Sunday, September 20, 2020

Can police patrol function be separated from racist slaver legacy? Maybe not

Did early policing begin with slave patrols?

In Texas, slave patrols were established (just) after the creation of more traditional law enforcement offices like Sheriffs, Constables, and City Marshals (the early Texan name for what would become municipal police chiefs). But slavery began late here and lasted less than 50 years. In other states, particularly in the Carolinas, patrols preceded those forms. That's why you hear people say American policing originated with slave patrols. Some places, it did.

Here, though, the two systems were originally separate: parallel but intertwined. Patrols captured slaves and arrested white folks who interacted with them (they were authorized by state law to give the slaves up to 25 lashes; white folks were taken before a magistrate). Patrols took people they arrested, black or white, to the Sheriff to be held and either returned to their owner or made to stand trial. Runaways might even find themselves sold at auction in a "foreign market," though I haven't yet figured out exactly what that means. Sheriffs were in charge of that process.

After the Civil War, municipal police departments (then called City Marshals) began undertaking their own patrols, starting in Austin and Houston. It was at this point that historians attribute those cities with first adopting the practices of a "modern" police department, by which they appear to mean the combination of patrols, distinctive uniforms, and a military-style hierarchy (e.g., sergeants, lieutenants, captains, etc.).

Before then, Sheriffs and City Marshals operated more under what I've dubbed a "customer service" model: Waiting for victims to complain about crimes then investigating rather than combing the streets proactively. So adopting patrol practices was the biggest change in what officers actually did with their time day to day, leaving aside what they wore or how management was organized.

This is the next element Grits needs to research and it's turning out to be more difficult than one might expect. I've found a formula for researching Texas slave patrols: At least for counties with intact, early commissioners court minutes, it's possible to identify the number of districts and the names of patrolmen appointed, then research those individuals for more detail. But I've yet to find a similarly simple, one-stop approach for early police departments, which leaves one with reading early newspaper accounts.

My central hypothesis bubbling up from this research (with a bit more evidence, it will graduate to "theory"): Patrol practices grafted onto policing after the Civil War are a holdover of slave patrol methods and both were aimed at suppressing black people and enforcing apartheid. The discriminatory parts of policing mostly stem from this patrol function, with traffic and drug enforcement being the most glaring, modern examples.

In Grits' experience, black folks' biggest complaint with police isn't that, when they report crime, cops investigate. In fact, the opposite is true. Murders and rapes are too often downplayed in black neighborhoods by police departments seeking to avoid a reputation for crime. (The TV show The Wire offered exceptional portrayals of this sort of stat manipulation.)

IRL, black communities in America are both over-policed and under-policed: Over-policed on petty stuff, on traffic violations, stop and frisk, unpaid fines, vagrancy, etc., but also abandoned by police when more serious crimes arise. That's particularly true for crimes of murder, where clearance rates have plummeted over the decades and cases linger for years, not to mention sexual assault, which historically have been under-enforced everywhere.

To me, this dynamic is the legacy of law enforcement's historical reliance on patrols, which in Texas date back to an 1846 statute passed during the first legislative session after becoming a state. Under the patrol model, policing on behalf of victims gave way to an institutional agenda of enforcing petty statutes, limiting freedom, and projecting an implicit message reinforcing central state power over the individual. That led to abuses then and arguably still does today.

So, abolish police? Grits isn't quite there yet. But abolishing patrol? (Or even deploying short-term patrols tactically as opposed to making them the central, organizing principle underlying police departments?) That might be an idea whose time has come.

See prior, related Grits posts:


Phelps said...

If you link police patrols to racism, then the majority will react by saying, "ok, I guess we have to be racist to be safe."

I think this is bad persuasion.

Anonymous said...

Phelps..always the idiot. Some thing never change.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Phelps, you act like I'm the one who linked policing to racism and the legacy of slavery. In fact, police did that. Those links exist independently of whether you acknowledge them. Don't blame the messenger.

Anonymous said...

I’ve found this series of posts very informative. I hope to see what you find.

I’d only push back (a little) on two things: it’s a rather robust finding in scholarly literature that patrol presence on the street reduces crime. See this paper by Sarit Weisburg on a Dallas PD study as an example I haven’t seen a lot of abolitionists or even defunding advocates really grapple with this literature. The best response to it, I think, is that while police presence may reduce crime, we don’t (in an empirical) know how many negative externalities exists if police presence served is increased. That’s not an accident, police unions and departments has largely avoided permitting data collection of that kind.

Second, I’d be curious once data collection is done, what aspects of patrol need to change: i.e. to what extent is discriminatory practices an individual, policy or city-wide problem. We don’t really have the data on that anywhere (again because it is not collected).

Phelps said...

I'm not blaming the messenger. I'm explaining to you how the majority of people think. They way you are presenting this leads normal people to link effective policing and racism. I'm not commenting on the policy. I'm telling you that this is an ineffective way to persuade people and will likely convince them to oppose your proposal.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Phelps, I can't help how people think. Sometimes reality and morality trump perceived political expedience. Thirty years ago, people opposed gay marriage at extremely high rates. Today that has changed.

Examining history is one of those times. Bending it or pretending it doesn't exist because one thinks it won't help your position is a cowardly approach I'll have no truck with. In the early days of blogging, one would see writers declare themselves part of the "reality-based community." That's fallen out of fashion, but basing policy approaches in a historically grounded understanding of the problem can only lead to better solutions, if not necessarily expedient ones.

@Anon 8:59, my findings don't *necessarily* contradict those criminological studies. It's possible patrols reduce crime but do so in discriminatory ways. However, tbh, I find a lot of that criminology research on patrol effectiveness to be of the self-fulfilling-prophecy variety, particularly during this era of falling crime when EVERY intervention looks like it correlates. E.g., both patrol increases and lead reduction can't have the crime-reducing effects their most enthusiastic advocates suggest for them: They're both claiming the same reduction! There are about 16 competing theories about why crime declined in the last 30 years; increases in patrol numbers are one of them but it's not clear to me it's the decisive one.

Phelps said...

I agree that you can't help how people think. That is my point. You can only control what you present if you want to enact change.

If the change that you wish to see is a reduction or end to patrolling, this is not persuasive.

The majority wasn't persuaded that gay marriage was OK by telling them that marriage was bad. That is how you are presenting this.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:59 here. Perhaps there is not as much disagreement as it may seem initially.

I’m pretty fascinated by the lead studies, and find it to be a pretty compelling explanation for national reduction of crime, whereas patrol placement may have hyperlocal effects on crime. Most of the studies that I was thinking of were not trying to explain the multi-decade decline in crime. For instance the Weisburg study provided above analyzed a data from Dallas PD in 2009 looking at when patrol officers left their beat for off-beat assignments did crime increase in the areas being patrolled less. It concludes that it did. That finding is not inconsistent with the long-term crime reduction, lead hypothesis, unwanted babies hypothesis, etc.

Part of what I would like to see is an increase in collection in crime data collection and analysis. I tend to this if there were better data collection and analysis of police behavior most of what advocates want would be backed up by the data, but maybe not to the extent that they would prefer.

LC in Texas said...

I would like to see Juror's educated and a Jury of one's peers in each County.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Phelps, I'm researching an historical question. You want me to know ahead of time the answer and, apparently, choose not to undertake it as a result. Given your general views about BLM, it's hard not to see these comments as an extension of your general antipathy for the movement.

@12:12, the hyperlocal ones are even worse - like a self licking ice cream cone. Yes, when you squeeze one part of the balloon, the diameter declines, but it increases elsewhere in a spot you're not measuring, or else pauses and comes back when the surge is complete.

The studies you mention are why the post suggests one option might be "deploying short-term patrols tactically as opposed to making them the central, organizing principle underlying police departments." I do understand there are evidence-based arguments for short-term patrol surges. But I don't think those studies prove as much as many of their authors think they do.

I go back and forth about the lead studies. Basically where I've landed is I now believe we just don't gather the right data to answer the "why did crime decline" question, and it's possible such data cannot be gathered. Lead is an interesting hypothesis, but I can't find reason to credit it more than any other. Certainly I haven't seen evidence that patrol expansion was the decisive factor. In fact, as patrol numbers expanded, clearance rates declined. I think the focus on patrol over crime solving may be a big contributor to that.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, on this question of not having the right data to make CJ management decisions, see here and here.

Texasyankee said...

You cannot make a useful theory about policing and its racist origins by just studying what happened in Texas. You must study what was happening at the same time in Boston, New York, all the free states, the gold fields in California and the post civil war cattle towns, in fact the rest of the country. Some of the early 19th century ideas in northern cities about policing come from England and Robert Peel.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@3:30, I'm not claiming to offer a comprehensive theory of policing based on Texas history, I'm adding a Texas analysis to what exists from elsewhere. As near as I can tell, nobody's written about slave patrols in Texas before now and the only people who've written about early Texas police departments are cops. I'm writing the part of the story that *hasn't* been told, that doesn't mean I discount the parts that have.

FWIW, Peel's principles appear to have been the basis for post-Civil War professionalizing efforts in Austin and Houston, though I've only seen hints at that and am actively looking for more sources.

Anonymous said...

12:12 here.

I appreciate the references to other data collection practices, I will have to read them.

I’ll be honest, I can’t follow you on the self-licking ice cream cone argument for some of the hyperlocal natural experiment studies. The Weisburd study accounted for neighboring effects (is crime moving elsewhere) and discarded it as statistically insignificant. I would have thought you would have found this study particularly interesting as it is an analysis of 911 call data combine with disaggregated movements of officers—i.e. the exact thing the City of Austin’s and most police departments are only starting to want to get data on.

For police surges, the studies that I am referencing,*they would agree with the surge hypothesis and argue it suggests a larger mechanism of action is at play when there is not a surge capacity.

My main criticism of these police presence studies is that they don’t analyze the harms of police presence or police contact (because they are not trying to answer that question). And there is not a place in the US that can give you that kind of data. That should change.

*For a list of those studies see this link to the Probabale Causation Podcast episode on the Weisburd study

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I haven't yet read the Weisburd study so I can't yet assess it. There's a stack in front of it. But I've seen many studies assess related questions. You asked, big picture, whether I found criminologists' endorsement of patrol convincing. I said not particularly. That doesn't mean I have a critique prepared of any given study. Maybe it's a good one. But it doesn't tell us the outcomes of alternative approaches to departmental organization beyond patrol, only that a department *organized around patrol* fails if you don't staff it. Like I said, a self-licking ice cream cone, designed to justify and reinforce existing practices.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, now that I see you're citing Doleac's stuff, it's worth mentioning she has a tendency to cherrypick research to support her preconceived economic theories. Weisburd's piece may be useful, but Doleac likes to highlight topics that undercut reform while ignoring research with contrary outcomes. When she's the messenger, I find there are often other, un-acknowledged angles going unconsidered.

Phelps said...

This post isn't a historical exploration piece. It's an opinion column. It literally ends with, "So, abolish police? Grits isn't quite there yet. But abolishing patrol? ...That might be an idea whose time has come."

My views of BLM are in alignment with the clear majority of American voters. Again, this is poor persuasion. The people who agree with the premise already agree more, and the people who opposed your premise but could be swayed are instead pushed away from you.

Anonymous said...

I don’t know much about Doleac’s reputation, I use her podcast to research other ideas that I find useful. This finding about police presence seems pretty robust and consistently found.

However, alternatives should be chosen to public safety. Part of the problem with this research is that alternatives could even had bigger decreases in crime, as you address. Even if they don’t, most proposed alternatives would address other social ills, such as those found in Raj Cherry’s movement for opportunity research, which have a lot of other external benefits.

I suppose where we may disagree is that I think there’s a fair amount of evidence suggesting that patrol is effective at stopping crime, and that it shouldn’t be abandoned as an organizing principle until more evidence is collected about proposed alternatives. I think we need to try a lot of different things, see what works, what doesn’t and move from there.

I find the history of policing fascinating, but I’m not particularly convinced that problematic histories, justify the (tentative?) conclusions you are reaching. If what you suspect is true (and it may very well be true), we should gather the data and see what it says. I tend to think that it will be beneficial for reform efforts.

Part of the other reason why it is important to focus on patrol effectiveness studies is that I fear a trap occurring with CJ reform. The 60’s protest movement ended with the rise of Nixon. The Rodney King riots were followed with ‘94 crime bill. Statewide opioid prescription tracking systems lead to the rise in the opioid crisis. Backlash and coming up short are staple features CJ reform efforts. With state budget shortfalls, cuts to police budgets as a nice convenience could just be nice opportunities with a nasty backlash. For Austin at least, I don’t think that will happen because city council seems to have a plan and are treading carefully (thanks to many activist groups working for years before this moment). But I do worry about other cities and the response as a whole.

Phelps said...

Part of the other reason why it is important to focus on patrol effectiveness studies is that I fear a trap occurring with CJ reform. The 60’s protest movement ended with the rise of Nixon. The Rodney King riots were followed with ‘94 crime bill. Statewide opioid prescription tracking systems lead to the rise in the opioid crisis. Backlash and coming up short are staple features CJ reform efforts. With state budget shortfalls, cuts to police budgets as a nice convenience could just be nice opportunities with a nasty backlash

Trap, perverse persuasion result -- same thing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Electing Nixon and the 94 crime bill had to do with realignment of the parties around race, which was then not yet complete. Now it is. That's a big difference.

And fwiw, this blog opposed some of those prescription tracking systems in the moment, so I'm well aware of those hazards.

At the same time, traffic enforcement is consistently discriminatory and many states treat those as civil, not criminal violations. (Traffic enforcement is plummeting in TX, anyway - we currently give far fewer tickets than 30 years ago when the state was half the size.) Drug enforcement is the most discriminatory aspect of policing. I don't need a study to tell me those come with harms and can be scaled back if we invest in traffic engineering solutions and drug treatment services outside the justice system. That it turns out those are the primary foci of patrol tactics that are rooted in racist legacies from the past isn't the only reason to change policies. But it's an additional one.

Anonymous said...

The studies support the discriminatory aspect of patrol and drug policing, uniformly. The solution to those problems can, however, come in many forms. The easiest, in my view, is to have prosecutors stop bringing cases based an pretextual traffic stops - or at least limit their use to certain controlled circumstances (such as post-surveillance enforcement on suspected drug houses). Eliminating patrol is one solution to discriminatory police practices. The Center for Police Equity has a lot of other great solutions focused on the police side of things that are promising (and are short of what this post advocates).

I’m a little surprised at your hostility to this body of evidence because none of it contradicts what you advocate (From my vantage point, at least, you seem to be arguing against how this research has been used to increase or prevent change from away from patrol practices). What is less understood from the research is the mechanism of action: do police stop people who will commit multiple crimes or does their presence somehow deter crime. It’s entirely consistent with both mechanisms that police use resources inefficiently or could achieve public safety benefits that are better than the Police Oren ever benefits. But I do t think this data should be ignored, because I have not seen robust studies that contradict it.

My larger point at using Nixon and the 94 crime bill is that even in the face of progress there’s a backlash potential waiting and it often occurs. As we seem to agree at least on prescription monitoring systems, I’ll start there. These programs (particularly those that tracked doctor’s prescriptions) were good ideas. But only if they were accompanied by a significant investment in outpatient drug services to deal with the cut-off of supply. Legislators across the US failed to follow up with the out-patient services so things got worse.

Here, I see two mechanisms for failure. One is delay tactics used to stall out momentum of the movement. But the other is that most programs for increased social services have multi-year windows to evaluate success and produce measurable change. If the year-to-year variance in crime increases (which is something we are seeing now across the US), it will be a test to see whether the movement can withstand the pressure and blame that comes with it. Those attacks, of course are not evidence-based at all, but they tend to be highly effective. I hope this moment can withstand those attacks, but I’m doubtful.

I should say, that’s why I think Austin is taking a measured approach is positive. Most of the cuts to the police budget are simply keeping the function but removing it from the police budget. It seems that once the success of several programs can be evaluated, deeper cuts to the police budget can be made. If warranted.

Thomas said...

Grits - I believe your research is generally factually accurate for which I have either read (or glanced over) in prior postings. Tying the origins of LE to slave patrols is probably accurate to a degree. However, it is like an incomplete sentence if you don’t also discuss the elected officials of those periods of time which codified LE authority and criminal violations of that time.

If the elected majority party at that time (you pick when) was democrats, republicans, etc. are they the root cause? “The Wikipedia“ (I take Wikipedia with a large grain of salt) reflects of all the Texas governors: 39 were Democratic, 7 Republican, and three others of varying parties. While the governor does not make laws, he/she can veto laws and provide legislative priorities.

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