Policing And Social Change

The first publicly funded police departments in the United States were developed in the South and their primary purpose was to preserve the racist social order by maintaining slavery. In 1837, the Charleston, South Carolina Police Department had a police organization of over 100 officers whose primary responsibility was “slave patrol”. The “slave patrol” were made up of mostly poor whites and they were responsible to regulate the movements of slaves, checked documents, enforced slave codes, guarded against slave revolts and attempted to catch runaway slaves. Due to this “slave patrol”, slaves often developed their own resistance, including warning signs, booby traps, escape systems and violence. The Charleston, South Carolina police force founded a police force whose primary mission was to maintain the social order by preserving the relations of power characterized by racial domination. The first organized state police force, referred to as the “Texas Rangers” was first organized as part of the “slave patrol” and was responsible to retrieve runaway slave’s attempting to escape to Mexico.

As society evolved into the industrial era between the 1780’s and 1820’s, the emergence of the industrial police began to develop. Rapid population growth, due to high levels of immigration, creating distinct social classes led to widespread feelings of disorder in the urban cities. Major riots in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Chicago led for a new style of bureaucratically organized policing to emerge. The primary role of these newly developed agencies was to maintain the social order, including social stratification as it existed at the time of their formation. The industrial police were used against Irish and German immigrants in the urban cities to break strikes and suppress hunger riots, enforced anti-immigrant ordinances on liquor and gambling.

The progression into the modern police in the United States occurred between the late 1870’s and 1920. This transformation was not a sudden change in the style of policing. A number of factors contributed to the onset of modern police departments. Police needed the support of the government, industries and voters in order to expand their financial and legal support. The police attempted to be seen as a legitimate social agency in the eyes of the working and poor classes so that they could enforce the law and maintain order effectively and efficiently.

In the 1960’s when the police clashed with a series of major social movements attempting to change social order, police legitimacy began to deteriorate. Public faith in the police as a professional bureaucracy began to crumble. Police began to receive criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. In the 1960’s, the civil rights movement exposed inequality and injustice as it challenged the forms of social control placed on African Americans.

Community policing began to emerge in the 1980’s and is currently the style of policing in today’s society. Nearly every police department integrates community policing as an essential component of their mission. Community policing is an important crime prevention tool and provokes a positive image that tends to insulate the approach of social control.

Brandl, S. G. & Barlow, D.E. (2004). The Police in America: Classic and Contemporary Readings: Belmont, CA: Wadworth/ Thomson Learning
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