NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks with Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, about the historical role of police in preserving power and social order.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The video from Minneapolis marks a new tipping point for many Americans. There is now an even louder demand for police departments, elected officials and communities to do things differently. And yet, as much as it may feel as if some shift is happening, the story of a white police officer exerting dominance over a black American with violence is not new, whether we’re talking about using a knee, a gun or billy clubs. So to explore the history of the role of police in American society, we spoke with Chenjerai Kumanyika. He’s a professor at Rutgers University, and I asked him to start with the earliest days of policing.
CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: So the basic idea is that the police are here to protect us, right? I mean, that’s what I grew up with. But there’s some big problems with that. And the first one is that, as so many historians have demonstrated, early America was built by exploiting different kinds of labor – right? – and ensuring that black folks remained in their place, that poor white folks would also remain in their place and that they would kind of protect rich white people from everyone else. And so I think when you understand that context, there’s far more evidence to support the view that modern policing was invented to make sure that that social hierarchy remained intact.
CHANG: What do you mean by that?
KUMANYIKA: So the dominant history or the mainstream history is that the first modern police department in the United States was in Boston in 1838. But, you know, there’s kind of a problem with that, and the problem is that in places like Charleston and in the Carolinas, there were already organized forces of over 100 people – right? – who had to do with policing and things like slave patrols.
CHANG: These were like unofficial police departments, if you will.
KUMANYIKA: That’s right. Exactly. Yes. And – but, you know, there were also laws going all the way back to the 17th century that empowered all white people to catch slaves. But I think it’s too simple to say that policing only evolved from slave patrols. Police really evolved around a lot – what I would call labor control. And so in the South, that was controlling slaves. But in the North, that actually had to do with controlling any inconvenient population, especially labor. And so the institution of policing is very much connected to the enactment of violence against strikers and union-breaking. So eventually, someone comes into this picture whose name is August Vollmer.
CHANG: And who is he?
KUMANYIKA: So August Vollmer is kind of, like, a really important figure in the history of policing, right? He starts out as Berkeley’s police chief in California in 1905. Then he sort of travels all around the country and really revolutionizes policing. When you hear people say, well, policing is just about protecting the public and it really doesn’t have anything to do with race, August Vollmer, who’s considered in many ways the father of modern policing – he would disagree with that.
CHANG: Really? How? How does he see race playing a role?
KUMANYIKA: Well, one of the things that Vollmer observes is that very aggressive interrogation techniques – things he called third-degree techniques – are tolerated when they’re applied against minorities, the poor and recent immigrants but rarely tolerated when they are applied against the middle and upper classes. You know, he notices this thing which really kind of implicates race and class, but he doesn’t really necessarily care about human rights. He observed that it’s an obstacle to people building trust in the police department, and it actually hurts their ability to get convictions. And so he recommends all kinds of modernizing measures. Some of those are administrative things. Like, he wants to give police chiefs and police executives more power. And then he’s a big advocate of technology.
CHANG: How did that get to the dynamic that we see today between white police officers and black and brown men?
KUMANYIKA: Well, you know, I think that typically, we think that when we look at these sort of difficult periods of history – and often when we say difficult, I just want to be real; what really mean is oppressive – right? – we think, well, it started bad, but maybe it got a little bit better. But in the case of policing, that’s not what happens at all. It gets much worse. You know, even in Minneapolis, policing is really corrupt, right? The mayor of Minneapolis in 1900 actually hires his brother as the police chief, and so the police are deeply beholden and involved in a corrupt political machine. And then you get to the 1960s in Minneapolis, and there’s, you know, all this oppression that exists of black people in the police leads to riots – right? – in 1967. So the north side of Minneapolis erupts in riots. And the mayor proposed a number of police reform initiatives, and none of those ultimately solve any of the real problems.
CHANG: I mean, yes. As you’re pointing out, the Minneapolis Police Department has had a long, troubled history. Do you feel that that police department is emblematic of a lot of other police departments in this country that have faced long-running complaints that seem to go unheeded and maybe the problem isn’t whether the police are doing their job; it’s – maybe the police was set up to do the wrong thing?
KUMANYIKA: Right. Well, I once heard Marc Lamont Hill say the problem isn’t that the police are broken and we need to fix it. The problem is that the police are working, and we need to break it, you know? I mean, what you see in Minneapolis in their history from 1867 to now – over 150 years of failed reform – you also see in Philadelphia, you also see in New York, you also see on the West Coast. You see it throughout the country.
So Minneapolis is an example of a national story, which is that police have had over 150 years in America to improve and they never have. And so people often think about this idea of, like, dramatic changes to the system as kind of unrealistic or not practical, right? But the urgency of the health and economic crisis brought on by this COVID thing really makes the priorities and steps we need to take extremely clear and concrete.
CHANG: Are you saying that there is no role for the police to play in American society today, or do we need to recalibrate the role for police to play today?
KUMANYIKA: We need to find a way for our communities to be free from harm. We need institutions to protect people, you know? But right now police budgets starve the money that would go into things like domestic violence shelters. And what I’m trying to say is that police – look around you. The police do not reduce harm. The police are creating harm – right? – on your TV screens and in your streets across the country.
So whether you believe in abolishing the police or, you know, defunding the police, the key is that we can’t allow – we can’t put more money into more policing as the solution. We don’t need more money to go into armored tanks, to rubber bullets and all of those kind of things. We need money in social programs that actually reduce harm.
CHANG: Chenjerai Kumanyika is a professor at Rutgers University. Thank you so much for your time today.
KUMANYIKA: Thanks for having me.