History of Policing


While the police and policing are often described as necessary for protecting citizens and preventing crime in a modern society, police have actually, since their origins, been far more concerned with maintaining hierarchies of power and property than with protection from harm. [1] U.S. policing emerged as an effort to protect private property. [2] In colonial Anglo America, even before the founding of the U.S., protection of property meant the control of enslaved people and securing land stolen from Indigenous people.

Theft of People, Theft of Land

Historians of early America have shown that informal methods of policing first emerged as an effort to capture enslaved people who attempted to run away or organize in resistance to the system of slavery. [3] By the mid-nineteenth century northeastern cities established formalized police departments to monitor and control immigrant and working-class communities in urban areas. [4] There are also strong connections between policing and colonization. Military, volunteer groups, vigilantes, and squatters “policing” of Indigenous communities and lifeways precedes the formation of the United States. [5] Conquest of land and people legitimated violence against Indigenous and Black women, perceiving them as always available for white male violence. Conquest was als essential to shaping understandings of gender and sexuality, including the policing of gender expression and kinship relations and the criminalizing of queer, trans, and two-spirit people. [6]

The theft of Indigenous peoples’ land and the genocide and forced removal of Indigenous people was central to the development of law enforcement. In both the U.S. and Canada, Indigenous people were framed as inherently criminal and in need of law and order as way to rationalize the theft of Indigenous land and the genocide of Indigenous people as necessary and not a violation of the U.S. and Canada’s own legal codes. [7] In California slavery and the theft of Indigneous life and lands occurred for hundreds of years under the Spanish colonial mission system. After the U.S. seizure of California and statehood in 1850, the U.S. continued the missions’ genocidal legacy of securing their property through violence against Indigenous people (and now Mexicans and Californixs as well). [8] For example, throughout the 1850s the state of California paid militias to hunt down and kill Indigenous people. By 1860, a person could receive $5 for proof of killing a Native person. [9]

Police Violence and the Legacy of Conquest

Recent Black Lives Matter protests and carceral scholarship has demonstrated the ways in which modern policing is a descendant of chattel slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, but the connections to Indigenous people and colonization are often less clear even when they remain just as significant. [10] Today, Black and Indigenous Americans are the most killed and the most incarcerated populations in the United States. [11] By understanding that policing is shaped by the legacy of slavery and the legacy of colonization in its commitment to protecting property and white settler interests, we can better understand the how and the why of policing in its many forms (including but not limited to the military, the police, sheriffs, federal marshals, border patrol, and ICE. In the U.S., Blackness and Indigeneity are things to be protected from rather than peoples to protect. This certainly does not mean only Black and Indigenous people experience police violence, but it means anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous structures of race, gender, and property are essential to how law enforcement and incarceration operate in the U.S.

This history goes much deeper. In the context of explaining why activists may have covered a statue of Christopher Columbus with red paint and the tag “Black Lives Matter” in the midst of the 2014-2015 uprisings, Tiffany Lethabo King explains that conquest of Black/Indigenous worlds did not begin in 1492: “ ...the making of the European human and the Black (human other) occurred on the shores of what is now Senegal in the 1440s. In this recurring scene starting in the mid-1400s, Black people became lesser humans; Indigenous peoples soon follow in the 1490s.” [12] 1441 is significant because it marks the landing of the Portugues on the shores of west Africa and the start of the slave trade and European colonization. King suggests that when we mark 1441 rather than 1492 as a beginning of sorts, we better understand the global dimensions of anti-Blackness and Indigenous dispossession. The intersection of Blackness and Indigeneity are not unique to Turtle Island (so-called Canada and the U.S.), but are part of a modern world order with a far more expansive reach, which produced the current global regimes of law enforcement, surveillance, and incarceration. For example, one might think of the ways apartheid, genocide, environmental racism, internment, and refugeeism have been shaped by anti-Black and and anti-Indigenous logics in many parts of the world.

There are also other priors to this history of surveillance and policing in North America. One other prior takes us back to medieval Spain from which later came the late modern period white conquistadors of the 'New World'. In Spain, towards the end of the Muslim rule, Christians forcibly converted Muslims and Jews to Christianity. The practice of marking these unwilling converts as heretic gave rise to a whole "inquisitorial bureaucracy" which encouraged the "Old Christians'' to police the new converts. Heresy thus made hitherto private religious practices public where everyday common and banal things such as speaking Arabic, using henna, veiling, not drinking wine, sitting on the floor rather than at the table while eating, or eating couscous by hands, all came to be used as evidence of heresy, and subject to law. This is one of the earliest secular (non-Church related) practices of surveilling individuals by the state and has direct relevance to the ‘founding’ of the brutal colonial law and order in the 'New World'. These connections are historical, material, institutional, and familial with people also related to each other through marriage and ancestry, so that the "conquerors of Mexico knew the problem of the Mudejars [and] the planters of Virginia had already been planters of Ireland." [13]

It is also important to note that caste was one of the first ever structures of incarceration and is at least 2,000 years old. According to the Equality Labs report on the prevalence of caste apartheid amongst South Asians at 'home' and in diasporas, "Caste is inherited from the family one is born into and is unalterable throughout that person's life." [14] As one of the very first structures of incarceration and policing of people's movements, eating habits, dressing (what clothes can or cannot be worn by lower caste people, for example), and every other aspect of life and death, holding onto caste in analyses of anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity is important to form a more transnational and deeply historical understanding of policing and incarceration.

History of Policing on University Campuses

Although universities like Yale have had some semblance of a campus police force for over 100 years, college police departments only started to become widespread in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these years, city police came onto university campuses to quash civil rights and antiwar protests. The interaction between police (or military) officers and student activists and protesters often resulted in violent tactics of suppression.

In February of 1968, the first deadly incident between college students and law enforcement took place at South Carolina State College, an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) in the city of Orangeburg. Black students had been attempting to desegregate the white-owned bowling alley in town that refused black customers, despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act that rendered such practices of racial segregation illegal. Several students who entered or tried to enter the bowling alley for service were blocked by police or arrested, and police brutally beat a group of students after chasing some of them who attempted to make their way to the bowling alley. Over twenty students were hospitalized with broken bones and concussions, including many young women. Some of the angry and injured students broke store and car windows as they returned to their campus. The governor called in the National Guard armed with large shotguns who surrounded the university with local police and brought at least one tank onto the campus. Tensions continued the following day, and when students retreated from their bonfire that had been extinguished by the fire department, the officers fired on them, killing three teenagers and injuring around thirty others. Most of the students had been shot in the back or in the sole of their feet running away from the barrage of bullets. [15]

The most well-known case of police/military violence on college campuses occurred at Kent State University in May of 1970, when about 100 Ohio National Guard members armed with military rifles confronted a few thousand antiwar protesters and students who wanted the National Guard off their campus. After a police officer made an announcement that the rally was banned, some students threw rocks. Members of the National Guard opened fire into the crowd, killing four students and injuring nine others. The student victims of Kent State were all white and the story garnered national attention and outrage.[16] The more frequent instances of state-sanctioned violence and killing of student protesters on college campuses have been black and lesser known. [17] In fact, less than two weeks after Kent State officers opened fire in front of a dorm at Jackson State, an HBCU in Mississippi, killing two students and injuring twelve others. This incident attracted little attention from the media outside of the black press. [18]

In public and private, large and small, rural and urban, and historically black and historically white colleges across all regions of the nation, antiracism activists and antiwar protesters faced violent police suppression and arrest on their campuses in the 1960s and 1970s. [19] University administrators began to pressure state legislators to pass laws enabling college campuses to form their own police forces. Evidently, university authorities believed, in part, that campus police would act with more restraint and treat students more respectfully than the local police. [20] However, as examples below suggest, campus police increasingly have used the brutal tactics deployed by their municipal counterparts.

A major milestone in the development and practices of campus policing occurred after the 1986 murder of Jeanne Clery, a student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. In 1990 Congress passed the Clery Act, which mandates colleges and universities to “track, compile, and disclose crimes on and near their campus, provide timely notification of safety threats, and report on criminal activities.” The Clery Act placed additional focus on campus police, as did the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007. [21]

The result of the events described above have changed the landscape of US universities and the communities in which they are located. A Bureau of Justice survey conducted in 2011-2012 showed that in four-year institutions with 2,500 students or more, 75% used armed officers (92% in public universities), about 94% were authorized to use chemical or pepper spray and a baton, and 40% were permitted to use tasers. As of 2015, over 100 university police forces also had acquired military equipment and weapons—such as grenade launchers and M-16 assault rifles—from the US Department of Defense through the same controversial 1033 military surplus program that has equipped municipal police forces in places like Ferguson, Missouri. [22]

The US Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security statistics indicate that over 44,500 arrests occurred on over 11,000 campuses in 2018 alone. University police also have gained the ability to police areas and populations outside of the campus, which is opposed by community members who are targeted and harassed by the police of schools that they do not attend. For instance, University of Cincinnati and Morgan State police were involved in the deaths of Sam DuBose (37-years-old) and Tyrone West (44-years-old), respectively, two unarmed black men who were not university students. [23]

Although university police departments often act like and have the same authority as municipal police, the Clery Act does not require them to provide specific information about the crimes they are compelled to report, and universities have resisted disclosing this information. Thus, details about abuses, discriminatory treatment, use of force, and racial profiling remain invisible, despite persistent calls for such records to be released. Some data that have emerged reveal that campus police practices seem to parallel those of police in broader society. In a 2003 University of Pennsylvania investigation of its police department it emerged that campus police stopped blacks more frequently than any other group. In 2015 the university’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvania, reported that in a three-year period seven cases were filed in federal court against the campus police for use of excessive force and civil rights violations. According to recent data analysis, since 2015 about 73% of traffic stops, almost 95% of street interviews, and more than 95% of all vehicles searched by the University of Chicago police - one of the largest private police forces in the country - involved blacks. UC Berkeley statistics also show an overpolicing of black and Latinx people, including minors, on campus. In terms of the perspective of students, a 2017 study of black undergraduate and graduate students in Oklahoma revealed a belief that racial biases guided campus policing. [24]

Despite the disproportionate targeting of blacks by college police officers, black students are, of course, not the only victims. (See, for instance, the examples below.) Indeed, developing a more just and equitable system of safety on university campuses will benefit everyone.

A few cases and examples that raise concerns about campus police, especially in the University of California system:2006:

2006 A UCLA student of Iranian descent was tasered at least three times by campus police when he refused to leave the library after being asked to do so when he did not show his university ID card

2011 A UC Davis campus police pepper spray student protesters of the Occupy movement peacefully sitting on the ground; a racial analysis of this event and policing on UC campuses

2011 UC Berkeley police yank protestors by the hair

2012 An 18-year old freshman on a hallucinogenic drug was shot by University of South Alabama police

2020 UC police refuse to disclose use of force records despite a recent California police transparency law

UC San Diego and Anti-Blackness and Anti-Indigeneity

This holds true especially for UC San Diego. Our own campus is a land grant university with a troubled history of both anti-Blackness and Indigenous dispossession. The UC and other land grant universities were established through the violent seizure of Indigenous lands. [25] UC San Diego is built on occupied Kumeyaay territory. The Kumeyaay people have called the San Diego region home for time immemorial and continue to endure in spite of Spanish/Mexican/U.S. colonization. We can see the legacy of the mission system in the Spanish style stucco buildings that dot our campus. The University’s complicity in California’s colonial legacy is even more direct, though. Since the University purchase of University House in 1967 conflicts between the University and Kumeyaay communities have escalated. University House is meant to serve as the Chancellor’s residence. With its unobscured views of the ocean, it has served as a place to wine and dine potential university donors. The house is built on significant territory for Kumeyaay people and their ancestors’ remains sit below it. Since 1976 there have been multiple feuds between the Kumeyaay community and representatives from UC San Diego regarding repatriation of ancestors’ remains, arguing that Kumeyaay did not have adequate evidence that the remains were their ancestors or whether some of the remains are so old they belong to “science” and not the Kumeyaay--another argument that prioritizes property over people. In 2007, UCSD paid for further testing to determine if there were additional remains below the house, but did not include any Kumeyaay representatives in the process. Despite the dozens of ancestral remains found on the University House grounds for decades, the university continues to demand the Kumeyaay fight for repatriation (returning the human remains to the Kumeyaay people) and continues to ignore the heterogeneity of Kumeyaay peoples and respect for Indigenous forms of negotiation and conflict resolution. Throughout the years there were also ancestors remains taken by private and individual collectors who did not return those remains to the Kumeyaay, and Kumeyaays have criticized UC San Diego for not taking a heavier hand in helping repatriate those, given that some of those remains were believed to be in the personal collections of faculty associated with the University. University House, which at one point had so many structural problems it required costly renovations, continues to be a symbol of the campus. When faculty achieve career milestones they are invited to enjoy hors d'oeuvres and ocean views from a building designed in the “neo-pueblo” style. Police are routinely stationed outside University House to protect the property. Again, demonstrating the ways policing, colonization, and accumulation and protection of property are interconnected. [26]

Just a few years after disputes between the Kumeyaay and UC San Diego were revived following the 2007 testing, members of the UC San Diego fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) and other students held a “Compton Cookout” in 2010, a party meant to mock Black History month in which students explicitly participated in anti-Black racist stereotypes and mocked African Americans, giving rise to a series of prominent racist incidents, including the hanging of a noose in Geisel Library. [27] Owing to the organizing skill of the UCSD BSU, MEChA and allies, the event received national attention through a series of well-coordinated campus protests and through a detailed analysis and statement of demands presented by the Black Student Union (BSU) requiring that the UCSD senior administration address anti-Blackness on campus, as well as a lack of representation of Black, Indigenous, and Chicanx students, faculty, and culture.

Through the efforts of Black and Brown student leadership, campus saw some change. However, UC San Diego continues to have the lowest number of Black students out of any UC campus and continues to struggle to retain Black faculty. Moreover, incidents of anti-Black racism have continued on campus, including multiple incidents including displays of a noose on campus, as well as verbal and non-verbal acts of hate targeting Muslim students, undocumented students, queer and trans students, and others. UCSD senior administrators continue to downplay the accomplishments of Black and Brown student organizers in, for example, demanding and implementing the Vice Chancellor of EDI's office and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion undergraduate requirement.

What does this have to do with policing? UC San Diego clearly has a long and disturbing legacy of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous racism and exclusion. As long as the campus continues to financially prioritize police as a method of community health, we are complicit in a logic of safety that not only excludes those seen as criminal (often Black, of color, Indigenous, queer, poor, houseless, etc.), but also perpetuates the legacies of slavery and colonization.


[1] Micol Seigel, Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

[2] Brenna Bhandar, The Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

[3] For further reading see Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Jen Manion, Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

[4] Chenjerai Kumanyika, “The History of Police in Creating Social Order in the U.S.,” NPR; Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power (London: Pluto Press, 2000). For more on the prison industrial complex in California, see Ruth Wilson Gilmore, The Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). For more on the legacy of slavery and incarceration, see Dennis Childs’ Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[5] Groups like the Texas Rangers and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Canada were established explicitly to control and kill communities perceived as threats to white colonial order. The Rangers notoriously took the lives of many Indigenous, Mexican, and Black residents of Texas throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth-century. In Canada, the RCMP was established explicitly to police Indigenous communities and secure Canadian settler colonialism with violence when necessary. Cree filmmaker and scholar Tasha Hubbard’s powerful documentary nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up (2019) exposes the extent of police violence against First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people in Canada, especially at the hands of the RCMP.

[6] Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2016); Luana Ross, Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1998).

[7] As legal scholar Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) explains: “The imposition of colonial law, facilitated by casting Indigenous men and women as savage peoples in need of civilization and composing Indigenous lands as lawless spaces absent legal order, made it possible for the United States and Canada to shift and expand the boundaries of both settler law and the nation itself by judicially proclaiming their own criminal behaviors as lawful.” Stark, “Criminal Empire: The Making of the Savage in a Lawless Land” Theory & Event, 19, no. 4 (2016), 2.

[8] For more on the legacy of the mission system, see Deborah A. Miranda, Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Berkeley: Heyday, 2013).

[9] See Cutcha Risling-Baldy’s blog post, “In which we establish that there was a genocide against Native Americans, yes there was, it was a genocide, yes or this is why I teach Native Studies part 3 million" or her essay “Why I teach The Walking Dead in My Native Studies Classes” The Nerds of Color. For more on the role of policing in the formation of California, see Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Migra: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

[10] Tiffany Lethabo King describes the ways slavery and colonization structured life in the Americas and created a racial social order in which Black and Indigenous people and lifeways are killable as “conquest.” Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019). It is also important to note that people of African descent and Native people were impacted by slavery and colonization in a variety of ways (for example, Indigenous people were both enslaved and enslavers). One of the traumas of the transatlantic slave trade was the theft of African Indigeneity from enslaved people.

[11] Under-reporting and lack of awareness of police killings of Native people is in no small way because of U.S. settler colonial attempts to make Indigenous life invisible. For more information see Elise Hansen, “The forgotten minority in police shootings,” November 13, 2017, CNN.com.

[12] King, The Black Shoals, 40. King notes that Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers make similar arguments about the importance of signalling 1441 as an origin of sorts.

[13] Robert Bartlett. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 905-1350 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[14] Equality Labs, “Caste in the United States: A Survey of Caste Among South Asian Americans,” 2018.

[15] Cleveland Sellers, “The Orangeburg Massacre,” in Bud Schultz and Ruth Schultz, It Did Happen Here: Recollections of Political Repression in America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 257-260; Lorraine Boissoneault, “In 1968, Three Students Were Killed by Police. Today, Few Remember the Orangeburg Massacre,” February 2018, Smithsonian Magazine.

[16] Richard Perloff, “Four Kids Were Killed in Ohio. America Was Never the Same,” May 2020, New York Times; Jerry Lewis and Thomas Hensley, “The May 4 Shooting at Kent University: The Search for Historical Accuracy,” Kent State University Website.

[17] Aliyah Veal, “Forgiving is Never Forgetting: Lessons the Gibbs-Green Tragedy Teaches Now,” May 2020, Mississippi Free Press

[18] Nancy Bristow, “Remembering the Jackson State Tragedy,” May 2020, The Nation.

[19] See, for instance, Ibram X. Kendi, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).

[20] Libby Nelson, “Why Nearly All Colleges Have an Armed Police Force,” July 2015, Vox.com

[21] Melinda D. Anderson, “The Rise of Law Enforcement on College Campuses,” September 2015, The Atlantic.

[22] Anderson, “The Rise of Law Enforcement”; US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice, “Campus Law Enforcement, 2011-12”; Dan Bauman, “On Campus, Grenade Launchers, M-16s, and Armored Vehicles,” September 2014, Chronicle of Higher Education; Nathalie Baptiste, “Campus Cops: Authority Without Accountability,” November 2015.

[23] Sanjali De Silva, “Police Divestment Efforts Must Include Universities,” July 2020, ACLU website;US Office of Education Campus Safety and Security.

[24] Sanjali De Silva, “Police Divestment”; Nathalie Baptiste, “Campus Cops”; Rasheed Shabazz, “Policing in the Shadows,” October 2018, East Bay Express; Sasha Langholz, “UC Police Detain 2 Minors, Handcuff 11-year-old at Playground,” July 2019; Jalen Thomas and Kalen Russell, “Black Students Lived Experiences with and Perceptions of Law Enforcement,” Winter 2019 Association of American Colleges and Universities;University of Chicago Police Department Open Data Analysis; Peter Hermann, “D.C. Universities Want Some Police Powers to Extend Into Neighborhoods,” September 2013, Washington Post .

[25] Robert Lee, Tristan Ahtone, Margaret Pearce, Kalen Goodluck, Geoff McGhee, Cody Leff, Katherine Lanpher and Taryn Salinas, “Land Grab Universities: A High Country News Investigation.”

[26] Lingchen Lynette Dang, “UCSD’s Battle for the Bones found under the Chancellor’s Mansion,” The Guardian, Feb. 10, 2019; Karen Kucher, “Chancellor’s home gets $10M Rehab,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Dec. 19, 2013; Thomas Larson, "How UCSD spent over $500,000 on a home removal that never happened: The house on the land of the dead,” San Diego Reader, April 30, 2008.

[27] Gabe Schneider, “The Compton Cookout: A day/party to be remembered (or not),” The Guardian, February 15, 2017.