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History of Policing: Why Were the Police Created?

Have you ever wondered why the police were created in the first place? And what were the goals, values and intentions of these groups that have led to the current issues we have with police forces across the world today?

Table of Contents:

The United States' legal system is based on English common law. The execution of such old rules fell to a criminal justice system that had grown and evolved over a long period of time. The Magna Carta and other English constitutional papers provide protection against the abuse of police power that Americans enjoy today. Two of the most fundamental elements of modern American policing are legally limited police authority and a decentralized organizational structure, both of which can be traced back to the country’s English colonial origins.

The Canadian police system is an example of a diverse system that developed under colonial influence from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom and serves a diverse population.

It is difficult to categorize the structure of policing in Canada because of the varied policing systems that developed in British and French-influenced metropolitan regions, as well as in the central plains, Yukon, and Northwest Territories. In addition, many provinces outsourced their police administration in the early years to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), a paramilitary force loyal to the federal government during the interwar period. Local police forces in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, as well as many municipalities, operate and are held accountable in comparable ways to those in the United States.

The RCMP, on the other hand, has a more militarist centralized structure that has resisted attempts at accountability to local government. The developments in the United States have had an impact on community policing and neighborhood watch initiatives. The Canadian police system is primarily local and decentralized, with the option for local governments to choose a centralized system.

Early History of Policing

Anthropologists and historians refer to the earliest system of law enforcement as kin policing. Members of a clan or tribe banded together in this primitive system to enforce the group's rules on rogue members. The idea behind kin policing was that an attack on one member of the group was equivalent to an attack on the entire group. It should be noted that this method was extremely informal: there were no courts or written laws. Group norms and customs were used to derive behavioural expectations.

The institution of slavery is directly responsible for the origins of policing in the United States. Throughout American history, the relationship between Blacks and law enforcement has been contentious.

Slave patrols were among the first state-sponsored police forces, and they were used to control the slave population by confining Blacks to specific areas and monitoring their behaviour. Slave Codes were established by lawmakers and enforced by all segments of the White community to defend their slave property interests.

Even after slavery was abolished, states used the legal and prison systems to maintain racial subordination and economically exploit emancipated Black people. Between 1865 and 1866, "Black Codes"—criminal laws that created new offences, such as loitering and vagrancy, punishable by fines, imprisonment, and forced labor for up to one year—were passed in an effort to control Blacks and maintain the ideology of White supremacy. Many Southern states enacted vagrancy laws, making it a crime to not work.

What was the First Police Force in the World?

Local magistrates were paying salaried constables by 1798, the year the Marine Police Force was established. The Marine Police, which was initially made up of 220 Constables and 1,000 registered dock workers, was responsible for preventing cargo theft on and around the River Thames. The London Marine Police Force is widely regarded as the world's first modern police force, in the sense that they were independent of the government and were responsible for crime prevention.

Why Were the Police Originally Created?

The underlying assumption in most liberal discussions of recent police killings of unarmed Black men is that the police are supposed to protect and serve the population. After all, that is why they were created.

This problem could be solved if normal, decent relations between the police and the community could be restored. According to this logic, poor people are more likely to be victims of crime than anyone else, and as a result, they require more police protection than anyone else. Perhaps there are a few bad apples, but if our institutions like policing weren't so disconnected from the communities they serve, didn't employ discriminatory policies like stop-and-frisk, weren't so afraid of Black people, shot fewer unarmed men, or were trained in unconscious bias, they wouldn't be as racist and they could provide a valuable service that we all require.

To our dismay, the police were not established to protect and serve the public. They were not designed to deter crime, at least not in the way most people think. And they were most emphatically not designed to promote justice. They were created to control the working class and poor people – to defend the new form of wage-labor capitalism that emerged in the mid-to-late nineteenth century from the threat posed by that system's offspring, the working class.

This is not the kind of police force I imagined as a little girl or expected to rely on as a Canadian or anyone living in a 'democratic' country. This is indeed a tough conversation we citizens need to have with our police forces in order to reform the police into an institution that serves the public the way we want and need to be helped.

Join us for a discussion about policing in your community so that we can be a part of the solution. To host a private discussion for your group simply book a call with us or sign up to attend our next monthly tough convo event.


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