Defund the Police: Part III, Historical Developments in America

In 2016, the Sherwood Park neighbourhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin erupted in three nights of violence after a fatal police shooting of an African American. In April of this year, 25-year-old Joel Acevedo died from blunt force trauma to the head a week after he was put in a chokehold in an altercation at his own home by an off-duty policeman, Michael Mattioli, who was charged with reckless homicide, was suspended from the police force but still received a pay check.

Why Milwaukee rather than Minneapolis or Ferguson? Milwaukee is considered America’s most racially segregated city and ranked as the worst place for black Americans. Critics claimed that lack of equity in health, wealth and education destroyed black lives. A half century ago, sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination, 200 nights of marches demanded an end to housing discrimination. Milwaukee has repeatedly been characterized by systemic racism, gross economic inequality and very troubled police-community relations. In the current context following the murder of George Floyd, the city’s mayor and police chief have both commended the demonstrators in Milwaukee for the peaceful nature of their protests while condemning those responsible for the rioting, arson and looting at night.

Officials follow the Hegelian model and trace the problem to gross economic and social disparities. Milwaukee has the worst gap in academic success between blacks and whites. Half the city’s African American children live below the poverty line. The tension between the police and the community persists in spite of police reforms that introduced new training for police and made cops wear body cameras. When did things go so wrong? The historical outline below only provides a general overview and no one police department fits precisely into the stages, the three different models of policing and the corresponding eras depicted.

In the last blog, I indicated that the French model of policing in the eighteenth century and then under Napoleon in a military-administrative state was based on social control and maintaining order in a sovereign nation state. The British and German models shifted the emphasis to different aspects of civil society. However, in all three cases, the maintenance of order and/or the protection of persons and property largely depended on “educating” citizens to discipline themselves and support law and order. Theoretically, the force of the state would not be needed to discipline individuals to serve a collective purpose. Instead, the individual would be trained to discipline his or her own body either as part of an administrative-military state, or as part of an economic welfare state or, finally, as part of a civil society in which each individual sought his or her personal happiness and satisfaction.

In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin promoted the French model. While stressing self-criticism and self-improvement to inculcate virtuous citizens to serve the state and its institutions, the institutions would, in turn, help forge those citizens so they could be loyal and serve the state. To combat the lack of safety on the streets of Philadelphia and its alleged higher crime rate, that he blamed on the passivity of the Quakers in dealing with violence, Franklin advocated a preventive police force with watchmen who would target trouble-makers, rogues, vagabonds, malefactors and anyone they suspected of evil intent.

With the revolution, sovereign power and legislative authority had been placed in the hands of the people who, in self-government, minimized the role and need for the state in the quest for “frugal government” yet, at the same time, supported “invasive intrusions” by a powerful police force. Over the following decades, the combination of frugality towards the institutions of governance and empowerment of the police resulted in social movements of resistance and revolts. The policing of the suspect “idlers” and “vagrants” meant incarceration, assignment to work gangs and labour for private contractors. This was not a philosophical justification for either a preventive or a reformed police force.

For the imported French model, the issue was not the formation of individuals who could contribute to the creation of wealth or, at the very least, train individuals to use their labour to lift themselves out of poverty. Rather, the indigent and the slothful had to contribute to the “harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order of that system, which God and nature have established in the world,” (Franklin) which included ensuring that the populace retained the proper respect for the status and authority of the police. Keeping the populace whose lot in life was poverty required taming the lions and the tigers while teaching obedience and subordination through inculcating civility and decency as norms of behaviour. “To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures in concurring with the Deity; ’tis Godlike, but if we provide encouragements for laziness, and supports for folly, may it not be found fighting against the order of God and nature, which perhaps has appointed want and misery as the proper punishments for, and cautions against as well as necessary consequences of idleness and extravagancy.”

Poor relief and policing were two sides of the same coin opposed to both the laissez-faire of Jeremy Bentham or the welfare state of Hegel. Further, Franklin believed that “certain groups of people were less inclined to toil than others, less inclined to engage in productive labour thereby creating a natural division between the idle and industrious classes which determined the power relations in a polity. Native Americans, for example, were “naturally” less inclined to submit to the discipline of work and industry and live in cities. African Negroes, he contended, enjoyed a wandering, careless life, making them unsuited to living in civilized society.

Charity, philanthropy and the promise of salvation, either religious or civic, were the instruments to induce participation in the workhouses for the poor. Compare that to the proposals in Jeremy Bentham’s Pantopican letters (“Pauper Management Improved”). Since labour was necessary for a productive society and since the poor evidently lacked the virtues of self-discipline, Bentham recommended privatizing indentured work for a National Charity Company, modelled after the East India Company that would have absolute authority over the “whole body of the burdensome poor.”  

These two French (Franklin) and Bentham archetypes and rationales for policing models were different again from the Hegelian one. When the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office could not provide adequate protection for its citizens, the Milwaukee Police Department was founded in 1855 when the city was already known for its high crime rate and the widespread presence of gangs of thieves. This was the same time that the St. Louis Hegelians consolidated as a group to advance Hegelian ideas. They were led by Henry Conrad Brockmeyer (1828-1906), a Prussian, and William Torrey Harris (1835-1909), a New Englander educated at Yale. They focused on social and political problems, individuals assuming responsibility and the need for reform inspired mainly by Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right. Economic injustice was seen to be at the root of the disorder in the cities in the mid-west.

By the 1880s, the reforms set in motion by these Hegelian ideas were undermined and then destroyed by the introduction of a political spoils system. In 1878, the new mayor, John Black, appointed Daniel Kennedy, a fellow Democrat, as police chief and he in turn fired 25 Republican patrolmen as the police force was turned into a corrupt arm of the equivalent of Tammany Hall in New York. This was the same time that, in the face of the failures in social reform, the St. Louis Hegelians dissolved as a group and turned their attention towards individual interests and moral advancement based almost solely on education. It is then that they were most influential in shaping the ideas and concerns of the American pragmatists. The first phase in the development of policing in the United States, in particular, Milwaukee, had shifted from a concern with economic and political reforms to eliminate the underlying causes of bad police/community relations, to a second phase, the politicization of the police as part of a spoils system.

The corruption of police departments in America influenced by the English model (without the norms of the “bobbies”) continued to focus on abstract governing norms and an emphasis on property and personal protection. The police forces constructed on that model were taught to utilize intrusive and even punitive measures to restore social order much more than providing a main line of defense against deviants and lawbreakers. As a result, here again the maintenance of public order became more important than the prevention of crime. In fact, it became a recipe for the police to become criminals themselves.

The corruption of the police forces through patronage that succeeded the noble ideals of either the German or the English model of policing became intolerable. Reforms were introduced across the land to professionalize the police force, either by hiring private firms to patrol one’s property or changing the way police were appointed, trained and deployed. But the new emphasis on police patrols to apprehend offenders and deter lawbreakers was soon determined to be ineffective and very costly.

“Community policing” became the new battle cry for reform in the 1960s to 1980s. A return to the London “bobbie” model was called for. It did not just mean taking cops out of patrol cars and making them walk the beat so they could get to know the members of the community. It meant extending their work from simple law enforcement to promoting the common good by serving as community social workers and engaging in cooperative and interactive relationships with the members of the communities in which they served. It is precisely this “overreach” that has currently come under fire. Police are criticized because they do not have the skills or training to act as psychologists and social workers. Personnel trained to use force to apprehend criminals should not and cannot be used to tackle underlying social causes and engage in prevention.

One of the results – police activity became more visible and more open to public accountability. At the same time, police operations were more likely to be identified with community crime prevention through aggressive maintenance of order when engaged in problem-oriented policing. Thus, it is ironic that today, Oregon, that was at the front end of community policing reform, is now at the core of taking back community protection from the police. In 1990, the Portland police department published their definition of community policing.

“’Community policing is based on a philosophy which recognizes the interdependence and shared responsibility of the police and community in making Portland a safer, more livable city. It is a method of policing which encourages a partnership that identifies community safety issues, determines resources, and applies innovative strategies designed to create and sustain healthy, vital neighborhoods. Community policing will coordinate with efforts being made by private, non-profit, and public agencies to bring a comprehensive approach to Portland’s problems of crime and disorder. Community policing reflects the values of: community participation; problem solving; officer involvement in decision making; police accountability; and deployment of police personnel at a level closer to the neighborhood.”

Generalities displaced specific instructions. Broad goals identified more with social work, but NOT economic reform, became the focus so that the police became even more reactive and impotent in dealing with underlying causes. Efforts were made to expand community policing and create partnerships between the police and health authorities, for example, to create safe injection sites and distribute clean needles. But these only created greater confusion for the police who had been charged with enforcing anti-drug laws. The problem-solving preventive approach that replaced police professionalism as a reactive model in dealing with crime ended up subjecting the police to even greater criticism given the inherent contradictions in their mandate.

Thus, the philosophy of policing underwent several important transitions from the era when policing first became a paid position that replaced the earlier amateur and largely voluntary policing in which police earned a percentage of taxes collected or fees, with a corresponding widespread inequality and injustice. The enforcement of criminal law became subservient to the application of civil law, whether that law emphasized the recapture of slaves as property, the collection of taxes, the payment of fines or the payment of rent.

No matter what the stage of development, no matter what the original model of policing, police forces were constructed on contradictory demands that could not result in a coherent, effective and just model of policing. By the sixties and the seventies, injustice became the norm in dealing with violence against blacks. So did a culture of impunity and the tendency of policy officers to initiate violence and justify such actions with bogus claims. Even minor infractions by blacks risked police brutality, especially if subservience was not communicated.

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