Policing has its roots in slave-catching. To change it, we must change that legacy | Opinion

The history of American policing reflects the attitudes, norms, and values of racism in our society

Memphis Police vehicles. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout ).

By Terrence A. Alladin

The beating of Tyre Nichols by five Black police officers of the Memphis Police Department is a racial problem. The fact that Tyre Nichols is a Black man and that the five police officers are Black men does not diminish the effect that race played in this awful incident.

Terrence A. Alladin (Lebanon Valley College photo).

Nichols was targeted because of his race.  

The officers involved claimed that their reason for the initial stop was due to him driving recklessly. Reckless driving is a violation of traffic laws that can be broadly interpreted: a person driving twenty or more miles over the posted speed limit can be charged with reckless driving. However, the officers did not claim that Tyre was speeding. 

A person changing lanes rapidly, thereby creating unsafe conditions for themselves and other drivers, can also be considered to be driving recklessly. However, the officers did not state that was the reason for their attempt to initiate the traffic stop. 

So how exactly was Nichols operating his vehicle that the officers considered him to be driving reckless?  That question remains unanswered.  

What is clear is that the police officers approached Nichols in a violent and dehumanizing manner. He was dragged from his vehicle.  A traffic stop by a police officer, even for reckless driving, requires that the officer requests the vehicle operator driver’s license, registration, and insurance.

If there is a need to arrest or detain the operator of the vehicle, that occurs after probable cause has been established by the police officer. There were no warrants issued for Nichols or the vehicle, no contraband was observed in plain sight, so there was no need for the officers to initiate an arrest.  

The illegal actions by these police officers would not have occurred had Nichols been a white man.  Police officers, of all races, exercise professionalism, courtesy, and respect when they interact with White citizens.  However, that professionalism dissipates when the encounter is with Black and Brown citizens. 

The rationale seems to be very simple: Blacks are expendable.  The Jan. 6, 2021 invasion of the Capitol is a prime example of the disproportionately lenient interactions that occur between White citizens and police.

Police culture is founded on racial inequity. The earliest known police in America, the slave patrols, were established on a foundation of racism.  Those 19th century officers were used to carry out the will of both the plantation owners and the state, and keep black slaves under control. 

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Racism in contemporary policing can be traced from this early policing group to the Jim Crow era, through Civil Rights, and to present day mass incarceration.  

The first Black police officer, Wiley Overton of the Brooklyn Police Department, could not arrest white citizens.  He was appointed to keep control over the Black people in his community. This meant that he could treat them with the same level of abuse and disrespect his white colleagues did.  This is the same toxic culture that many modern-day Black police officers adopt when they join the police force.

Black police officers become part of the racist culture of their white colleagues because it allows them to assimilate into the larger policing culture. They are accepted by their new “white brothers” because they are willing to be enforcers of the racist policies that are used to keep control of the Black and Brown communities.

This toxic police culture is instilled during the police training academy and reinforced daily by the rituals of police subculture. Black police officers naturally feel the need to be accepted by their white peers, thus, they enforce racism against other Black and Brown citizens. 

Studies (Van Wormer, 2020; McCartney and Parent, 2015) explain that police culture involves using physical force when confronted, male bonding, a code of silence even in the face of wrongdoing, a fascination with weaponry, and an “us versus them” mentality.

This culture has always been largely supported by the broader society providing the recipients of the abuses were those marginalized groups that society feared and felt needed to be kept in check. 

Thus, policing reflects the attitudes, norms, and values of racism in our society.  Because of this, no amount of innovative training or novel policies is going to change the misuse of force directed at minority communities, even if the police are minorities themselves. 

What is required is an entire reconceptualization of what policing means in a diversifying American society – a reconceptualization that does not have at its foundation a legacy of hunting down and bringing enslaved Blacks back to their white owners. 

After all, prior to emancipation, in free northern states, some of the most prolific slave catchers were also Black.

Terrence A. Alladin is an associate professor of criminal justice at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.  

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.