Written by Chris Roberts
According to the team of activists running the website mappingpoliceviolence.org “At least 304 Black people were killed by the police in the United States in 2014.” According to The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, numbers like this average out to a Black person being killed extrajudicially by the police every 28 hours. There are some who believe that this amount of time between the killings of Black people by police has dipped to one every 21 hours in 2015. In the media, cases such as those highlighted in the aforementioned statistics are described as examples of police brutality. Cassandra Chaney and Ray Robertson in their article Racism and Police Brutality define police brutality as “the use of excessive physical force or verbal assault and psychological intimidation” (Chaney and Robertson. 2013). Though it is true that such treatment is brutal, I contend that such treatment is not a discernible departure from standard practice and function of the police. In the United States and much of the African world that has been pierced by the cutlass of European colonialism and white supremacy, policing by definition is brutal; there is no other form. To police Black/Africana/African people in the United States is to be brutal. This essay is the first in a three-part series that investigates how the concepts of "police and "policing" developed in Europe and traces the history of its colonial and contemporary applications to those of us who are Black/Africana/African in a manner that is brutal. This first essay focuses on the development of the concepts of “police” and “policing” as conceived in Europe.
“To protect and serve” is the mantra of the Los Angeles Police Department and many others in the United States. However, upon further investigation it becomes painstakingly clear that this statement has selective applicability. The police protect the state along with its property, and the police serve whiteness vis-à-vis the continuation of white supremacy for the purpose of situating Black/Africana/African people as a criminal denomination of sub-humanity in need of eternal punishment and surveillance. Therefore, no level of reform or “change of culture” that is implemented to respective police departments or institutions, as long as they are in function and/or name “police” will shift the outcome of their work from being anything but the isolation and decimation of Black/Africana/African people and the protection of whiteness, by any costs and all means.
European History of the Police
The concept of a police force first emerged on the scene in the European world in France during the 10th century. This concept, polizei, was a meshing of “an artillery, a horse patrol, a foot patrol, watchmen” and a supervisor (provost) to enforce the law remained the model for a long time. Centuries later, during the reign of French King Louis XIV, Europe saw its first centralized national police force in 1667. The supervisor under Louis’ rule held the title of Lieutenant General, and this person was to “represent the state in the city… guarantee the security of Paris [and]… upgrade moral behavior” (Levinson. 2002). To ensure the preservation of that desired “moral behavior” from this system, the practice that Law scholar Jean Paul Brodeur describes as “high policing;” the gathering of intelligence about and suppression of potential threats to the society’s pre-existing distribution of power arose. It is from this “high policing” that one sees the justification of undercover agents and informants for the purposes of intelligence gathering and suppression. The European scholar Mark Neocleous posits that primarily “Polizei was concerned with the abolition of disorder” (Neocleous. 1998).
A little over a century later, the first official, modern police department in Europe was created, the Thames River Police in 1798, which according to their museum’s website was “the first policing body ever to be set up. Its sole objective was the prevention and detection of crime on the Thames and it was to become the forerunner of many other police forces throughout the world,” New York’s Police Department among those influenced by Thames River Police. The creation of this department was spurred by loss of import dues by traders whose ships docked at the Pool of London and other areas along Thames River and theft at the ports. The same museum website describes the origins of the department by stating that with the “advice of Jeremy Bentham's legal knowledge, Mr. Patrick Colquhoun, LLD., the principle magistrate of Queens Square Police Office, Westminster convinced the West India Merchants, and the West India Planters Committees to finance the first preventative policing of the central shipping area of the Thames.” For our purposes, the important parties here are the West India Merchants and The West India Planters Committees because these were, according to the Museum of London, the raisers “of the capital that funded the building of the West India docks [which were]… the physical manifestation of London’s corner of the Triangle trade. The Dock was used by at least 22 know slave trading vessels.” Given this historical reality, once can see that the impetus for the professionalization of the police in the British context emerged directly out of a desire to preserve property and profit drenched in the blood and built on the bodies of enslaved Africans. The British profit from the Transatlantic trade of enslaved African people is the teleological bedrock of the police profession in England. And England is of particular import because it was the colonial governing body of the independent country that would become the United States.
The Thames River Police would eventually merge with the Metropolitan Police Service. This second modern European police department was started in 1829 by Sir Robert Peele in England in Scotland Yard, and it began as a department that was to “manage the social conflict resulting from rapid urbanization and industrialization taking place in the city of London… focus primarily on crime prevention—that is, preventing crime from occurring instead of detecting it after it had occurred” (Archbold. 2012). The distinction of MPS here is crucial for two reasons. One, because it is from here where one finds the police department to which many departments in the Northern part of what we now know of as the United States (states above Maryland) modeled themselves after. Two, the professionalization of policing via Sir Robert Peele’s uniform implementation and nine principles combined with the public sense of self as connected to the police. In particular, his principle of “…the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police … give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence” is imperative to understanding the teleology of U.S. policing, especially in the South.
European Teleology of Police via Hegel
The following section will be a discussion based in European philosophical thought because the police, both profession and concept, as we know them are Eurocentric, therefore the culturally congruent perspectives for discussing their sense of directedness are European. It should be understood on the part of the reader that Eurocentric philosophy has been utilized to justify the enslavement of Africana people for centuries, and the philosophy engaged in this subsection has been causal and complicit in that oppression of Africana people. Teleology in the words of the European philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is “the truth of mechanism.” The author Christopher Yeomans describes this as Hegel critiquing mechanism and implying [in regards to an object or thing] “the means’ own nature is itself an end. The state of an object worked on by an external end can only be understood as external with respect to some immanent end of the object” (Yeomans 2011). In other words, a thing does not operate independent of the desired destination or outcome it was made to reach, and that “internal end” must be explicated to fully understand the thing. In our example, that thing is the police. This is a vital point because it is here where the “internal end” of the police concept is explained, and I assert that the police profession is a thing cannot go against its internal end, its very nature. For Hegel, as articulated in the research of Mark Neocleous, the internal end or “aim of the police [is to] care for the particular interest as a common interest.” (Neocleous.1998). In Policing The System of Needs: Hegel, Political, Economy, and the Police of the Market one learns that the main interest of the police, according von Justi, a contemporary of Hegel’s was:
… maintenance of state power and the proper police of the market …ultimately, the same goal. In this sense the main interest of police was the development of commerce and the production of wealth. For von Justi, ‘all the methods whereby the riches of the state may be increased, insofar as the authority of the government is concerned, belong consequently under the charge of the police.’ To this end the state should secure a flourishing trade and devote its power to the preservation and increase of the resources of private persons in particular and the state of prosperity in general, by overseeing the foundations of commerce (46).
With the “production of wealth” as its objective, the only thing needed for the police was a “flourishing trade” that would serve to increase the “resources of private persons in particular and the state of prosperity in general.” One such trade was indeed prevalent and in full swing, that being the Transatlantic Slave Trade of hundreds of millions of enslaved Africans, throughout which the African continent was raped and tens of millions of Africana people were killed at the hands of Europeans. This genocide is referred to by Africana Studies scholars as The Maafa or African Holocaust, a term which was operationalized by African Psychologist Marimba Ani. One has to understand this in order to confront the reality that the police are something much more insidious than a public force with individual racists who equate to nothing more than a few rotten apples in what overall is a good, well intentioned batch of people. But rather, the reality of the situation is that the police profession was created in England for, to use Hegel’s term, the “particular interest” of protecting the sugar, rum, salt, and other assets of European capitalism in the Caribbean that were all gained due to the enslavement of Africana people which served the “common interest” of whiteness and its benefactors (white people). No amount of good will or good intention can change the truth of this statement. The police profession may have arrested plenty of white thieves in England who stole sugar, rum, or salt. However, those thieves were not the reason the police force was created and professionalized; it was the profit and exploitation their theft cut into that prompted the creation and professionalization of the police force. The arrest of those thieves was simply a by-product of the overarching concern of the police force to protect white supremacy and the profits of the Maafa enjoyed by Europe. In the minds of the white philosophical elite this concern for profit did not equate in a justification of the Maafa/enslavement of Africana people.
Jeremy Bentham, the European philosopher whose advice and legal insight was foundational in Patrick Colquhoun founding and professionalization of the Thames River Police is one such white philosopher. Bentham is regarded in much of European history as an abolitionist, however his brand of abolition was not abolition at all in my estimation, but rather a gradual road to nowhere, a la the “all deliberate speed” U.S. Supreme Court ruling on segregation in the 1950s. In the essay British Utilitarianism’s Justification of Negro Slavery Nathaniel Adam Tobias writes: “this abolition could take place without overturning their [those who enslaved and traded other persons] own condition and their fortunes, and without attacking their personal security… This operation need not be suddenly carried into effect by a violent revolution, which, by displeasing every body, destroying all property, and placing all persons in situations for which they were not fitted, might produce evils a thousand times greater than all the benefits that can be expected from it. Tobias continues when he explains Bentham’s distinction between “slave-buying” and “slave-holding” insofar as slave-buying, or “plunging” people into slavery is worse than “finding” people already in slavery. In other words, from this Eurocentric perspective Black people were not “plunged into slavery” but rather they were “discovered being inferior and ignorant” therefore Europeans of Bentham’s time “find” them enslaved not because white people had chosen to enslave them, but rather enslavement is where white society “found” them. ” (Tobias 3). The concept of policing is to ensure the stability of social order, and the police, by definition in a white supremacist society, maintain that white supremacist social order. In the minds of the structural architects of policing such as Bentham, the police forces of today are not “buying” or “plunging” people into an enslaved position in society, rather the police force is “finding” Black people in that status already, and maintaining order, which by definition is antithetical to the Black people who “find” themselves in slavery ever “finding” themselves in anything different. To concretize this point I will return to Hegel, the protection of the profits of white supremacy and its necessary dehumanization via enslavement of Africana people to exacerbate those profits is not merely an end that is sometimes met via the police, but rather it is the internal end, it is “the truth of the mechanism” that is the police profession.