Origins of the Police by David Whitehouse

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      Excellent text examining the creation of the first police forces, which took place in England and the US in just a few decades in the mid-19th century.

      In England and the United States, the police were invented within the space of just a few decades — roughly from 1825 to 1855.

      The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime.

      Besides, crime has to do with the acts of individuals, and the ruling elites who invented the police were responding to challenges posed by collective action. To put it in a nutshell: The authorities created the police in response to large, defiant crowds. That’s:

      — strikes in England,
      — riots in the Northern US,
      — and the threat of slave insurrections in the South.

      So the police are a response to crowds, not to crime.

      The law has many more provisions than they (police) actually use, so their enforcement is always selective. That means that they are always profiling what part of the population to target and choosing which kinds of behavior they want to change. It also means that cops have a permanent opportunity for corruption. If they have discretion over who gets picked up for a crime, they can demand a reward for not picking somebody up.

      Another way to see the gap between the law and what cops do is to examine the common idea that punishment begins after conviction in a court. The thing is, anybody who’s dealt with the cops will tell you that punishment begins the moment they lay hands on you. They can arrest you and put you in jail without ever filing charges. That’s punishment, and they know it. That’s not to mention the physical abuse you might get, or the ways they can mess with you even if they don’t arrest you.

      So the cops order people around every day without a court order, and they punish people every day without a court judgment. Obviously, then, some of the key social functions of the police are not written into the law. They’re part of police culture that cops learn from each other with encouragement and direction from their commanders.

      The rise of the police, which came along with the rise of the prosecutors, meant that the state was putting its thumb on the scales of justice. In court, you might hope to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Before you get to court, though, you have to pass through the hands of the cops and prosecutors who certainly don’t treat you like you’re innocent. They have a chance to pressure you or torture you into a confession—or nowadays a confession in the form of a plea bargain—before you ever get to court.

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