Jaylen Minefield

Jaylen Minefield

Undoubtedly, the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and many others by the police during the spring and summer of 2020 have thrust the issues of racism, police brutality and unequal and unfair treatment by law enforcement and the United States’ justice system onto the main stage of national and international news. This will be the first of a four part examination of the role and impact of policing in the United States.

Although many previously were aware of the existence of disparities and increased violence by policing agencies against people and communities of color, some people are being exposed to the harsh reality of police brutality and racial discrimination in our law enforcement agencies and justice systems for the first time due to the accessibility and reach of social media.

Naturally, the exposure of this reality is met with a wide range of reactions from support to opposition and denial, and some people chalk the wrongful deaths up to the work of a “few bad apples.” However, when investigating the history and origin of modern policing in the United States of America, the realization becomes that racial discrimination is not only occurring in law enforcement but was intended and encouraged from its founding.

Many modern day police departments, especially in the southern United States, began as slave patrols and night watches. These patrols operated to serve three main functions:

1. Chase down, apprehend and return enslaved individuals to their owners

2. Provide a form of organized terror to deter revolts of the enslaved through demonstrations of violence

3. Maintain a form of discipline for enslaved workers who were subject to summary justice which is done outside of the law without due process

The slave patrols and night watches consisted of mainly white men who were compensated and funded through the use of public taxes, much like the police departments of today; however, the connection between slave patrols and modern police departments does not end here.

In fact, after the abolition of slavery in the American south, these slave patrols were not abolished along with slavery. Instead, all over the south slave patrols were transformed and rebranded as police departments for towns and cities. Not only did the new police departments employ many of those who were previous slave catchers, but they also were able to adopt similar functions and violent transgressions against people of color due to the adoption of vagrancy laws throughout the south to counteract the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

The Vagrancy Act of 1866 criminalized men and women who were or appeared to be homeless or unemployed, subjecting them to forced unpaid labor and deeming them property of the state. Given that the 13th Amendment was not ratified until December 6, 1865, and the Vagrancy Act was passed forty days later on January 15, 1866, the institution of slavery and control of people of color for the benefit of white men and women was able to furthered and maintained due to the lack of existing jobs and financial opportunities for the formerly enslaved within the short period of time after abolition but before vagrancy laws went into effect.

Vagrancy laws and Black codes that swept through the nation established the gateway for mass incarceration to replace the outdated practice of slavery. Over time, the power of vagrancy laws and Black codes diminished, especially as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, but as a result, on the horizon lay an ideology that would cause an explosion in the carceral population unlike anything the country had ever seen before. This became known as the war on drugs.

The war on drugs justified the over-policing of communities of color under the guise of being high crime areas and the harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed for nonviolent drug crimes. Operating under the false premise that Black individuals are more likely to use recreational drugs, police departments across the nations occupied, criminalized and dehumanized entire communities and stripped citizens of their rights to due process in the name of public safety.

Due to the adoption of prejudices by police institutions, we are experiencing a current crisis of unequal and inadequate application of the criminal justice system to Black men and women. For example, Black individuals are six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses despite sharing equal substance use rates as white citizens. This disparate impact has led to an authoritative and abusive police presence invoking fear, instability and a distorted and criminalized self and community while costing the government nearly $1 trillion dollars.

Currently, over 450,000 of those incarcerated in the United States are citizens who are incarcerated for drug related offenses. Black citizens are incarcerated at a rate six times that of the white community despite equal usage rates. It is clear that slavery, the foundation of American law enforcement, and mass incarceration have been, are being and will be used as tools to further white supremacy institutionally regardless of intent.

In order to address the issues of inequality and violence in the justice system and law enforcement community, realization and acknowledgement of the origin of law enforcement in America become a necessity. Understanding the deeply flawed and disturbing history of violence, racism and abuse ingrained in the foundations of law enforcement provides needed clarity for some to see the connections of the past, present and future. In order for longstanding transformative change to be acquired, discussion must begin on how to solve the deeply rooted systemic racial mistreatment through restructuring and revising the role of law enforcement as a whole opposed to slapping lackadaisical reforms that are performative at best.

Police institutions are, were and will continue to be used as ambassadors of oppression, violence and control by the state against the impoverished, people and communities of color, and other disadvantaged groups in our society until the role of law enforcement is reassessed, restructured and revolutionized to benefit each and every member, group and community of society in a positive way. 

Jaylen Minefield is a junior majoring in sociology. He can be reached atjminefie@vols.utk.edu.

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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