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The Racist Origins of U.S. Policing

  • Julian Go
  • Aug, 2020
  • 172
  • Race & Ethnicity

Demilitarization will require decolonization

Protests for racial justice surged in the streets of American cities this June, only to meet a police response that looked startlingly like warfare: police used tear gas on protesters, donned Kevlar helmets, and brandished weapons appropriate to the battlefield. Critics objected that police in the United States were no longer the “civil” force they claimed to be so much as an “occupying army” that had turned American cities into war zones.

Today the demand to demilitarize the U.S. police is widespread. Last month, Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, and Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii called to end the 1033 Program, by which police have been able to secure billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment. And while the outcry may have grown louder, the concern it expresses is hardly new. In 2014, citizens of Concord, New Hampshire, learned that the city’s police department was going to receive new military equipment, including a tank. Protesters descended upon the town hall with signs reading, “More Mayberry, Less Fallujah!”

Efforts at demilitarization are bound to fall short, however, if they do not take into account the hidden history that has produced such martial tactics in the streets to begin with. From its very inception, modern policing has been militarized, readily equating citizens with enemies and even with colonized subjects. Modern policing is tethered inextricably to overseas colonial projects of conquest, occupation, and rule. Demilitarizing its practice will require uprooting a worldview with which it is entirely entwined.

From the Philippines to Berkeley

The early twentieth century was called “the reform era” in U.S. policing. But the changes of that time actually brought police into greater conformity with the military. During the reform era, police departments began using the same .38 Special pistol that the U.S. Army used, and they adopted new methods, such as one called “pin mapping,” which involved charting the locations of crimes in order to detect hot spots of criminal activity, predict future crime, and deploy forces accordingly.

August Vollmer, who would become known as “the father of modern policing,” was the head of the police department in Berkeley, California, in 1909 and an early adopter of pin mapping. The technique quickly spread across police departments all over the country. Today it is so common that we hardly think of it as innovative. At the time, however, it was a radical invention, as police had never attempted to track or predict crime. Vollmer adopted the technique from his days in the U.S. Army during the Philippine-American War. That conflict, which raged from 1899 to 1902, cost some 200,000 Filipino civilian lives and made the Philippines an American possession. The U.S. Army used pin mapping to track the movements of insurgents and locate their camps in the vast terrain of Central Luzon. Vollmer used pin-mapping information to penetrate the Philippines’ interior and hunt down rebel forces. Later, as a civilian police officer, he simply applied the tactic to policing. He referred to it as “the art of making war on the map.”

Vollmer introduced other innovations to policing. When he was elected town marshal of Berkeley in 1905, Vollmer put his entire force on bicycles. This move earned him some laughs from the press and other officials, but it provided his force with new mobility. Mounted police units could cover more terrain at heightened speeds than foot patrols. Then, in the early 1920s, Vollmer created a mounted unit in the Los Angeles Police Department using automobiles, and police departments all across the country followed suit. Soon enough, mobile patrols were seen nearly everywhere in U.S. cities, speeding down streets to chase criminals or swarm hot spots.

Vollmer took the idea for mobile units, too, from the U.S. campaign in the Philippines. To counter stealthy, fast-moving Filipino insurgents, the U.S. Army dropped its conventional formations, whereby soldiers lined up and marched across the battlefield, and replaced them with open-order tactics, relying upon small, elite mobile units, which, using pin-mapping knowledge, could hunt insurgents and attack their compounds-a precursor to present-day search-and-destroy operations. Vollmer had served in one of those elite mobile forces, and when he created his mobile police units, he adopted the very same approach. “We must be able to move men rapidly from one scene of action to another,” he explained to his force before one of his famous raids. “Concentration of force is supremely important in military science, and it will be important to the task we have at hand.”

Vollmer introduced many other methods to the police that were inspired by his experience in the Philippin...

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