By Andrew Byler
Abstract: It is difficult to track the current state of unequal policing in America back to its historical roots. While race and gender play important roles in a history of policing, this paper highlights the class-based interests that benefit from police force. I argue that an owning class – a loose coalition of businesses, real estate owners, and commercial ‘boosters’ of local businesses – plays a significant role in guiding policing practices. Instead of overviewing this coalition’s operation throughout the last 150 years and the challenges to its authority that movements like #defundthepolice have leveled since 2020, I highlight three historical periods that best illustrate how policing serves the interests of owning-class commerce: 1) the origins of an organized police presence in the decades around the Civil War, 2) the tumultuous period of urban rioting in the 1960s, 3). early 21st century trends in militarized police forces and the rise of the carceral state. These three pieces are a ‘how did we get here?’ primer for anyone interested in why so many Americans feel that policing in their country is broken, and why efforts for systemic reform or abolition meet such potent resistance.
“Policing serves capitalism and white supremacy.” Claims like this about police in America feel felicitous, but are hard to track historically. We see the biased state of policing in the 21st century, ask ourselves: “to protect and serve whom?!” and have a hard time answering the question or tracking the symptoms of unequal policing back to their historical roots.
In this three-part series, I argue that an owning class – a loose coalition of businesses, real estate owners, and commercial ‘boosters’ of local businesses – plays a significant role in guiding policing practices and that a commercial force in the history of policing is often overshadowed by more exciting charges of racial hegemony or moral ‘social controls’ that drive police operations. Instead of overviewing this coalition’s operation throughout the last 150 years and the challenges to its authority that movements like #defundthepolice have leveled since 2020, these three sections focus on distinct periods of police activity in America, which best illustrate how the actions of police serve the interests of owning-class commerce: 1) the origins of an organized police presence in the decades around the Civil War; 2) the tumultuous period of urban rioting in the 1960s; 3) early 21st century trends in militarized police forces and the rise of the carceral state. In short, these three pieces read as a ‘how did we get here?’ primer for anyone interested in why so many Americans feel that policing in their country is broken, and why efforts for systemic reform or abolition meet such potent resistance.
Certainly, other scholars have connected police power with capitalism, and a chronology of different departments’ deployment against labor strikes would reveal their participation in profit-maximizing free-marketeering. With this paper I hope to define the beneficiaries of police activities more specifically. I do not intend to dismiss other forces at work in guiding police policy and practice, nor do I wish to absolve the bigoted attitudes of individual cops, or cultures of certain departments. Rather, I hope to complicate the discourse on increased police power by focusing on the businesses and institutions who stand to benefit from it.
Early Policing: Slave Patrols and Convict Leasing
Origin stories are important. They can inform future interpretations, hint more subtly at what’s next, or privilege one ‘truth’ over another. The history of policing, like the history of any powerful institution, is open for interpretation.
Criminology textbooks cite the influence of British Common Law in formalizing early “watch groups” into the municipal departments of the 20th century. To Protect and Serve: A History of Police in America tells an ascensionist narrative of policing’s advance from humble beginnings, highlighting administrative and technological improvements along the way. Discussing the “prehistory” of policing before formal departments were established, watch groups in particular cast the origin of the police in a positive light: “a watch system consisting of citizen volunteers (usually men) was in place until the mid 19th-century. Citizens that were part of watch groups provided social services, including lighting street lamps, running soup kitchens, recovering lost children, capturing runaway animals, and a variety of other services.”  Framing watch group activities as foundational to American policing is no minor footnote in the historiography, it shifts our ideological understanding of who the police were away from the interests of commerce and private property to a vague spirit of altruism and service for those most in need.
If we focus on moneyed interests in this same era, we see a much different informal policing at work. Patrols of white men hired to track runaway slaves and surveil “colored neighborhoods” conducted a different kind of policing than watch groups. As historian Larry Spruill writes, “throughout all of the states [before the Civil War], roving armed police patrols scoured the countryside day and night, intimidating, terrorizing, and brutalizing slaves into submission and meekness.”  The earliest slave patrols formed in the Carolinas in the early 1700s and, far from providing voluntary community service, they practiced the earliest forms of racial violence in American policing.
In his article “Slave Patrols, ‘Packs of Negro Dogs,’ and Policing Black Communities” Spruill goes on to discuss the ease with which most contemporary policing narratives ignore these brutal origins: “Few police and criminal justice executives are willing to look at chattel slavery as the womb that birthed and nurtured the region’s law enforcement culture and practices.”  After dozens of widely-publicized police killings in the second and third decade of the 21st century, scholarship linking slave patrols to the origins of the police is booming; many Black Lives Matter activists point to such antebellum antagonism to highlight racist police brutality before it became a part of popular culture. 
Such connections are appropriate, and do a good job showing how protecting whiteness became a part of policing agendas. Yet slave patrols can tell us more about informal police groups than the racial violence they executed. If beatings, lynchings, and forcible captures were their methods, and the terror and submission of “colored neighborhoods” an indirect goal, their main objectives served the needs of slaveowners with enough capital to pay for their services.
As recent studies like Barbara Krauthammer’s book on slave-owning American Indians and Jennifer Morgan’s study of frontier colonialism show, slave owners weren’t necessarily wealthy.  Although the connotations of “slaveowner” conjure images of manicured plantations where overseers sip frosty mojitos on a shady porch and watch slaves toil from a distance, many poor homesteads supplemented meager incomes with the labor of a single slave, perhaps bought at a discount due to disability or old age. For these households, a runaway slave could lead to financial ruin. Clearly, planters with the means to hire a slave patrol to retrieve their runaway laborers represented some upper strata within the slave-owning demographic. The formation of slave patrols, then, indicates not just a racial privileging of white interests over non-white in the antebellum era, but a precedent for the service of the owning class.
Meanwhile, in Northern industrialized urban centers, watch groups began formalizing as police departments for similar reasons. Too often are the North/South differences informed by lazy dichotomies of civil/violent or just/unjust, and many proud Yankees would bristle to hear their police departments compared to Southern slave patrols. Yet if we focus on the interests served rather than the specific racial violence enacted, policing origins north and south of the Mason Dixon Line share similarities.
It is no coincidence that in the 19th century the thriving shipping city of Boston was the first to formalize a police department. The Boston Police Department’s “History” webpage cites the 1854 replacement of Watch groups with a publicly funded municipal department as one of many steps in the Department’s ascent towards prestige: “a role model for police departments nationwide.”  However, reading between the lines to interpret “public service” as financial pragmatism does not require much squinting. Again, the soup kitchen and missing pet narrative falters as crime historian Gary Potter explains: “businesses had been hiring people to protect their property and safeguard the transport of goods from the port of Boston to other places...These merchants came up with a way to save money by transferring to the cost of maintaining a police force to citizens by arguing that it was for the “collective good.”  This interpretation should not overshadow alternate analyses of policing and justice that emphasize racial injustice, or the philosophical right to liberty without surveillance. Complicated institutions require multiple, intersecting interrogations; a focus on what merchants and slaveowners stood to gain from police forces offers a simple, compelling reminder that police have served and continue to serve a status quo where commerce can continue.
After the Civil War, the industrializing New South adapted a new use for policing that continued to serve business interests. Through convict leasing agreements, counties could lease out a prisoner’s term to a nearby business. This arrangement benefitted small towns and cities alike, which no longer had to house and feed prisoners and received fees for each convict’s term, as well as the farms and industries that could lease laborers at a much lower rate than voluntary workers’ wages. While such debt peonage has roots in European feudalism, and was practiced in Northern and Southern states before the Civil War, rates of convict leasing soared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her book Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State 1776-1941, Rebecca McClennan reminds readers that, contrary to many depictions that only vilify southern states for abusing their convicts, “by the end of the Civil War almost all Northern and Western state prisons were...contracting or leasing out the labor of the majority of their prisoners to private interests.”  After the Civil War, however, convict leasing became much better suited to the New South’s drive to industrialize than in the North, where a growing immigrant population could provide exploitable labor.
With the six-year lease of 374 prisoners to the Chattanooga Railroad in 1866, Alabama governor Robert Patton sparked a trend that would ignite over the next decade: “By the end of Reconstruction in 1877,” historian Douglas Blackmon writes, “every formerly Confederate state except Virginia had adopted the practice of leasing black prisoners into commercial hands.”  In many cases these commercial hands were those of local small-stake landowners; Blackmon points out that household farmers and plantations alike would lease convict laborers. For the African American freedmen and women who represented up to 90% of prison laborers during its roughly fifty-year epoch, once property of a planter now property of the state, convict leasing was a yank back towards enslavement, a testimony that the rhetoric of abolition came empty of real improvements.
There are many ways to discuss convict leasing. The titles of two important studies, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David Oshinsky and Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackmon, highlight a “continuity narrative analysis.” This framework uses convict leasing to show the ways racial oppression has adapted to the 13th Amendment and persisted from slavery to the 21st century. The racial element in convict leasing is unavoidable and, if a historian were tasked to compare motivations, the social control that newly-vulnerable white communities could reclaim in the decades after the Civil War likely motivated the practice even more than the appeal of cheap labor.
Conditions for convict laborers truly affirm its status as “slavery by another name.” Whereas during chattel slavery a planter negotiated a balance between exhaustion, punishments, and the financial bottom line that kept many slaveowners from working or beating their slaves to death, the pipeline of convict laborers was in many cases more reliable than the market for slave laborers. W.E.B. Du Bois summarized the ritual of convict leasing in his 1904 article Some Notes on Negro Crime: “The innocent, the guilty, and the depraved were herded together, children and adults, men and women, given into the complete control of practically irresponsible men, whose sole object was to make the most money possible.”  Dozens of testimonies from former slaves and state officials testify that convict labor exploitation was “more cruel and inhuman than the slavery of antebellum days.”  Blackmon echoes Orlando Patterson’s concept of social death in his study, and summarizes the probability of physical death as well: “The consequences for African Americans were grim. In the first two years that Alabama leased its prisoners, nearly 20 percent of them died. In the following year, mortality rose to 35 percent. In the fourth, nearly 45 percent were killed.”  
In its worst manipulations, convict leasing was a death sentence for innocent black Americans. Yet, subtly operating behind this system of racial control was a form of policing that is overlooked when we focus only on the brutal conditions on prison camps and debt farms. Just as slave patrols enacted racial terror but also provided incomes for patrolmen and returned human property to slaveowners, convict leasing arrangements fostered a financial mutuality between “police” and the businesses they served.
To be sure, it’s anachronistic to picture groups of uniformed men with badges rounding up prisoners and auctioning off their sentences to boost revenues for a municipality. Most of the Southern counties involved in convict leasing employed one sheriff, maybe a vice deputy, and a resident who acted as Justice of the Peace. But historians should make no mistake, convict leasing required policing on a massive scale. Elaborating this “forced labor system of monotonous enormity,” Blackmon writes:
“Instead of thousands of true thieves and thugs drawn into the system over decades, the records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totalled more than a hundred thousand and perhaps more than twice that figure...Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.” 
Arrests require policing, if not formal policemen and women. Since most of the scholarship on convict leasing in the New South has focused on slavery’s legacy in the conditions of labor camps and the race of the populations working in them, it is easy to ignore the benefits afforded towns and counties for shipping off hundreds of “criminal” African Americans. Surely the farms, mines, industries, and railroads stood the most to gain on a steady stream of cheap labor but as Blackmon shows, the loose judicial coalitions of sheriffs and judges benefitted handsomely as well.
Different states and counties made different deals to sell their prisoners’ terms to regional businesses. Some records show monthly lease payments: Texas, for instance, received $12.50 a month per prisoner. Other counties bundled their prisoners’ terms and charged a wholesale price. In 1868 the Georgia Railroad bought the prison sentences of 100 black – and each of the 100 prisoners was black – prisoners for a flat fee of $2,500.  Over more than a half-century, 100,000 to 200,000 of these transactions provided reliable cash flows for urban and rural counties slowly recovering from the wreckage of the Civil War. “Control of those county convicts was lucrative,” Blackmon summarizes, “for both the companies who acquired them and the sheriffs who supplied them. In addition to the fees they received from defendants, sheriffs also kept any amount left over from daily feeding fees paid for each prisoner by the state. As a result...sheriffs were financially motivated to arrest and convict as many people as possible.”  Talitha LeFlouria, in her book on female convict laborers Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South calculates country-wide scale just how much sheriffs, prisons, and the local justice systems they worked for stood to gain from leasing out prisoners’ labor: “On a national level, all penal systems that did not utilize convict leasing recovered a mere 32 percent (or less) of their total operating costs, while those that did capitalize on prison labor earned an unprecedented 267 percent.” 
Again, considering the racial makeup of these penal systems, the social control element of convict leasing practices cannot be overstated. The 13th Amendment, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted; shall exist within the United States” allowed Southern states to effectively turn “free” black men and women back into slaves, stripping them of their citizenship once convicted of a phony allegation, or tricked into a debt they could not repay.  However, in addition to the racial submission it reinforced, convict leasing afforded a more mundane exchange of money from business owners to loosely defined “policing organizations.” We don’t see many municipal tax bases expanding or police department budgets swelling in the decades of convict leasing, which offers a crude precursor to the contemporary relationship between police and business. Although it takes some imagination, as late-19th century “police” looked nothing like they do today, nor do ragtag farm owners and factory supervisors resemble 21st century businesses, a focus on the financial benefits of convict leasing reveal police practices that were, in a word, good for business. Blackmon aptly describes convict leasing as “a forced labor system of monotonous enormity.”  The detail of that monotony, though not as interesting as the vicious use of force driving it, can tell us much about the history of police in America. The second section of this series shows that a more complicated version of this same dynamic operated in the 1960s.
 William Allison and Robert C. Wadman, To Protect and Serve: A History of Police in America. (London: Pearson Publishing, 2003), 3.
 Larry Spruill, “‘Packs of Negro Dogs’ and Policing Black Communities.” Phylon (1960-) 53, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 43.
 Larry Spruill, 43.
 Mumia Abu-Jamal, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017).
 Jennifer Morgan, (Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 2.
 “History.” The Official Website of the Boston Police Department. (2017).
 Olivia Waxman, “How the US Got Its Police Force.” TIME. (May 18, 2017): 2.
 Rebecca McClennan, Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 84.
 Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. (New York: Doubleday), 56.
 W.E.B. DuBois, Some Notes on Negro Crime Particularly in Georgia. (Atlanta: Atlanta University Press), 4.
 Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. (New York: Doubleday), 218.
 Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, A Comparative Study. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).
 Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. (New York: Doubleday), 57.
 Douglas Blackmon, 7.
 Douglas Blackmon, 54.
 Douglas Blackmon, 65.
 Talitha LeFlouria, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 74.
 U.S. Const. Amend. 13. 1865.
 Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. (New York: Doubleday), 7.