"The literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement." (Turner, Giacopassi, and Vandiver, 2006)
According to the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, “the earliest examples of the police were established with the express purpose of targeting racial minorities. Slave patrols in colonial and revolutionary Virginia could search land owned by other white males for any escaped slaves without a warrant.”
Policing in the United States evolved from an early patchwork law-enforcement system of militias, sheriffs, constables, slave-catchers, and night watches. The "new police" of the mid-1800s established American police departments into permanent agencies of full-time state agents on continuous patrols. According to Hubert Williams and Patrick Murphy, these "new police" appeared in Boston in 1838, New York City in 1845, Chicago in 1851, New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1852, Philadelphia in 1854, St. Louis in 1855, Baltimore in 1857, and Detroit in 1865.
Citing historian Heather Cox Richardson, Williams and Murphy argue that the primary structural arrangement and organizational force undergirding the emerging centralized police force was the slave patrol system. They note that historically, urban centers with the most "elaborate police arrangements were those with large slave populations where white masters lived in dread of possible black uprisings."
According to historian Larry H. Spruill, the slave patrol system was first imported to the United States from Barbados in 1704 and then expanded throughout the South over the course of the 18th century. Legitimized by county courts, these patrols were intended to constantly patrol, surveil, and physically brutalize slave populations so as to snuff out any possible slave insurgencies. Spruill writes, "Slave patrols were the closest armed defenders of the core principles of southern race relations – white domination and black subordination. The hallmark of slave patrolling was the belief that every facet of black life was suspect, warranting aggressive police intervention and criminal investigations."
In effect, Spruill argues, both "planters and slaves understood that slave patrols, hunters and their bloodhounds were the police."
Intended to control the behavior of black slaves, slave patrols were the primary enforcers of slave statutes. According to Williams and Murphy, patrols prevented large groups of enslaved people from congregating in order "to repress any potential attacks upon the racial and social status quo." Slave patrollers were also responsible for enforcing pass laws, and were allowed to search the home of any black person. Thus responsible for controlling both the public domain and slaves' domestic spheres, slave patrollers were the legal enforcers of state-mandated white supremacy.
At their beginning, slave patrols were mostly comprised of volunteers (historian Adam Malka notes how the concept of a "good citizen" in Baltimore was constructed on a white's man's successful apprehension of black "criminals"), but over time, state governments were given the authority to formalize the patrols. In Carol Archbold's text Policing, she notes, "By 1837, the Charleston Police Department had 100 officers and the primary function of this organization was slave patrol... these officers regulated the movements of slaves and free blacks, checking documents, enforcing slave codes, guarding against slave revolts and catching runaway slaves.” This formalization was taken further with the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which, according to Sandra Bass, gave the states "broad authority to compel individuals to join slave patrols."
In the mid-nineteenth century, as municipal governments moved toward formalizing and then consolidating various law enforcement organizations within centralized police departments, the slave patrol model of policing proved to be southern cities' organization of choice. Carol Archbold writes, "The transition from slave patrols to publicly funded police agencies was seamless in the southern region of the United States."
For the North, the history was more complicated. The predecessors to the New York Police Department, the New York Night Watch, regularly enforced runaway laws within the city, and they continued to do so after the state's abolition of slavery in 1827. David Ruggles, a major figure in the abolitionist movement, wrote in 1836 that the city's law enforcement often worked in concert with slave catchers to kidnap black New Yorkers and sell them into bondage. Eric Foner, a prominent historian, notes that during Richard Riker's tenure as the presiding judge of the Court of Special Sessions from 1815-1838, New York's constable Tobias Boudinot and the city's "pimp for slaveholders" Daniel Nash colluded with Riker (together they formed what was known as the "Kidnapping Club") to arrest black New Yorkers and swiftly issue certificates of removal before a witness could be called to refute a slave-catcher's claim that the person in question was a runaway. Foner notes Boudinot once bragged he could “arrest and send any black to the South.” The official history of the New York Police Department fails to mention these roots as an enforcer of fugitive slave laws, but in the 19th c., it was a regular form of interaction between law enforcement and black denizens.
And as the century progressed, northern law enforcement were the state agents primarily responsible for controlling public space, and policing officers served as the country's first major enforcers of racial segregation. Historian C. Van Woodward once said, "One of the strangest things about Jim Crow was that the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force." Control over public space, racialized bodies' mobility (in both the north and the south), and a broadly defined "social order" emerged as the police's central focus.
In the century and a half since then, police departments have become increasingly militarized and sophisticated, but their methods of controlling black bodies in public space, enforcing de facto segregation, and surveilling and patrolling black communities continues largely unchanged. The history of police interactions with black people over the past three centuries is violent and brutal, and that probably won't change anytime soon.