How The U.S. Police Service Was Founded As A Slave Hunting Organization

By | June 7, 2020

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(Getty Images)

It may seem like police have been around since the first caveman stole a rock from another, but they've actually only been patrolling since just before the Civil War. At the time, the police weren’t "the police" but a loose configuration of white men who worked as slave hunters for wealthy land owners. It took major reforms in the 19th century to turn these ragged groups of semi-vigilantes into the police force that we know today.

Criminal Cops

Colonial-era communities had a variety of methods for policing themselves. In many instances, private groups were paid to act as a kind of protective force, but in other towns, unpaid volunteers stood sentry during the evening. These volunteers weren’t ace crime-stoppers by any means: They were known for falling asleep on their shifts, drinking on the job, or just ignoring their duties altogether. Many "volunteers" were put on the job because they were in trouble with the law and avoiding jail time.

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(National Law Enforcement Museum)

Mall Cops And Slave Hunters

As cities grew into urban sprawls in the 19th century, it became clear that volunteer nightwatchman groups weren't going to cut it. In Boston, a group of private protectors were put together to watch over the commercial shipping center before the merchants convinced the public to pay for the cost of the police in the name of the "collective good."

In the South, a similar protective force came into being around the same time to effectively do the same thing. In this case, however, the "merchandise" they were keeping an eye on was people. The first recorded version of this kind of police force was documented in 1704 in the Carolina colonies. These slave patrols weren't concerned with keeping law and order in the colonies so much as making sure that wealthy landowners maintained control over the people that they considered property. Policies backing up slave patrols were enacted across the colonies of the North and South, making slaves into fugitives across America and empowering slave patrols to do as they pleased as long as they were protecting the interests of wealthy slave owners. If a runaway slave was caught by a patrol, they were captured and punished however the men saw fit.