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The earliest form of policing in America began with the brutal capture and subjugation of Black bodies, particularly Black women, from the shores of Africa. These captives were brought to the Americas to serve as forced labor. On plantations, the first policing of Black bodies was carried out by slave owners who used physical punishment and branding instead of legal prosecution to control enslaved Africans.

Slave Codes and Early Enforcement

Slave codes were laws designed to control the actions of enslaved Africans, preventing escape and rebellion. These codes allowed any white person to punish an enslaved person who “stepped out of line” without facing criminal sanctions. This meant that even the lowest-ranking white individuals had the legal authority to arrest, question, and punish Black people.

The Formation of Slave Patrols

The first formal slave patrols were established in 1704 in South Carolina, considered the earliest iteration of organized police forces in the South. Unlike other early police forces, slave patrols were well-organized and efficient in protecting the institution of slavery. By 1802, North Carolina placed slave patrols under the control of its state courts. Subsequently, other southern states followed suit, formalizing and centralizing the control of slave patrols within government bodies. In fact, in at least eight states, early police departments were under the same control as slave patrols.

Post-Slavery Policing and Convict Leasing

After the abolition of slavery, the situation for Black people did not improve. The practice of convict leasing emerged, often referred to as “slavery by another name.” Law enforcement targeted Black people for petty crimes such as vagrancy or theft of food, arresting them and then leasing their labor back to plantations and industries. This practice laid the groundwork for what is now known as mass incarceration.

Comparison to Modern Policing

Historical Context and Practices:

Slave Patrols: Focused on controlling and oppressing Black populations to maintain the institution of slavery.

Modern Policing: Originated from systems designed to suppress Black freedom and autonomy, evolving into current practices that disproportionately target Black communities.

Legal Frameworks:

Slave Codes: Gave any white person the authority to control and punish Black individuals without legal repercussions.

Contemporary Laws: Despite changes, legal systems and policing practices continue to disproportionately affect Black people, often leading to over-policing and excessive use of force.


Slave Patrols: Early organized forces specifically tasked with maintaining slavery.

Police Departments: Many modern police departments have roots in these early systems, perpetuating a legacy of racial bias.

Punitive Measures:

Physical Punishment: Enforced directly by slave owners and patrols without legal oversight.

Criminal Justice System: Uses legal frameworks to continue systemic discrimination through practices like racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and harsh sentencing.

Evolution of Control:

Convict Leasing: Post-slavery practice of using the legal system to re-enslave Black people.

Mass Incarceration: Modern equivalent where Black people are disproportionately incarcerated, continuing the cycle of systemic oppression.

The Impact on Black Communities Today

Our current system of policing is built on a foundation designed to restrict Black freedom. This has a direct correlation with the over-policing of Black communities seen today. For over 300 years, racist policing has been a constant reality for Black people in America. The institution of policing was created to target Black people, and the injustices seen in modern policing are a direct result of this design.

Throughout U.S. history, the justice system has evolved to maintain the oppression of Black people. Slavery transitioned into the old Jim Crow laws, which then evolved into the new Jim Crow era we live in today, characterized by systemic racism in the criminal justice system. It is rare for police officers to be criminally charged when they violate the rights of citizens, highlighting the ongoing lack of accountability.


The comparison between slave patrols and modern-day policing reveals a troubling continuity of racial bias and systemic oppression. The historical roots of policing in America are deeply intertwined with the control and subjugation of Black people, and these origins continue to influence contemporary practices. Recognizing this history is crucial in understanding the persistent injustices faced by Black communities and underscores the urgent need for comprehensive reform in policing and the criminal justice system.

What are your thoughts on the historical roots of policing and its impact on modern practices? Share your insights and experiences in the comments below. Your voice is essential in the ongoing fight for justice and equality.

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