© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

History Of Policing In America: Starts And Ends With Protecting Private Property

Scott Olson
Getty Images
Police advance on demonstrators in Minneapolis who are protesting the killing of George Floyd on May 30.

The killings of a black man named George Floyd in Minneapolis and a black woman named Breonna Taylor in Louisville have sparked protests across the country and even internationally. Images of police officers and state law enforcement shooting tear gas and rubber bullets in an attempt to de-escalate crowds has many wondering: how did law enforcement become so militarized and who are they really trying to protect?

>>Read WUWM & NPR Full Protest Coverage

Gary Potter is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies and the author of  The History of Policing in the United States. He says public police forces began around the mid-1800s. They were born out of slave patrols in the south and industry policing in the north.

In the late 1800s, police were involved in union busting. After major corruption scandals during the prohibition era, Potter says there were “efforts to professionalize the police." This led to more public funding and starting with the Nixon administration, federal funding for police forces. This is also when police departments started getting military-style equipment.

So, who are the police really trying to protect? Something true throughout the history of policing in America is the focus on property.

>>'What You're Seeing Is The Result Of Anger And Pain': Milwaukee Leaders Weigh In On Protests
>>'It's Not Bad Apples, It's The Whole Cart': Milwaukee Historian Reggie Jackson Calls For Meaningful Police Reforms

“The police are primarily there to protect business property first, and residential property second, not human interactions. If that were the case, they would fail miserably,” says Potter.

This goes to many protester’s points that police are the ones who escalate violence during the protests.

“When you are facing someone who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger in RoboCop, that is intimidating," Potter says. "The use of force in crowd control is a serious problem." 

He hopes that cities will focus on securing safe locations for protests and reducing police presence.

When considering changes, he says history has shown one thing: "the police will not reform themselves."

From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.