The death of George Floyd during his arrest by Minneapolis police has reenergized demands to reduce police violence. The police are state-authorized to use violence to maintain order. How and when police use that authority has a problematic history, especially for African Americans. Inherent in maintaining order is preserving existing power structures. Slave patrols in the South were one of the early roots of policing; these patrols were organized along military lines and their purpose was to keep the slave population in check, and make organized slave revolts (the nightmare of most southern whites) unlikely.
In the large cities police forces developed out of an early system of volunteer night watchmen (fire being the great fear) originally established during colonial times. The first paid police were patronage jobs for residents in the neighborhood doled out by the political machines in the 19th century. This meant that police officers (who had no special training) usually knew the people they were policing, and could use discretion when enforcing the law, not infrequently leading to corruption.
Twentieth century technology, such as the squad car and the police radio, changed the nature of policing by allowing them to respond to reports of crime and cover a rapidly expanding metropolitan area. The “beat cop” fell out of favor as policing was professionalized (and often depersonalized). Police responded to crime instead of using their presence to prevent it.
Violent crime grew rapidly in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the riots many cities experienced during the 1960s created an atmosphere of fear. Richard Nixon exploited this by running for president in 1968 on a racially charged platform of “law and order” that was part of his “southern strategy” to appeal to white voters worried about the growing militancy of the Black population. Many of the 1960s riots, such as those in Newark, Detroit, and Watts, were set off by police violence. During this time of “white flight,” many urban police forces were all white while the communities they policed were increasingly populated by people of color. This disconnect was addressed in the report of the Kerner Commission, a congressional investigation into the causes of the riots. Subsequently, many police departments hired minority officers and put a renewed emphasis on community policing.
During the 1980s, crack cocaine rapidly became the drug of choice, and high capacity magazines and “cop killer” bullets enhanced the violence associated with the drug trade. Violence peaked in the early 1990s. This violence encouraged the militarization of the police, with body armor, armored cars, and military grade weaponry, often acquired cheaply from the U.S. military. The “warrior” mentality was enhanced by training that focused on the potential violence on the job. David Grossman coined the term “killology” in 1996, and developed a widely used training program that was designed to overcome the reluctance to kill someone, so that police could make it home at the end of their shift. This exacerbated the “us versus them” mentality that made the police seem more like an occupying army than public servants.
The 1980s also saw the rise of “broken windows” policing; a failure to strictly enforce community standards created an environment that told criminals no one was going to prevent them from operating. To counteract this, police began to strictly enforce quality of life crimes: property damage, turnstile jumping, aggressive panhandling and the infamous “squeegee men.” Ultimately this led to the “stop and frisk” program in New York City, which unfairly targeted young Black men. They were stopped much more frequently but were actually less likely than their white counterparts to be found possessing contraband, providing more evidence that racial profiling was not only unjust, but ineffective.
While the Black community had complained of police brutality for years, most whites held the police in high esteem and discounted those accusations. The video that captured the arrest of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 seemed to provide evidence for the claims of the Black community. When an all-white jury acquitted the officers involved, frustrated members of the community rioted.
In recent years, ubiquitous cellphones have documented case after case of police violence. The case of George Floyd clearly struck a nerve; the fact that his alleged crime was passing a counterfeit $20 bill, and that he was killed not by a split-second decision made under potentially dangerous conditions but rather a sustained and uncaring attitude demonstrated that the life of this Black person certainly did not matter.
Authorities clashing with the protesters, sometimes accompanied by opportunistic looters, have reminded people of the riots of the 1960s. But there are some major differences. First, the rioting of the 1960s did not grow out of planned Civil Rights protests; they were spontaneous reactions to specific events. The riots were also massive and uncontrolled, with scores of dead and billions of dollars of property damage, unlike the very limited property damage associated with the current protests. Public reaction has largely been supportive of the Black Lives Matter protests (in contrast to opinion even a few years ago), while the riots of the 1960s undermined some white support for the Civil Rights Movement.
Race relations have improved from the 1960s, when overt racism was accepted by large portions of white society. But social change takes time, and sometimes it is necessary for people to push politicians and other people in power when progress has stagnated. Patience is a virtue, but sometimes impatience is required to make changes that should have been made long ago.
Kent James is an East Washington resident and has degrees in history and policy management from Carnegie Mellon University. He is an adjunct professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College.