to segregate people of color into the same inner-city ghettoes in which most public housing units were concentrated.  In Boston in 1968 about two dozen banks, organized as the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group drew a redline around Roxbury.  They would make mortgages to Blacks buyers only within the red line.  At the same time, police in almost all Boston suburbs made their communities  just as unwelcoming to Blacks as did the banks.

Diverse Roxbury became Black Roxbury and racial tensions erupted into widespread violence and/or “white flight” when the Federal court made its historic school desegregation ruling and as families began to move east across the line into Dorchester and south into Mattapan.


Today, we have the benefit of these experiences — and their lessons — to guide us in strategy and practice.  Let’s do that.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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