The murder of George Floyd triggered a nationwide call for police reform that has ranged everywhere from “defund the police” to “reimagine policing”. At their core, the message is that structural elements of our system of law enforcement make black and brown people disproportionately subject to police violence and arrest.

What does the history of policing in America tell us?

Julian Go, Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, joined me for this episode of You Don’t Have to Yell to discuss his work on the origins of modern policing and how it can inform our view of today’s movement towards reforming it.

You can listen to the full episode via the player below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you get podcasts.

Show Notes

The first call for police reform happened in the late 1800s, when an influx of immigrants and African Americans moved to America's cities in search of work, raising racial anxiety among the local white population. The movement from a loosely organized, often corrupt police force gave way to a professionalized one - borrowed from reforms implemented in London in response to a similar influx of Irish immigrants.

Soon after, August Vollmer, credited with being the father of modern policing, further professionalized the force by adding a military structure, learned from his time serving abroad in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars. In addition to borrowing its structure, Vollmer also borrowed tactics used to quell unrest in Cuba and the Phillippines.

In his work, Go cites an imperial feedback loop where America's foreign excursions influenced policing and, in some communities, caused the police to behave more like an occupying army than a force for crime prevention.

This is seen again in the 1960s, when counterinsurgency tactics in Vietnam were borrowed in the formation of SWAT teams or, more overtly, in the 1033 program, where police departments can acquire military surplus at no cost and, by that, with no input from the communities they serve.

At its root, Go's work highlights an American perception that the use of force is critical to preserving public order. This not only fails to align with America's foundation as a nation where those empowered to use force in the name of the state are subject to the people they serve, but also fails to hold up against history, as spending on police forces, courts, and prisons has failed to create a meaningful reduction in crime.

From my conversation with Go, it seems the conversation around police reform has as much to do with Americans coming to grips with the root causes of criminality - typically poverty and mental illness - as it does with any changes to the way we police our communities.

While there's a gap between reformers and law enforcement, both would agree the best crime prevention would be to keep less people from becoming criminals.

Additional Resources

You can find Go's work on the origins of American policing here: