The History Of Law Enforcement On ‘Behind The Police’

In this special mini-series from Behind the Bastards host Robert Evans, he and rapper Propaganda will dive into the history of policing from ancient times to today. Much of what policing has looked like through the ages hasn’t changed in modern times, and it’s important to understand the roots of law enforcement in America as we grapple with the failure of our justice system to protect and serve minority communities. On this episode of Behind the Police, he breaks down the evolution of policing through ancient times and the Middle Ages, and then takes a close look at the slave patrols in the American South that made a “seamless” transition into publicly funded law enforcement agencies after the Civil War.

Boston, Massachusetts was the first U.S. city to establish a modern police force in 1838, “largely because they wanted to protect goods and property of wealthy merchants and….shift the payment of the services to the public, instead of them having to pay for it themselves.” In the South, the goods and property the wealthy were trying to protect were human beings. The first slave patrol appeared in 1704 in the Carolina colonies, and they had “three jobs: Chase down, apprehend, and return slaves to their owners; to discipline slave laborers with violence; and to act as a constant form of state-sanctioned terror to prevent slaves from revolting.” They had the right to detain and interrogate Black people (including free Black people), search slave quarters, and seize property at will – which Robert points out could be seen as an early form of civil asset forfeiture. They used packs of bloodhound dogs to hunt and maim slaves, and the scars they left were similar to an arrest record – they showed very clearly that you were a troublemaker.  

When the Civil War started in 1861, slave patrols turned their skills with dogs and whips to hunting down Union soldiers; they considered Black Union soldiers to be “slaves with weapons.” But, “spoiler alert,” Robert says, “the Confederacy didn’t win….but white supremacy did not die.” In Southern towns, the law was applied selectively, with curfews still in place for Black people. Robert reads one Southerner’s interpretation: “Liberty for the white man, slavery for the [n-word], so long as the white man is able to hold him.” During early Reconstruction, the federal military, state militias, and the Ku Klux Klan took over the responsibilities of the slave patrols and became the police. St. Louis can trace its police department history directly to slave patrols, and in fact, the use of dogs to terrify suspected criminals is still in use today. 

This history, and the patterns created by it, seems “so preposterous” that people think it’s all made up, Propaganda says. But “how many bad apples do you need before you start checking the orchard? What if the soil is bad?” Learn more about the history of policing, slave patrols, and the sharp similarities to today’s police forces, on this episode of Behind the Police.

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