Yes, policing in Southern slave states has some roots in slave patrols.
But policing doesn’t.
Policing—enforcing the law, preventing crime, apprehending criminals—has a very long tradition of existence. I don't know where it started, but for our purposes we can note that Augustus Caesar, born in 27 B.C., created the cohortes urbanae near the end of his reign, to police Ancient Rome. Policing in England takes rudimentary form with Henry II's proclamation of the Assize of Arms of 1181. In the 1600s England established constables and justices of the peace to oversee them. The Metropolitan Police Act created the first recognizable police force in the U.K. in 1829.
Meanwhile, in America the first constables were created in the 1630s in what came to be known as New England. Boston has the oldest “modern” police department. It was created in 1838. New York and Philadelphia soon followed.
They were not created to search for runaway slaves.
Founded in 1275, the [York Minster Police] boast that they are the world’s oldest police force. That makes them a couple centuries older than [the Vatican’s Swiss Guard].
But that doesn’t mean policing began in 1275. Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty apparently had something called “The Judges Commandment of the Police.” Ancient China didn’t call them police but “prefects.” The Babylonian’s cops were called paqūdu.
Now, you might not be able to tell from my pleasant tone and demeanor, but I’m actually pretty angry that I have to tell you this (again).
The other day, I got into a little spat with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, because she peddled to CBS the idea that modern policing has a “direct lineage” to slave patrols because, “in certain parts of the country,” slave patrols were deputized to catch slaves. She’s right about that—to a point.
… But … Let me type this slowly so everyone can understand: The Columbus Division of Police, established in 1816, was not founded as a slave patrol. Ohio was not a slave state. In 1841, it passed a law that runaway slaves were automatically free once they made it to Ohio. Similarly, the Minneapolis Police Department, founded two years after the end of the Civil War, wasn’t built upon slave patrolling and has no “lineage”—direct or tangential—to slave patrolling.
The police officer who shot a black teen about to plunge a knife into another black teen was not in any way connected to slave patrolling. Derek Chauvin was not living down to the legacy of slave patrolling. Even Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison conceded to 60 Minutes this week that prosecutors couldn’t find any evidence that Chauvin was racist or that his crime was racially motivated. If you know anything about Ellison, you’ll know he wanted to find such evidence.
Even the connection to slave patrolling in southern cities is, at best, literary. Does anyone actually believe that Rodney Bryant, the chief of police in Atlanta, sees himself as part of some great unbroken chain in the long tradition of slave patrolling? Of course not. And not just because Bryant is black, or because cops are not trained and educated in slave patrol tactics, but also because slavery has been illegal in the United States for 158 years, three months, and 27 days.
(This goes for Houston, Charlotte, El Paso, Nashville, Memphis, Raleigh, Lexington, Kentucky; most of the big cities in Virginia, Baton Rouge, and Tulsa—just some of the cities with black police chiefs.)
Modern policing—or even policing qua policing—owes far less to slave patrolling than NASA owes to Hitler’s rocket program. And yet no one talks about the troubling Nazi roots of modern space exploration, or asks Elon Musk if he’s exorcised the ghost of Werner Von Braun from SpaceX.
I have seen this slave patrol thing brought up countless times in interviews, and not once have I seen an interviewer say, “Really?” never mind, “What the hell are you talking about?” It’s as batty as any conspiracy theory, and it’s a deliberate attempt to heap innuendo on policing in lieu of making an intelligent argument.
And that’s what frustrates me to no end. It’s the job of journalists to call out B.S. when it’s being thrown in their faces.
Jonah Goldberg comes to this conclusion:
RELATED: The 1619 Project Summarized in One Single Sentence
It is true that slave patrols were created in slave states and they were an early form of policing. How much that taints the police forces of modern-day Atlanta or Charleston or any other state is clearly up for discussion.
But it strikes me as somewhat far-fetched to argue that police in Minnesota or New York are imbued with the spirit of southern militias tasked with tracking down slaves. It even strikes me as a bit of a stretch to claim that the slave patrols of the 1840s have a lot of bearing on the actions of police departments in majority black cities like Atlanta.
Indeed, there's something uncomfortable to the idea that attempts to prevent rape, murder, robbery, etc., have some obvious racist intent behind them. Black people are just as deserving of protection from crime as anybody else.
Moreover, the attempt to paint policing—all policing "across America," in former slave states and free states alike—as the poisoned fruit of American slavery is problematic. First, every decent country has police, including the non-white ones. Second, the South lost the Civil War. Under Reconstruction, the Radical Republicans imposed the North's will on the South. The slave patrols were disbanded. Some patrollers did indeed become police. But so did African-Americans. Meanwhile, the evil energies of the patrols were primarily expressed elsewhere—in the form of vigilante groups like the KKK. When Reconstruction ended, the South imposed tyrannical Jim Crow laws.
In other words, the history is complicated. But the important point is that it is history, not America today.