People For the American Way

Understanding the History of Policing in America and Police Violence Against Black Communities

News and Analysis
Understanding the History of Policing in America and Police Violence Against Black Communities

People For the American Way’s recent report, All Safe: Transforming Public Safety, provides concrete policy proposals for the transformation and implementation of public safety programs specifically at the local level. Eliminating police violence and improving public safety are vital to Black communities throughout our country.

To better understand where these issues stand today and the urgency behind calls to end police killings and abuse, it’s critical to reach back to the origins of policing and examine how law enforcement have interacted with Black communities throughout American history.

In the guest blog post below, Rev. Dr. Susan K. Williams Smith explains the history of policing in the United States and how it’s intrinsically tied to violence against Black communities. An ordained minister, musician, writer, and activist, she’s written for the Washington Post and Huffington Post, and she serves as part of the African American Ministers’ Leadership Council, a program of People For the American Way.


A Brief History of Policing and Police Violence Against Black Communities

In 1921, an angry mob of white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, attacked the city’s Greenwood neighborhood, a thriving Black community and business district known to many as the Black Wall Street.

That prosperity had been cultivated with intention after O.W. Gurley, a wealthy black landowner, moved to Tulsa and purchased 40 acres of land, which he reserved for Black purchase only. Greenwood’s population had grown to 10,000 by 1921. On May 31 of that year, a white woman made a claim that to this day continues to be used to justify racist violence: A Black man had attacked and assaulted her. Her accusation sparked a massacre that decimated the Greenwood district, killed approximately 300 people, and left the majority of Tulsa’s Black population homeless. Instead of arresting the violent white rioters, local Tulsa police arrested and even shot Black people for defending their lives and their property. Later reports describe lawmakers and judges participating in the massacre.

As a 2020 editorial in The New York Times describes it:

The Tulsa, Okla. police department set the stage for mass murder in the spring of 1921 when it deputized members of a mob that invaded and destroyed the prosperous Black enclave of Greenwood. The armed marauders who swept into the community in the early hours of June 1 wreaked havoc in the spirit of a police directive that urged white Tulsans to “Get a gun and get busy and try to get a n—r.”(sic) They murdered at will while forcing black (sic) families from their homes. They looted valuables that included jewelry, furs, and fine furnishings. They used torches and oil-soaked rags to set fires that incinerated homes, churches, doctors’ offices, hotels and other businesses across an area of 35 square blocks.

What happened in Tulsa was just one of many acts of violence perpetrated against Black people by law enforcement, a pattern that began during slavery. The founders of the U.S. shared a common goal for their country to become an economic empire, and in addition to their personal complicity in the practice of chattel slavery, the genesis of anti-Black violence in this country, the policies and practices they drove shaped American policing from its inception as distinctly anti-Black.

By the time George Washington, a slaveowner, signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 slave patrols had already been in operation in this country for nearly a century. Formed in 1704 in South Carolina, slave patrols consisted largely of white citizens – and in the South, the militia and army – who were authorized by the government to use violent, vigilante-type tactics, including entering the home of anyone, whether white or Black, who was suspected of sheltering enslaved people who had recently escaped. These deputized civilians, supported by local, state and federal governments, provided the origins of emerging police forces.

The passage of the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 codified the targeting of enslaved Africans and lawfully granted local governments the authority to seize and return people based on their race and their social status. Nearly six decades later, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, expanding upon the first iteration of the law by requiring citizens to assist in the recovery of enslaved fugitives, increasing the number of federal agents who enforced the law, requiring that enslave people be returned to their owners even if they were captured in a free state and denying enslaved people the right to a jury trial.

After the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, freed Black men were granted legal citizenship status and its associated rights, including the right to vote. The immediate postbellum period known as Reconstruction marked the rise of Black activism and organizing to secure civil, economic, and political rights and freedoms, but many white Americans refused to recognize and accept Black people’s freedom. Simmering racist resentment led many states to “[enact] an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life.” (from Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery By Another Name).

The “Black Codes” that proliferated during Reconstruction restricted where newly freed Black people could work and legalized racial segregation and discrimination against them. The Ku Klux Klan and other extralegal groups were established to undermine and police Black freedom and reestablish white supremacy through violent, terrorist means. And as they were established, municipal police forces targeted and attacked freed people. In the South, police departments incorporated slave patrols’ vigilante-style surveillance tactics. The establishment of police departments set into motion the anti-Black police violence that still plagues the U.S. today.

Reconstruction crumbled under these forces, giving way to the openly racist, discriminatory and violent Jim Crow era. After being dehumanized by slave traders and owners and made into property with no legal rights, and then earning citizenship and supposed equal treatment under the law, Black people, especially Black men, were targeted and terrorized by law enforcement and citizens alike. When they were not lynched without cause, they were arrested for vagrancy, loitering, breaking curfew, and other minor offenses.

The convict leasing system, which spread across the South after Georgia adopted it in 1868, criminalized many aspects of day-to-day life, created outsized prison sentences for such offenses, and assigned convicted persons to work, without pay, in mines, factories, and plantations. Convict leasing, which one author aptly described as “slavery by another name,” forced Black people into unpaid labor, often for the rest of their lives – and laid the foundation for further widespread systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

As time went on, Black Americans’ dehumanization and criminalization was further cemented in place by our laws, our government, and our institutions, including our policing system. During the Red Summer of 1919, when white supremacist mobs attacked and murdered Black Americans in cities throughout the country, law enforcement stood by or actively took part in the violence. The city of Chicago ordered a commission to identify the causes of the violence and found “systemic participation in mob violence by the police.” The horror of the 1921 Greenwood massacre in Oklahoma was repeated, with police participation, in Rosewood, Florida; Elaine, Arkansas; East St. Louis, Missouri and other cities across the country. Many officers themselves were members of the Ku Klux Klan, which flourished and in some cities became the dominant political force during the 1920s.

During the civil rights movement, which began in response to the mass lynchings of Black people in 1909 and reached a high point in the late 1960s, protesters were frequently attacked by members of law enforcement. Researchers Katrina Feldkamp and S. Rebecca Neusteter posit that the 911 system itself, rolled out in 1968, was created in direct response to civil rights and racial equity protests of the 1960s. They point to contemporary statements of  FCC commissioners at the time, who noted that the implementation of the 911 system “got a boost as a result of last summer’s widespread civil disorders in major cities.” President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, “advised a national system would ​‘increase the usefulness of the telephone’ during civil disorders,” and would “enable police to respond ​‘promptly and with a sufficient display of force.’” (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute)

Today, it is nearly impossible to disentangle the influences of white supremacy and anti-Black fear and hostility from the practice of policing as it has come to exist. Law enforcement was preceded by slave patrolling, white vigilante mobs, white supremacist terrorist groups, and white fear that emerged during the civil rights era. Those powerful influences created a culture of police violence and continue to shape police practices today. According to the Mapping Police Violence project, 98.3% of all police officers who have killed someone on duty from 2013 – 2020 have not been criminally charged.



All Safe Report, police reform, police violence, public safety